This past week, Belgian developer Larian Studios announced that Divinity: Original Sin 2 would be following in its predecessor’s footsteps by heading to Steam’s Early Access program. If you played the first game, that’s probably enough information to get you to pull out your wallet, and all you need to know is the release date (September 15th, by the way). But if you missed out and have any interest at all in RPGs—or, you know, objectively great games—you’re going to want to start paying attention to D:OS 2.
The first Divinity: Original Sin was the single most pleasant surprises I’ve encountered in PC gaming over the last decade. A turn-based, isometric RPG in which players control up to four characters at any one time, D:OS felt like the first bright spark to a cRPG renaissance. Larian has explained since that it was something of a Hail Mary for them as the studio was facing overwhelming financial challenges in spite of their typically high-quality release history. They eventually sought out additional funding for D:OS via Kickstarter where they had an extremely successful campaign, raising over $1 million.
Divinity: Original Sin released in 2014 to critical acclaim with many critics likening it to the classic isometric cRPGs of the late 90s. It was affectionately compared to Baldur’s Gate, and while I always felt that D:OS played dramatically different than BioWare’s classic, there was an undeniable spirit shared between the games that made it very easy to fall in love with Original Sin. D:OS didn’t have the strongest showing in terms of narrative, but its turn-based combat, its open-ended character development, and its incorrigible (and welcomed) sense of humor made for an exceptional and unique experience that you don’t often find in triple-A titles.
Larian was unafraid to take risks with D:OS, and it paid off for them. The game was a critical success as well as a financial success, and went on to win GameSpot’s Game of the Year award. In 2015, Larian released an enhanced edition of the game to PC and consoles with an updated story, fully voiced dialogue, and splitscreen co-op—its original network-based co-op having been one of the best received features of the vanilla release. PC owners of the original game even received the upgraded version free of charge as a thank you from Larian for supporting the game and the studio.
In August, 2015, Larian took to Kickstarter once more to gain funding for Divinity: Original Sin 2. The campaign promised a large number of improvements to the series including a stronger focus on story, multiple playable character races, and an even better co-op experience in addition to an all-new PVP multiplayer game mode. Eager fans of the series swarmed to their support, and it met its $500,000 goal in less than twelve hours. By the end of the campaign, Larian had raised over $2 million and surpassed every one of their stretch goals.
They have since done a good job of keeping Kickstarter backers in the loop over the past 12 months with regular videos featuring game director and studio founder Swen Vincke, whose energy and enthusiasm for the game is always infectious, but as the last update prior to this month had been just after PAX East ended in April, it had been a while since we’d seen anything really significant from the team on the game’s progress. This month, Larian’s released a ton of new news and footage, and during Gamescon, they gave attendees—press and fans alike—an opportunity to actually play the game, and they announced that it would be available for Early Access on Steam by the middle of next month.
I haven’t been able to play the game yet, but what I’ve seen so far has me feeling very optimistic. As a lifelong RPG fanatic, I get giddy when I see an interesting character creation tool in a game, and what Larian showed off already has me dreaming up possible builds. In D:OS, players started their game with two player characters: a human man and woman for whom you chose their appearance, starting skills, and stats. There was a certain novelty in creating two player characters rather than one, but I remember feeling that it had a bizarre impact narratively on my ability to really identify with either. As a result—as I played singleplayer, anyway—the characters felt particularly shallow, and there was something awkward about controlling both sides of the dialogue whenever the PCs disagreed in a system that worked far better for co-op gaming.
This time around, players are limited to only a single player character, although NPC companions can still be recruited throughout the course of the game (this is a party-based RPG, after all), but the ability to customize and personalize your protagonist have been greatly enhanced. There are four races available to play as: humans, dwarves, lizard people, and elves. The elves in particular look to have been given a Larian twist: tall and lanky with skin that resembles tree bark and who consume the flesh of their enemies in order to absorb their memories. It makes for an unsettling appearance that at least on the surface feels like it subverts many of the standard fantasy tropes.
Players may also choose one of several pre-fabricated origin stories for their PCs, or they may craft one for themselves. In the case of the former, you’ll step into the shoes of a character who already has a certain set of goals and motives in the world. PC Gamer showed off an hour’s worth of gameplay, for example, as the Red Prince, a noble Lizard person stripped of his royal birthright. One other origin has you assuming the role of an elf and freed slave who keeps a hitlist of those who’ve wronged her tattooed to her skin, and as you progress through the game and exact your revenge on those individuals, you mark their names off with an ink pen included in her inventory.
Larian’s shown glimpses of two other origin stories, and they’re promising more as development continues, but if you prefer not to take on the role of an already existing character in the game, you can craft your own origin through an innovative “tag” tool that Larian’s developed in which you select your character’ss aspirations, motivations, and other background. It helps to establish your role in the fantasy world Larian’s crafted, and your origin tags will impact how other characters in the game react to you or your actions. And as for those existing origin stories that you chose to leave behind? They’ll appear as NPCs you can add to your party over the course of the game with the same motives and personalities.
The same basic philosophy to character development appears to have remained intact from Original Sin. Players choose from a large number of classes at creation or create their own, but your starting class doesn’t lock you into any one playstyle, and skills can be leveled as you wish. It’s a system that feels more Dark Souls or Fallout than The Elder Scrolls, meaning that choices about where to invest earned skill points and talents are important but open-ended.
One major change has been introduced to how skills and stats work, though. A new stat called memory now dictates how many active skills you can equip from your library at any one time. Players can choose to invest very little into this stat, limiting the number of active skills they have during combat but potentially increasing the effectiveness of those that they do equip, or they can increase this stat and therefore have a greater variety of skills to use albeit at potentially lower levels of effectiveness.
Beyond the improvements Larian’s making to the mechanics of the game, they’ve set out to really overhaul their approach to narrative design. The writing in Divinity: Original Sin was often hilarious, but it always felt a little shallow. The number of fully fleshed out NPC companions available to you in the original release of the game was a paltry two (eventually increased to four), and even these characters felt a bit two-dimensional. From a tactical standpoint, it often made most sense to hire one of the far more varied henchmen-style NPCs, but doing so meant that there was even less meat on the narrative bone as they were not fleshed out with any sort of backstory or side quests.
Original Sin put players in the roles of “Source Hunters” on a quest to rout out dark magic. Taking place a thousand years after the original, D:OS 2 has inverted your role, and you now play a Sourcerer (i.e., the bad guys from the last game) struggling to survive in a world run by an inquisition-like Divine Order who blame your kind for the death of the “The Divine” and the plague of troubles that have taken root across the world since. You start your journey somewhere on an Alcatraz-like prison island for Sourcerers where you’ll meet other victims of the Order, some of whom can join you on your quest.
The companions this time around promise to be far more interesting than in Original Sin, too. Remember that elf origin we discussed earlier? If you choose not to play as her and encounter her in the game, she’ll maintain the same motives as she would have as the player character, sometimes to the detriment of your PC or your other companions. Key to her character’s backstory is her tattooed hit list, and she’ll stop at nothing until she’s had her revenge, which could prove complicated if you intend to keep one of these characters alive.
Interestingly, these potential conflicts remain even in cooperative multiplayer. Both players in the game share one journal for general quests, but each is given his or her own private journal that tracks progress on their unique personal quests, and it’s possible that the two may be mutually exclusive from one another. Imagine saving an important noble’s life in the game and having your vengeance-driven friend slit his throat on your way to deliver him home.
Yeah, this is a big step from the rock, paper, scissors “arguments” of the last game. (For those who’ve never played it, there was literally a rock, paper, scissors mini game for settling disputes amongst characters. I can’t make this stuff up.)
Characters can form other bonds with one another, too, beyond that of wary allies of necessity. Divinity: Original Sin at one point advertised the possibility that a romance could form between the protagonist characters, but that thought never really materialized. But in D:OS 2—thanks to a stretch goal that was met during the Kickstarter campaign—romance subplots will be present between characters. In-game romance can be a divisive subject for some, with most players either loving or hating them and very few landing somewhere in between. It doesn’t sound like they’ll be required, however, and I don’t doubt that we’ll see an interesting Larian spin on those that do end up in the game.
It’s worth pointing out that the writing team for D:OS 2 is significantly larger than the one that worked on the first game, and Larian studios announced that the venerable Chris Avellone would be involved with the project as a writer for “at least one the playable origin stories in the game.” Avellone, who left Obsidian Entertainment within only the last year, is legendary in the industry and was one of the leading creative minds behind Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic 2, Fallout: New Vegas, and Planescape: Torment. He’s so well-respected by RPG fans, that his involvement in the game was actually one of the top requests that Larian received from Kickstarter backers during their campaign.
Beyond character creation and storytelling, D:OS 2 should feature even more tactical depth in its combat system. The last game was widely praised for its dynamic approach to elements on the battlefield. Players could ignite grease on the ground to set enemies on fire, for example, or call down a storm to douse the flames. D:OS 2 is increasing the number of these types of interactions. Their demo footage showed players enchanting flames to heal their allies or cursing enemies to reverse the effects of said healing magic. It’s a system that looks to be particularly fun in the new PVP mode where high-level players face one another in combat.
In one backer update, Larian showed off some new combat mechanics that came into play during a PVP match. Swen Vincke demonstrated how higher terrain could lend an advantage to ranged attackers with a 30% increase to their damage and an increased effective range for their attacks. You remember in Star Wars: Episode 3 when Obi-Wan warns Anakin Skywalker not to attack because he had the “high ground”? Yeah, it’s kind-of like that.
As Swen and his opponent moved around the map, he also showed off “source points,” fonts of magical energy that enable the use of powerful and aptly named “source” skills. “Sourcery” plays a big role in the lore and story of the series, and this feels like a smart way to intertwine the gameplay mechanics with the narrative. In one such attack, Swen was able to unleash a hail of arrows on his opponent, but there were a number of other skills available on his toolbar that he didn’t demonstrate.
One of the more dramatic changes being introduced to combat for D:OS 2 is its armor system. Two new armor stats are present in the game: magic armor, which renders the player immune to status ailments and/or control effects as well as absorbs elemental damage, and physical armor, which naturally acts as a layer of protection to physical accounts that must be eliminated before damage to a character’s HP can be dealt. Armor appears as an alternatively colored healthbar in the UI, and it looks reminiscent to the barriers and armor of the Mass Effect series. Larian’s explained that certain types of attacks can circumvent or pierce armor altogether, adding an additional layer of tactical depth to the combat.
Even though D:OS 2 looks to be taking a more mature approach to storytelling than its predecessor, it looks like we can still expect a healthy dose of humor in the game, for which I’m very thankful. One of the more hilarious attacks that Swen unleashed during PVP, for instance, was a weresheep that he summoned to pester and damage an enemy character. Watching him launch the sheep through the air from across the map, I couldn’t help but laugh, and while the unique attack was humorous, it wasn’t ineffective. In other words, just as in the Worms turn-based strategy game series, D:OS’s humor shouldn’t come at the expense of tactical depth in the game.
D:OS 2 looks to be improving on its predecessor in virtually every way imaginable. If that proves true, it’ll be a title that no RPG fan should pass on. Divinity: Original Sin 2 will be available on Steam Early Access September 15th. As was the case with the original Original Sin (I had to write that just once), it sounds like the version of the game available pre-release will feel more akin to a demo than a traditional Early Access title, with only limited progression available to players (e.g., the first chapter of the game).
If you’re already a backer through Kickstarter, you’ll be able to claim your Early Access key by way of their official tool. However, Larian’s cautioned backers that while the final game will be available on both Steam and GOG, you’ll only be able to select which platform you want to play it on once. Early Access is currently scheduled exclusively for Steam, so GOG fans will need to decide whether it’s worth giving up their preferred platform to play an early build of the game.
Divinity: Original Sin 2’s final release is still currently slated for the end of this year, but as the first was delayed several times before commercial release, take that with a grain of salt.