About midway through Divinity: Original Sin II's campaign, I was called on to visit the family farm of a heroic colleague named Gareth. On arrival, I found him mourning his murdered parents and calling on me to help him take revenge. Pretty standard RPG stuff.
But when I went to the farmhouse in search of the killers, I was greeted by paladins who prevented me from going inside. I tried to change their minds during dialogue with the in-game persuasion skill. No dice. I was facing a brick wall with this quest. The only choice I had was to kill the paladins. So that's exactly what I did. But after I stepped over their bodies to proceed into the farmhouse, I discovered that the murderers inside were possessed innocents. No way of releasing them from this magical mental bondage presented itself. The most expeditious way of moving forward with the quest was to kill them. I did that…and then discovered a love letter from a possessed woman to one of the paladins that had stopped me at the door.
Hello, guilt. It took me a long time to get over how bad I felt about killing these people. Part of me wanted to load a save and replay it all. But my victims were already dead. Going back and trying to change what I'd done wouldn't wash the blood from my hands. I eventually moved forward and went on to kill a lot more people in even more heartbreaking ways. Still, I never forgot this scene at the farmhouse, because that was an "innocence lost" moment that opened my eyes to how affective and surprising Divinity II: Original Sin can be.
I don't know if I've ever felt so emotionally wrapped up game and its characters, and pulling at your heartstrings is not all that the game does well. Larian has crafted one of the finest role-playing epics of all time. Meaningful choices, evocative writing, and superb acting in the fully voiced script make for a wholly believable world. The detailed and free-flowing combat engine provides challenging and rewarding turn-based tactical battles that add tension to every action. Character depth includes seemingly endless options for creation, customization, and growth, making every member of your party more of a real individual than the usual collection of buffs and numbers found in most RPGs.
As with its predecessor from 2014, Divinity: Original Sin II's setting remains the D&D-infused fantasy land of Rivellon, but the clock has been moved forward centuries from the original game so you don't need any familiarity with the backstory to quickly get up to speed with what's going on. You take on the role of a Sourceror, a name referring to those that draw arcane power from a mystic material called Source. This substance is controversial in Rivellon, because using it seems to inadvertently summon interdimensional monsters known as Voidwoken. Deploy Source powers and these bizarre creatures show up to kill everyone in sight. Because of this, you're viewed as a danger to society by the Magisters, a governing body of inquisitors and warriors who claim to serve the Divine Order and protect society by rounding up and "curing" Sourcerors.
The story begins with you and the other members of your four-person party (that's the maximum--you can play with any number of companions or even go solo) being sent off to the island prison of Fort Joy with Source-blocking collars around your necks. You soon realize that you have a greater destiny to fulfill, however. Much of this is tied to your past role in a war serving Lucian, sort of a god-king whose legacy has been taken up by Alexander, his son who now leads the Magisters. Eventually, you and the other members of your party discover that you are Godwoken, demigods who have a chance to ascend and basically replace the seven gods under threat by creatures from the Void.
This epic saga is a big undertaking. Expect to use up the better part of 60-70 hours to complete the main quest line and a good portion of the many side quests. The story isn't just extensive, though; it's detailed and gripping, largely due to how it avoids good-versus-evil fantasy archetypes common to RPGs. Moral ambiguity is with you every step of the way as you progress from a prison boat to Fort Joy, to the sandy beaches and forests of Reaper's Coast, to the tropical Nameless Isle, and finally the besieged city of Arx.
But while you start off with persecuted Sourcerors on one side and oppressive Magisters on the other, events soon carry you into a world of unrelenting grey where most people are trying to do the right thing, yet failing miserably. Some Sourcerors are criminals. Some Magisters are conflicted about what they are doing and want to change the system. Voidwoken may have good reasons behind their actions in Rivellon. Gods have enough hidden agendas that mortals may be better off without them. Even the paladin faction that shows up in the game as heroes turns into blinkered zealots, overseeing the siege of a city, leaving bodies overflowing atop buckling wooden carts in their wake.
Basically, nobody can be trusted or measured at face value; not even your comrades, as only one of you can ascend to godhood. You're left wide open when it comes to determining a course of action, with very few moments forcing you down a particular path. Play good, play evil, play something in-between. This approach is incredibly freeing. It lets you guide your character and party according to your own moral compass, or lack of one. I don't believe I've felt this attuned to a role-playing experience since I played pen-and-paper D&D many years ago.
The story isn't just extensive, though; it's detailed and gripping, largely due to how it avoids good-versus-evil fantasy archetypes common to RPGs.
Freedom with character design and development really boosts this feeling. Character depth is tremendous, and with every hero in the game comes with a wide range of core attributes plus civil abilities, combat abilities, skills, talents, Source abilities, and more. Five racial choices blend the expected--humans and dwarves--with the offbeat--elves who consume body parts, and self-conscious undead who hide their faces to avoid scaring NPCs.
You can roll your own protagonist or choose from one of six pre-defined characters representing each race. Each one comes with a specialized storyline that immerses you deeper into the saga. Even then, you're allowed a free hand to customize everything. You're even able to tell those joining your party what sort of adventurer you'd like them to be. Next to standard classes such as Fighters and Clerics are more innovative options such as Metamorphs and Shadowblades, and a slew of talents that dictate even more nuanced capabilities. So if you want to take on, say the arrogant lizard Red Prince or the sinister elf Sebille, you're not locked into a set class as you would be in most RPGs.
At a glance, combat is not much different from many computer RPGs. Battles are turn-based, with an allotment of action points governing your decisions. But Divinity: Original Sin II differs from its peers by consistently taking terrain and environmental elements into consideration. Pools of water can be frozen into slippery sheets of ice. High ground gives boosts to damage and low ground restricts it. And enemies turn these battlefield features into advantages, too. Hang out too close to a pool of oil and you can guarantee that an opponent will set it on fire. Evil archers and spellcasters always run or teleport to high locations so that they can snipe from relative safety.
As a result, battles are damn tough. You may have to play and lose some battles at least once in order to assess how the enemy can strike and determine a way to counter their advances. Thankfully, there are a number of difficulty options that let you control the pace of victory. The Explorer option nerfs enemies and boosts heroes to emphasize story over combat difficulty, so you get the flavor of the game without the serious challenge. Classic is the standard mode of play--tough but not insanely challenging. Tactician ups everything a little more, and Honor is the ultimate challenge, where you have just one save slot that gets deleted if everyone is killed. There is something here for just about every level of commitment and ability.
Where most RPGs let you push on and experience almost everything in a single playthrough, it is impossible to experience all that this one has to offer in one play, or maybe even two or three.
I freewheeled in Classic mode as I went, directing characters into roles and training them based on what worked best in battle. Character progression felt as if I was molding real warriors through an adventure, pitfalls and all. I truly empathized with my party, to the point that I couldn't let any of them go later on to try one of the other heroes on offer, like the witty and talented undead Fane. There's one reason for a replay, but it's not the only one.
Quest design in Divinity: Original Sin II is closer to a pen-and-paper feel than any computer RPG that I've ever played. The biggest reason for this is that you can screw up. An NPC can be randomly killed, shutting down a quest before it starts. Sometimes you simply cannot succeed at a skill check necessary to move a particular adventure along in the way you desire. Failing persuasion checks, as noted above in that farmhouse story, is fairly routine, forcing you to figure out another way forward and damn the consequences. Where most RPGs let you push on and experience almost everything in a single playthrough, it is impossible to experience all that this one has to offer in one play, or maybe even two or three.
Quests are not perfect, though. The journal system of tracking them isn't nearly robust enough to keep up with how many you have going at any given time. You can't search it, and even worse, key elements are frequently not included in the text descriptions. As a result of this quest confusion, I got lost more often than I should have. I spent too much time not sure what I was supposed to be doing due to vague journal entries, or wandering around searching for a key location that for reasons unknown was not noted on the map. I know some will believe this to be a good thing, that we finally have a serious RPG that doesn't hold the hands of its players. But this issue seems more like a disconnect between how quests are offered up during the game and how they are tracked in the journal than any commitment to old-school difficulty.
In addition to the expansive single-player campaign, you can also play with friends cooperatively or dive into an even truer pen-and-paper role-playing simulation with Game Master mode--a section of the game that can live on potentially longer than Divinity's own campaign. This is the kind of game that you're best off playing online with friends; the involved story and the necessity to use teamwork in combat make the game too challenging if you're adventuring with uncooperative strangers.
From lonely farmhouses through pitched battles with gods in far-flung dimensions, Divinity: Original Sin II is one of the most captivating role-playing games ever made. Its immaculately conceived and emotion-wrought fantasy world, topped by brilliant tactical combat, make it one of the finest games of the year thus far, and it has to be regarded as an instant classic in the pantheon of RPG greats.
Disclosure: Former GameSpot reviews editor Kevin VanOrd currently works at Larian Studios, serving as a writer on Divinity: Original Sin II.