Divinity Original Sin 2: Ascension to Epic
Updated: Jul 21, 2020
What is an Epic?
Epic (when used to examine stories) is normally defined as a “A film, poem or book that is long and contains a lot of action, usually dealing with a historical subject” (Cambridge Dictionary). This can be used to describe famous movies such as Spartacus and Laurence of Arabia. However, I would like to offer another requirement: scale of story. All story centric media that fall under the Epic adjective feature a story that is grand in scope and/or risk (Lord of the Rings has the whole world at risk of damnation and One Hundred Years of Solitude chronicles a hundred years and seven generations of a single family). Games too, can fall under the label of ‘Epic’.
Both FromSoftware’s fantastic BloodBorne and Larian studios’s Divinity Original Sin 2 in particular, deal with an extremely long play time. They also deal with a number of complex themes, revolving around gods and the relationships characters have towards them. They are also extremely action packed as the combat is one of many gameplay loops. The stories, as with the themes often have a wide cast of characters that are all fleshed out three dimensional beings. Epics, due to their scale are often high risk, high reward. Those that are well made are normally brilliant and those that are not well made are...not.
Divinity Original Sin 2 is most certainly the former.
(Spoilers will be avoided when possible. Warnings will be provided beforehand)
Set centuries after the events of the first game. An old woman used a dangerous kind of magic known as Source, to unleash terrible monsters known as Voidwoken. The reason why she did this is at first, unclear and somewhat self defeating. As it seemingly sparks a nationwide pogrom against those who might be able to use this magic, she and many others get arrested along with...you. You of no significance have been shipped off, to the not wonderful island prison of Fort Joy. However, after surviving an attack on the ship you find yourself getting swept away in a grand battle for the future of life. You and a band of friends join forces to maintain some sort of control as conflict arises around them, the winner gets the prize of Divinity (to become a god).
It might not appear so to you, dear reader. But summarising this game was not an easy task. There are so many story threads, so many interactions and so many characters to keep in mind. Even the old woman turns out to be a major player in the story, despite first appearing to...not be. And yet despite hundreds of subplots and character motivations. The game is able to wrap up it’s narrative in a way that is both enjoyable and satisfying. A great sense of escalation in narrative tension through reveal of how the gods relate to events in Rivellon results in a story that is endlessly compelling. I will hopefully explain the strength of the writing now.
Damn you Magister Siwan
There is one particular character I would like to talk about when demonstrating the writing and voice acting. Magister Siwan is, literally the first character you meet when starting the game. She only appears for a limited time in the game, in what amounts to the tutorial section of the game. After the ship sinks we never see her again. However through her dialogue and voice acting she not only becomes a memorable character.
But also one that you cannot help but hate, she is smug, condescending and overall nasty piece of work. She is great. She’s like the best bond villain that never was. Just check out the pictures before and after this paragraph. Despite how little screen time Magister Siwan has, she becomes a character that is enjoyable to hate. A character that should be a bland one dimensional villain is in fact a memorably disgusting player with the hint of something deeper.
A group of friends
(Please note that I have used Fane, The Red Prince and Ifan Ben-Mezd. I cannot examine Lohse, Beast or Sebille as I have not played as them or had them in my party for the game’s entirety. I would be going on what I have witnessed.)
Depending on weather you choose one of the characters mentioned above or if you are solo/multiplayer. You will have to select at three different characters. Larian’s cast is rich with well written motivated characters. At first appearing completely at odds with main story, your companion’s goals entwine with the main story in engaging ways. Such examples would be Ifan’s storyline which, starts out as Kill Bill style quest for revenge. But the quest becomes integral to the progression of ascending to godhood. Fane’s quest, for example simply revolves around learning about the world and uncovering the fate of his people. The fate of his people become essential to the game’s climax (more on that later).
What I am saying is that Divinity is a living, breathing world filled with people who have their own motivations. People who grow to like you instead of blurting out their back-story in one dialogue exchange. A pretty good example of this is with the romance system. Instead of buying affection through gifts or by selecting the flirty sexy dialogue opinion you merely chat with them. A companion will grow to like you by offering emotional support, allowing them their say in events or just being good friends. The romance as a result comes across much more natural, more believable. It can also change characters, adding a dimension to them. Seeing Ifan, a man dominated by a stern solider mentality blush, act bashful and call me darling not only warmed my heart but made him all the more human.
The theme of friends
(Warning for plot spoilers)
There are a lot of themes entwining Divinity. Godhood (as implied by the name and you aspiring to be ascend as a replacement god) The presence of fate (the question of whether you will be fulfil your destiny which you are not obligated to do) and the very Tolkien-inspired corruption of power (the gods have been twisted into power hungry versions of themselves and the very real risk of too much Source turning you into a genocidal monster).
All of these are very good themes woven into the story in creative and intelligent ways. However there is one theme that I did not expect to be as warm or as poignant as the theme of friendship. This is present both in the gameplay and the story. Leadership bonuses (placed upon the characters when the group is together) provide stat upgrades. This is indicative of the importance of relying on friends. Together my party and I were able reach godhood; the once snobby Red Prince is humbled (slightly). Fane is able to learn to act in a sociable acceptable fashion thanks to the patience of a friend (me). Friendship is one of the driving forces of character growth within Divinity. It is also the unifying force, which allows everyone to stay together whatever happens within the game.
A slightly underwhelming twist
(Warning for plot spoilers)
The story does run into some problems regarding the ending. It is not bad per say but the outcome is rather underwhelming. At the final boss fight, it is revealed that Dallas the hammer is in fact Fane’s long lost daughter. And her sinister companion is the long lost Source King Braccus Rex. He is the same Braccus Rex that has been haunting the lore of Divinity Original Sin 2 for the game’s entire play through. Because of the sudden twist, there is very little time for the characters (and the player) to engage and react to the announcement.
The twist as a result feels weak and under foreshadowed. The reveal of Dallas’s identity too is underwhelming due to the lack of build up, Fane is not given enough time to react to facing his daughter for the first time. His response is, as a result is disappointing and clumsily handled. This is not a deal breaker as I still ended up feeling really sad at the prospect of leaving characters I had created an emotional connection with. The twist simply could have been built up and revealed better.
Gameplay is based around four major factors: Combat, exploring, stats and inventory management. All of these I will get to in their own paragraph (or two, not sure yet). I want to quickly look at difficulty settings. For clarification I have not played game master mode or Area. I have only played the story mode. You start the game by selecting a difficulty setting: Story mode (easy mode) Explorer mode (slightly less easy mode) Classic (normal) and Tactician (Hard) Honour mode (restricts you to one save and erases said save if entire party dies: suicidal).
I personally went with explorer as Classic and Tactician were hard in a way that was not fun (to me). This is because if you are even one level below them they will one or two shot you. There is no apparent space for skill. Explorer mode still had the problem but it was not annoying. Having levelled difficulty runs into a problem where a player is not challenged by skill. But a dice roll on if your opponent will be able to take you down in one hit or two. It might be enjoyable for you (and if it is I am happy for that) but it was not for me.
While not explicitly an open world game. Divinity makes use of a number of smaller open worlds. These vary in size but unlike a number of open world titles (From the likes of EA or Ubisoft) the maps are well designed. Ever map is packed some interesting site or unique (sometimes silly) quest lines. You could talk to a group of chickens that result in something ridiculously demonic.
The maps encourage exploration through finding quest locations (which are not always marked). Most of the time it is just wondering through the world, seeing what strange and wonderful events you might stumble across (the demonic chicken egg for example). The world feels alive due to the small size (compared to an Ubisoft title) and serious/absurdist characters and plotlines. You might meet some children hoping to see a friend back or you might save some cows from a witches curse. Exploring each map is a rewarding experience.
Combat is a turn based affair. Each friend/foe is given a turn independently to perform any number of actions they are able to. This covers everything from casting/attacking to moving; each character is given a limited amount of action points to spend on actions described. Characters that do not spend all of their action points will get them carried over to their next turn. Combined the limited amount of actions with the ways spells can interact with the environment (lighting over water, oil and water or undead and healing) along with an opponent various weaknesses, provide some deep engaging gameplay.
Height and the physical terrain are also an influence. They can hinder or help with blocking or adding/detracting damage/range bonuses. As a result the player often has to strategize, find the best vantage point and then the best attack/move in order to gain an advantage. The AI (depending on the difficultly) will respond and adapt to the behaviour of the player. The AI is pretty great by the way.
All the Stats
Levelling up has the air of System Shock 2 in Divinity. Namely that once you use the set amount of points you will never get them back. However unlike System Shock 2 where the game can construct a brick wall about a third of the way through the game. Divinity does not per say. Considering the wide range of builds that can be selected and built into, there are ways to adapt if a build is not going well. If the player uses common sense then they will know what stats are needed (Aerotheurge effects lightening abilities, ranged effects ranged attacks etc) the game tells you in a clear concise fashion that skills are effected by what stats are needed which I like. The game does not hold your hand but does not keep you in the dark either.
A full bag
Inventory management (to me) has been a make or break feature. Games (RPGs in particular) design themselves to encourage the player to pick up everything. A game that encourages but then punishes the player with unreasonable carrying capacity is rather stupid (in my book). Divinity has this problem to an extent, due to carrying capacity being tied to one of your stats (strength). As long as you have at least one strength based character it’s no more than an irritation.
Transferring items between players/characters is easy and storage is quick and efficient. At best it is an annoyance. Crafting is something of a mixed bag, because without the recipes it is almost impossible to know what will combine with what. It discourages extermination as players will be overwhelmed by the sheer amount of possible combinations. Most of them are will not work regardless and it’s impossible to tell beforehand. This is some of the draw backs to the hands off approach Larian was going for. Players can get intimidated by the sheer amount of false options that they never try to find the good ones.
Graphics and art style
The texturing bounds off the screen beautifully, with a wide range of rich crisp colours that blossom towards the eyes. This game looks beautiful. There is some minor texture pop in but it is a blink-and-miss situation. It does not really affect the game overall.
I have played Divinity Original Sin 2 for 127 hours. They were not all the same play through mind you, I have played with friends and have had a failed start (or two ). But this full play through has opened my eyes to the writing, the gameplay, the visuals. This game is wonderful. This game is the absorber of my evenings. This game made me cry when I realised, that it was coming to an end. I love this game. I will gladly take another few months out of my life to do it all over again. This epic is, godlike.
(Edit) Minor spelling corrections and pictures shrunk to reduce data expenditure.
03/29/2020- Edit: More grammar corrections.