Game review: Divinity: Original Sin II for Steam

It’s rare for me to mention how much time I played a game before reviewing it, but I think saying upfront that I played five hundred and thirty nine hours of Divinity: Original Sin 2 can help back up some of what I’m going to say. This is because for as much as I loved a lot of the game, I also hated it in equal measure. In fact, I can’t think of a single game that challenged me more to wring enjoyment from it while it in turn tried to aggravate me to the point of wanting to break a controller.

Oh, fair warnings are in order. This will likely be a long post, and there will be spoilers. So if you wanted the short and sweet, spoiler free version: great combat systems cannot balance out terrible enemy AI, nor can it absolve the schism between Pratchett-like humor and grimdark world building, and it cannot overcome not one, but two terrible control schemes.

So, spoilers and long-windedness after the cut m’kay?

Right, so Divinity: Original Sin 2 was supposed to be a litmus test on whether I should try Baldur’s Gate III because I’ve never played any Larian games, OR any Baldur’s Gate entries, either. I figured I might run through it with a rogue and bang out a review in a week or three.

That was back in early September.

I first ran into personal problems just trying to pick a class that clicked for me, restarting eight times without finding anything I liked. I then swapped to using mouse and keyboard briefly to see what I thought of it, only to discover that I could edit the characters’ starting spells. Using a controller, the ability to edit is not as simple as seeing an edit button to click. That’s because the UI from one control scheme is VASTLY different from the other.

But let’s set that aside, because I continued to play my way into the middle of Act II, only to decide I wasn’t happy and restart to build another new character. I didn’t even get to the big twist of the game until I’d played two hundred hours of the first two areas, Fort Joy and Reaper’s Coast. By the time I actually did find a character I liked, I understood the combat system so intimately that I knew exactly where to place my crew for maximum damage to the enemy and reduced area of effect damage to my own people.

You’ll note I’m not touching the story yet, and there’s a reason for that. First, I really want to cover why I stuck with this so long, even when hubby and my sister-in-law were asking why I didn’t just drop it if it made me so mad. The answer to that is, regardless of what class you pick, or what other characters and classes are in your party, every single fight in the game can be overcome so long as you look at them as very complex puzzles.

In addition to variables like odds (the ratio of enemies to party size), available skills and items, the environment must be taken into account. There might be hazards on the ground like pools of oil or poison, both of which are flammable. There might be water, which can become shocking with lightning spells, or vaporize into steam if a fire spell is cast on it. Even a puddle of blood, yours or the enemies’, can suddenly become an unaccounted for hazard by casting the wrong thing at the wrong time.

It’s these puzzle elements that kept me coming back, because rather than trying to brute force a fight like I might do with games like Dark Souls or Skyrim, I actually needed to develop strategies for every fight, and then be able to adapt if my carefully crafted plan went tits up mid-fight because one of the enemy enchanters decided to ignite the whole battlefield, covering friend and foe alike in flames and setting a timer of attrition on everyone.

This would be even better if the enemy had to deal with the changing environment rules the same way the game enforces them on my party, but now we get into cardinal sin number one: the enemy cheats. My characters cannot fire spells nor arrows through steam or smoke no matter how thin it is, but enemy units can fire away with no problems. Similarly, none of my people can fire over waist-high railings or stair handrails, but the enemy units can. They can fire from elevated positions at player characters close to the wall underneath them, where as a player character aiming from the same spot will get the warning “Path is interrupted!” The enemy can teleport to places the player cannot, can make shots that are straight up impossible, and are often allowed way more turns per round than any player character, even with the Lone Wolf talent adding more action points for that character.

Which leads directly into problem number two: the enemy has to cheat because they’re so painfully stupid that their mistakes often become comedy gold. I lost track of the number of times an enemy might throw a flame grenade, only for it to miss my whole crew and strike only their buddy positioned behind my folks. And yes, that is hilarious almost every time it happens.

But it’s not so funny when enemy troops ignore one of their grievously wounded comrades to cast healing spells on my undead mage. (Undead in this game are wounded by healing spells and potions, instead healing from poison, which has a whole separate rant attached to it real soon.) It isn’t funny or fun watching the AI make dumb mistakes, only to correct them by employing some cheats to get back on track.

Eventually, I took this behavior into account by initiating battle with only one character, drawing all aggression toward them while the other members of my crew were free to move in real time. All the enemy units are forced to hold still and wait their turn while I set them up for mass murder. Cheesy? Sure, but if the game’s going to cheat to this degree, I don’t feel bad finding ways to break the rules myself.

Adding to these issues is enemies able to use spells indefinitely. Examples include a magister casting a spell called Shackles of Pain in a hostage situation. This spells lasts for three turns for players, and is meant to inflict damage onto ONE linked character each time the player takes damage. This mini boss is chained to three hostages, and it is impossible to rescue them, even if I have my people heal the hostages after every attack. Even twelve turns later, they’re still affected by the spell. It’s bullshit.

Other examples include enemy troops who can permanently cast wings, avoiding all elemental ground effects like fire and poison, or assassins who cast invisibility spells or drink potions that last indefinitely when they should only last around five turns. There are more, but trying to catalogue all the ways the game fucks over players by letting the enemy troops cheat is mentally exhausting.

Then on top of that, there’s a lot of spells that I feel like a character’s stats ought to determine whether they take effect or not. A character of high intelligence should be less prone to being charmed or suffering madness. A character of high dexterity should have a better chance of dodging incoming spells, and a character with high constitution and strength ought to be a lot harder to knock down. But all of these status effects landing come down to what clothing the character is wearing, and whether or not it still has magic armor. I got so tired of seeing “Blinding blocked by magic armor.” It doesn’t make any sense that a blinding light should somehow not be debilitating just because a dude was wearing a certain robe.

While the environmental interactions are interesting in theory, the game makers made some really bad or downright dumb choices. Water makes steam? Okay. Water and fire makes flaming steam? Uh, dafuq? Also, there’s four different flavors of fire, most of which cannot be extinguished with water magics like Rain or Winter Blast, and two that prevent the use of healing spells or potions. Poison is also flammable, so imagine being an undead character trying to cast a pool of poison to heal in, and it instead ignites and makes the situation worse.

Compounding this interaction issue is that a lot of traps involve surfaces coated in flammable and explosive materials, but give no indication that they are. I might set up a character to fire from what looks like a safe position, only to learn in the first round of combat that they are in fact standing in something flammable that they won’t be able to get clear of without burning two turns worth of action points.

I could actually spend a lot longer nitpicking all kinds of infuriating scenarios where the game feels designed to blow up in your party’s collective faces, but I’d much rather move on to the next complaint, the controls. I spent a lot of time playing this on a controller because years of FPS games on a mouse and keyboard left my right wrist in such a bad state that I didn’t have any choice but to move to controllers. So after years of using different control schemes, I can say that this is easily one of the worst I’ve had to suffer through.

The “pointer” for the controller is finicky and inaccurate. It will often wander from one attack to another on the same enemy. If you don’t reposition it every time, look forward to one melee attack, and two wasted action points as the character walks around the enemy rather than fight them. What if you’re fighting on a platform over the ground? Get ready to experience the joy of the camera and pointer abandoning the battle to give you a tour of NOTHING FUCKING USEFUL.

“Duh,” you say, “just used the mouse and keyboard.” Yeah, I tried that, and there are no movement keys. Both WASD and the arrow keys control the camera, and the controls to rotate and pan the camera are all over the place on the keyboard, preventing me from just leaving my hand in a single comfortable pose.

Even better? Every manipulation of the camera unlocks it from the player. So, you rotated the camera to see a hidden door? Well, to move and have the camera follow the character, you have to lock it back on with another key press, which goes back to the rotation and orientation you didn’t want. You can’t have both the angle you wanted and the ability to have a camera lock. That’s not just dumb, it’s a terrible design choice that every isometric dungeon crawler I’ve ever played avoided. Oh, and all of those games put movement keys on WASD.

Finally, finally, we arrive to the story. It opens with your character waking on a ship bound for Fort Joy with a magic collar around their neck preventing them from using Source magic. The ship is sunk by an evil witch trying to murder all the *shudder* Sourcerers, and after being revived by their god, the player awakens on the shore of Fort Joy.

Tasked with recruiting a party and escaping, Fort Joy essentially serves as the tutorial island, as well as being the introduction to the magisters, or as I took to calling them, Magi-Nazis. The name certainly fits, with an army of fanatics carting men, women, and children to a concentration camp to either die of disease or starvation, or literally volunteer to a “cure” that involves removing their fucking soul, leaving a husk that is still alive, but lacking in any personality or will of their own. Many are happy to torture and murder Sourcerers with little prompting. There’s even an evil magister performing grisly experiments like Dr. Mengele.

During this tutorial, the player meets with the god representing their race, who explains that they are Godwoken, and that they must ascend to become the next Divine and replace the last Divine, who was supposedly murdered by his son for reasons that are absolutely legit.

Now, I could do a beat by beat rundown of the plot, but instead, here’s the spoiler heavy Cliff’s Notes version. One, the previous Divine, Lucian,  isn’t actually dead, and the magisters are working off of his plan to “save the world” by stripping every person capable of becoming Godwoken of their souls. Men, women, and children, all effectively dead.

Lucian also mass murdered the elves with a magic called Death Fog just to eliminate a rebel group hiding in their lands, and then had his second in command mow down all the ancestor trees in their land, which are elves who died and grew into these trees. He then had her carve up these elf ancestors to make magic enslaved boats. He’s got his people planning to murder all the lizard people next, I guess because when you’re on a roll, why stop at just one genocide?

And the people of the world fucking love him even knowing all his crimes. He’s like Hitler and the Pope got merged into one person, and the Catholic church collectively went, “WOW, HE’S EVEN BETTER NOW THAT HE’S OPENLY EATING BABY FLESH!”

The character learns that there’s a massive threat coming, the Void, and it’s a danger to the seven patron gods and to all of their children, who were created in their likeness. But depending on whether you ask the right questions or not, it comes out that these seven gods are actually an elder race known as the Eternals. They stole power from the seal binding the Void, and then they sacrificed most of their own people to the Void, leaving them free to pose as gods and create a shared garden to play with mortal toys and feed on their source when they died.

Then the players learns that the king of the Eternals is breaking the seal on the Void to bring back their people, punish the seven false gods for damn near destroying the Eternal races, and oh, also wipe out every living thing to start over with a new world suited for his people.

So, it takes most of the game to realize that there are no good guys in the game. There’s barely any morally grey people, unless you choose to play your character that way. In the end, you have to choose whether to prop up the reign of the seven mass murdering false gods, support Lucian McNazi and let him go through with his wretched plans (and be loved even more for it), or to support the Void King and say fuck all of creation.

And yes, there are a few more endings. I know because I played all the way through to get two of them. But after feeling dissatisfied with both, I looked up the rest, and I didn’t care for any of them. I’m sure some folks liked the grimdark setting, but to me every ending could be summarized as, “Yes you won, but fuck you anyway. See you in the sequel, biyatch!”

To reiterate, I know a lot of people love the setting and all the endings, and some might argue with me, “But isn’t this more realistic, given how people are?” My answer is, I don’t want my fantasy gaming to be more realistic or more grim. I want escapism. I don’t need to be the chosen one, either. I just want a game that lets me use fantasy trappings to get away from how awful the real world is, not find a game that makes me think how eerily analogous the fantasy and reality settings are. Because really, that’s depressing, and I don’t play games to feel depressed.

Coming down to a score, and factoring in all of the things that drove me nuts, I really want to drop an angry 2 and walk away. But I did play over five hundred hours, and I did love the battles. (Even though I also hated them.) So by the same token, I can’t give this a 5 or 4. I’m stuck at 3 stars, and I guess I have to accept that because I don’t do half stars.

On a final note, I’m still not sure if I want to play Baldur’s Gate III. I understand it’s the same general underlying combat systems with an added layer of D n’ D rules, including actual dice rolls for saving throws. That does sound like something I want to play. But I’m also hesitant to go down that rabbit hole. Maybe I’ll end up in the same loop of resetting until I find the right class for me. Maybe I’ll find the same flaws in the game that I did here. And maybe I’ll feel just as frustrated by the story that starts out promising “consequences for my actions,” but quickly funnels me into the same tunnel as everyone else, dumping me out at the end for a handful of endings, all of which make me go “Meh.”

As for who I’d recommend this for, I’d say strategy gamers who like unfair odds and grimdark settings. If that’s your idea of a good time, then this could definitely be your jam.