Divinity: Original Sin 2 is rich with possibilities. There are countless interactions to consider, to exploit, or to stumble into, and so far that’s been as exciting as it’s been exhausting.
I often find myself thinking about the limits of the games I play. When a game offers me three paths and I’m keening for some ideal fourth, I tell myself that developers can only anticipate and account for so much. When an object or an NPC behaves unrealistically, I remind myself that not every potential circumstance can be accounted for.
But I’m over 18 hours into Divinity: Original Sin 2, and in that time I can’t say that I’ve thought about its limits once. Of course it has them, as every game does, but they just haven’t leapt out at me the way I’m used to.
September 15, 2017 – the first 20 hours
From the very beginning Original Sin 2 feels wonderfully flexible. Players can customize their own characters (down to picking an instrument to highlight their personal soundtrack) or choose from several pre-made origins. Choosing an origin character doesn’t mean sacrificing any chance at customization, though. Players still have complete control over the origin character’s class, abilities and appearance, so there’s wiggle room even if you love a character concept but hate their weapon/hair/cannibalism-related clairvoyance.
Origin characters will become companions if they aren’t picked as the player character, meaning that their stories and the unique interactions they can have aren’t completely locked off. Better still, they offer players the option to influence their class when they do join up, so a party that’s already brimming with magic users can nudge a new companion in a different direction to fill a skill gap. It’s a good idea to take advantage of this, since a more diverse set of skills can ensure a party is ready to deal with anything.
And that’s incredibly valuable. A lot of different things can happen in Divinity: Original Sin 2; it’s an RPG that is overwhelmingly about planning ahead yet still being completely taken by surprise. A seemingly inconsequential conversation with someone can lead to them dropping dead from some unholy and unknown force. An arrow shot astray in a fight can cause an unrelated and cascading loop of fire, poison and electricity to render a nearby area completely impassable. A teleportation glove can lead someone too clever for their own good somewhere they’re absolutely not prepared to be.
Isolated into their most basic elements there’s a predictability to everything, a logic that can be employed in some situations (particularly combat) for perfectly unsurprising outcomes. Conversations, battles, and quests are all scenarios to be solved, one way or another. Of course murder’s always on the table, but maybe the real key is in an innocent red ball looted from a previous encounter (which hopefully no one traded for a lockpick). Maybe it’s in a healing spell cast over the wounded. Maybe it’s in the character themselves. Origins as well as tags (some of which are set at character creation, while others can be acquired) can impact a character’s options in many different situations. There’s a lot to be said for knowing who an NPC may or may not want to deal with.
But that density and complexity can have its costs, too. There are just so many pieces in play, so many potential points of failure or at least complication, that it’s an impossible feat to try and stay on top of them all. Even rolling back to older saves hasn’t been enough for me to undo some of my more disastrous accidents. It’s like standing in the middle of a sea of dominos, but only actually knowing where half of the lines start. Inevitably, someone’s going to make a mess.
Learning to accept that mess has been my biggest challenge. I’m absolutely the player who needs to fill in every area of the map. I need to open every crate, talk to every NPC and solve every problem before I feel ready to move on from an area. I want clean edges and perfect solutions. And in that way, Divinity: Original Sin 2 has been somewhat suffocating for me, in spite of how much fun it is to poke and prod at all of its moving parts.
It wouldn’t be fair to call its world mean, because it’s not malice that’s standing between me and that perfect, clean save. It’s more accurate to say that the world is indifferent to player intent. It doesn’t necessarily matter if I want to be the hero, or if I want to do everything right. It doesn’t matter if I want to save the dying man surrounded by enemies. The second one of them ignites the oil around him, intention goes up in smoke just like the rest. Fire doesn’t care who or what it burns, and neither does Divinity. That degree of neutrality is uncommon in an RPG and I can appreciate that, even if it is simultaneously very stressful.
Another notable cost of all this complexity is that it can be hell to stay on top of everything. While the game’s journal keeps track of updates to quests in what should be a very tidy and helpful way, many entries are vague to the point of uselessness. Others require very specific (and sometimes easily missed) triggers to be hit. I have multiple quests open at the moment stuck on steps that I’ve completed with no idea of how to advance them further. This is a particularly big issue in regards to companion character storylines, as they need to be in the party to trigger related events, but cycling them in and out of the party in anticipation of these encounters is pretty annoying — an upgrade from the giant pain in the ass it was for the first 10 hours.
Obviously I still have a lot of questions yet to be answered, and a lot left to see. The story has only just started gaining momentum for one thing, so it’s difficult to say much about it yet. Likewise it’s hard to say if the mild annoyances I’m experiencing now will become big ones 20 hours from now, or if they’ll shrink to nothing in the face of all that messy possibility.
Update: October 13, 2017 — The finished game and score
Twenty hours into Divinity: Original Sin 2, I saw a game that stretched out ahead of me with a horizon of possibilities. Seventy hours later, all I could see were painted walls.
Those early hours with this RPG were completely intoxicating, which should be clear from my initial glowing impressions. Even though my party was still comparatively weak (and incredibly vulnerable in the game’s tactics-heavy combat), as a player I felt armed with more tools than I could count. Every environment, every character, every item and every ability was at least a little bit useful to me. Even my companions could be altered to suit my specific needs and, after the first act, can be completely re-speced whenever the need strikes.
Whether I was in combat or out of it, every situation felt extremely malleable — and perpetually vulnerable to the right mix of cleverness and patience. The world was my very own beautiful (if gruesome) sandbox.
This feeling was at its peak while the freedoms my created main character enjoyed were extremely limited. She and the rest of my party were prisoners, each one outfitted with a glowing collar that cut them off from the full breadth of their abilities. As members of an apparently dangerous subsection of the population of Rivellon capable of harnessing Source energy, they had been shipped off to the deceptively named Fort Joy in the hopes of containing — if not eventually curing — them of this ability. Source magic, we’re told, has the unpleasant side-effect of attracting wicked monsters from the depths of the Void into the mortal realm, and therefore must be excised from society for the well-being of all.
If that seems simple, I assure you it doesn’t stay that way. Set over a thousand years after the first Original Sin, sandwiched between Divine Divinity and Beyond Divinity, Original Sin 2 has hooks all through the series’ lore. Things get complicated fast, but players aren’t likely to suffer for any unfamiliarity with the older games. Every opportunity to share lore is taken through dialogue as well as the copious number of books scattered around the world, usually free for the taking. Players aren’t force-fed any more backstory than they want to consume, but there is an expansive buffet available for those that would.
And like the lore, the world itself is densely packed with secrets and surprises. Even deceptively small areas of the map tend to twist in on themselves in tantalizing ways, letting players decide just how deep they want to follow every little rabbit hole on their path. Engaging with NPCs, particularly rats and other animals, also feels more valuable than it did in the previous game. Every line of animal dialogue is unique and, for the most part, useful or illuminating in some way, making my compulsion to chase down every last squirrel feel far more justified than before.
This kind of enthusiastic exploration is usually rewarded. Sometimes that reward is a few coins and the feeling of triumph that comes with using a teleportation ability to craft a smart little shortcut, but often it’s more tangible. A new quest, a new character, a bit of lore about an incredibly powerful crab wizard; whatever it was, I rarely if ever regretted these detours.
But there’s a problem with all the density and mutability the world displays. Because for all that players can do in Original Sin 2, for all that they can affect, there are infinite things just waiting to break.
It’s inescapable to some degree. Games that traffic in open-ended possibility typically have many more moving pieces to account for, and the more pieces in play, the more likely conflict becomes.
Sometimes these broken pieces are the player’s own fault, and sometimes they are just circumstance. For instance, it’s entirely possible to kill critical NPCs, or for critical NPCs to get themselves killed in Original Sin 2. When I decided to show the dwarven queen mercy, only for her to run away from me and directly into a cloud of noxious (and lethal) gas, I accepted it. It was a funny little twist of fate; unfortunate, yes, but more a result of all these moving parts working mostly as intended than a sign of anything out of place.
But then there were the things that were just outright broken: dialogue that ignored major story-based changes to the state of the world, and quests that wouldn’t recognize I’d satisfied all their required steps or even tell me where I’d gone wrong, presumably because I’d stumbled into some aspect of it out of order over the course of exploring.
In one case, I was arrested for having a “stolen” necklace in my possession even though I had long since disposed of it. In another, I discovered that my ability to free allies who had been charmed … couldn’t actually target charmed allies. Whoops.
My favorite example of Divinity: Original Sin 2’s sometimes frustrating jagged edges is the companion story boss I fought near the end of the game. This was an incredibly powerful demon who initially had a massive character model as well as an absurd amount of armor. Unfortunately, when I quick-saved and quick-loaded to undo a misstep during the fight, he shrank to half his original size, moved to another area of the map entirely, and was abruptly and miraculously armorless with a fraction of his original HP. At that point, I killed him with just two completely plain arrows fired in his direction.
Normally this game’s combat is high-risk and incredibly ponderous, in a good way. When everything’s working as intended, it feels as thoughtful and satisfying as solving a good puzzle, albeit with a lot more blood spilled.
But when it’s not working? One major boss, two minor arrows. Fwip fwip.
I could easily list off dozens more examples of all the times I felt utterly robbed by some moving part or another slipping out of place in Original Sin 2. If I had to hazard a guess, I would say at least a quarter of the sidequests I came across broke in some manner while I was earnestly and carefully trying to advance them. I was only trying to do exactly what the game bills itself on — following interesting-if-roundabout paths to goals of my choosing — only to find that, in so doing, some invisible element had gotten caught in the clockwork.
As the game went on, the kind of problem-solving I had initially reveled in also stopped producing results. While I’d enjoyed using healing and blessing skills to help certain ailing NPCs early on, for example, eventually those skills would work for a moment or two before the character would snap back to their previous state with no explanations given, no further clues differentiating their state as special or unique. The more I played and the more tools I had at my disposal, the more often that Original Sin 2 seemed to ignore its own playbook, closing off the creative paths that initially had me loving the game.
Combined with the sheer volume of bugs and busted elements I found as I explored, I eventually felt deeply apathetic about the outcome of everything I was doing. My investment in the world waned dramatically because my effort was so often rewarded with nothing more than a limbo state. I would tick all the boxes and get nothing for it and when I eventually had to move on to the next area, a generic line of text in my over-cluttered journal implied I’d abandoned the quest by choice.
As I said, I’m under no illusions that Original Sin 2 should be technically seamless. However, it should absolutely be better at getting this right. This is its entire wheelhouse. It’s sold on its openness, its mutability, all those moving pieces and all those creative solutions. This is what the game is, and it should be able to bear that weight far better than it does.
If all these components interacted more smoothly, it would be so much easier to ignore its less glaring shortcomings. An occasional bit of placeholder text left in an item would seem completely petty. The numerous NPCs who can’t seem to get each others’ pronouns right, an honest editing oversight. The berry pie I crafted but for some reason was unable to ever sell to vendors, a quirky but harmless bug. And the awkward pulp novel romance scenes (which I mention as someone who is normally a fan of romance in RPGs) that blossom from incredibly underdeveloped relationships between characters? The other sex scene where I listened to the narrator intoning dryly about “two heats hot against one another” with anything but a straight face? They’d be funny but largely unimportant aspects of the overall experience.
These are all things I was completely happy to handwave at that halcyon 20-hour mark. I was still caught up in all the new toys I had to play with and, more importantly, all the little cracks in the game’s continuity still felt like just that: little cracks. But those fractures deepened over time until, inevitably, the whole experience began falling apart.
Divinity: Original Sin 2 has an abundance of things to see and do, a staggering amount of secrets to unearth and plenty of tricks up its sleeve. Yet almost every cool moment I experienced sits shoulder-to-shoulder with an equally weighted disappointment. Ambitious and impressive as it often is, it’s ultimately a collection of incredibly pretty beads that just don’t string together as well as they should.
Divinity: Original Sin 2 was reviewed using a final “retail” Steam download code provided by Larian Studios. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.