The worst thing about Divine Divinity is its title. Strange name notwithstanding, Divine Divinity from Belgian developer Larian Studios is a well-designed, open-ended, lengthy role-playing game sporting impressive graphics and sound and a lot of replay value. Combining many of the best aspects both of action-driven RPGs like the Diablo series and epic, open-ended RPGs like the classic Ultima series, Divine Divinity is a real pleasure to play. And even despite its conventional fantasy setting and how it clearly takes inspiration from other games, Divine Divinity manages to have its own distinct style--thanks in large part to a truly incredible musical score. For all these reasons, Divine Divinity mustn't be overlooked amidst the stiff competition from this year's other great games in its category.
The story and setting of Divine Divinity are typical of what you'd expect from a fantasy role-playing game. The land of Rivellon combines magic, monsters, and medieval sensibility under one roof and is populated not just by humans but also by dwarves, elves, orcs, the living dead, and other fantasy archetypes. That the game takes place in an immediately recognizable fantasy world is evidence that Larian Studios didn't take risks with every aspect of Divine Divinity. The designers were wise in this--if you've played other role-playing games before, then chances are it won't take you long to get accustomed to Divine Divinity, and you'll appreciate that.
You'll appreciate even more the massive amount of detail that lies underneath the game's superficially generic style. This is one of those uncommon role-playing games where the world actually seems rather alive. Political tensions, social disorder, secret factions, and various guilds, cults, and pockets of resistance can be found all throughout Rivellon, and in large part it's up to you to decide whether or not to involve yourself in any of it. Alternately, you could just as well roam the countryside slaying villains and other wicked creatures, earning riches and using them to buy better and better equipment. The game does have a cohesive central story to it, but like many classic computer RPGs, Divine Divinity is just as much about creating your own adventures as it is about following a linear plot.
You begin play by choosing from a male or female version of one of three character types: warrior, wizard, or survivor--the latter is basically a rogue. These characters look distinctly different and begin with different skills, and each also has its own special attack: The warrior is capable of performing a whirlwind attack that damages every adjacent enemy, the wizard can perform a magic trick causing him or her to switch positions with an enemy, and the survivor can sneak about, unbeknownst to nearby creatures. These come in very handy for each respective character and will probably govern how you play them.
Interestingly, each character type's special attack and initial starting abilities are all that distinguish that character from the others, because characters from any class can later proceed to learn any other class' skills as they gain experience levels. For example, a warrior may learn the wizard's restoration spell and the survivor's ability to gradually regenerate health. A survivor may learn the warrior's crossbow specialization skill or the warrior's repair ability. A wizard may learn the survivor's lock-picking and thieving skills. This system actually works very well and encourages you to create a multitalented character. Each time you gain a level, you'll find yourself facing a tough decision on which skills to learn or which skills to upgrade--but it's a tough decision not because there are many wrong answers, but because there are so many right ones. Most every skill in Divine Divinity is useful.
Right off the bat, Divine Divinity looks very similar to Diablo II, though it looks much better. The gameplay itself also seems quite similar at first. Controlling the game is simple using just the mouse, and occasional pathfinding issues and a few slightly awkward aspects of the interface really aren't much of a problem. Hotkeys are available for revealing all items of interest onscreen, and you can attack your opponents just by clicking on them once. Actually, the game has a very handy feature that lets you automatically target the nearest foe, so you don't even have to click on it directly.
That's not to say Divine Divinity is a hands-off gaming experience, since it's anything but. The combat tends to be very challenging, requiring you to make hasty retreats at times, use various skills in quick succession, and liberally quaff various magic potions to restore your health and magic power. The game can be punishing at times, since critical hits to unarmored areas can slay your character easily, and enemies will pursue you seemingly to the ends of the earth. Luckily, you can pause the action at any moment and issue further instructions to your character, which is essential for surviving some of the tougher bouts. The combat has a generally solid feel to it, and much like in the Diablo series, you'll often pit your lone character against droves of enemies and somehow scrape by with a hard-fought, satisfying victory. Note that while Divine Divinity is a single-player, single-character game, you won't always have to do the fighting all by yourself. Sometimes you'll get to take part in great pitched battles, and at other times you can have companions join you and fight at your side.
Of course, there's much more to Divine Divinity than combat. There's a great deal of questing to be done, and very little of it consists of banal fetch quests or other trivial matters. Instead, you might have to set off across the countryside to send for reinforcements for settlements in dire need of assistance, investigate murder or political corruption, and much more. Exploring the land can take hours and hours, and walking or running in between areas of interest can take a while, too. Fortunately, travel is facilitated by the presence of teleporters at key areas throughout the world, which you'll need to unlock before you can use. You'll also find a couple of portable magic pyramids early on that make getting around much easier. You can drop one anywhere you like, and use the other to instantly teleport back to it--very handy, and a clever concept. As you journey through Rivellon, you don't have to be the good guy, either. Go on and try to hack down everyone in town if you want, or rob from the rich and keep it. Divine Divinity looks and plays like Diablo, but it does have the depth and pure role-playing aspects of more-traditional games in the genre.
Considering the game's been imported from Europe, the English translation of Divine Divinity is surprisingly good. Some of the dialogue is intentionally comical and quite effectively so, and it serves well to cut through the game's otherwise grim look and style. Dialogue with characters is always to the point and never overbearingly long-winded, yet there's plenty of chatting to be done by players who prefer social discourse to nonstop action in their role-playing games. Some of the dialogue can be heard in full speech, and here too you may be surprised by the effectiveness of some of the performances. Most of the voice over is ham-fisted and some of it is decidedly awkward, but at other times, the voice acting in Divine Divinity is quite good.
Though the game uses the same sort of washed-out, earthy color scheme as Diablo II, Divine Divinity's graphics boast tremendous detail not seen in any other 2D role-playing game to date. Characters are animated very smoothly and look fantastic when equipped with just about any combination of the game's massive variety of weapons and armor. There are tons of different monsters and nonplayer characters, too, and the different settings are also very attractive. Set foot into a local tavern or another such civil location, and you'll be dazzled by just how much can be going on onscreen all at once. And, much like in the Ultima series or in this year's Morrowind, just about any object in Divine Divinity can be picked up or at least identified or moved about. So even though there's so much detail in virtually every area of the game, you won't feel like it's just window dressing. Divine Divinity supports graphical resolutions up to 1024x768 and has very few loading times. You can stomp across miles of countryside without the game ever pausing to load up new scenery, and though the frame rate can bog down at times on lower-end machines trying to run the game at a high resolution, Divine Divinity generally runs smoothly and looks great.
Some good sound effects serve to enhance the action and the ambience in the game, but the musical score, credited to Kirill Pokrovsky, deserves special mention. This haunting, memorable soundtrack stunningly uses strings, percussion, and choir vocals to create an effect that enriches every aspect of the gameplay. Most every song in the soundtrack sounds amazing, and yet there's tremendous variety in it, ranging from minstrel tunes that greet you when you walk into a tavern, to lonely, atmospheric melodies for when you're crossing through the dangerous countryside. There have been numerous great soundtracks in games this year, including those of games like Medal of Honor: Allied Assault, Freedom Force, Mafia, and Icewind Dale II. And the musical score of Divine Divinity is right up there with them and is arguably the best yet at drawing you into the experience.
There's much more to Divine Divinity than its impressive graphics and music and its combination of hack-and-slash action and pure role-playing, and that says a lot for the game. Though it might seem lacking in originality at first, if you've ever enjoyed another computer role-playing game before, then chances are you'll find whatever it is you liked there in ample quantities here, and done at least as well. Divine Divinity simply is one of this year's best efforts at capturing all the best qualities of the role-playing genre: the experience of growing more and more powerful while leaving an undeniable impression on a memorable, richly detailed world.