I consider myself to be a pretty balanced game critic. I don’t typically give out a ton of extremely low or extremely high scores, and am able to find the good and bad in most of the games I write about. But every now and then a game comes along that redefines expectations, changes the way you think about the genre, and makes all other games like it feel inferior.
Divinity: Original Sin 2 is the type of game that future RPG designers dream up when they’re 10 years old playing Dungeons & Dragons. It features a seemingly endless breadth of choices and consequences accented with some of the deepest and most involved storytelling and combat this side of Baldur’s Gate.
I can see how this might sound dramatic or hyperbolic. It’s not. Divinity: Original Sin 2 absolutely deserves every bit of praise it gets.
Customizing Your Adventure
From the opening moments of Divinity: Original Sin 2, it’s clear that this is going to be a special game. You’re presented with what at first looks like a standard RPG character creation screen you’ve seen a billion times before. You pick a race, class, skills, and so on until your character feels just right. However, just like most every other aspect of the game, there’s an additional complexity.
On top of being able to make a custom character for each gender and race, you can also choose from a selection of “Origin” characters as well. Each Origin character features a unique backstory that come with specially designed quests to uncover their past and resolve their conflicts. Don’t worry though: if an Origin character sounds interesting theoretically but you want to play a custom hero then you can still find that Origin character in the game and try to recruit them as a party member. You can even change their class so that they better fit into your party while retaining their distinct personalities.
When you make your character they also get an assortment of “Tags” like “Human” or “Outlaw” that serve as relatively shallow labels that give you additional options in dialogue and inform how NPCs are going to view you throughout the game. You earn more tags as you play based on your actions, such as Hero, which further individualizes your playthrough.
If Divinity: Original Sin 2 has one glaring flaw, like many open-ended RPGs I’ve played, there is not only too much to do, but there’s a lack of direction and organization to it all. The team at Larian have done an amazing job of making this world’s various pieces fit together, but it’d have been impossible to do so without some hiccups. Lots of quests seemed to not complete when they should have, the main story gets lost in the shuffle too often, and it’s very easy to misjudge where you’re clicking in the overworld and in combat.
Speaking of combat, Divinity: Original Sin 2 may have the best turn-based combat system of any game I’ve ever played. Rather than following the footsteps of traditional JRPGs with two sides facing off and swapping turns back and forth, Divinity: Original Sin 2’s combat plays out like a digital recreation of Dungeons & Dragons with a bit of Fire Emblem and XCOM thrown in the pot.
Turn order is determined by initiative, and every character has a predefined pool of action points that govern what they can do on any given turn. For example, running all the way across the map may use up all five of the action points you have for this turn, or shooting an arrow with your bow at an enemy may only cost two points. Literally everything you do during combat costs action points original Fallout style, including drinking potions, casting spells, using skills, switching weapons, etc. You can also defer a character’s turn if you want to set up big combos.
Combining elements and abilities together is a fundamental aspect to every battle in Divinity: Original Sin 2. As in the first game, you can coat a surface in oil to light it on fire or water to freeze into ice. Hitting water with fire may cause steam, which obstructs visibility, and if your Wizard causes rain to fall it can put out pesky fires or turn poison sludge into a poison cloud in the air, that can then be lit on fire to explode, and so on. There is an astonishing amount of variation.
This wouldn’t be as massive of a game-changer if friendly fire wasn’t enabled at all times, but it is. Every puff of fire and bolt of electricity is equally harmful to you, your allies, and your enemies.
When attacking someone, it’s also worth paying attention to their various status bars. Each character has physical armor, magic armor, and health. If a character has 10 physical armor, 10 magic armor, and 40 health, then you need to break through their armor before you can actually harm their health. Identifying a character’s weaknesses and exploiting them are just as important as anything else in combat.
You’ll quickly find that even on the “Classic Mode” difficulty, which translates to Normal Mode, encounters are incredibly difficult. I found myself engaged in some of the more difficult fights for an hour or more per match just because of how careful each and every move needed to be. Even in my first several hours I’d be lucky to get out of a basic skirmish in under 10 minutes. Divinity: Original Sin 2 is a game that rewards patience, careful planning, and skill.
But despite all of your planning and intentions, Divinity: Original Sin 2 will still find a way to surprise you. In my first playthrough, I triggered a major fight against an entire fortress of enemies early on by refusing to turn over an NPC because I knew he’d be killed if I turned him in. As a result, I had to fight the quest giver on the spot with little warning. If I’d been higher level, more intimidating, or more persuasive I could have avoided the fight, or I could have just turned him in, but he was going to be useful in another quest later. The entire game, from start to finish, is riddled with dilemmas like this and some of them sport much more significant consequences.
The gameplay diversity on display here is rivaled only by the imaginations of actual pen and paper gamers. Each character in your party is a bonafide individual. Just because they’re following you at the moment doesn’t mean they won’t up and leave when they disagree with something you’ve done or when you’ve completed their own personal quest.
Matters are complicated (or enhanced, if you’re that kind of person) further when you let other people join in your game and take control of characters directly. Whether locally or online, another user can control any character in a party (or bring their own) and functionally play the entire game as if they’re on their own. You’re not required to stick together, you’re not even required to work together at all. One player could pickpocket the other, or place stolen goods in their bag and alert the guards, or pretty much anything else you can imagine.
If the massive, multi-dozen hour campaign with cooperative multiplayer wasn’t already enough, there’s still more. You can queue up skirmishes between yourself and other players, or NPCs, to put the complex battle system to the ultimate test. And even beyond that is an incredibly detailed Game Master mode that lets players essentially create their own custom campaigns that players can download and play or host in real-time.
Divinity: Original Sin 2 is a difficult game to review because there is so much to it. Depending on what you do and the type of character you want to play, your experience could be drastically different from my own in terms of not only how the story unfolds, but also in terms of which story is told to begin with. You may have different companions with different desires and different class combinations and resolve events in entirely different ways.
The level of choice here is staggering, and one of the purest examples of a "role playing game" I have ever encountered.