A Reflection on Divinity: Original Sin
Hello people! It has been a while, hasn’t it? There are many reasons that have conspired for that, but one of them has been that I’ve been trying to complete Divinity: Original Sin. The key word being ‘trying’. It is quite massive, but that’s not the only reason it’s taken so long.
For me the first sentence that comes to mind when thinking about it is: Divinity: Original Sin is a game I consistently want to like more than I actually do.
Considering the general critical reception of the game, and what I’ve seen most people say about it, I do have to wonder if I’m in the minority in my opinion on the game, but so be it. I will try to make my stance clear.
I originally tried to play this game co-op, as it was so heavily advertised (along with the return to the ‘good old’ CRPGs of the 90s), but after three nights of consistent connection troubles, I gave up on that plan. So I’ve been playing solo for the most part.
Divinity: Original Sin has many strengths. It has a vast, open world full of options and possibilities for you to explore. There are interesting characters in it. Some, at least. You can barter with every NPC willing to talk to you, a la the old Fallout games. It has an interesting take on turn-based combat, also clearly influenced by Fallout 1 and 2. There’s a perk that lets you talk to animals, something I wish more games had. This one is basically essential, as not only are the animals full of juicy tidbits of knowledge, but some of them even give you quests, or help you complete quests. You can defy the laws of the universe by stacking any container inside any other container. If you want to put several chests inside a vase, it will let you do that (unless they have or will patch that out). You get a fairly unique dynamic between your two starting heroes, and the ways they interact throughout the game.
There were moments when I thought I might have found another Planescape: Torment. Full disclosure, I lost that impression after just a few hours.
See, Divinity: Original Sin also has many problems. Unfortunately quite a lot of them bugged me the most during the first 5-6 levels of my characters, and quite probably tainted the rest of the experience for me, making me more sensitive to issues I might have otherwise considered minor.
Problem #1, the chief issue, is the game’s general lack of direction. It doesn’t tell you things. Even basic things. In fact, it seems to take great joy in keeping you in the dark at times. There is of course a certain satisfaction to be had in figuring stuff out on your own, but it often feels like there’s just so much basic information you don’t have, and that you can’t look up anywhere. Even using google it seemed to be that 99% of the time the information I found would be useless. There is very little help to be found. No one seems to have made a wiki. So you just stumble around blindly hoping you can figure out what the game expects from you, or that you get lucky and finds an actually useful hint somewhere.
When I was level 4, I had basically hit a dead end in the first major quest you have, namely solving a murder. Going one way would get me insta-killed by traps I didn’t have high enough perception to detect. Three other ways led to enemies I had no chance of defeating yet. In town I was basically out of options. Any place I needed to get into was behind locked doors I couldn’t open. Trying to lockpick doors just gave me a “skill not high enough” message, even though I had gear that boosted my skill level, and I just couldn’t get it higher. Same with my idea to try to pickpocket people for keys. I even hired a rogue especially skilled in those things. “Skill not high enough” became a phrase that increasingly vexed me.
Quite often the game felt like a roleplaying session run by a bad DM. Great and intriguing ideas, but poor execution, and little skill in how to guide players. But even the worst DM would have probably started dropping a few hints considering the issues I was having. And unfortunately looking in the “quest” journal only yielded some very vague ideas about what I was supposed to do, with little or no insight into how I should accomplish it.
For problem #2, let’s go with the combat. I will admit that the combat becomes less of a problem later in the game. By the time you’ve reached Luculla Forest, you’ll have a lot more tools and strength to work with. But around Cyseal it was entirely too common to have party members, or even the whole party, wiped out in a single turn. This was largely if there was two or more archers among the enemy. When you’re level 5 or less, it seems that even the toughest of your party members will instantly become a pile of poisonous ash as soon an archer duo fires a flame arrow, and then a poison arrow. Poison is HIGHLY flammable in Divinity: Original Sin. It is also quite prevalent.
There’s actually a lot of interplay between elements during combat (and sometimes out of combat as well), and that helps. It helps keep me going when I don’t really feel like it’s all that fun or engaging. I’ve certainly dealt with worse.
I was also getting quite tired of how every encounter seemed to need to be this grand battle. It was highly rare to find a group of enemies where you’d have to fight less than five at once. Seven or more was quite common. And you couldn’t just pull a few at a time, if you attacked one, you got them all coming for you. (The game actually drops this idea somewhat later on, and will more regularly confront you with smaller groups.)
It was honestly tiring. Fatiguing. The confusion from lack of direction, and the brutality of the combat meant I often felt fatigue after an hour or two (maybe even less depending on how frustrating it was being at the time), and I just wanted to take a break and go do something else for a while.
Things got better in Luculla Forest. I was able to play for longer, even the whole day a few times, and started to feel like I was over the worst, and that I could probably make it through the game to see how it ends. Then I got to the next area with Hunter’s Edge and the Phantom Forest, and the sense of fatigue came back big-time.
Part of that is that they’ve essentially taken away my access to the Homestead, which is the only truly interesting part of the game, but they’ve also really started ramping up the confusion bullshit again too. I am currently torn between “I’ve invested so much time already, I kinda need to finish it” and “Ugh, I am so close to just giving up on this thing”.
Let’s move on to problem #3, the writing. I will say that the lore of the game is engrossing. It presents a fascinating world with a complex and rich story behind it. There are genuine flashes of brilliance in here. A story I’d like to hear, a setting I’d like to explore. At least, in theory. It’s just such a shame that the writing is so very inconsistent. I will say that it is probably stronger early on, while you’re in and around Cyseal, than it is for the rest of the game. The further in I get, the more signs I see that they weren’t paying as much attention, but more on that later.
The writing, yes. There are a lot of books around to read, and people to talk to. It’s usually quite alright. I read pretty much all of it, especially during the first 20 or so hours. Still read most, I’d say, though I’ve lost a lot of my enthusiasm. I am quite ready for the game to give me an ending now, even if I’m not sure it wants to yet. But for all that you read, figure out, intuit and otherwise extrapolate and extract from people, spirits, animals and bits of paper… there’s very little of it you can actually use. For quests, I mean. Quests seem to follow a very rigid structure of what knowledge you’re allowed to bring in. Quite a lot of the stuff you find out you will never be able to bring up with the relevant people of interest.
Discover that a certain person is part of a homicidal doomsday cult. Can you call him on it? No. Not until he reveals it himself later on, and even then you can’t do anything about it.
Find the man who locked a woman in a room with a living bomb and told her she’d die if she moved. He’s hurt and wants help. Can you call him on it? No.
It becomes extra frustrating whenever the game expects you to make a choice. It’s always binary. You get two options to pick from, and that’s it. And it quite often becomes just as stupidly arbitrary as you might think. For a game that’s put so much work into being open, it does an awful lot of rail-roading when it comes to conversations. When a character tells you about a subject, the game will often then force you to take a stance afterwards. It typically boils down to “yeah, I agree” or “no, you’re dumb”. There’s no nuance, no room for discussion. Take the man who put that woman in the room with a bomb. He also freely admit that he’s a slave owner. Yet your only options for dealing with him are “Oh you poor baby, let me heal you with this precious magical stone” or “Nuh-uh, this stone is valuable, mine is an evil laugh”.
You can actually pick different options for your two main characters. Have them disagree and argue. It’s still the same binary options, but you can decide that you want one of them to pick one side, while the other picks the other side. If you do that, the game starts up the Rock, Paper, Scissors minigame. (Yes, literally.) I love this, as an idea. As a way to illustrate two people arguing; having them score points based on RPS, so you will typically see both sides earning points before one ends up the winner, that seems brilliant. And having higher charisma means that you score more points for your ‘victories’. You even have to do this against certain NPCs to decide whether or not you convince them of your argument, and you can even earn a context bonus (or suffer a penalty) based on which of three arguments you pick (Intimidate, Charm or Reason). I wouldn’t know if the context bonus was a thing for the main character disagreements though.
See, the problem is that when you’re playing solo, this minigame is a chore (maybe it becomes that in co-op too). It helps that the game lets you save mid-conversation, so you can always save before an RPS game with an NPC if you really want/need to win. But I get really tired of doing it. It’s time-consuming, and dull, and way too RNG to really feel satisfying. If I have to keep reloading just because the game keeps picking the option my choice is weak against, and I lose two or three times even though my modifier is 8 vs the AI’s 3… I would rather it just be a quick skill-check and roll of the dice rather than having to do the RPS thing over and over.
So when it comes to my two main characters, I basically treat them as one, just so I don’t have to do more of the RPS.
And you’re not allowed to back out. If the game expects you to make take a binary stance on something, an option to say “I’d rather not” or “I don’t care” doesn’t show up. Even if neither option sounds like something you’d say, or even close to it. When an RPS triple choice pops up, you only rarely have any sort of other option. I think it’s only been two times I’ve seen a “screw it, I’m just gonna attack you” option. A scant few times there’s been an “I’m just gonna leave” option, but that was only if it wasn’t really that important to begin with.
There are also my annoyances with just how broken the game is at times. I have two quests in my journal that remain open and can’t be completed, because another quest I did exposed the questgiver as someone who had knowingly and willingly sent men to their deaths in the name of profit, which led to another daft binary, where I ended up just giving him to an angry mob because that was the only ‘justice’ to be found. So he’s dead, but the journal still says I should talk to him about these two tasks he gave me. And there’s another quest-line that just seems to have bugged out. I managed to find a Youtube video where it was touched upon while I was looking for help with another issue, and I am simply not able to advance the quest the way they did. “Lead this family to safety” is the basic gist of it, but even though I’ve found them, I don’t get the option to tell them “Let’s get you out of here”. Even though another NPC told me to go tell them that. Oh, and the neutral NPCs that suddenly joined combat against some orcs, and decided to team up with the orcs against me! They turned neutral again after I killed the orcs and escaped from combat, but then they were angry at me afterwards. Even though *they* attacked *me*, and I decided to not attack them or hurt them in any way. Hunter’s Edge is so fucking broken.
So there you have it. A game that is simultaneously too open, and too restrictive. Too rail-roading, and too lacking in direction. Good ideas and concepts mired in poor execution. Probably more fun in co-op, if you have someone to play with regularly on voice-chat and you don’t have connection issues. It does kinda seem like it has less and less polish the further in you get. A game quite expert at draining your enthusiasm away.
The most frustrating thing, the reason I care so much as to write over two thousand words about it (and could probably come up with even more given some more time to think), is that behind it all, underneath all the bullshit that keeps nagging at me, it feels like there’s a really good game hidden away. A game I’d love. It’s like it’s always there, just out of reach, but all these flaws just get in the way of it. I see the good ideas, the ambition that went into this, and shake my head at how poorly it was implemented.
I also have to consider that this might be mostly me. That I’m just not in tune with the game and its logic, and that’s why I keep getting stuck at every corner. I think I’m gonna go read some of those glowing reviews, the 10/10s, and see how people felt this thing was worth being held up as that close to perfect.
Will I ever finish it? I don’t know. I will probably try for a bit longer. I feel like I should be really close to the end now. Hopefully I am. Hopefully I can wrap it up and put it all behind me.