Divinity Original Sin Review: Old-School Mechanics Meet Modern Design In Challenging But Rewarding CRPG

By Matthew Buzzi , Updated Jul 25, 2014 02:45 PM EDT

Divinity: Original Sin is both old and new, combining classic RPG gameplay with an attractive modern look and feel. It might not be for everyone--your patience will be tested, and there are a handful of issues--but fans of the genre should find Larian Studios' title to be an unexpectedly high-quality package.

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The game puts you in control of a party of heroes (two of which you create yourself) called Source Hunters, tasked with tracking down and destroying the mysterious energy, Source. Your investigation of a murder quickly explodes into a much larger affair, drawing you into the greater events of Rivellon. You can add and drop new party members as the journey goes on, and balance will be essential to your success through the game.

The setting is somewhat standard fantasy, with medieval-style towns, lush wilds and fanciful enemies, but everything looks great. The environments are appealing and some gorgeous: you'll travel through varied, brightly colored (or fittingly gloomy) areas on your journey, and the lay of the land definitely impacts the combat.

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Gameplay happens in real-time out of combat, looking perhaps like Diablo with its aerial view and ability bar along the bottom, but the battles are what help Divinity: Original Sin stand out. Encountering enemies (which can happen suddenly as you're walking) transforms the game into turn-based combat, during which you issue movement and ability orders to your characters.

Everything you do in battle requires Action Points, from moving to drinking a potion and using an attack or spell. They refill each turn, but you have to use them intelligently to be effective--any you don't spend can be banked (to a limit), which can let you do more next turn if you think that will benefit you more than making an immediate move.

This is where party makeup is crucial: a proper balance of appropriate spells, melee attacks, and support abilities will be needed. The wide variety of enemies have different strengths and immunities--you can even heal opponents accidentally if you unthinkingly launch a fire spell at an enemy of that type, for example. There are plenty of classes for your characters--Witch, Knight, Ranger, Shadowblade and Cleric are some--that offer varying skill and attribute sets. You should have a balance of class and spell types to succeed: Divinity: Original Sin can get very challenging, even on normal difficulty, and you should expect to die often.

That can be frustrating for some, but the combat is fun and game rewarding enough that you should find yourself wanting to try again and succeed, especially when a battle is particularly difficult. There's more to the game than the combat as well--the dialogue is worth reading and other systems are in place that add depth. Your characters can talk to one another and disagree (even the two you created, whose dialogue choices you select), which leads to personality trait changes.

If you disagree on a story or event decision with your own characters or an NPC, the game will launch a rock-paper-scissors mini-game. It goes several rounds and is influenced by the attribute you used to make your case (charm or reason, for example), with the decision going to whoever is victorious. The dialogue and quest explanations will require a lot of reading if you want to follow along with the story but it's more worth it than, say, the many walls of text you'd normally click through in an MMO. The game has a sense of humor, and there are plenty of interesting story elements in play, particularly in relation to the role of your characters.

There are some aspects of the gameplay that can irritate, especially in difficult battles. It's not always clear if your character is standing on a harmful substance (oil can spill on the terrain and catch fire and poison clouds linger, for instance), and you will sometimes be affected and damged when it seemed like you were going to skirt around the edge. The UI also isn't as responsive as I'd like--deselecting a spell and changing to another isn't as simple as it should be, and you might mis-click or accidentally walk towards an enemy when you meant to attack. You'll get used to it over time and limit mistakes, but it could be more streamlined overall.

Another oddity is the developers' decision to trigger a fail state if your two created characters die during a fight, even if your other party members are alive. There are resurrection scrolls and spells that you could use during battle to bring them back, so I'm not sure why the decision was made to make you lose when other characters are still kicking. On a related note, it's a bit annoying that characters stay dead after a fight--you'll have to keep buying resurrection scrolls and revive and heal your team after every battle. I understand it logically, but as a gameplay mechanic it slows things down (you might have to run back to town to purchase scrolls often), is expensive, and becomes rather tedious during difficult segments.

The other main complaint is the implementation of multiplayer. This might be down to personal preference and not bother some, but the system in place for playing with a friend strikes me as strange. You join a game as the host's second created character--you cannot play as your own or create one for that save. To coordinate a game with a friend, you'll have to tell them the kind of character you want, or have them make one for you out of your control. I understand this if you're jumping into a random game online--which you can do easily from the main menu--but to commit to a play-through with a friend and not be able to customize your own character is unfortunate. It can also make you feel more like a sidekick than a hero helping to lead the way.

More importantly though, playing cooperatively is a lot of fun, even with the shortcomings of the system. You can strategize together (I played with someone I know, so you might talk less with a stranger) and settle disagreements in rock-paper-scissors, which feels like much more high-stakes than it probably should when it's against a friend.

Only two people can play together at once right now, but Larian shipped Divinity: Original Sin's editor with the game, meaning we may see some fan-made modules allowing more players to join in the future. It also means there should be plenty of additional content down the line, such as you see in the Neverwinter games and other titles, as fans continue to create their own areas and stories throughout the lifetime of the game.

I also want to give special mention of how good the music is--there are a few very good songs (you can listen to my favorite below) mixed in to a generally pleasing ambient soundtrack with appropriate battle tunes. Between the audio and attractive graphics, the game is a treat to experience, all of which will help calm you down as your characters inevitably meet brutal ends time and time again--but that's part of the fun.

The gameplay is unforgiving and there are some mechanics that irked me, but the overall experience in Divinity: Original Sin is great. Truly difficult games are not too common--Dark Souls is praised just for this reason--but Divinity offers a challenge without feeling unfair. If you try different tactics against what seemed to be impossible odds the first time, you might succeed with relative ease. Doing so in great-looking environments with a fairly interesting story and compelling mechanics is rewarding, and this title is a surprise worth playing if you're at all interested in the genre.

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