To play Divinity: Original Sin is to fall in love with role-playing games all over again. It’s tempting to label the game as an immediate classic simply because it recalls the days of Baldur’s Gate and Planescape: Torment, a time that many role-players still look back on with much fondness. It’s true that Original Sin has the trappings of those memorable gems: an isometric camera perspective, an adventuring party of four, magic spells and pubs to relax in and an intriguing fantasy kingdom that captures the imagination. What makes this game so special, however, is that it avoids slavish devotion to those games of old and instead tells a tale very much its own–a tale of conflict between the elements that plays out in electrifying turn-based battles, and a real-world tale of loyalty, in which game and player establish a bond born out of patience, perseverance, and the promise of joyous surprises in every crevasse.
That Original Sin expects a certain amount of patience is obvious from its opening hours, during which you grow accustomed to the game’s quiet confidence in your own intelligence and wits. As you traipse about the first town learning the ins and outs of the complex crafting and combat systems, you discover that there are genre conventions you must live without. There is no automated crafting interface that pieces together recipes you have learned; instead, you must remember those recipes or refer to your logbook. Waypoints are few, and quests rarely lead you directly to your ultimate destination. You do a lot of meandering in these early hours, which makes the pace drag, but this is your chance to explore, to test the waters, and to poke and prod at the game to discover what makes it tick.
In the process, you discover that Original Sin forces you to confront the consequences of your actions, and does so in ways that most RPGs boasting meaningful decisions fail to match. You cannot take every loaf of bread from an inn, or open any door you please, lest your actions lead to disapproval from the homeowner, or even the wrath of nearby guards. Such consequences appear in other RPGs, of course, but Original Sin goes even further, to the point where you must consider activities you would never question in most other games. In turn, you come to conduct yourself with an unusual level of care. In one instance, I dug up a grave within plain sight of a sobbing villager grieving her buried loved one. In a tear-fueled anger, the woman turned on me, a battle began, and I sliced her up with little fanfare. She was not a warrior, and no match for my party.
I mourned over this one simple action. Few role-playing games would have allowed this kind of conflict; they are designed to have you clicking on everything, seeking every possible gold medallion, every possible health potion. Games at large have taught me to presume there may be something valuable buried in graves and crypts, and those valuables are the journey’s driving force in many (if not most) RPGs. Digging up this fresh grave rewarded me with a measly bone, a common crafting component I could easily have gone without. I had defiled a dead man’s resting place and taken an innocent life because my greed was too great. I felt more guilty and more invested in this one action than I have felt in entire quest lines in other choice-driven role-playing games, and I chose not to reload an earlier save point. I forced myself to live with my decision.
And so you learn that every action has a reaction. This isn’t Mass Effect or Dragon Age–your narrative path isn’t determined by a good-or-bad morality system and branching conversations. Rather, you hew a path with every step, and the game responds naturally, allowing you to craft small but memorable stories like the one about the lady at the grave. You engage in plenty of dialogue, of course, much of it witty, much of it dramatic, and most of it colorfully written. There’s a skeleton who misses having a soul, and whom you convince to replace his head. (It seems logical at the time.) There’s a statue that promises to show you how your journey ends, and rolls the game’s end credits should you ask to see your future. Developer Larian Studios takes Polonius’ words in Hamlet to heart: “Brevity is the soul of wit.” The frequent conversations rarely get bogged down by endless and unnecessary dialogue, and conversation partners are drawn with broad, vibrant strokes. Some dialogue doesn’t adjust properly to account for story events you have triggered (why are you talking about that necromancer as if you didn’t know I murdered her?), but idiosyncrasies like that are minor distractions at worst.
You read more than just the onscreen dialogue. You must peruse recipe books if you want to learn how make a club out of a piece of wood and a handful of nails, or how to write a magic scroll. You craft items by dropping and dragging objects onto each other directly in your inventory window, or perhaps by dragging items onto a nearby furnace, mobile kitchen, or other gadget. You spend a lot of time in your inventory windows, which proves rather cumbersome after a while. But it’s hard to contain yourself in that special moment when you create a magical starfish by accident–a moment outmatched by the one in which figure out what, exactly, you can do with that magical starfish.
What a wonderful place this is to be, overflowing with visual details and unexpected occurrences that make exploration a treat. There are blizzards and dust storms to trudge through, with each weather phenomenon ensuring that you rethink how to play. (The sandy winds slow me down in battle; how, then, must I compensate? I keep slipping in the ice; I wonder if these snowboots I found could prove useful?) There are spider-worshippers and cultists and an otherworldly place to call home, where you can bring on new hirelings and stash excess junk for safekeeping. Every discovery is a thrill, not just because there are so many sights to drink in and fill up on, but because some discoveries might lead to unplanned quest developments. For instance, if you are fortunate enough to have a party member who has earned the pet pal perk, a talking rabbit might have some excellent advice that allows you to bypass a perilous cavern–advice that has you again rethinking hitherto mundane game mechanics.
Depending on how you spend the skill points you earn as you level up, you might be able to talk your way out of conflict by charming, intimidating, or reasoning with potential adversaries. You wouldn’t think that simple chats could be so dramatic as those in Original Sin, but the game uses a straightforward but effective rock-paper-scissors minigame to turn vital conversations into a suspenseful duel of words. The higher your rating in a particular conversation style, the closer you come to winning the verbal war with every rock-paper-scissors victory. My stress levels ran high when talks came down to one final game of chance. If I win, I can walk around the encampment freely; if I lose, I must shed the blood of the opposition. And if blood must be shed, I might never know what information or stories my victims might have otherwise shared.
But it’s hard to contain yourself in that special moment when you create a magical starfish by accident–a moment outmatched by the one in which figure out what, exactly, you can do with that magical starfish.
Intriguingly, your two primary party members–the ones you customize within moments of booting up the game–may not agree with each other on a proper course of action. When playing with a cooperative partner, this means both players have an opportunity to direct the outcome. When playing on your own, this allows you to role-play both of these characters, a circumstance that led me to an experience I don’t recall having had in any role-playing game before now. I had decided my man at arms had the soul of a paladin, always yearning to support the downtrodden uphold the moral high ground no matter the cost. My witch, on the other hand, was both more practical and more adventurous in my mind, always trying to stir the pot unless the aftermath were potentially too disastrous. When the two exchanged tough words, I chose options that seemed consistent with their characters, while secretly rooting for one or the other to overcome. I was playing both roles simultaneously, rather than just outright choosing the outcome I wanted. Plenty of RPGs feature adventuring parties; few actually encourage you to play two independent roles at once.
Conversations can and do go awry; luckily, the tense and thoughtful battles are incredibly rewarding in their own right. The moment you engage your enemies, time pauses and combatants enter battle stance. From here, your party members perform whatever actions you command of them until you use up their action points or end their turn. Party members begin the game with very specific types skills, but Original Sin’s great flexibility means that your adventurers might be able to fling all kinds of spells and swing all kinds of weapons. And while you don’t want to sacrifice mastery for flexibility, having a lot of different types of attacks to choose from is highly advantageous, for battles are not just a clash of wills, but a clash of elements as well.
Elements are a vital aspect of video game sorcery; fireballs, ice shards, tornadoes, and the such have long held central magical roles in fantasy fiction. In Divinity: Original Sin, those elements cooperate and collide with each other, opening up all manner of satisfying offensive possibilities. You can make it rain, and then zap puddles with electricity, stunning the orcs unfortunate enough to be standing in them. You can ignite poisonous clouds and slicks of oil, thus bringing a band of creepy-crawlies to a smoldering end. Barrels of water and oil can provide a bit of battlefield assistance should they be scattered about, but be careful: not only can your opponents turn the tables, but you can inadvertently injure or even destroy your own party members if you get careless when zapping puddles and spewing poison.
Battle is not just about maximizing damage, however, and elements are not just for hurting and healing, but also for hindering. I won a nail-biting struggle with four colossal guardians by carefully controlling their speed and their strength. Turn by turn, I blinded, stunned, froze, weakened, and crippled these iron giants, doing my best to keep every character alive and taking down one guardian at a time until all four had fallen. Every time one of them marched towards my party, I held my breath. They could kill my mages with a single swipe, and their slow gait was pure agony. This is turn-based combat at its best. Every attack is meaningful, every option is a consideration, and every new enemy has you rethinking your strategy.
Divinity: Original Sin’s minor flaws include a few bugs here and there, such as one that might turn a cave into a neverending mass of explosions. Its interface is fiddly, giving each party member his or her own supply of gold and sometimes making it a chore to do things as simple as repairing equipment or bartering with townspeople. Some idiosyncrasies aren’t flaws, however, but rather reminders of how often we expect games to ask of us the simplest questions and then provide us easy answers. How do you find the forest where the White Witch lives? You go out into the world and you find it. How do you locate all the door-opening switches in an immense library? You look for them, you investigate, you open your eyes wide and truly take in the space around you. Little by little, you learn the rules–and little by little, you wonder why there are so few games so willing to trust you to examine and explore. That it believes in you is Original Sin’s greatest achievement, and given its many achievements, that’s high praise indeed.