Let’s get one thing out of the way: I’m a relatively recent convert to the CRPG genre. Not RPGs in general, but the isometric, lavishly written with text-based role-playing elements kind that went extinct in the mid-2000s.
Because the only contact that I had with gaming was through a dingy PS1 when I was a kid, I missed out on classics such as Baldur’s Gate, Planescape Torment and Arcanum: Of Magick Obscura, and by the time I finally got my first gaming desktop, those games were already too old. So, naturally, I jumped right into the next generation of RPGs, which was marked by classics such as Gothic and Knights of the Old Republic.
My first contact with CRPGs happened a few years ago when I decided to pick up Underrail on sale. It didn’t stick to me. Then I picked up Pillars of Eternity, which I enjoyed, but I abandoned it for reasons which I’ll elaborate on later in the article. Only when I got Divinity: Original Sin 2 was I truly converted to this niche. It’s not only a good CRPG in its own right, it’s one of the best games ever released, a genre-defining masterpiece that all future titles should try to emulate. Why? Let’s take it step by step…
The Character Creator
One of the defining aspects of RPGs is the character creator, where you basically invest skill points to create the fearsome fighter, the hippie druid, the arrogant wizard or the wisecracking rogue that you wish you was, were it not for your office job or the fact that you live, you know, in the real world.
Thing is, even as an RPG aficionado, you can end up creating an absolutely useless character because the systems and the mechanics can vary from game to game. Divinity: Original Sin 2 solves this issue by offering five premade (or ‘’Origin’’, as the game calls them) characters, each with their own personalities, perks, and affinities. You can either fiddle with their stats in the character creation screen, or leave that for later when you have a better understanding of the underlying systems of the game and you access the option to respec your party.
The Pacing and Structure
The reason why I abandoned Pillars of Eternity halfway through the game was that it suffered from a severe case of ‘’lore-dump’’. What’s lore-dump? Well, imagine starting reading say, Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series from the fifth volume. Being such an expansive and complex universe, naturally, the random name-throwing, callbacks to past events, and passing references will leave you as confused as a newborn puppy.
This is exactly how I felt while playing Pillars of Eternity. 20 hours into the story, I still didn’t have a basic grasp of the lore, or even the main narrative. What’s the Ladden Key? Who’s Woedica? Oh, I’m apparently a Watcher and can communicate with souls. Riiiight. The Gaelish inspired names, places and terminology certainly didn’t make everything more comprehensible for my casual brain. To be fair, being the first CRPG released in god knows how many years, the devs probably did this to quench the thirst of old-school fans of the genre.
While Divinity: Original Sin 2 does suffer from the occasional pacing issue, in my opinion, it’s the best example on how to pace, structure and deliver a lore-heavy universe in an accessible and comprehensible package. Being a series that stretches back to the early 2000s, they could’ve easily dump every obscure deity and event from their deep catalogue and call it a day. While DOS2 is certainly filled with callbacks and references to previous games, they are cleverly integrated into the overall narrative and explained, so even if you have no prior knowledge of this universe, you still feel at home.
If the systems and mechanics are the mind of an RPG, the writing is its soul. The writing is the glue that links everything together and confers the raw, mechanical systems of the game with context and life. While the universe can feel trope-y at times, the writers managed to compensate for all the high-fantasy nonsense by bringing their own spin.
The writing is characterized by a cheerful sort of nihilism, so much so that you often forget that you’re in a bleak, oppressive world that is approaching a catastrophic end. The game treats dark subjects such as murder and torture with a humorous tone, but without trivializing them, which is a very hard balance to strike as far as writing is concerned.
There’s a scene in the game when you stumble upon a bunch of human heads on spikes that are somehow still able to talk. Now, in other games, you would’ve probably been treated with some exposition and possibly a quest. In DOS2, if you play as a certain character, you can crack bad puns such as ‘’Don’t get ahead of yourself’’ or ‘’I’m gonna head off’, to the victim’s understandable exasperation.
Then there’s one of the characters who blabbers about the ethics of ‘’battlefield face extraction’’ like it’s the most normal thing in the world. The humorous tone of the writing eases you into the game’s dark universe, so much so that you start feeling comfortable.
Then the game has you explain to a bear cub that his mom was killed and never coming back, and you’re brought back to reality.
Another element that carries the writing is the characters. DOS2 has some of the most interesting RPG characters I’ve seen since Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines. There’s Fane, written by none other than the great Chris Avellone, the undead skeleton who talks down to my human character and my ‘’irrelevant’’ dilemmas with the condescension that only an immortal being could muster. There’s the Red Prince, a humanoid lizard who orders everyone around like he’s back at the imperial court. Ifan, the troubled human knight (ok, there’s more depth to him, I promise). And, my personal favorite, Lohse, the ditsy, wise-cracking world-famous singer whose mind is possessed by a demonic being.
There’s tons of other great characters like the crab who’s looking after his crab friend who thinks it’s a powerful wizard, the dog who turns out to be a demon, the bridge troll who justifies his extortion racket by blaming the faulty infrastructure and the systemic corruption of the realm, the troll who wants him dead to eliminate competition, and so on and so forth. These characters add flavour and colour to what could’ve been a regular high-fantasy setting.
The Quest Design
Another thing that makes DOS2 stand out is the clever quest design, which wouldn’t be possible if the game didn’t feature an almost uncanny synergy between the writing and the RPG mechanics. One seemingly innocent dialogue choice can trigger an entire sequence of events and lock you out of certain quest lines, and it does so unapologetically, as the game isn’t meant to be experienced fully in a single run.
Actions as banal as triggering a trap or opening a door at a certain time can shape the outcome of certain events. You can kill every single NPC and still be able to finish the story. This speaks volumes about the effort that was put into designing the game, as they developed it in such a way that player actions have a visible, tangible effect on the game.
The Interactivity and Variety
Divinity: Original Sin 2 has been praised for its gameplay variety and a high degree of interactivity, and for good reason, and the real hook here is that these things apply to both combat and exploration.
Let’s say you find, I don’t know, a huge painting canvas, a pretty common occurrence in DOS2. You can use that painting to trigger a hidden mechanism, revealing a hidden treasure room, or crush your enemies with it through the powers of telekinesis. The same thing applies to nearly every object in the game – murdering my enemies with random pieces of furniture became my modus operandi.
Another layer of the game’s interactivity is the way players can manipulate the elements during combat. Hitting water with fire will create steam, which obstructs visibility, poison sludges can be turned into poisonous clouds by casting a rain spell on them, water can be electrified to shock enemies, and so on and so forth.
Thanks to the way it’s designed, the game is almost begging you to exploit it and find the peskiest way to accomplish the objectives, whether by distracting an enemy with small-talk while maneuvering your party into a flanking formation, or by teleporting that asshole straight into a flammable poisonous sludge before they have the chance to react.
Divinity: Original Sin 2 is far from being a perfect game, but even with all of its flaws, it’s still one of the best this genre has to offer. There are tons of other details that I didn’t have the time, nor space to cover, like the fact that you can get quests from animals, the brilliant soundtrack or the online multiplayer. But to summarize, this is kind of like The Wire of video games – after you beat it, you’ll judge all future RPGs by it.