One of the best things a videogame can do is send me off with a sense that I’ve had an experience unique to me — that no one else saw exactly what I saw. Divinity: Original Sin is quite possibly my favorite role-playing game of all time because it’s such a pure embodiment of that idea. Whatever role I decided to play, Larian Studios seemed prepared. I could literally murder any NPC, no matter how important, and the game would contrive a way to keep things moving.
Divinity: Original Sin II is an ambitious project, then, in that it promises to improve upon what I already consider a borderline perfect formula. Their plan is embolden character dynamics by letting party members develop relationships, positive and negative, that affect both the story and the team’s ability to fight effectively.
We don’t get to see the fruits of that labor yet, as these features have not been completed in time for Original Sin II’s alpha build. As such, what I’ve played of this sequel feels awfully similar to its predecessor, which is to say… it’s still pretty damn fantastic.
The protagonists of Original Sin II, all individuals fluent in a magical energy called “Source,” begin the game shackled and imprisoned by people who fear their potential power. The opening objective is to simply escape the fortress, and I’m a bit awestruck by the number of ways players can go about doing this. With good combat prowess, it’s possible to just kill the guards and walk through the front gates. Other routes require stealth and even short-range teleportation, and making friends with the right NPCs can help.
The wealth of options reminded me of the opening level of Deus Ex, and that’s a high compliment. Escaping a prison camp is the sort of introductory objective that most games would speed through in ten minutes. Here, it took me seven or eight hours of experimentation, and even when I emerged from the other side, I doubled back because I was that hell-bent on not missing anything.
Although the relationship system hasn’t been implemented into the alpha, we get a neat new conversational mechanic in the “tags,” which give playable characters unique dialog options based on their traits. There are four playable races now, and their personalities can be customized a bit – a “mystic” protagonist inspires with religious ramblings, a “rogue” goes against the grain, and so on.
And, whereas Original Sin’s party consisted entirely of blank slates, the sequel introduces actual characters, with pre-existing backstories and important roles to fill in the running plot. Players still have the option to create one custom protagonist, but the four preset heroes are all met in the prison camp at the very start of the campaign. One of them, an elf lady, had a beef with my race, the lizards. I mishandled our conversation and the encounter turned lethal. I guess it wouldn’t be Divinity if I couldn’t accidentally murder a key character in the game’s opening minutes.
Original Sin’s biggest strength was the versatility of its tactical combat, and if I have one concern about the sequel, it’s that the preset characters seem to fill the basic RPG slots: the warrior, the rogue, the mage, and so forth. Fleshing out the protagonists seems like an obvious step, but there was a certain boldness to entrusting players with such boundless control of their character builds. We’ll need to see the relationship system in action to know whether the shift in direction will pay off, but as of now, Original Sin II seems just the slightest bit more restrictive.
The game also feels noticeably darker than its surprisingly funny predecessor. The subject matter is grimmer, and the loss of series composer Kirill Pokrovsky (who died last year) is a major blow, as the new soundtrack lacks the spirit and jauntiness that lightened the previous atmosphere. The current lack of voiceovers also makes the world feel a bit vacant, though that’ll almost certainly be addressed in the final release.
I don’t recommend buying Original Sin II now for the same reason I wouldn’t recommend any game in Early Access — it’s a work in progress and only a small, somewhat unpolished glimpse of the end product. Having said that, I had to stop myself from playing more of the alpha for fear of spoiling too much of the campaign. What I’ve seen is engaging enough to make Original Sin II one of my most anticipated games of next year, as if it wasn’t already.