need to know
Expect to pay: £30/$40
Release: Out now
Developer: Larian Studios
Multiplayer: Online co-op, 1-2 players
Link: Official site
Blood conducts electricity. Of course it does. My supposedly single-target lightning spell arcs from mage to skeleton and on to the ground, where it touches the splattered byproduct of the ongoing melee. From there it reaches my rogue, my warrior, my archer. My entire party is electrocuted in a single moment's miscalculation, and I learn another hard lesson about Divinity: Original Sin's commitment to its own brand of realism.
It's one of those "well, shit" moments that tell you everything you need to know about a game's designers. When you explore Larian's crowdfunded old-school RPG you're exploring a network of interesting, intricate creative decisions that comment on the genre's past and sketch out a new map for its future. That this is a throwback to Baldur's Gate and Ultima means more than the isometric camera, the fiddly menus, the sharp difficulty curve. It's about the freedom you're given to chart your own course through the campaign, freedom enhanced—and sometimes swiftly curtailed, as per my blood-lightning accident—by a sprawling set of readable, consistently-implemented rules.
Very early in the game your party reaches the city of Cyseal. There's shouting in the harbour. Choose to investigate and you'll see a group of dockworkers crowded around a burning barque, struggling to contain the blaze. This is a quest, but nobody tells you what to do. If you happen to have water magic to hand you can summon a raincloud to douse the flames, earning you a healthy experience boost and increasing your reputation in the town. The problem and its solution are presented to you without the hand-holding you might be used to. It's a liberating feeling, even when its implementation is this simple.
I've become accustomed to RPGs that lock away combat and magic within their own part of the game. I'm used to the idea that a fireball won't work unless it's aimed at an enemy, or that every environmental hazard will be placed such that I'm guaranteed to be able to get past it. I'm used to the idea that some characters can be killed and some can't, that some obstacles are destructible and others are 'just furniture'. Divinity shrugs off those assumptions. Combat might be turn-based when you're fighting an enemy, but there's nothing stopping you from waving your sword around in the middle of town. Fling a fireball at some innocent barrels and you'll start a fresh fire of your own, and this time the locals won't be applauding when you rush to put it out.
Your first task is to investigate the murder of local councillor, but how you go about doing this is largely up to you and the kinds of characters you've created. The story bottlenecks around certain key points, but, like a good pen and paper campaign, Larian provide a huge amount of room to experiment. You can kill key characters if you like, or break into their houses and steal their things. This gives you the power to discover plot points ahead of time if you're intrepid enough, and there's something satisfying about feeling like you've placed yourself ahead of the curve with a bit of enterprising sleuthing.
The counterpoint is that this is the first game where I've found myself genuinely stuck in a long time. It can be unforgiving, particularly as combat becomes significantly more difficult only a few hours into the game. Without clear directions, it's easy to find yourself playing the same battles over and over again without realising that you're marching in the wrong direction. Likewise, the freedom you're afforded to build your characters at the beginning means its easy to waste a couple of hours on a fledgling adventuring party that you subsequently fall out of love with. I had to restart a few times before I felt comfortable with my selection of classes and abilities, something I haven't had to do since Baldur's Gate.
I keep saying 'characters', and that's because Divinity: Original Sin doesn't have a single protagonist—it has two, and you create both of them when you begin the game. You can choose any arrangement of gender and class that you wish, and during key dialogues you pick separate speech options for each character. This establishes the relationship between the two, which can be hostile or cooperative, even romantic. Your choices affect certain plot points and sometimes provide stat boosts, but are otherwise there to encourage you to roleplay.
When your characters disagree—or when you fall out with your partner in online co-op—you pick who wins the argument by playing rock-paper-scissors against yourself. When my archer was invited to join a creepy female-only cult by an imprisoned wizard, she refused. My rogue suggested that this might be a way to get access to the wizard's knowledge and resources and won the subsequent argument. The archer begrudgingly signed up for cult membership, and the characters liked each other less. A strange moment, as the person controlling both, but a story point that felt specific to me and my campaign.
The narrative is standard fantasy stuff, enlivened by Larian's knowing sense of humour and lively writing. Your characters are Source Hunters in pursuit of evil magic users called, er, Sourcerers, and that pun sets the bar for how seriously any of it should be taken. There are some really standout bits of dialogue, much of it hidden away. If neither of your characters have the 'Pet Pal' perk, for example, you'll miss out on being able to talk to animals—including at least one brilliantly-written dog, and rats scurrying in every dungeon that offer clues and the odd bit of philosophical perspective. Sporadic voice acting adds life and variety but leaves serious bitemarks in the scenery. That said, one bellowing cheese merchant in Cyseal hawks his wares with such character that I'd probably buy a wheel from him in real life.