My first play-through of Divinity: Original Sin 2 was a world on fire. Every member of my party was skilled into fire magics and summoning magic, which they used to start fires and summon fire imps and fire slugs, firing fireballs and fire knives and laser beams, summoning small fires from within to set alight everybody around my group, then later exploding out from within much larger fires to signal the reckoning. Every piece of gear that could be fitted with a rune for small enhancements was fitted with runes that gave them fire damage. Spontaneous combustion magics were learned, so that each new enemy could join us in the chorus of Hell itself.
Or anyone who spoke to me at all.
Or anyone who existed.
Everyone, basically. Including everyone in my party. Some of our magics didn’t hit one another, but most of them did. The fires they left behind certainly did not discriminate. Every single encounter became a test of wills; of pure attrition. Who would burn to death first? Them or us?
I burned everyone and everything, and the game let me.
And then, as if the game had decided the actual ending could not possibly be enough to satisfy, I encountered a mission that perfectly capped off everything I had done up to that point.
A mission that set the entire encounter on fire, first spawning enemies which spread burnable liquids across every surface, then spawning enemies which themselves brought the flames. As if I hadn’t long since ignited the world. The perfect ending to my first, fumbling playthrough.
So then I started over.
Now armed with a firm grasp of exactly what game I was playing, I restarted and rolled a new character. My first time through my party had been unbalanced slightly — two ranged magic casters, one warrior-type, and my own character, a rogue. It was fine, but I needed to do a little bit better. The same three characters again, but my new character was an archer now — and every single one of my party had points sunk into summoning. Elementally, my party covered many more bases than just fire, but now instead of being a simple party of four, we immediately become a party of eight as each of my group could (and would) summon their own little combat imp.
Summoning is maybe the best example of one of the core mechanics of the game — elements. Combat isn’t just hitting the other people, it’s much more tactical than your average RPG. The floors can be soaked with water, and then targeted with electricity to shock and stun people. Acid can be cast to form barriers which must be navigated around, eating up valuable Action Points. Fires can be lit, and then extinguished with water to create dense clouds of smoke, obscuring vision and preventing attacks. Water can be frozen, freezing anyone unlucky enough to stand within. Blood can be made to rain from the sky, causing everyone to bleed themselves. I can only imagine it’s like a million tiny papercuts. Everything can be cursed or blessed.
Summoning your Incarnate — the combat imp — onto plain ground lets them do melee attacks. Summoning them onto the various kinds of elemental attributes imbues them with that element, giving them a variety of secondary powers, which include healing spells, life-draining spells, and ranged fireballs to name a few. Likewise, summoning ranged attacking totems works similarly. They summon imbued with the status substance they’re summon on top of, meaning you have some degree of control over the type of damage you want to inflict. In my second play-through, every fight gets to a point where I have eight or more totems on the ground, four imps running around, and my actual party standing back and lobbing magic, projectile shields, and arrows into anything in range.
Combat, the way I’d set my group up, was a bloodbath. Sometimes literally — blood doesn’t just rain from the sky, hitting living things spills blood, too.
On the whole, the combat is very good. Very, very good. Good in the kind of way that I could see myself playing a Tactics style game with this combat engine. Aside from the various status elements I’ve mentioned, elevation plays a key, raising or lowering your damage, range, and helping or hindering your line of sight. Gear, aside from providing buffs to skills and stats, provides both normal armor, and magical armor, which needs to be burned down before you can even begin to hurt the health of a player. There’s no mana system; spells can be used, and then go on a cooldown, requiring turns to pass before you can use them again. Positioning up next to an enemy can grant attacks of opportunity if they try and move away or around you. Positioning yourself behind someone can give damage bonuses for hitting from a blind spot.
The combat system is robust enough that I can almost guarantee there are a myriad of examples I’m missing, because I tend to specialize myself towards a single style of play.
I focus mainly on two schools of skills within the game — there are eleven in total — Summoning and Polymorph. Polymorph is a school of magic which lets you transform yourself for various temporary combat abilities, but also has spells to change how you can move around, in and out of combat. Early on, the serious completionists will be given a quest to retrieve a pair of Gloves of Teleportation, which lets the wearer teleport things and people elsewhere. Some switching of who is wearing the gloves means you can shift your party across otherwise impassable gaps in cliffs, or up castle walls, or through walls, or whatever. It takes a while, though.
There has to be a better way, I thought. A little ways into the second zone, I discovered a spell called Spread Your Wings, and quickly acquired four copies of it. Now my entire party could cast that spell and fly to distant locations, making my exploration that much quicker and enabling me to find all sorts of ways around obstacles. Most of the time this is an incredible boon. Occasionally I would accidentally launch myself directly into a combat situation. But for that sort of unrestricted travel, you have to take the good with the bad.
Speaking of taking the good with the bad, the story of the game is sort of all about doing that. The game opens with you and the wide cast of other playable and recruitable characters on a prison ship, being transported to a distant island to be dumped into a military prison called Fort Joy. This prison is where they send anyone and everyone who wields the Source — the magic power of the Gods, basically, and a different thing to most of the other magic you use — because using this power summons Voidwoken, generally represented by giant gross monsters which cause mayhem and murder wherever they go. From this opening, you end up at Fort Joy and begin to formulate an escape plan, to get yourself out into the world and find a way to deal with the Voidwoken and answer the call of the Gods.
The main thrust of the story is a prime example of taking the good with the bad. While it turns out that you and all the others you arrive at Fort Joy with are the chosen representatives of their various Gods, the story quickly reveals that there is some Highlander stuff going on. There can be only one. So as you travel with your chosen companions, you’re dogged by the knowledge that at some point it might all fall apart. You’re a party of adventurers, but you’re all also technically rivals and competitors. Helping your friends as they help you only makes the competition that much more capable, when the inevitable must occur.
Each character, in addition to the main storyline, has their own storylines happening at the same time. If you choose to play as one of these characters, you play out their stories alongside the actual main questline. If you create a character and travel with some of these existing characters, you get the broad strokes regardless. Lohse, for example, is a woman possessed by a literal demon. She’s trying to get rid of it while also ascending to Godhood, and people you encounter are very much against her achieving Godhood because of the demon inside of her.
The most interesting aspect of the story, the character stories, and all of the sidequests and whatnot is that everything is voiced. Every character and NPC delivers actual voice lines, and in the cases where there is only a passive description, there’s a narrator reading the description out. It’s something you might not even conciously notice, but it’s something that makes the world feel that much more alive. If you choose the talent that lets you speak with animals, even those are voiced. If it doesn’t represent a literal, staggering amount of depth, it at least makes you believe that anything is possible.
With any game of this scale, though, there are unfortunately bugs. Those character focused stories, for example, I was able to break almost immediately. In my first playthrough of the game, I killed everyone on the boat. As part of the story, they’re alive once more once you reach Fort Joy — there’s an actual, in-world explanation for why — but having killed them, the game picks up on some sort of death flag, and considers them dead from a quest-log point of view for the rest of the game. If you check your journal, their stories are ‘Closed’. Another time, I had a combat encounter bug out, in some sort of loop where an enemy couldn’t act, but couldn’t end their turn either, requiring loading an older save and playing out the fight differently to evade the issue. In my second playthrough, that same enemy NPC bugged out in an entirely different way, but I was able to utilize some clever AOE spells to kill them — I couldn’t target them directly.
These bugs are few and far between, though. They’re worth a mention — forewarned is forearmed — but across almost one hundred hours I encountered less than a handful total.
If the massive single player campaign isn’t enough, Divinity: Original Sin 2 also has a multiplayer component. A player can host a session, and up to three friends can join them and play through the game. It’s a bit janky, though. If you don’t join in before the game begins, you’re stuck playing one of the already created characters the host has selected. Your progress isn’t strictly your own, either. You can’t take that character back into your own game, or play it in a different multiplayer session with different people, either. If the host decides they’re done, you’re done. But it’s also sort of incredible. You don’t need to travel as a party, specifically. You can ‘detach’ and wander about on your own, covering more ground for your group and accomplishing multiple things at the same time. That competitive aspect I mentioned before is a fuller concept in multiplayer, too.
Why should the host of the game win, when you could just as easily be the one?
There’s a Dungeons and Dragons style mode, as well. You can create an entire campaign, from scratch, and play through it or run a group through it as their dungeon master. While I’ve only given that a cursory look, it seems robust. Created campaigns can be shared online, so others can experience the story you’ve created.
There’s just a hell of a lot to this game, and almost all of it is good. It’s rare that I play a game where I don’t generally get what I expect, but I didn’t know much of anything about Divinity: Original Sin 2, and could not stop playing it. For someone who plays a lot of games, that’s maybe the highest compliment I can give a game.
This review is based on a Steam code for the game sent to SideQuesting by the publisher.