Are you sick of games holding your hand as they walk you through a completely linear experience? Are you tired of being told how to jump or move the camera around despite there only being a few buttons on a controller? Are you looking for a game more akin to the old Infinity Engine games like Baldur’s Gate and Planescape: Torment that drop you into a world and tell you to explore? Well have I got a game for you. Divinity: Original Sin from Larian Studios is the next installment in the Divinity series of CRPGs and it doesn’t insult the player’s intelligence by forcing them through lengthy tutorials or by giving them a quest objective marker. You enter Original Sin’s fantasy world with nothing but your wits, your weapons, and the clothes on your back – the rest is up to you. If this sounds intriguing to you, then you should be excited, because aside from a few rough edges, Divinity: Original Sin delivers a really refreshing, old-school experience.
You and your companion are Source Hunters. You are tasked to rid the world of people who use the evil magic called Source – a magic once benevolent and then tainted by a terrible force. People suspect the use of such magic when the strange murder of a beloved Counselor occurs one night after a mysterious stranger appears. It is your job to investigate, and it goes without saying that there is more to it than what’s at first glance. The story is delivered to you in a very Infinity Engine way – you click on a character and a box pops up with a paragraph or so of dialogue along with a list of potential responses. The writing is mostly pretty good. Original Sin definitely has a more lighthearted tone than we are used to in these sorts of RPGs. Almost every character has a hint of sarcasm and no one tends to take themselves very seriously. There are some genuinely funny lines in here, too. While the story itself can get a bit convoluted and a tad melodramatic, it mostly gets the job done. Personally, I found some of the side quests more interesting than the main story arc. It’s a good thing, though, that the writing is up to snuff because you are going to be spending a large portion of your lengthy adventure reading it.
That is because the game, as I alluded to earlier, does very little to tell you what you are supposed to be doing. You are dropped into this world and you are left to your own devices to solve the mysteries and riddles that are going on around you. You have a quest log that will give you a quick line that reminds you where you left off in a particular quest, but there is no quest marker, no directions – no other information whatsoever. To figure out what you are supposed to do, you have to actually explore and talk to people. You may find the next clue hidden away in a book in an abandoned library. You may have to speak to a nearby rat who witnessed what transpired in the room. Initially, I was extremely impressed with the way the game balances exploration and frustration. Normally if I felt like I was about ready to give up on finding more information, I would find one other little clue that kept me going. Talking to people and reading through ancient tomes to find out more information gave me a sense of immersion that is rarely present in other games. I actually felt like I was a detective in a way, and it was an incredibly rewarding feeling when everything would click and I solved a major puzzle or mystery.
This feeling occurs for about half of the game’s content. At a certain point, quests become almost unsolvable based on their obscurity. You may find the answer to a particular puzzle hidden away in a dungeon you ran through hours ago that you didn’t think to make a mental note of. There is no real way to know where a solution could possibly be so you are left attempting trial-and-error to progress. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. There were times where I resorted to looking at forums to figure out particular puzzles. When I saw the solution, I immediately thought to myself, “how would anyone ever think to do that?” When I scrolled further down on the forums, I saw that my thought was echoed with the consensus being that they solved it by being incredibly lucky. Since a lot of these quests are pivotal to the game’s progression, you are left just wandering around hoping to accidentally stumble upon the solution and this can be frustrating. There was a particular instance where I was told that I had to disable a magic barrier to progress. To do this, I had to find a particular magician that possessed the spell to do so. When I went to where the magician was supposed to be residing, the only thing that was there was a note from the magician essentially telling me that I was late and that he had moved on. In a fit of rage, I went on a killing spree and happened to kill something that also disabled the barrier, even though I was never given any hint that doing that would make it disappear. Similar situations happened repeatedly, and I couldn’t tell if it was just my inability to solve the quest or if the game was glitched and I was unable to continue.
The reason I thought the latter was because the game does have its fair share of glitches – from small to large. There are minor ones that prevent you from casting a particular spell during battle to major ones that don’t give you correct dialogue options when you have the quest item on your person. I was able to work around these glitches and none of them impeded my progress for more than an hour, but they did slow me down and it was pretty annoying, especially in conjunction with how little information the game gives you. Is the game glitching or am I just missing a clue? This was a question that I asked myself many times and I wasn’t actually able to answer it.
You won’t spend the entire time looking for clues about where to go next, though. As expected in these types of games, you will fight many different types of fantasy-style enemies. The major difference between this game and games like Baldur’s Gate, Planescape: Torment, or even the original Divinity games is that battles are 100% turn based. The order in which characters takes turns are based on your Speed attribute. When it is one of your characters’ turns, you have a certain amount of action points (also determined by Speed) to move your character around the battlefield, attack an enemy, cast a spell or what have you. Everything you do during your battle (with few exceptions) costs action points. The only issue I have here is that the game is not based on a grid, which means in order to attack an enemy, you actually have to click on the enemy’s model itself. Some of these enemies are extremely small and, since the game takes place zoomed out in an isometric view above your characters, they can be hard to click. If you click next to the enemy instead of on the enemy, your character will then move to wherever you clicked, costing whatever action points it took to move there. This will lead you to situations where you no longer have enough action points to attack and that gives the enemies ample opportunity to attack you. This scenario resulted in my defeat on more than one occasion. This issue is exacerbated because the enemies – including the small ones – all have idle animations. If your cursor is no longer on the enemy as a result of the enemy doing an animation (such as taunting you or screaming), you will still click next to them and move. This issue could be resolved with an option to undo your previous action or if the game asked for confirmation before you carried out an action, but neither of these features are present.
If these problems weren’t so prevalent, then the combat would be among my favorite combat systems in an RPG in recent memory. The game relies a lot on status effects and environmental hazards. While these are normally the most annoying things in any RPG, in here they are added to give a layer of strategy not present in most games of this kind. For example, you can have a mage make the entire battlefield wet by controlling the weather and making it rain. This makes everything – environment, enemies, even player-controlled characters – more susceptible to electricity damage. If you shock someone who is standing in a puddle of water, they will be stunned and unable to move for a few turns. You can produce poison clouds that damage enemies. These clouds can then be ignited with fire magic to make it explode. These effects can be harmful to both the enemies and your allies so it forces you to think very carefully before you make your action. Every rule that applies to you and your party also applies to the enemies, so battles rarely feel unfair (although some bosses and encounters are intentionally overwhelming which can get frustrating). Battles take place in areas that more often than not utilize these environmental situations. Each battle feels like an epic encounter, even against lesser enemies, due to this system. The combat system is extremely deep and is easily the best part of the game, despite the aforementioned control issues.
What could possibly take second place is the presentation. The game’s graphics range from looking beautiful to stunning. The art designers clearly took advantage of the game’s locked perspective. If it weren’t for the HUD on the screen, a screenshot could very well pass for a painting in certain areas. It even looks great while it moves, too, with real time lighting that casts shadows from things that you walk by, to the streams that flow in a realistic looking way. The characters all animate well, too. The environmental effects that I mentioned earlier can also have a toll on the landscape. It’s not uncommon to leave an area in ruin after fighting enemies and it looks great. The sound and music are appropriate for this style of game – some tunes actually stand out as being quite good – but there’s nothing overly special about it and it’s not really worth mentioning. It’s serviceable and it gets the job done.
If you are so inclined, the whole game can be experienced in co-op, although I don’t recommend it. It was clearly designed with co-op in mind – you are forced to create two characters when you start a new game – but a lot of the systems are poorly implemented in co-op. For example, whenever one player engages a conversation with an NPC, the other player is forced to read glimpses of the conversation that pop up above the heads of the characters, including whatever the player chooses to respond with. The problem is when NPCs have a large amount of dialogue to share with the player – something that happens frequently. When a giant paragraph pops up above a character’s head, it becomes impossible for the player not engaged in conversation to read it before it fades away. This forces you to do one of two things: enter a voice chat with your co-op partner and read aloud the dialogue, or completely ignore the story and just engage in the deep combat, collect loot, and level up and allocate stats with your friend.
I would recommend the second option if you choose to play in co-op due in no small part to the way the game handles persuasion. Whenever an opportunity comes to coax an NPC into something, you are forced into a game of rock, paper, scissors. Literally rock, paper, scissors – mentioned by name in the game. Each time you win rock, paper, scissors, you earn a certain number of points (determined by your Charisma stat). The first person to 10 points wins the “argument” and determines whether or not you succeeded in persuasion. This would be fine… except that you’re playing rock, paper, scissors with a computer program. The game literally knows which option you chose and can decide whether or not you win. There were times I lost the game when I had only needed to win once, but since the game decided that I was going to lose, I lost. The way it works in co-op is whenever a choice is presented to you and your partner, the rock, paper, scissors game is initiated and the same Charisma rules apply. This works for human beings, not for computers. Also, one person will be completely oblivious to what choice he or she is making anyway due to the way dialogue is presented in co-op. If you desperately want to play this game with a friend (and, admittedly, the combat can be fun with another person), be warned that your experience with the story will be compromised. Also, good luck finishing the game when you have to rely on your partner being on at the same time as you considering the game can take you anywhere from 40-100 hours to complete depending on your difficulty level and number of side quests you partake in.
I see Divinity: Original Sin as a good first step in reintroducing games that don’t hold your hand so much and leave you to figure out what it is you have to do. While it is a bit rough around the edges, most of the game is so well-made and there are enough great ideas on display here that I can overlook most of the issues. If you’re looking for a lengthy hardcore RPG with engaging and deep combat that doesn’t treat you like you’re an idiot, don’t hesitate to pick it up.
A PC Copy of Divinity: Original Sin was provided by Larian Studios for this review.
198X Review — A Nostalgia Trip Without a Destination
Some short stories feel more like chapters—snipped out of a larger work—that struggle to make sense on their own. 198X represents a translation of that ethos to video game form. As a result, the game feels unfulfilling, though that does not detract from the overall quality on offer. Ultimately, the player’s appraisal of 198X will depend on whether they place more stock in story or gameplay because while the former leaves much to be desired, the latter will be a hit for anyone with fond memories of the 8- and 16-bit classics.
In the framing and overall structure, 198X is decidedly modern, but everything else pulses with a retro vibe. At its core, the game is a compilation, weaving together five distinct experiences under the auspice of a story of personal development. From the Double Dragon-infused ‘Beating Heart’ to the turn-based dungeon RPG ‘Kill Screen’, each title feels slick, if a little undercooked. Those old-school originals could only dream of being as smooth as these throwbacks. However, the two-button input methodology results in the games feeling just a touch too simple, though their brevity—each clocking in at a maximum of 15 minutes (depending on the player’s skill level and muscle memory)—makes that less of an issue than it might have been. If more depth is present, it is hidden well, as the game lacks any sort of tutorial to guide players. Nevertheless, the stellar presentation goes a long way towards papering over the cracks.
The pixel art aesthetic of 198X is staggering. Each of the worlds that players make their way through is pitched perfectly to fit the mood it evokes. From the grungy brawler of the first game to the more melancholic mood of the open-road racer, the screen is drenched in lavish colour and far more detail than one might expect from such a seemingly simple art style.
Easily a match for the visuals is the audio. The in-game sounds of a car engine or bone-crunching strike are low-key, which allows the music to come to the fore. Those tunes are all from the electronic genre, simple, yet layered with enough depth to not feel tedious or tiring. Easily overshadowing all the rest though is Maya Tuttle’s voice-over narration as The Kid. Her tone is one of pervasive resignation that works to reinforce the same mood within the script.
That melancholia will surely strike a chord with anyone who has grown up on the fringes. The Kid speaks of once loving and now hating the Suburbia of their childhood, where memories of happiness collide with a contemporary feeling of entrapment. The words and lines are powerfully evocative—made even more so by the connection between the gameworlds and the prevailing emotion at that point. The problem is that they amount to nothing. The story comprises of these snippets—these freestanding scenes of life lived lonely—that never coalesce into anything. The Kid may find an arcade and speak of finding some sort of home and a source of strength, but it goes nowhere. The game ends just as things start to get interesting. Setting up for a sequel is no sin. Plenty of other games and media products—from Dante’s Inferno to Harry Potter—have done just that. However, to be effective, such first parts need to offer a story in and of themselves, not just the promise of a story to come, and that is where 198X falls apart.
With each game in the compilation being a straightforward, one-and-done affair and the overarching narrative feeling like a prologue at best, 198X is wafer-thin. The presentation is simply remarkable, and the package has enough variety to be worth a look, but the unmistakable impression is that something is missing.
Reviewed on PC. Coming soon to Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.
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