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.