Divinity: Original Sin may be the best RPG of its kind in years.
It is smartly written, patiently paced, fun to play and hard enough that success feels like an accomplishment. Set in a complicated world that developer Larian Studios has been tinkering with for years, its narrative comes with a rich lore already in place and an easy confidence in its history and foundations.
To say that I recommend Divinity: Original Sin is an understatement. As far as computer role-playing games go, this particular one threatens to steal a place in my mind on the shelf with games like Baldur’s Gate, Ultima VII, Planescape: Torment and Fallout 2. Though I’m not ready to crown it to those heights yet — I’ll need a year or two to ruminate on whether it really achieves that level of greatness — it has passed the first initial gates to get into the running.
I do wonder, though, whether at least part of what makes Divinity so great in the modern age is simply a function of how few games do what it does anymore. It is in some ways as though Divinity is a game that was created mostly in 1996, and fell through a crack in time to the year 2014, where Larian simply added all the technical whiz-bangery of the modern age. There is a sensibility to the game that doesn’t really exist anymore in most western RPGS — or most games for that matter — a sensibility that by its nature spoon-feeds you nothing, but rewards you time and again for just being smart enough to figure the world out.
Divinity’s most daring aspect may simply be that it is unapologetic in demanding the player put in a meaningful effort to succeed. In a way, as a gamer, it’s just nice to be treated as an adult.
Divinity is far from a flawless game. Time and again its camera proves too limiting. It can be far too easy to mis-click in combat, which is all the worse because your character can be quickly hacked to bits if you command him to move instead of shoot-gouts-of-horrific-magic-fire as intended. Puzzles aren’t always intuitive, particularly if you haven’t specced your characters in a certain way. The NPC AI outside of combat is stilted, simplistic and obviously scripted. And so on.
As an example, you can sneak right into an NPC's bedroom, steal their ridiculously expensive painting off the wall, walk out and sell it back to the owner.
“I’d like to sell you this painting for 1000 money units, please.”
“Weird, I have a painting exactly like this on my wall.”
“How odd. Anyway, about that 1,000 … .”
“I mean, this is literally a painting of my husband, and I can see from here — because someone apparently opened the door to my bedroom without closing it — that my version of this painting is missing from my room. Also, my treasure chest is open, and my desk is a shambles.”
“So, do you want to buy this painting, then, or not?”
“Of course! Here’s 1,000 monies.”
There are some games, though, where the shortcomings of the game go on to define the game and the way I think of it. I suspect a game like Watch(Underscore)Dogs may suffer from such a perception. It wasn’t a bad game, but it was the inconsistencies of the world — the little things that just crawled under your skin — that somehow became the definition of the actual game itself.
Divinity, to me, falls in that far more rare place though, where the problems with the game lend it character. I almost like the game more because of the imperfections, and because the sum total of the experience of playing the game ends up being so rewarding.
I honestly have no idea how some games do that while most others don’t. I suspect part of that is, again, that I just very much want to like Divinity, and it gives me so many opportunities to do so that when it does slip up, I end up treating it more like when my kids does something dumb rather than when that one guy down the street who I don’t care about does.
The thing is that when Divinity is at its best, it’s a superb game that takes me to a place in my gaming-lizard-brain where I haven’t been in a long time. Coming out of the tutorial area and finding myself in a town solving a local murder mystery with far greater implications (shades of Ultima VII there) was a pleasant surprise, but discovering that the narrative didn’t simply use the murder investigation as a construct to get me into a fight as quickly as possible was revelatory.
It was like, after a year of eating at Chili's, I'd walked into a fine dining establishment that carefully prepares its food. When the waiter comes to my table, I’m programmed to expect to ask for nachos and a beer, but he just calmly smiles at me and hands me a wine list, letting me know in a very subtle way that the food will come in due time and not a moment sooner — and when it does, it will taste much different and much better than I’ve come to know.
Which is not to say the game is simply slow. Divinity doles out plot beats and new lines of inquiry at a healthy pace over the first few hours, but it never hurries to resolve them. It builds. Time and again I would reach a place in a quest where I was trained to think I was at the end of that particular journey, and instead of ending the quest, the game would just raise the stakes and leave me to find the next new direction to pursue.
Being careful to avoid spoilers here, you could arguably think you’ve finished the main quest for the opening area of the game without realizing that in fact there are still several layers to go. That's exactly what I did. I reached a point in that quest where I simply assumed the game had delivered its solution to me, and it wasn’t until two hours later that I realized: Oh! Things are definitely not as tidy as they seemed. Not by a long shot.
Let me also stress that when I talk about finishing the first main area of the game, I’m talking about a 30+ hour time commitment. It’s reasonable, at minimum I think, to expect a 70-hour first playthrough of the game, and if you get obsessive about exploration and quest completion (and you absolutely should get that obsessive), then you’re looking at a 100-hour runthrough.
What’s most impressive to me about that is that none of it feels like filler. That’s not to say that I loved every area, every puzzle or every quest line, but it always felt like things were there for a narrative reason and not just because someone was trying to fill empty space.
My playthrough of Divinity was entirely solo, but it can be played cooperatively with another player, each of you controlling one character and potentially one follower. If I were to try such a thing, it would likely be on a second playthrough, because I would have hated to be rushed through or miss some part of the interactions trying to keep in step with someone else's pace and agenda.
Divinity: Original Sin feels like it was created with an unflinching philosophy from a different age in gaming, and for whatever problems the game may have, it never strays from the ethos it lays out from the very start. It’s weird, and probably a little unfair to everyone else to characterize it as such, but Divinity feels like a game created with exceptional integrity and love. When I’m playing it, I genuinely feel like the game is committed to delivering me an experience I haven’t had in a while.
Divinity won’t be for everyone, and that’s precisely part of what makes it so great. It’s not made for everyone. It’s made specifically for people who love these types of isometric, strategy-driven, deep RPGs. It doesn’t compromise on its pace, its difficulty or its requirement that the player stop and think.
You must gather your brain before venturing forth.