Role-playing games are a hard sell these days. I’m not talking about the Fables and Dragon Ages, I’m talking about the Baldur Gates and Neverwinters. The thing that marks a game like Divinity: Original Sin aside from the RPGs mainstream audiences have come to know over the course of the last half-decade is its more literal and traditional interpretation of RPG elements; traditional interpretations that have given less focus to elements of presentation, and more focus to skill trees, turn-based combat, and a purist’s interpretation of a fantasy narrative. Who needs voiceovers? Developer Larian Studios is no stranger to the genre, having developed both previous Divinity titles and their expansions, Larian comes to Original Sin with plenty of experience and know-how. What differentiates this particular installment in the series is the use of Kickstarter to fund the game’s development.
It is hard to overstate just how pervasive the influence of Kickstarter has been on the project. It is the only reason I am able to write this preview. It has required Larian to engage with their audience on levels the studio never has before, but perhaps most importantly it has allowed Larian to make the Divinity game they’ve always wanted to make. In the past, publishers have required more action-oriented combat of Larian and the Divinity series. In the past, there was always a sense that they were making compromises they didn’t necessarily want to make. But now compromises can be damned. In a way, Divinity: Original Sin is Larian’s do or die moment. Sure, they may and probably will go on to make more games; but within the confines of the Divinity franchise, this is their shot to give longtime fans something to swoon over while trying to excite a new player base that may never have really played an RPG in the vein of the aforementioned Baldur’s Gate.
Currently, Divinity: Original Sin is an Early Access game in alpha and on Steam for $39.99 USD. After spending some time with the game, it is easy to see where the potential shines through in Original Sin. However, in its otherwise pristine armor are a few dents. After all, what is alpha for?
Because the game is in alpha (and because no one seems to be able to agree on what, exactly, constitutes a game being in alpha) it is hard to tell exactly how feature complete Original Sin is. I just kind of have to guess. With that in mind, I’d venture a guess that most everything in the game from a mechanical and hard-design perspective is pretty much finalized. I don’t expect combat to fundamentally change, for instance, nor do I expect them to completely overhaul the game’s UI. The basic elements that are present are probably there to stay.
There are several aspects of game design that are especially important to an RPG like Original Sin. The writing has to be tight, a good story and compelling dialogue is a must. Quest design demands the indefatigable imagination of someone who is used to playing with the likes of dragons and elves. Doubly important to the game’s prospective success or failure is its presentation. How does it handle the various menus players will assuredly be digging through? How does it present various quests and quest information to the player? How well do the various elements of presentation function?
The alpha comes with about 15 hours of content included (that’s the shell of the main quest line, and a handful of side-quest content) but one of the first encounters you have is with the gentile folk of a city in which an important local politician has been murdered. You arrive carrying with you the dubious title “Source Hunter” and are tasked with launching an investigation into the death of the politician. The next several hours are spent talking with various townsfolk and visiting various places in the city for clues as to who is was that emulsified our poor politician.
For the most part the story beats in Original Sin are par-for-the-course when it comes to this style of RPG. Someone needs your help with a problem that they, for some reason or another, can’t solve themselves. You are given few, if any, compelling reasons to get involved; you just know that you’re kind of supposed to, otherwise there wouldn’t be much a game for you to play.
That isn’t to say the story elements that are there aren’t competent, because they are. The writing is clever and inventive at times, and a surprising amount of characterization comes through in the dialogue. It is the method of delivery that ultimately proves to be the aggravating factor for me.
In all RPGs quests are what drive the story. They are the mode, the action of the story. Quests are what give you things to do. They give you a sense of progression and, if done well, a sense of ownership over the action taking place and therefore the story itself. They only really succeed if the player’s mind has fully engaged in a willing suspension of disbelief and buys into the world that has been created. In Original Sin, quests certainly advance the story but they fall flat as world-building experiences and ending up feeling more like smaller pieces of a larger linear progression.
Elements of presentation are equally as middling as the story and quest elements in the alpha. Although, it becomes harder to make a case for criticism of the elements of presentation because those elements are the most easily changed throughout a game’s alpha and beta phase. Simply put, the game’s menus are functional. Everything works as intended. However, there are smaller things about the UI that prove to be problematic, like the fact that items don’t seem to highlight in inventory screens, making the process of ransacking your own goody bag that much more tedious. Moving your character around can prove to be a bit awkward and the positioning of the camera is, at times, absolutely idiotic. It’s also never really clear when you’re earning experience and when you’re not. And, if I’m to be honest, the menu that houses quest information makes my eyes want to bleed. However, these are all the sort of things that an alpha are for and I’d expect the lot of them to be addressed before the game is release-ready.
Where, then, does Divinity: Original Sin shine?
Combat is truly excellent. Encounters happen whenever you run into an area with enemies. You won’t be spending any time loading into any battlefields. You carry out the battles wherever there happen to be enemies. Anchoring the mechanical aspects of combat is a back-to-basics turn-based system that uses action points to control the pace of battles. Action points are used by moving, consuming potions, attacking or performing special abilities. Again, it’s all rather standard for this style of RPG. What isn’t standard is the inclusion of a system that allows you make water, fire, and lightning your weapons on the battlefield. This type of system has been used before, but I can’t recall seeing it incorporated so well into the overall design of the combat.
Character progression seems solid. I say “seem” because minor tweaks are being made to it with each update and there are parts of it that are simply not feature complete. For instance, not all abilities are in the game yet. All the requisite classes make an appearance, as do the skills and abilities one has come to expect from a fantasy RPG: heals, debuffs, spells, multi-hit sword abilities, and accuracy boosting buffs, just to name a very few. At the moment, customization options are nonexistent. You are given a default male and female character to bring along for the alpha, both of which are playable party members. Their names and clothing aren’t customizable. It is worthy of note, however, that Original Sin uses a classless character progression system, where attributes determine how you build your character.
There are six attributes—strength, dexterity, intelligence, constitution, perception, and speed—that you can funnel points into on a 1 – 10 scale. These attributes don’t determine what skills are available to your character. Any skill can be learned by any character, but your attributes will make certain skills more effective than others. For instance, if you’ve funneled a lot of points into the intelligence attribute, you probably aren’t going to be taking a lot of skills that focus on using a bow. You’re going to get more use out of spells, heals, and various buffs and debuffs because those skills will be more effective in combat (more spell damage, increase the amount of HP healed with a healing spell) considering the points you’ve put toward intelligence.
The progression system is competent as it is; however, it is hard to tell how committed Larian is to developing the classless nature of the system. At the moment, there aren’t really enough skills available to have interesting or hard choices presented to you. It is a classless character progression system, sure; but, only because that is what they calling it. Attributes offer the illusion of the freedom of the full-on customization of skills, but they effectively force you commit to one of two or three main attributes, which then forces you to stick with certain skills in order to make your choice regarding which attribute to funnel points toward feel like it was a choice that mattered. You just don’t say to yourself, “I’m going to funnel a whole bunch of points into strength and take a bunch of mage skills.” That’s idiotic and defeats the entire purpose and notion of the power-fantasy RPG. I think—or maybe I’m hoping—that what Larian has now is just a place holder for a more developed character progression system that is to be implemented down the road. As it is now, it is offering the illusion of a classless character progression system. I’d much rather Larian just commit to doing this old-school and give me the all-powerful mage who can incinerate his foes within an instant than try and trick me into believing that I can make one such character from scratch if I want. But, as I said, it is competent in the sense that it is perfectly functional. This is an alpha and a lot could change between now and when the game is release-ready.
Larian also gets massive brownie points for the manner in which they have handled the game’s Kickstarter campaign and subsequent alpha release. I think it is fair to posit the relationship between a game studio that uses Kickstarter to fund its game and the Kickstarter backers who gave money to the game’s campaign as one that we are still trying to figure out. I think Larian’s model for community engagement throughout the Kickstarter campaign and alpha phase should serve as an example for other studios. All it takes it a trip to Larian’s website for the game or the studio’s YouTube channel to realize that they have gone above and beyond what has been the norm in the past.
Already there are 50+ update videos for Divinity: Original Sin and those videos do a great job at letting backers know where things are at with the game. There aren’t many studios out there who post YouTube videos of play-testers airing their opinions about the game while actually play-testing game. The website has a comprehensive list of planned fixes and features for upcoming updates as well as a list of bugs already fixed and bugs in the process of being fixed. This transparency has allowed a strong community to thrive around the game and Larian Studios itself, and it’s only in alpha. To this day, the game’s forum remains active, buzzing day and night with excitement for the next planned update. Larian is doing it the right way and other studios who have Kickstarter their games should take notice and borrow liberally from their model of community engagement.
Divinity: Original Sin is an interesting proposition in the day and age when the most anticipated RPGs include games like The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt and Dragon Age: Inquisition. In a lot of ways it appears backward-looking, and in a lot of ways it is. Purists would say that the conventions of the modern-day RPGs are watered down to appeal to the widest possible audience, and they wouldn’t be wrong. But, Divinity: Original Sin stubbornly refuses to acknowledge that the genre has outgrown its more tired and worn elements. The question is whether or not this refusal to conform will attract more attention than repel it.
Divinity fans are a shoo-in, as are most fans of table-top RPGs and older video games like Baldur’s Gate. As for the rest of us, I’m not really sure Larian is making a game for us, and I’m totally okay with that. At this point in alpha it is clear that Larian is making a game for people who want to play it, not people who want to buy it.