The follow-up to Divinity: Original Sin was always going to have a mountain of expectation to climb. Despite all the bugs present at launch and a lacklustre main narrative, its predecessor was widely regarded as one of the best RPGs of recent years. It delivered on its promise of marrying isometric turned-based strategy with the freedom of pen-and-paper roleplaying, so could Larian Studios do it again? Could they not only achieve their goals but exceed them for a second time?
The answer is a resounding yes.
For those that don’t know, Divinity: Original Sin 2 takes place in the world of Rivellon, a land where magic users called Sorcerers are treated as threats to the realm. Their abilities usually summon creatures called Voidwoken that murder everything in sight, so Magisters tend to round up anyone with even a hint of source and send them off to the ironically named Fort Joy. The player begins the game as one of the prisoners being taken there, but things quickly escalate out of control and a journey to save the realm begins.
While this is a well-tread premise for a fantasy adventure, the way Original Sin 2 weaves its narrative is absolutely masterful. The twists and turns are thrown at the player with expert precision, not just with the main narrative but with the personal stories each companion brings. However, what truly makes it all so engrossing is that each character has its own agenda that ultimately clashes in one way or another. The way these hard choices are presented is just one of the ways Original Sin 2 elevates itself over many of its contemporaries, not just its predecessor.
The hard choices begin well before the story kicks off, though. While players can assume the role of one of the six companions to just jump into the action, creating your own avatar by selecting their race, class, and abilities can potentially take hours from your life thanks to the depth of options available. Tinkering with starting abilities, stats, and even if you’re alive or undead will change the way you tackle the dangers that lie ahead. No, really – if you decide to play an undead character you’ll need to cover your face to avoid everyone from screaming in horror, which is a brilliant touch.
This sense of freedom extends into the game proper, as the world encourages the player to explore from the get-go. There’s always something hidden away to be found, be it treasure or yet another story hook to follow should you have the right skills. The best example of this is the Pet Pal talent which allows a character to speak to animals. Getting the inside scoop from rats or chickens can change the way you approach certain objectives, not to mention that it unlocks some of the best dialogue exchanges in the game.
One such early-game moment involving a bear cub hit me so hard in the feels I had to take a brief break.
In addition to this sense of freedom is a world that feels like it moves alongside you. NPCs will react differently based on who is speaking to them (or if they have a face) and word will spread of their noble (or dastardly) deeds. Thieves who decide to redistribute some wealth and get sloppy about it will find themselves out of favour with those that catch them (or even end up in jail.) Meanwhile, shops will respond to haggling attempts and even restock items over time. I loved this aspect as it meant returning to town to replenish consumables or upgrade underpowered gear became a regular moment of respite.
However, the swords and spells will eventually start flying to unleash a polished and absolutely satisfying turn-based combat system. What impressed me is that everything is so clearly labelled without being too overwhelming. Be it how far a character can move per action, to if a ranged spell is being obstructed, the player is always informed as to what is possible. Most importantly, each aspect is introduced through well described tutorial pop-ups so newcomers can get to grips one step at a time.
It’s a good job, too, because the amount of tactical options available even at the start of the game mean there are plenty of ways to achieve victory. Fancy throwing some oil on the ground from your Wayfarer, ready for your mage to light up with a fireball? Go ahead. Maybe call down some rain, then follow it up with a bolt of lightning? Maybe that enemy ranger is causing trouble from their perch, so why not use a teleport spell to land them right in that electrified water? All this is possible, and it makes for delightful moments when it goes your way.
But that’s just it – it won’t always go your way. The AI is just as capable of using these tactics against you, and will even retreat to safety in a manner that might catch you off-guard. The end result is a level of difficulty on par with the recent XCOM titles at best, and can be downright punishing at its worst. This is perhaps the game’s greatest fault, as the difficulty spikes are large and very sudden. I have found myself reloading encounters multiple times in a bid to out-maneuverer a group of enemies that have overwhelmed my party. Hell, there have been a few encounters which I have run away from to face later once I have levelled up my characters. It has been that difficult.
In other words, if you’re a newcomer to the genre or just want to experience the story, select Explorer Mode to avoid the anguish I have suffered in Classic Mode.
Thankfully, the difficulty is accompanied by an absolutely beautiful art direction from the team at Larian. The environments of the various locales are a delight to wander through thanks to their vibrant designs, yet there is enough variation so that they don’t outstay their welcome. Fort Joy goes from sandy beaches, to crumbling ruins, to boggy swamps, while the Reaper Coast goes from an idyllic village, to a dark and dreary cemetery, to a rocky oil-mining pit filled with wooden scaffolds.
These are just a fraction of the environments throughout Original Sin 2, but it’s the details within them that make them so engaging. Homes look lived in, shopping carts are filled with produce, and magister barracks filled with equipment. The fact you can reach out and take them, or drop down environmental effects to alter it, only enhances the visuals in front of you.
Then there’s the soundtrack, which accompanies the on-screen action with almost effortless grace. From the rousing main theme, to the various pieces that play during battle, the music is probably my favourite from a game this year. It helps that each character has its own signature instrument (chosen during character creation) that plays a flourish during significant moments. It’s these small touches that help make the addictive gameplay even harder to put down.
As previously mentioned, Original Sin 2 can be played in a variety of ways such as Explorer Mode (which focuses on the story), Classic Mode (which is the default mix of challenge and story), Tactician Mode (which boosts up the difficulty), and Honour Mode (a hardcore mode with one save that self-deletes if the party wipes.) While I would never dare to venture above Classic, having these options available is yet another example of how much choice there is.
And if that’s not enough, there’s the multiplayer which allows four players to play through the game. Best of all, it can be played co-operatively, competitively, or a mix of both thanks to the array of options available. While not perfect, it’s the closest thing to D&D-style roleplaying video games will get. Speaking of which, those wanting a more custom experience – or are brave enough to create their own campaigns – can dive into GM mode and run their own game for other players. You can even turn off the automatic combat and roll dice in an old school manner, again highlighting the freedom at the heart of Larian’s goals for Original Sin 2. Finally, there’s the Arena PvP Mode for those who want to test their metal against other players in an all-out brawl, meaning there really is something for everyone here.
Also making a return from Original Sin Enhanced Edition is split-screen co-op, which allows two players to go through the main campaign with two controllers. While the UI and controls for this mode take some getting used to, it functions incredibly well for those who want to roleplay on the sofa. A word of warning, though – while the game does recognise the PS4’s Dualshock 4 controller, it won’t recognise two at the same time. As such, make sure you have an Xbox controller or two to avoid the headache I suffered trying to get it all to work.
While I would love to just declare this the perfect game and move on, I must point out a few areas of concern. One of the biggest annoyances looting items or corpses that were on top of each other meant I was pixel hunting to get items, or in some cases I wasn’t able to loot at all. It only occurred to me much later of using teleport to address the issue, and while I’m thankful that this didn’t affect any quest-critical items I still consider it a huge oversight by Larian. Another observation from my time playing was that the frame rate would begin to drop during intense moments of element use, such as when several pools of oil went up in flames. While my GTX 970 isn’t a top of the range graphics card anymore, it is still capable of playing most titles on full settings, so I was still surprised to see the visual performance stutter.
Yet despite these issues I could happily continue writing about other aspects I love, such as crafting and how you can make pizzas (take that, Elder Scrolls and Witcher games), or the overly-dramatic manner of the stealth animation (that pokes fun at its own mechanic), or the effectiveness of the narrator to immerse yourself in the game world even further (especially when describing someone is confused / deflated in appearance.) Everything about it amplifies the endearing character moments and agonising moral choices that come thick and fast, which is why Original Sin 2 still has its hooks in me even after 40+ hours.
And with so many more class abilities to play with, and character stories to discover, I can honestly say I won’t be putting this down any time soon.
- Offers the most freedom I’ve ever seen in an RPG across its various systems and game modes.
- Expertly woven narrative told in a beautifully presented world.
- Exhilarating tactical turn-based combat.
- The difficulty spikes from certain encounters will be off-putting to some players.
- Pixel hunting with for items can be tedious (especially when corpses pile up on each other.)
- Sudden FPS drops during busier encounters.
The Short Version:
Larian Studios have taken on board the critiques from its previous title and delivered one of the most visceral, engaging, and enjoyable RPGs ever made. If you’re a fan of RPGs or looking for a world to immerse yourself in, Divinity: Original Sin 2 is unmissable.
Developer: Larian Studios
Publisher: Larian Studios