Divinity: Original Sin – Too Many Ideas, Not Enough Design

So if you were paying attention to gaming press last year, Divinity: Original Sin was one of those up and comers that had lots of people excited about it.  Innovative combat systems, classless leveling systems, and compelling story-telling.  All things that I normally flock to.

And then I played the game….

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It wasn’t just that there was one bad thing about it, or even multiple bad things about it.  The entire game was an excruciating experience in un-fun every moment I was playing it.  Perhaps I’m not the target audience for this game, but knowing what I know now, I’m pretty sure the target audience was anyone with money who might buy it.  Larian Studios seems to be trying to be all things to all people, and the hot mess that this game turned into was the result.  Let’s talk about a few things wrong with it.

The big innovative combat mechanic that was supposed to make this game stand out was the stackable effects you can produce in the world.  For example, you can dump a barrel of water on a group of bad guys and then fire a lightening bolt at the AOE patch the barrel creates and electrocute everyone standing in it.  Poison gas is flammable, oil is flammable, basically you make AOE attacks out of things that were originally not AOE attacks.  You can also move things around in the game i.e. placable objects.  Barrels can be placed, as previously mentioned.  Objects can be slid around.  If all of this sounds a bit underwhelming, well….

Stackable effects are only worthwhile if you build a system that takes advantage of them.  Simply adding them into the game and letting your players figure out when the best time is to use them, undermines their selling point.  As a game designer, if you’re going to add a mechanic into the game, then your game needs to have it’s scenarios designed to take advantage of that mechanic as much as possible.  The Racoon Tail in Super Mario Bros 3 wasn’t cool because it let you fly.  It was cool because you could use it to fly over whole sections of a game map.  A game map that was designed to let you fly in it.  The reason why we love placables in Zelda games is because the dungeons are designed to make us use them to solve the puzzles in the game.  Simply adding them anywhere, and hoping that players will stumble into a useful scenario, doesn’t make them compelling, memorable, or fun.  You can’t give me stackable effects or placable objects and then not use them as core mechanics when you’re designing your scenarios.  It feels like a waste and undermines the mechanic as a selling point.

I was very excited about the class-less leveling system when it first came out.  My first attempt made use of the pre-existing classes the game recommended I start with.  I ran up a few levels and tried to branch out and do things differently than expected and at that point immediately discovered things weren’t quite as interesting as they had at first seemed….

While the game will let you branch out in any direction you want for building your characters, it turns out that spreading your points out tends to dilute your capabilities significantly.  Combat was highly ineffective and even when adding additional party members on, my home-made characters lagged behind.  This was reinforced later on when I created a whole new game with new characters that I scratch built, ignoring the game’s recommendations altogether.  So the class-less system isn’t really class-less.  The only really effective builds are the ones where you stay in the lines and do only what has already been prepared for you (fighter, theif, mage, etc).  While it’s possible that at later levels there are enough points spread around to make the system more usable, I’ve got no interest in sticking around to bet on that gamble.

Actual combat itself uses a point-based system for both movement and attacking.  Every character in the party gets a certain number of points at the start of a round.  Points can be banked or spent moving or attacking (and sometimes both), and you strategically position and use the environment to try and take down your targets.  It is different from typical RPG conventions and I was at first excited about the possibilities….

However, the key problem with a point-based combat system for both movement and combat, is that sometimes there will be rounds when there are literally no good options.  You can’t move.  You can’t fight.  You can’t even bank the points you’ve got because you’re at the max.  It combines elements of an RTS with an RPG and I confess I could never get used to the change in style required to utilize the system.  It felt a lot like tabletop combat scenarios and while I can handle that style when engaging in table top RPG’s, it felt very stilted and frustrating in the game.  Especially when I figured out that I could move myself into uselessness.  Additionally at low levels there are lots of situations where you have no good options, thus increasing frustration.  Perhaps I’m just bad at it, but that’s beside the point.  I shouldn’t have to be good at it for it to be fun.

Lastly we look at the story.  Now this was an item that even the press didn’t give them a pass on.  And that’s because it’s terrible.  The plot starts with your typical, federal cop comes to a small town to interact with and try to solve all the problems of the locals.  And then it segues into a save all of reality/time at once from a universe ending unnamed force.  You are supposed to do both of these things at the same time, though no hint or direction is given as to how.  It would seem that solving this town’s problems will solve the universe’s problems too.  How convenient.

Do I need to explain any more why this is garbage story telling?

The role-playing is also weirdly hamstrung.  The characters are defaulted to have random personalities and the two party members you start with will often and frequently get into debates/arguments about things that are happening in the game.  While this seems interesting and had some potential, it was impossible to enjoy the characters because they were for the most part blank slates.  If these were characters I was meant to inhabit as I ran through the world (as I would expect from a role playing game), that would be one thing.  But because their personalities are randomly generated, there’s no hint as to why they’re together, or who they really are, making it impossible to get into them as characters.  After a while, I started intentionally trying to dominate one of the characters with the other just to inject some kind of personality into them.  But the debate system makes it impossible to win every single argument (yes, there’s random chance involved in this), and I eventually gave up in frustration.

Did I mention that there’s a co-op multi-player element to the game as well?  Probably better that I don’t.

I wanted to like Divinity: Original Sin, I really did. But it feels like the developers just had a bunch of different game mechanics they wanted to try, and threw everything into a bucket and shook it up, hoping it would all come together.  The game is badly disjointed and almost unplayable.  It’s possible that others would enjoy the more sandboxy, exploratory feel of it, but if you’re going to give me an epic story and tell me it’s my destiny to save the universe, at least point me in the direction of a shovel so that I can start digging up the bodies properly.  I don’t mind working for it Larian, but you’ve got to give me something to work with.  Given how poorly the company seems to be managed, this company is off the watch list and the game won’t survive my next hard drive purge.  If you’re a fan of open-ended systems where you can ignore the story and just figure out what you want to do on your own, give it a try.  Otherwise, steer clear.

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