Even the start screen is enticing. Yes! I think, pressing any key to begin. Here we go. This is what I need, this is what I’ve been looking for, give me this colourful, bright, pollen-in-the-air RPG, give me that melodic soundtrack filling me with wonder and optimism. What can I say? Sometimes you’re just really in the mood for a densely detailed, text-heavy tabletop style RPG. No really, you are.
Hey, remember when games weren’t afraid of varied colour palettes?
Personally, I blame PC Gamer for it. Their coverage of Divinity: Original Sin, along with Pillars of Eternity, Torment: Tides of Numenera et al., was making me crave a vast game I could lose myself in, learning scraps of lore, investing myself in each character with their own idiosyncrasies and stories. The more ridiculous, the better. The clincher was PC Gamer’s Game of the Year choice: Divinity: Original Sin 2. I’d had my eye on it for a while but that settled it. I wanted in on this. However, I opted for the first. It only felt right; it was the beginning of an immensely popular PC RPG, highly acclaimed in PC gaming communities. I owed it to myself to play this. Also, it was cheaper than 2 in the Steam sale.
Then my friend B mentioned that he was interested in it as well, since someone had recommended it to him. Now, we’re no strangers to co-op. We’ve been doing it for years. Our co-op playthroughs of Dark Souls 1, 2, and 3, as well as Bloodborne, are legendary (to us). We’ve conducted successful campaigns together in Total War: Warhammer, too, painting the map with our respective colours. But Divinity? A text-heavy, classic-style RPG? Well, there’s only one way to find out.
Now, having played very little of Divinity-esque games in the past, I’ve only got a vague idea of what I’m in for here. Given its lighter tone, I’m picturing the stat-heavy combat and customisation of Dungeons and Dragons mixed with the bright aesthetic and toilet humour of Fable. This is a winning combination. Navigating through the pretty main menu, I start a new multiplayer game, hovering over the Honour Mode option, a one-save-only Hard Mode, only for a laugh before settling on Classic Mode, a sensible choice for a novice.
This looks stat-heavy and intimidating at first: don’t worry; it is.
In the character creation screen I run into my first hurdle: I have no idea what’s going on. I relax, though. This is normal RPG fare. Have faith in yourself, click around, read the label. You’ll soon settle in. I set about scrolling through the options for one of the characters before B diligently points out that I need to invite him to join the game. Well, I suppose. He gets the character on the right, the man. I get the woman on the left, a choice I’m happy with given how much fun my Femshep playthrough was in Mass Effect. Not only that, but the only body option for a male character appears to be an absolute tree trunk. Cycling through the options for face paint, hairstyle, hair colour (and, for presumably important plot reasons, underwear style), I’m struck by how little aesthetic choice there really is beyond skin colour and hair. Bioware RPGs have spoiled me. Not only that, but once I’ve settled on a look for this character, I can’t find a portrait option at the top to match her. It’s a tiny disparity, really, but nevertheless, it’s enough to make me mourn what could have been.
True to embarrassing tradition, I name my customisable characters after my favourite writers and critical thinkers (Gilles Deleuze, the protagonist of my abandoned Persona 5 playthrough, created an intriguing ‘French intellectual in Tokyo’ narrative). For my Divinity character, I settle on calling her Sunday, after Susan Sontag. Slapping myself for being such a poseur, I decide on her class: Fighter. Since I know B will make his man a mage of some kind, I want to create a potential tension between my stoic, non-magic wielding paladin and the arcane-enamoured Enchanter. I decide to play around with stats as little as possible, leaving that for a future playthrough once I’m more familiar with the systems. Backing out of my creation menu, I catch a glimpse of B’s character, Lawliet, a giant of a man with a silver mohawk and some very nice facepaint.
See you on the beach, assholes.
Happy with ourselves, we begin. The opening cutscene details something called the Source which has gone bad and which people in Rivellon must now hunt. I should be paying attention as a sailor explains our current position but I find myself wondering why more games don’t begin on dimly lit sailing ships, a grizzled captain providing exposition. Orc ships are blocking our way. My attention is divided between the game and the chat box so I make a mental note to buy a microphone so that future sessions can be covered with voice chat.
As we explore the beach we’ve landed on, I test out my knightly combat abilities. My Crushing Fist attack accidentally crushes Lawliet into the sand. Friendly fire is operable, I see. Working our way up the beach, exploring, we eventually come to our first combat encounter as an evil-looking cultist summons a group of skeletons. So far, so fantasy. Combat is turn-based, action points determine the distance you can travel and the moves you can make in your turn. Unfortunately, we spend so long cycling through our actions and surveying the field that the dramatic, adrenalin-fuelled fantasy score fades away, leaving us confronting our first enemies in the game with nothing but the sound of lapping waves on the shore. There are worse soundtracks.
I should be excited about how future battles and abilities can let me conserve action points and manipulate the queue, but I’m more enamoured with the cartoonish textures on that boulder behind me.
Once we get things rolling, the combat is entertaining and gratifying. All the tension sucked out of the room, Lawliet tightens the noose once more with a freezing spell, turning a skeletal thrall into an ice sculpture. I follow up, using myself as a battering ram to knock over a Lieutenant and his servant. I sneak a stab at the prone Lieutenant, kicking him while he’s down, but now I’m in the middle of their grinning troupe. Luckily, they’re more interested in my companion, who receives the brunt of their attack. I focus on the Lieutenant, missing him once in a series of frantic attacks before finally smiting him. My enchanter buddy picks up the frozen servant and telekinetically smashes him onto the sand, shattering him into bony ice shards. Given the light show he’s providing, I find myself wishing I’d opted for a magic character after all: shoulder bashes and swordplay are all well and good, but I want my fireballs and lightning strikes. While I’m pondering my error, the sole survivor of our amateur offensive chances a puny slash at me before I finish him off with a swish of my starter sword. Job done!
This is about to go spectacularly, badly wrong.
Skirmish concluded, our characters enter a dialogue, discussing topics such as the magic stone the cult leader possessed, and the murder, the details of which we must hae missed in the game’s opening when we were too busy talking about boats. We move on, but a notice pops up informing me of a Dungeon in the area. ‘Tutorial’ flashes before my mind’s eye, but B is already off, combing the beach for shells and, oddly, a cookbook. I chase after him, but by the time I catch up with him, he’s insulted two drunk men on a bridge and has engaged them in mortal combat. I curse my firebrand companion, and dive in.
We make short work of the guards, but our characters voice their concern: this could have been avoided. We agree. Ordinarily I would accept this mistake and move on, but we are a democracy, plus I’ve already realised I’ve made the same mistake I make in every RPG: Knight characters are boring. Why would I play as a sword and board paragon when I could have played as a witty, lightning-throwing sorcerer? B and I chalk this up to a learning experience, quit to the main menu, and leave the past behind us. Next time, we say, it’ll be different.