From the Wasteland to the Divine

Over the past two weeks I’ve been playing the early access builds of Wasteland 2 and Divinity: Original Sin. From what I’ve seen so far, the future may be good indeed for the return of the classic, isometric CRPG.

It has been, arguably, since Dragon Age: Origins that last we had a true CRPG that harkened back to the days of Baldur’s Gate or some of the classic Gold Box AD&D games. Now, primarily through four of the most successful Kickstarter campaigns to date for games, we have four of these games on the way. If these first two efforts — even in their pre-release states — are any indication, then there’s a lot to get excited about.

I have to be honest: That’s not what I was expecting.

I had it in my head that for these games I would find one of two things (or perhaps both). The most likely, I figured, would be that these games would be shadows of the classic CRPG experience, that Wasteland 2 would kind of remind me of a classic Fallout game with all the depth, character and features stripped out. Or that Divinity would do little more than remind me how much I loved the original Divine Divinity — remind me how you can never really go home again. This was, after all, exactly the feeling I felt after playing the competent, but still disappointing, Divinity II.

This was part of the reason I’d been holding off on diving into these early-release games before now. I couched it in the entirely plausible argument that I didn’t want to ruin a story-driven game by playing before the story was cohesive or complete, but what I really didn’t want to do is to validate my suspicion that the games driving a possible revitalization of CRPGs were all paper tigers.

Upon playing them, though, what I’ve experienced is something … remarkable.

Between the four of them — Wasteland 2, Torment: Tides of Numenra, Project Eternity and Divinity: Original Sin — these games gathered some $12,500,000 through Kickstarter. Three of them are among the most funded games to date on Kickstarter, led by Torment’s $4.2 million take, which is the fifth most funded project of any kind on the service (though, Reading Rainbow’s four million haul with 5 days to go stands a decent chance of usurping the position).

If nothing else, it has been rewarding to see debunked my assumption that passion and interest for these kinds of games was gone from the world of men-children. In the age where the default position is that RPGs need be console friendly and action driven, it’s nice to have this alternative and to see a like-minded market. It gave me hope to see the enthusiasm at the time these Kickstarters were bringing in their dragon’s hoards of gold, and it gives me hope now that there’s still a place for these kinds of games to be done well.

I have to admit, though, that I had my doubts. It’s wonderful, for example, that inXile entertainment wanted to bring back Wasteland and Torment, but what had Brian Fargo’s post-Interplay inXile done? In 2004 they released their first game, The Bard’s Tale remake. They followed up that with a game I had forgotten existed at all until this very moment: 2011’s Hunted: The Demon Forge. Aside from some iPhone games, that's pretty much it.

Now they were going to tackle two of the most beloved franchises in computer gaming? Yes, I was skeptical, just as I have been of Chris Roberts and Star Citizen, because I paid money to go see the Wing Commander movie in the theaters.

And yes, I’m still scarred.

But now that I’ve played Wasteland 2’s early-release build, that apprehension is all gone. It’s terrific. Sure, it’s buggy still, and it’s incomplete, and it’s got until at least the end of August until release, but in the way it feels, in its sense of style, in the dialogue and the setting, it is exactly what I was hoping it would be. I’m immediately drawn into the sense of gaming bliss I had when I played Fallout 1 or 2.

Then there’s Divinity, which releases in just a few days. A few hours in, I suspect that it could be the experience I’d been hoping would follow in the footsteps of the original for years. As I play Divinity, the game most often conjured to mind so far are actually Ultima VII, one of my all time favorite games. Part of that could be the conceit of beginning by investigating a small-town murder, and part of it could just be the way the interface and interactions feel. Maybe I’ll be alone on this, but there’s something evocative in the way Larian Studios is laying out the pacing and the mechanics of the game.

What I love initially about both of these games is the patient way they are willing to set the world and stage for their stories. Neither begin in a particularly epic way. In Wasteland you start, as you should, as a new recruit sent into the wastes on your first mission, and Divinity sees you as source hunters sent on a relatively routine mission to investigate the goings-on in a small, seaside town.

Both continue on to allow their narratives room to breathe. Like the classic CRPGs, they are clearly built as big, world-spanning experiences that grow at a balanced pace. They are willing to walk the line of letting things slowly but inexorable crescendo, instead of trying to invest the player in the artifice of every moment being presented as the game-defining moment. It’s not a storytelling method for everyone, but it’s certainly one that is under-used.

This all says nothing to what Torment or Project Eternity may or may not become, but I have to admit that I’m more hopeful than I had been. It seems the few million dollars apiece between Wasteland and Divinity have been put to good use by experienced teams who know how to make these kinds of games. Meanwhile, the other two have even more resources, and perhaps more time to build out something equally enticing.

It’s been a long time since I’ve had a strong CRPG to really look forward to, and it feels like my cup suddenly runneth over. Next week will begin to tell the story of whether Divinity itself holds up as a complete experience, but I go in with renewed hope, and in fact a sense that I’ve already gotten my money’s worth. Everything from here on out is hopefully just delicious icing.


but in the way it feels, in its sense of style, in the dialogue and the setting, it is exactly what I was hoping it would be. I’m immediately drawn into the sense of gaming bliss I had when I played Fallout 1 or 2.

Agreed wholeheartedly. Wasteland 2 is the real deal. My big worry at this point is polish and bugs; it feels like the save game system is very poorly implemented, and I bet if the released game has problems, it'll be related to saving and loading.

I think August may be too optimistic, but it's shaping up to be awesome, whenever it is finally finished.

I've been trying my hardest to avoid playing the Early Access builds (even though I own them) because I just want to play the final versions. Reading these impressions and those from people who have spent time in the Early Access builds gets me very excited.

It almost feels like these games show how much RPG's have sort of regressed in recent years. Instead of embracing the power of video games with interactivity and systems to promote actual role playing, we've been given cinematic games with a little bit of player agency on the side. With how far technology has come since the classic cRPG's, you would think we would be playing the most reactive, interactive, AI and system driven games the world has ever seen but they have all but vanished.

And while I do enjoy a lot of modern RPG's, I'm hoping these Kickstarter games not only bring back games with the emphasis on role playing but create a new base to push the genre forward once again since the foundation will be laid. Exciting times ahead.

Divinity isn't on my radar (for now, anyway), but I am a KS backer for Wasteland 2. Between the few gameplay videos I've seen of early parts of the game and the great posts by Harpo in the Catch-All thread, I've been confident for quite a while that the money I spent to help fund Wasteland 2 was well worth it.

I've avoided playing any of the beta builds, as I want to experience everything for the first time when everything is actually finished, so I'm very much anticipating that happening.

I let myself remain skeptical for a long, long time. I *never* do early access, but if I was going to be disappointed, I wanted to rip that bandaid off. Then when I played the first beta iteration of Wasteland 2 that allowed for Mac use I was 100% sold. I've said this before, and I'm sure I'll say it again, but it doesn't feel like a throwback - it feels like it slid into our world from an alternate dimension where these kinds of games never went out of style and continued to evolve and improve.

I can't wait to try Divinity out, and hearing that it is Ultima VII reminiscent is making my giddy with excitement and glad I backed it!

Most of my favorite classic CRPGs weren't actually isometric.

Ultima 2, 3, 4. Bard's Tale. Alternate Reality: The Dungeon. Dungeon Master. Wizardry. Eye of the Beholder. Wizard's Crown could arguably be called iso, even though it was more accurately top down.

To me, Legend of Grimrock captured the classic CRPG feel 100%.

It has been, arguably, since Dragon Age: Origins that last we had a true CRPG that harkened back to the days of Baldur’s Gate or some of the classic Gold Box AD&D games.

I keep balking at this. What does "true" mean? Does the game also have to have a AAA budget with AAA marketing? Because if not, then there's a few more games to choose from than just DA:O. Spiderweb Software has put out old school RPGs for a long time now and they're quite good. Others speak of the Eschalon games (which I haven't played for some strange reason). Then we've got Shadowrun Returns. Or Inquisition (fairly poor translation aside).

And now I've more or less run out of examples.

So, yeah, there's not a bazillion CRPGs that harken back to BG or the Gold Box games, but they're out there and they're good.

I have generally shied away from early access games. Since I rarely finish any game I start, I would probably lose interest before the game is even released. However I did make an exception with Wasteland 2. Much to my regret after about 6 hours of play the game stopped working after a major update and has crashed to desktop ever since.

Sending bug reports and crash logs has never resulted in ONE of my emails ever being answered. At least some steam community members pointed me to some online fixes but despite numerous uninstalls, reg cleans, folder wipes and driver updates, the game continues to crash to desktop.

BTW I write business software for a living and that is probably why I have a low tolerance for trouble shooting what is supposed to be commercial code even if it is BETA.

Sigh! I just wanna play the damn game!

Arrgh! I've never seen Hunted: The Demon Forge for sale at $5. Most of the time, it costs $20 and it (infrequently) goes on sale for $10. I know it's not going to be a great game, but I'm curious about it. So, I'm playing a game against myself where I refuse to buy it for more than the arbitrary price my brain has decided it is worth. That said, I can't think of any other marginally selling game three year old game from a major publisher that has kept the price up for so long. Sometime I wonder if Bethesda has just forgotten about it.

Anyway, I was thinking about writing a rant about how I was totally turned off by indie developers extolling their tricky turn-based combat systems. I far prefer the dynamism and chaos of real time systems to vaguely sterile gamesmanship of turn based systems. I've played through all of the UFO:Aftershock/Aftermath/Afterlight games and only managed to make it about a third of the way into XCom:Enemy Unknown. But then, I played the Wasteland beta and it was surprisingly okay.

Sold! I don't normally buy 'early access' (read: unfinished, possibly forever) games but I have Kickstarted a few, which I suppose is basically the same thing. It was so good to read that Wasteland 2 is shaping up to be a worthwhile title that I decided to grab it on the last day of the Steam Sale. Thanks for the writeup. Now they just need to finish it so I can start playing!

Posted this in the Divinity Catch All but I think it merits a cross post

Rock Paper Shotgun Interview

Malor wrote:

My big worry at this point is polish and bugs; it feels like the save game system is very poorly implemented, and I bet if the released game has problems, it'll be related to saving and loading.

Shadowrun had save issues as well, I wonder if this is something Unity is not good at, or if it's just a coincidence.