“They just don’t make games like that anymore.” When you first see Divinity: Original Sin, that could very well be your reaction, but you’d be wrong to assume that developer Larian’s upcoming isometric role-playing game is stuck in the past. It certainly might remind you of RPGs of old, such as The Temple of Elemental Evil and, of course, Divine Divinity, the game that originated the series. But based on my time with Original Sin, there’s a poignant cooperative element of choice and consequence in Original Sin that makes it more than just a retread.
Nevertheless, you’ll recognize many of the game’s tropes. The build I played began, as so many RPGs do, on a beach, complete with the shipwrecks that usually appear there. Your first battle is with orcs, and one of your first conversations is with town guards, as is so common in role-playing games. I asked Larian Studios founder Swen Vincke about finding the right balance between the old and the new, and as it turns out, the studio didn't approach Original Sin with that kind of thinking.
Says Vincke, "I don't think we thought about it like modern versus traditional, but more in a sense of… if this is a Divinity game with the possibility of cooperative multiplayer and turn-based combat, what would make sense? How can we get the co-op to be fun, what turn-based combat system would be cool, but also, what are the must-have features from our own previous games and other RPGs that have to be in there? And how can we make sure that those must-have features work well in turn-based and in multiplayer?"
At first, I worried that familiarity would breed contempt, but when I started digging deeper, I found both small touches and broad strokes that made me eager to see more of the game in action. Before you and your partner reach your primary destination--the town of Cyseal--you might stumble upon a talking shellfish who longs to leave behind a life of being held to peoples’ filthy ears and return to the refreshing waters of the sea. He also demands you call him Ishmael, which should inspire a smirk from players that enjoy a good “Moby Dick” reference. Elsewhere, you can pilfer building materials from a craftsman’s bench helpfully labeled as “Nine-Inch Nails.” Original Sin certainly has a sense of humor about itself.
Those nails aren’t just industrial rock jokes, but crafting items too. Original Sin’s crafting system isn’t overly complex, but it is remarkably logical. To combine items, you just open the inventory screen and drag one object to another’s slot; if the items can be united, the slot is filled with a new gizmo. For instance, those nails can be combined with a wooden board to create… a board with nails, handy for swatting pesky bandits with. The system is so intuitive and responsive that I experimented with all sorts of combinations, both sensible and nonsensical. Sadly, you can’t combine a fish with a shovel--and if you could, I am not sure what kind of object might result from such an unnatural pairing.
Your own character isn’t alone on the journey, but joined by another adventurer controlled by either another player, or the AI. Playing with a friend isn’t anything new in role-playing games like Original Sin, but co-op decision-making introduces an exciting way to give your buddy a bit of grief. For instance, when you encounter a pair of sloshed guards, you can either agree to go see Cyseal’s resident wizard peacefully, or insist that you don’t answer to intoxicated hirelings. But you don’t make the decision alone; instead, your co-op partner participates in the process. If you agree, all is well, and you either stroll towards the village, or you engage the guards in battle. If you disagree, the game chooses which character wins the argument, and you deal with the consequences. (If you play on your own, you make the dialogue choices for both characters.) Either way, stats like “compassion” and “contempt” are affected, which in turn will affect how non-player characters deal with you down the road.
On another occasion, an exchange with a proud soldier standing guard at a warehouse door took a turn for the worse, and pitted me against a number of guards I was wholly unprepared to handle. Depending on who you’re playing with, I could definitely imagine occasions in which your co-op partner’s decisions might affect events in unwanted ways, so I asked Vincke to give me more details on just how cooperative adventures are handled.
"We don't really see the co-op as something you'll do with strangers," says Vincke. "It's more an experience you'll do with a friend or partner, and because of that, it's going to be an invitation-only event initially. Perhaps there'll be some demand for allowing strangers into your game, but that remains to be seen. However, it is drop-in/drop-out, so whenever you invite somebody, he can take over and reconfigure the party member he takes over. And then when he leaves, you can either reconfigure to the way you preferred the character to be, or leave it as is. The one thing you'll have to live with are the choices that were made in the story."
Remember the drunken guard encounter from before? It’s a fine introduction to Original Sin’s turn-based combat, which is a definite change from Divine Divinity’s Diablo-esque action combat. Once a player (or, usually, both players) is engaged, each combatant gets a certain number of action points to spend during the turn. You might move, or attack, or both during your turn, depending on your available action points, but it’s more fun to get some of your special powers involved. The two members of my party were an archer named Scarlett and a warrior called Roderick, each of whom had a number of magical powers at their disposal. Roderick had a penchant for fire, so I made liberal use of fireballs, or at least, I did until my mana depleted. Scarlett preferred ice along with a few archery skills, such as a poisoned arrow. As is typical for my druidic ways, I favored Scarlett’s elemental summon, who joined the party as an additional temporary henchman and did a nice amount of water damage per turn.
What I enjoyed most about the combat, however, was that you can perform cleverer tactics than just pounding on goblins and guards with steel and magic until they fall over dead. Instead, you can use the environment to your advantage, and at no time was this put to better use than in the final battle of the demo. At first I faced a number of skeletal archers who plodded towards me, eager to put an arrow between my character's eyes. Fortunately, I was able to turn the ground under them to ice, causing them to slip and fall, and buying me extra time to chop them into submission. Ultimately, I faced a giant elemental called an infernal twin, but was fortunate enough for a wall to shield me from its fiery blasts. Elsewhere, I put an end to a foe by zapping the water he was standing in with a bolt of electricity. Barrels of oil, puddles of poison goo--these elements and more encourage you to find creative ways of dealing with your foes.
I spent a lot of time on my own, just wandering Cyseal and its nearby environs, though the pre-alpha build I was playing had limited content and a number of placeholder art assets. (Not to mention, sadly, a lack of audio; Divine Divinity’s soundtrack was lovely, and I can’t wait to hear how music might bring life to Original Sin.) But I was able to get a feel for the world, which has come a long way since Divine Divinity’s now-dated artistic beauty. I explored the docks, where the rippling aquamarine waters made for a soothing view. The eerie church cemetery where I met that menacing infernal twin, on the other hand, made for an ominous investigation. And as I roamed, I encountered characters that needed my help to solve a murder and find a missing staff of great power. What I didn’t have, however, was a sense of character or purpose. And so I asked Vincke: What does this world stand for? Will I care about its people and their plights?
"Well, now that the companion stretch goal was met on Kickstarter, I'm pretty sure there'll be companions to whom you get attached," Vencke says. "We'll certainly aim to craft them that way. Don't forget that you were playing a pre-alpha build and actually, you didn't encounter any main quest yet. Companions will have their opinion about pretty much everything, have their own story arcs in which you'll have a large influence and their own quests. And I actually believe that the cooperative dialog mechanic which we have will make your bonding with them even stronger, because we'll craft the dialogue such that when it's decision time, you won't necessarily have the same opinions as another player, provided you play in multiplayer."
It’s hard to say just how well Divinity: Original Sin will capture the essence of Divine Divinity and Beyond Divinity, the games that directly spawned it. (From a gameplay perspective, Original Sin shares little in common with the troubled Divinity II.) Larian’s fans certainly have faith, however: Larian’s Kickstarter campaign for the game has now closed, earning more than twice the amount of its original goal, and all stretch goals were met. Thus, your companions will have their own backstories and personalities, the music will be fully orchestrated, and there will be more character-defining talents than originally planned. I am cautiously hopeful that Divinity: Original Sin might be, in its own way, just as divine as the game that spawned the series.'