We’re going to call him Steve. He was this kid we knew in high school. Steve was a nice guy and all, but he was a bit rough around the edges and always seemed to be one step behind the rest of us. Clothes, music, TV shows: by the time Steve got to them, we’d all moved on to something else. The thing is, every once in a while, good ol' Steve would surprise the hell out of us and come up with something really cool, something unexpected: some breakout band, a new comic, or bizarre idea. I guess that’s why we liked him and let him hang out with us. You never knew.
Playing Larian Studios' Divinity 2: Ego Draconis, I was reminded of Steve. It’s a third-person action RPG that eschews many of the comforting conventions we’ve come to expect from high-profile role-playing games. A little rough around the edges, now and then Divinity 2 pulls off a few welcomed surprises, including one big bad-ass hook on which the game is based.
If you’ve played Dragon Age: Origins, Oblivion, Torchlight, WoW, or any of a hundred other recently minted single-player RPGs or MMOs, you know that the mechanics of loot-gathering, character development, questing, crafting, and fighting are so similar across the board that most of the time you can toss aside the manual, take one look at the UI, and feel right at home. Thanks to some decidedly retro concepts welded to a few low-budget compromises, however, Divinity 2's gameplay will have you alternatively scratching your head a little frustrated, and reaching to the booklet for guidance.
The story, which is generally well voice-acted by a British cast, is pure, uncut sword-and-sorcery hokum, no better or worse than most, but with that one, hey-Steve-you-surprised-us hook: you start as a silver-eyed Dragon Slayer and end up a dragon. Along the way to getting your leathery lizard wings you encounter the usual cattle-call cast of buxom wenches, gruff warriors, Merlin-esque mages, soldiers, vendors and farmers, all with a story to tell and/or a task they can’t be bothered to do themselves.
The dragon form is an awesome payoff. The long and winding road that takes you there holds some of the game’s minor innovations and pleasures—and nearly all of the its frustrations as well.
Before we get into the latter, let's start with the “glass is half full” side of the ledger: character development is flexible and offers a lot of options. You start as one of three standard classes (warrior, hunter, mage), but from there, it's all free choice with the ability to cultivate a warrior who can raise an undead army and shoot fireballs out of his sword.
Once you've selected your lead, you discover early on that all players learn the ability to read the minds of NPCs. For the cost of a few (sometimes, quite a few) experience points, you can probe the thoughts of tavern wenches and learn, for instance, that they're worried they dropped their coin purse out in the meadow. Now and then the sacrifice of XP is worth the gamble and you'll cull more pertinent and important information (passwords, quest solutions, secrets, etc). This nifty little twist ends up making you pay more attention to the dialogue.
Unfortunately—and here's where we start picking nits—the behavioral choices you make in Divinity 2 have little or no impact on how the game plays out. From RPGs such as Mass Effect or Fallout 3 we've come to expect that our actions will have game-altering consequences. Not this time.
This isn't the only bad news. While your journal will soon swell with a full menu of quests, the game's map and quest tracker do absolutely nothing to point you in the right direction. It's a blank slate until the player places “been there, seen that,” markers on it. As a result, you waste quite a bit of time meandering about. Maybe we have been spoiled by World of Warcraft and its many UI mods, making quest fulfillment a logical and straightforward path. If you've played S.T.A.L.K.E.R, Two Worlds, The Witcher or any of the Gothic RPGs, you know that German and Eastern European games rarely baby the player the way American-made games often do. In fact, Divinity 2's manual rather pointedly states that “not holding the player's hand all the time” is intentional.
Graphically, Divinity 2 is a bit of a mixed bag. The world of Rivellon is lush and interesting, though up close the textures beg for detail and the environment feels static. Like so many high-fantasy settings, the artists and designers favor an eclectic mix of styles, so medieval villages sit atop gloomy, torchlit dungeons filled with 18th century harpsichords, and tombs are draped with what look like Native American dream catchers. Though many of the creatures are imaginative, character design and animations feel more than a-little-behind-the-curve. The same, anything-goes stylistic approach is equally true of the game's unobtrusive musical score.
Remember Steve, and his unexpected brilliance? Remember that you get to be a dragon? If you can push on through to it, it's a definite game saver. The flying and aerial combat are done well and you have a whole new set of skill choices for your dragon form.
The question is: will you have the patience to get there? You'll have to get comfortable with the game's difficulty and spartan UI. You'll need to tame the camera and overlook the sometimes low-budget visuals, sketchy tech, long load times and a host of little bugs. It sounds like a lot of work, but Divinity 2 does have its charms and more often than not, I felt surprisingly compelled to see what was waiting around the next turn of the road.
Do you fancy turning into that which you hunt? Wish you could do the medieval Kafka and have a dragon metamorphosis? Join the guild on Twitter and let's talk quests @Gamers_Hell.