In all the RPGs I’ve ever played, you cast Fireball and it does whatever d6s of damage it’s going to do, along with whatever damage-over-time fire inflicts. Easy as you please. Okay, maybe there are some games that require some sort of casting time, during which my wizard might get interrupted while he’s reciting the Fireball incantation. Fair enough. At least the warrior can just straight-up do his Shield Bash and the cleric can use her hammer for a Hammer Slam. Do the action, roll the damage, apply a dazed effect or whatever, done. Easy as you please.
Hold on, says Divinity Original Sin 2.
I was prepared for intricate tactical combat in Divinity Original Sin 2. That’s what Larian does with these games. Fine by me. The more intricate, the better. Make me look up stuff in manuals, read rules, and reference iconography. I eat that stuff for breakfast and then say to the beadle, “Please, sir, I want some more.” But what I wasn’t prepared for is how Larian does armor. Armor makes you work. Armor truly protects. Armor matters more than armor in other games. I’m going to miss this kind of armor in the next RPG I play.
A character in Divinity Original Sin 2 has an armor value based on wearing bits of gear with armor stats. The stats add up, one piece at a time, to give him an overall armor value. There are no hit locations in combat, so 5 points of armor on your feet is as good as 5 points of armor on your hands, your legs, or your head. Armor points are armor points. But there are two types of armor. Physical and magic. Ifan, my well armored front-line fighter, is wearing scale armor (15 physical, 3 magic), warlock’s leggings (5 physical, 16 magic), leather shoes (2 physical, 2 armor), chain gloves (4 physical, 3 magic), and a scale helmet (7 physical, 2 magic). Unless he’s got his crossbow out, he’s holding a metal shield in his left hand (26 physical, 18 magic). All together, this provides him with 59 points of physical armor and 44 points of magic armor. Fane, my barely armored mage, is wearing a crummy tunic (physical 4), mage’s pants (2 physical, 8 magic), shabby boots (2 physical), and a greasy cap (3 physical). Because I felt bad for him, I gave him a fancy copper ring we found (2 magic). All together, this provides him with 14 points of physical armor and 18 points of magic armor.
The reason Ifan stands in front during combat and Fane stands in the rear isn’t because they have different amounts of hit points, which are strictly a matter of the constitution stat. Ifan and Fane have the same constitution and therefore the same number of hit points. There’s no provision for making fighters have more hit points than mages. But Fane stands in front because armor is extra hit points in front of actual hit points. When someone bangs on Ifan with a sword, he has 108 hit points, plus the 59 points of physical armor. Fane has 108 hit points, plus the 14 points of physical armor. Ifan can withstand 167 points of sword banging before going down. Fane can only withstand 122. This is pretty intuitive and it’s not really unique. Whether armor mitigates damage or just adds to the amount of damage you can take, it’s the same effect.
What makes Divinity Original Sin 2 unique is that armor stops the fancy effects of spells and special abilities. A Fireball isn’t much of a Fireball when you throw it at someone who still has magic armor. It’s going to shave off some magic armor points, but it won’t apply a burning effect until it’s hitting bare hit points. A Shield Bash isn’t much of a Shield Bash when you whap it up against someone who still has physical armor. It’s just going to shave off some physical armor points, but it won’t apply a daze effect until it’s hitting bare hit points. To apply the fancy effects that make tactical combat more tactical, you have to knock armor out of the way first. Armor is the tax that must be paid — by you and whomever you’re fighting — before things get interesting.
And things will get interesting. Almost everybody you meet in Divinity Original Sin 2 has skills that give them special abilities. Whether it’s a specific type of magic or a talent for warfare or a background in thievery. These determine what special abilities a character can use. Anyone with a point in pyrokinetics can fling a fireball. Anyone with a point in warfare can administer a shield bash. Anyone with a point in thievery can throw a poison dart. This stuff is common not just among your characters, but among every person or creature you meet. Furthermore, fire, poison, and electricity are literally lying on the floor during many battles. The Original Sin games are famously about standing somewhere that will burn, poison, or shock you. But these effects don’t trigger while armor is in the way.
This means battles will have two distinct stages. The first stage is where each side is trying to rip open armor. It’s the set-up. The second stage is when you start poring into the breach effects like poison, burning, dazed, and so forth. It’s the pay-off. You don’t just cast Fireball and do whatever d6s of damage it’s going to do, along with whatever damage-over-time fire inflicts. You cast Fireball to whittle down your target’s magic armor. Then you cast Fireball to do the damage-over-time. Divinity Original Sin 2 doesn’t give it to you for free. Burning is cheap in other RPGs. It’s something you earn in Original Sin 2. It’s all about efficiently prying open your enemies like shellfish so you can reach the delicious meat inside.
One of the main reasons this system works is that there’s no mana limit on spell casting. You can cast infinite Fireballs in a battle. The only limitation is cooldown time. So while your early Fireballs are spent shaving away magic armor, they’re not wasted. They’re not depleting a limited pool of mana.
This also means battles vary based on what kind of armor an enemy is wearing. Sometimes they only have physical armor, so Fireballs are a perfect endrun around their defenses. Fighters, take a break. Mages, you’re up. Sometimes, they only have magic armor, so sword banging and shield bashing will get straight to it. Mages, take a break. Fighters, you’re up. Sometimes they have both types of armor, so it’s a team effort, and there’s no point doubling up your efforts to get through both types of armor. This prevents the usual RPG battle where everyone focus fires on one big bag of hit points. Fighters, you work on these guys. Mages, you work on those guys.
Sometimes your enemies have no armor, so it’s a big party. Fire, poison, electricity, dazing, and bleeding for everyone! I just had a battle against multiple waves of unarmored slugs. It was glorious, because it was the first time there was no barrier to entry for all my fancy skills. In fact, I think it was Divinity Original Sin 2 throwing me a graduation party for getting past a certain area. “Here you go,” the game said cheerily. “Go to town on these bags of unprotected hit points! Have more! And more! And even more! It’s not like you’re going to run out of mana!”
Next: the cleanup after the battle