Saturday, July 5, 2014

Divinity: Original Sin - initial impressions

Chloe and Willam at closest zoom

I think I looked at Divinity: Original Sin during its Kickstarter campaign, but I'm not sure. Either way, I passed it up. Well, then as now, I needed another computer game like I needed another hole in my head.

But it's just been released, and after watching some YouTube videos of the gameplay, I knew I had to buy it. Yeah, I didn't even wait for a sale! (It's $39.99 full price and runs on Steam.)

Divinity: Original Sin is a turn-based, party-based RPG like they used to make - only with modern improvements. Apparently, this isn't a popular kind of game these days - not popular enough for the big companies - but it raised almost a million dollars on Kickstarter - more than twice their goal - so maybe there are more of us fans than they expected, huh?

Note that this is the fourth game in the series, though I haven't played any of the others. Divinity: Original Sin is apparently supposed to be the prequel to the first game, Divine Divinity, originally published in 2002. However, I don't think that any of the other games in this series had turn-based combat.

Anyway, so far, I've been hugely impressed with this game. This is a party-based RPG, with a twist or two. You start with just two characters, but you can recruit two more followers as you go (and summon additional creatures during combat, if you want).

You maintain full control over all of them. Your characters may be male or female, with different hair and skin color, and whatever attributes, skills, and talents you want. Followers are pre-set when you meet them, but you still have full control when leveling them up, full control over equipping them, and full control during combat.

Also, note that you can play the game with a friend, if you wish, with each person running one of the characters (and one of the followers). That's a built-in multiplayer component, made very easy via the Internet. Now, I'm not sure how that would work, in a more deliberate game like this. I haven't tried that part of it.

The Cyseal docks at maximum zoom out. (My two characters are on the stairs at the lower center part of the screen.)

Anyway, your two characters are set down on a beach near the town of Cyseal, where you've been sent to investigate a murder. There's a lot going on, since the town is also beset by undead and by orcs, both. But the initial walk up the beach, and the first dungeon, serves as a tutorial.

The first thing you'll learn is that this is a game of exploration. There's no day/night cycle. Time doesn't seem to pass at all. Thus, you can take your time, and you should. You get both loot and experience from exploration, and you can encounter little side quests along the way, too. (Note that investigating a murder isn't time-sensitive, so exploring doesn't ruin your suspension of disbelief.)

There's also a robust craft system. You can find recipes for creating useful items like potions, weapons, or arrows, or you can just experiment by trying to combine different items. So far, I haven't found much of a need for crafted items, but there are a ton of different 'ingredients', and I've barely scratched the surface.

Combat is turn-based, which is great, and it's also very much focused on the environment, which is even better! Cast a spell which creates a pool of oil around your enemies, and that will slow them down. Then cast a fire spell on the oil, and the whole thing will explode in fire. (You can do the same thing with a poison gas cloud, instead of oil. Poison your enemies, then burn them alive. Heh, heh.)

Alternately, cast a rain spell to make your enemies wet, then electrocute or freeze them. (Or if your own characters are on fire, cast a rain spell to put it out.) If you don't have a spell, you can do very similar things with arrows. Destroy a water or oil barrel, then use a special arrow to electrocute the water or set fire to the oil. Or use a teleport spell to throw the barrel - or an enemy - into the fire.

There are just a million different things you can do in combat, depending on your skills and your spells, and the environment is critically important in most circumstances. For example, you can get a skill where you automatically heal when standing in a pool of blood (not uncommon for melee characters). Or you can get a talent to lower the spell point costs of water spells when you're standing in a puddle of water. (I'm not sure if those abilities are especially useful, but they are options.)

Of course, if you're standing in water, you can be effectively targeted by electricity or cold attacks, yourself. The AI has the same options you do. (I'm not sure how well they take advantage of that, though, since I haven't been in too many fights yet.)

Environmental manipulation also works when you're not in combat. You can pick up and move objects that aren't too heavy, or smash objects with a hammer or axe. And if it's made of wood, it will burn. So if a crate is in your way, pick it up and move it, or smash it to pieces, or set fire to it. Traps and locks can be dealt with in various ways, too. If you can't pick a lock on a chest, just break it open (note that you'll damage your weapons, if you use them).
I assume that female orcs are supposed to be funny? Unfortunately, it comes off as just dumb.

I customized both of my characters, starting with a ranger and a witch. I love archery, and the ranger can shoot regular arrows from his bow without requiring ammunition. But he also has a million different kinds of special ammo he can make or buy - fire arrows, poison arrows, silver arrows, etc. - which do take up inventory slots.

My female character casts elemental spells - fire, water, earth, and air - attempting a flexible response to any situation. She can also summon a giant spider to distract enemies while the rest take them out at a distance. (The first follower we encountered was a melee fighter, which complemented my two characters perfectly.)

Now, even for a million dollars, you're not going to get cutting edge graphics, but they're certainly not bad. The first screenshot above shows my two characters at maximum zoom in. The second screenshot show how far out you can zoom.

You can turn the camera, too, though only in a very limited fashion, by default. However, there's an option to remove that limitation, so you can rotate the camera 360°, if you want. (The game discourages this, because it was designed to be seen from certain angles. But I prefer to have more control over the camera, even if I see graphical glitches occasionally. I really like that they've given me that freedom of choice!)

Admittedly, I've been stuck occasionally, not being able to zoom in or out. But a little fiddling - just talking to an NPC, frequently - has always fixed that. By default, you press v, then move the mouse to rotate the camera. But you can easily change that, too, so I use my right mouse button for rotating the camera. (Oddly, Divinity: Original Sin doesn't seem to use the right mouse button for anything else.)

Generally-speaking, this all works fine. I wish there were an option to lock the camera to an over-the-shoulder view of the lead character, but I suppose that's just being picky. You have to be methodical in searching, though, so you don't overlook anything. (Note that there is a key to switch to a camera that's directly overhead, if you want to place your characters in battle precisely.)

I also wish the game used a popup menu, with a right-click of the mouse, to choose items, abilities, and attacks. But there are so many different options in this game, maybe that wouldn't actually work very well, I don't know. (In the screenshots here, you can see the quick-select menu bar of the lead character at the bottom of the screen. But there are actually multiple pages of that. You can click the arrows on the left of the menu to page through them.)

There's a surprising amount of voice-acting in the game, too - surprising because voice-acting is expensive. Not everything is spoken, but it really does add to the game. (You have a choice of three male and three female voices, when creating your characters.)

There is at least one feature that's a little weird. Your two characters don't have to agree about everything, and when they disagree, they frequently play a game of rock, paper, scissors to settle it. Likewise, you play this mini-game against NPCs, too, when you're trying to persuade them in a certain way.

Now, I can see playing rock, paper, scissors with another human being, but how do you play it against a computer program? The AI doesn't seem to be picking randomly, either, as far as I can tell. At least, the result has been either an easy win for me, or a complete loss - nothing in between. Either every choice I make is correct or every choice I make is the worst I could choose. (Never once has the computer and I made the same pick in rock, paper, scissors, either. That doesn't make any sense at all.)

It's not a big deal, though I've failed at least one side-quest because I lost a game of rock, paper, scissors to the AI. Now, maybe this was designed for the co-op feature of the game, I don't know. But it really seems weird playing against the computer. I can't say I like it much.

Still, so far, Divinity: Original Sin has been a lot of fun. I really like the murder mystery as a main quest, because that's the perfect excuse for exploration and talking to the townspeople. (And since the victim is already dead, there's no reason to hurry. In other games, it always seems a little weird to be doing sidequests when the fate of the world is at stake.)

The game is laugh-out-loud funny sometimes, too. The story is serious, but there's plenty of humor, here and there. I hope other game developers take note of that!

I'm not too far into the game yet - still exploring Cyseal and the murder, in fact. So these are just my initial impressions. But I love it, so far. This is the kind of game which might bring back the turn-based, party-based RPGs I loved years ago. (Wasteland 2 will be released in another few weeks. I really hope that will be another!)

Note: My other posts about computer games are gathered together here.

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