So there’s been that game sitting in my steam account for about two years now, a game that was somewhat expensive by my standards and that I got as a gift from a friend. Now, I hadn’t been able to play this game earlier for lack of a proper gaming machine but that was corrected earlier this year and I finally got the chance to try it. My mate had been going on about it since it came out, so I was pretty hyped.
Before we go on, I’d like to mention that this friend—let’s call him R for anonymity’s sake— has been in my life since kindergarten. In my yesteryear, he was my gaming partner. We tend to like similar games and to agree on most classics (or at least on their basic requirements) so with him having sang such high praises to me, I was quite eager to get started on what critics were claiming was “a spiritual successor” to the legendary Baldur’s gate. I have now finished about 30 hours of game-play; let’s see what I make of this.
The game doesn’t start with a lengthy narrative, you wake up on a boat and are left to your own devices to explore and figure things out by yourself. That in my book is a very good beginning. The story seems compelling, the boat is being attacked by overwhelmingly powerful foes and is about to sink. You have no idea what is going on and find things out as you talk to NPCs and interact with the environment. I must admit that the storytelling is beautifully done. There is that narrator describing things as you do them and he is a perfect fit. The voice is that of a wizened man and visions of a jovial but stoic librarian come to mind. Writing this, I realized that it’s a concept that I have very rarely seen (heard) in an RPG and it makes the immersion and experience so much better. It’s like if your story is being told to you as a storyteller tells a tale from an old book. Or perhaps it’s more like a storyteller is captivating an audience with a tale of other times and places in a smoky pub, once every other patron has left.
The first time I heard the narration (which was basically telling me I had moved an object) I was really quite taken aback. It immediately drew me into the game. The environment also drew me in the game. The settings and surroundings are really at the upper tier of video gaming. I’ll take that very first scene again as an example; the ship is about to sink, chaos reigns, and fires illuminates the night as large as coil-laden tentacles attempt to break the ship in half. There is a sense of obvious doom yet the calm ambiance makes it feel closer to a dream, a distant mirage that the player (not the character) witnesses from a detached place. Yet, it is utterly compelling and every step the character takes seems to open up new windows about what is to come next.
The caves and island environments are exactly as they should be. A seemingly scorching white sunlight glitters on the leaves and on the surface of shallow ponds across the tropical island, the lagoon waters are exactly the colors they should be. The ambiance created in every environment, whether it is a cobbled sepulcher or a rain-forest, is spot on in its most minute detail. Nothing seems to be “put there by a team of developers”. Everything seems to have been stacked up, left behind or overgrown with countless years and the passage of as many hands and feet. The game’s overwhelming attention to creating the right feeling is truly something to behold.
When it comes to ambiance there is one thing that makes it or kills it: the soundtrack. And here, like in everything else involving game immersion, Divinity 2 definitively delivers. The OST is above and beyond anything I have heard in a long time. Especially when it comes to RPGs. In my mind, the last RPG with a great soundtrack was Fire Emblem Gaiden on the PS2 and that music wasn’t a tenth as good as the OST of this game.
The music is truly beautiful and anyone who read my past review will notice that I very seldom use hyperbole. When it comes to presentation, this game is without a doubt a 10/10. This literally sets the standards for future turn-based RPGs, at least in that department.
Other points that are really strong in this game are the equipment and collectibles. You see, I like dungeon crawlers (although this is not one) because they allow the hunter-gatherer in me to hoard things up like a squirrel, selling items that are less desirable so I can stack up enough money to buy that shiny crystal sword. I like games that let me repeatedly beat up the same monsters in order to get them to drop that infamous ring of thorns. I can play an offending amount of hours simply to get better loot or finally get that rare armor piece, despite that fact that the one my character’s wearing is way better.
The loot in Divinity 2 is very varied and each item has its own sprite and its own unique set of extras. Many NPCs have gears that are specifically crafted for them (for all the rogues and thieves out there) and it feels very satisfying to loot a crate and find a type of swords or helms that had not been encountered before. Armors are very diverse and are divided between light/heavy/magic in a way that make every stage of equipment large and plentiful. Maybe that doesn’t matter for many, but for me that’s a big thing. (I did complain about that in my review of Fallout 4).
The presentation is really as near as perfect as it gets but unfortunately, the content does not deliver as well. Although there is clearly intention of doing good on the creator’s part, the game has great issues that become apparent the longer one plays.
First, the skill tree is somewhat upsetting. Let’s take my my first character for example. I decided to make a mix of mage/thief, not too strong in combat but I expected my prior RPG experience to make up for that. Well, to steal, one has to “not be caught” and thus one has to not only invest in “stealing” but also in “stealth”. This makes sense, especially since stealth is a skill that in itself can be useful (although arguably in a limited way). The only problem is that I then had to spend precious spell points into stealth to make my thief worth playing, thus forcing me into a one class pattern and making my character costly in rare and precious skill points (one per level, really?).
To add insult to injury, robbed NPCs will start searching for their stolen good by confronting the characters thus prompting one to add points in “persuasion” as well to shrug them off. By the time I could actually steal anything, I already had spent 3 or 4 points in the necessary skills and only then realize that I need to add more into persuasion (I then turned to a more violent and ironically far more profitable methodology called mugging). Well, so much for that…
I decided to try again as a full fledged arcane caster. One thing that had intrigued me were these “surfaces” that could be “charged” with elements. I thought that this was quite an interesting tactical consideration and that I could make tough battles (i.e. all battles) relatively or even considerably easier by going full on “the art of war” on my opponents. Ah, the deception… but I will stop myself here and keep that for the last part of this review.
Let us backtrack to the skill tree: I have already played games that reward leveling up characters with only one meager skill point that must be spent wisely after considerate deliberations. Some of them were exceptionally punishing, even for rogue level gamers.
Take for example “Arcanum: of Steamwork & Magic Obscura”. The battles are terribly unforgiving and leveling up is somewhat of an achievement in itself. The skill tree is enormous and nearly all skills influence each other, but this is where the comparison ends. In divinity, investing only one or two point in a skill alone is often not enough. For example, the earliest persuasion check in the game starts at 2. That means that one would start the game with investing 2 of his 3 precious skill points in that skill alone. In other games, such as Arcanum for example, one point invested in nearly any school of magic or skill can do much by itself and be used in many different ways.
In Divinity, one has to considerably invest in a skill before it can be of any relevance, and that is if one’s lucky enough to have picked a skill that requires no correlation. Discovering that through trial and error is time consuming and frustrating, especially when there is no open world environment (More on that in part 3).
The next big problem with this game is, against all odds, the story. Although the individual scenes are compelling, especially the first and second one (the ship and the arrival to the island), I must admit that the general story-line is very “meh”. I think one of the main problems is that too much is revealed too early. Good storytelling should involve levels of discovery and reveals should be done one at a time, little by little, like a large puzzle that reveals its final shape a bit more with each success. Well, this game did not do that.
I had not even finished the first act and I could already guess three quarters of the main quest and even some of its plot twists. I went online to check it out and surprise, surprise, I was pretty much spot on. Granted, I have done my fair share of reading and gaming, which obviously helps. But, not only is the big reveal far too soon, the subject matter is also very “meh”. It’s a big “been there done that”. “The gods have chosen you as their champion to restore/shift the balance”. Blah, blah, blah.
The boredom of the main quest could have been offset in a few different ways, one of them being the side quests. I heard much about them, much praise to be precise. Yet, I found my first somewhat story-driven side quest after only 20 or so hours of pretty straight-forward game-play. By that point, other elements of the game had jaded me enough that I couldn’t really bothered to care much.
Another solution could have been an open world (think most Final Fantasy titles, for example). That would have allowed players to dismiss the main quest until they got bored of hoarding, grinding, or touring the world map. Unfortunately this is not what happens here. In fact, the case is quite the opposite since the game is quite linear. This adds to my grievance as most of the NPCs are not compelling or involving.
Let me make an example. At one point near the end of the first act, one deals with a masked matriarch that helps the war-wounded. She is the leader of a ragtag camp of what’s left over from an earlier mission and she serves the role of the “wise man”.
The main character eventually finds a jar containing her soul and she gets quite upset by this event. One of the options one is given is to smash the jar on the floor. Truth be told, that’s what I chose (mainly because she had great gears to loot, far outweighing anything her character brought to the game). She screams in pain in a most dramatic way before fading into thin air, leaving a sweet little cradle of items to make yours. I understand that this scene was supposed to be emotionally involving, her kneeling and dying after centuries of un-life, right in front of a giant stone-carved shrine in the shape of her goddess’ head; amidst a for-grown waterfall that makes the statue seemingly weep for her.
It is quite the setting (again, top notch). But honestly, why would I care? I met that character one game hour ago, had no dealing with her except that she send me on obnoxious errands and made my getting out of the island more challenging for the sake of having a game to play. I think this reflects quite well my feelings about the NPCs in this game. They are really of no relevance and it’s a compellingly set game with a totally bland story.
Now, I’ve been waiting to write this all along, and I’d like to mention something first before I start; difficult games are awesome. I don’t mind dying twenty times to finally achieve an objective, every time getting slightly closer to it. It is very self-satisfying and one gets a true sense of achievement from finishing difficult game. I also have no issue with long fights that require thorough thinking and wits to get through. I do have issues with unbalanced difficulty in a game and this is what stopped me from playing more of Divinity 2.
Call me bad at it, but I was stuck in one fight. I literally spent 4 hours (that’s 12% of my entire gameplay) on a friggin’ fight I never finished. I asked a friend of mine who played the game what his advice was and he said “go check on YouTube”. You know, when I need to go on the tube to see how to beat a fight (not even a boss!), I know there is something seriously wrong with a game.
Let’s look at Final Fantasy Tactic for comparison; fights can last all the way up to half an hour. Enemies are the same level as you are and level up as you do, but sound tactics like using the terrain against the enemy and team-work between your characters allows you to get the upper hand. Satisfying, compelling, fun. Here, fights are always preset, never random (no grinding, no avoiding, no escaping), and the enemies are always tougher than you. That’s alright for me, but then don’t make the fight mandatory, long, and boring.
I think that’s the right word, boring. The fights are pretty unexciting and there are those long casting spell animations that cannot be skipped. These only make the fight longer for nothing and all the interesting fighting mechanics are brushed aside, never fully implemented. Case in point, that famous idea of using the elements to your advantage. Cast rain to stop a fire then poison to make toxic vapor clouds? No problem. Great idea. But the combinations are truly limited and so are their uses. Monsters are element-based and of course, unless one has invested in all magical disciplines (and thus has weak spells), the limitation of using the battleground becomes even more apparent.
Again, tough fights are great, but each defeat was frustrating more than encouraging. There is no back tracking, no leveling up, and no experimentation. Go and hope you’ve got the right combination of skills for that fight. You either make a warrior/mage and skip most of the game elements or make a social character and get stuck a third of the way through the game.
When I realized that I had spent an entire evening in one fight, just so I could cross a valley and move on (no boss, no fancy loot, no story element added), I lost most of my interest for the game. It’s beautiful but redundant, compelling as long as one watches the game and doesn’t really play it much. It COULD have been the game that all the hype was about, it COULD have been the best thing since FF7. But, alas, it isn’t.
Conclusion in one sentence: Should’ve been an epic introduction to classic gaming to a whole new generation but turned out it was a literal waste of time.
Replay value: 1/10
Final score: 6.5/10