I was just looking for a spell scroll, perhaps something that would shoot a fireball or drop a boulder from the sky, when I accidentally click and dragged a barrel of oil that I had in my character’s inventory. (Why was my fighter dragging a barrel of combustible liquid around? Oh, that’s right. I had accidentally put it into his pockets during a routine loot grab and hadn’t bothered to get rid of it.) Plop! My fighter tossed the barrel out into the middle of the undead pack that was trying to eat my party’s brains. Wait a minute! This could work. My fighter bashed the barrel open with a mighty swing of his axe, spilling oil on the ground. My ranger used a scroll of fire immunity on the fighter, then my wizard tossed a flaming bolt at the puddle. Whoosh! The undead went up in a satisfying blaze while my protected warrior laughed.
After the jump, what can you say about a game that’s like one big Easter egg for role-playing game fans?
That barrel and fire incident happened to me about four hours into Divinity: Original Sin, and it’s part of why I think this may the best turn-based tactical combat game I’ve played in years. Elemental damage isn’t anything new in fantasy RPGs. Everyone knows to use fire attacks against ice monsters and vice versa. That kind of knowledge has been pounded into our heads by years of video game alchemy. Divinity: Original Sin starts with those simple relationships and builds from there. There’s usually always more than one use for any spell. Stun a bunch of bad guys by blasting the pools of blood they’re standing in with electricity. Explode clouds of poison by setting your own knight on fire and running him through the toxic mist. Teleport an enemy wizard onto the pool of lava left behind by his own fire demon. It’s amazing the kinds of creative solutions you can come up with when you have a toy box filled with deadly magic.
Larian Studios has infused their RPG with the same sort of creativity they ask of their players. Optional activities abound. There is a trait your characters can get that will let them converse with animals. Pumpkins can be carved into scary masks. Nails can be crafted with boots to make non-slip snowshoes for icy terrain. The amazing thing is that none of this is necessary! You could go through all 90-ish hours of this game and never once listen to what the rats in the dungeons can tell you, but doing so might give you an alternate route to the bad guy’s lair. Almost every quest has at least two ways to solve them and even the ones with a single route to victory can offer multiple outcomes because of the choices you made along the way.
Even conversations have gameplay in them. Disagree about something with your partner (in co-op or solo mode) and you’ll be playing rock, paper, scissors to argue it out. You’ll even do this against NPCs that you’re trying to influence. Charming or intimidating that orc isn’t only a choice on the conversation tree. A higher stat just means you need to win roshambo less than the NPC. It’s a simple, but effective, way to add tension to what’s normally the most boring part of an RPG. Damn you, paper! Rock will reign supreme!
The main story is a prequel of sorts to their 2002 Divine Divinity, but outside of the main campaign, it’s filled with the sort of silliness and puns that you’d get when good friends riff over a couple of beers. Magic comes from a mystical Source, so mages are “sourcerers.” If that doesn’t make you groan, there’s plenty more in Original Sin. You’ll see evil snowmen with carrot noses, smelly underwear that gives you a +1 to charisma, pigs with philosophical theories, and jokes about previous Larian games. It can be off-putting if you’re used to more grim fantasy worlds, but let it wash over you and it becomes infectious. The developers obviously had fun while building this world, so you may as well understand that you’re not supposed to take everything so seriously. If a wise-ass statue with a predilection for practical jokes offers to show you the future, don’t expect a vision from George R. R. Martin.
The world of Rivellon is colorful and vibrant. There’s a slightly stylized look to everything that fits the pun-filled narrative. You may be setting fire to snarling wolves in a snowstorm, but it’s cartoony so you won’t feel bad. Unless you talk to the wolves and they tell you all about their hopes and dreams. That’s depressing. Better not do that. Just shoot a barrage of enchanted arrows to kill their pack master. That will look cool, and he may leave blood on the ground which will help your wizard who is healed by standing in blood puddles. Plus, his death will free the wolves so they will no longer fight for the enemy. While you’re at it, you should summon a giant spider to attack the guy with a crossbow.
The interface for the tactical combat is crisp and functional. The action point system is easy to understand. Moving there will cost 2 points, which will leave enough time to use a summoning spell. While the enemy is distracted by the spider, send the knight around the campfire to hammer the cleric. Simple melee combat is a breeze, and the interface doesn’t get in the way when you want to try fancy stuff like blowing up a mechanized rooster by throwing an explosive robot rat at him.
Inventory management isn’t quite so successful. Remember my barrel discovery? That only happened because I accidentally put that barrel into my fighter’s inventory in the first place. There’s a lot of combining, crafting, selling, trading, and smithing in Original Sin. Figuring out the wacky combinations is engaging, but shuffling things back and forth from the two heroes and up to two hired henchmen is a chore. Because Larian wanted the game playable in cooperative mode with each player taking the role of one of the heroes, they kept money and items separate. That means that whether you play alone or with a buddy, you’ll be opening the separate inventory screens a lot as you switch back and forth to get to what you need. Even more confusing is the fact that although you can switch inventories without disengaging from trade, the game will only compare the items that the dialogue initiating character has equipped. Want to compare the merchant’s magic sword to your knight’s? Too bad. Your ranger was the person that started talking to the merchant. Check out that bow instead!
You can trade with just about anyone. Merchants aren’t the only people with goods to barter. The random guy in the street may not have much, but he might have the potato you need to create french fries. (That’s actually in the game.) You can even trade with enemies before the dialogue goes away. Yes, I know you’re going to fire a bunch of flaming darts at me, but before you do, let’s see what kind of deal we can work out for that magic armor. It’s silly, but no more than the fact that you’re being ambushed by goblins that were tricked by a new age blood cult into fighting you. Sell them your spare magic rings, kill them, then loot the rings off their bodies. Capitalism, ho!
Want more silliness combined with clever? Have one of your characters start talking to someone. Now, click over to the other character. She can enter sneak mode and pickpocket the engaged NPC. Since sneaking is visualized by the character comically tiptoeing around while dressed as a bush or a rock, you’ll be treated to a scene right out of an Elmer Fudd cartoon. What’s that bush doing in the miner’s office?
Divinity: Original Sin has a lot of secrets to stumble over. Hidden rooms and sidequests are just part of the story. It’s a joy to find new ways to interact with the world Larian has created. From getting a dog’s help in tracking a killer, to crafting voodoo dolls by putting together a wooden figurine with a needle and pixie dust, you’ll be doing new things all the time. The most creative turn-based combat seen in an RPG, combined with a dash of humor, has resulted in a fine stew of gaming. Plus, the game has something important to say about life: “No one has as many friends as the man with many cheeses.”