Summary: Great Games You Never Played is a series of community reviews focusing on PC releases that managed to fly under the radar of the general gaming public. In this inaugural edition, FiringSquad community member Synchronous Failure shares his thoughts on the 2009 cRPG Divinity II: The Dragon Knight Saga.
Written by: Synchronous Failure
Edited by: Jacob VanDerWerf
Earlier this year, Dragon Age II was released to the cries and lamentations of many an RPG fan. Though it is certainly not a bad game, it pales in nearly every respect to its predecessor, Dragon Age: Origins. Gamers are rightfully worried at the direction the genre is suddenly taking, from news that Mass Effect 3 and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim will be further dumbed-down to the level of titles that could barely be called RPGs, like Fable 3 and Final Fantasy XIII.
However, the RPG genre isn’t dying. Many gamers are apt to ignore releases without massive marketing budgets and a sea of hype to carry it. Too many games that are every bit as polished and high in production value simply go unheard of. One of these games, Divinity II, is the king of the sleeper titles. It quite frankly baffles my mind as to how this game failed to receive a fraction of the attention other sleeper titles like The Witcher got.
Divinity II is the sequel to 2002’s Divine Divinity, whose only legacy was having one of the worst names ever conceived. That game was a straight-up Diablo clone with an interesting story and technically perfect gameplay and graphics. However, there was really nothing special about it, nothing to remember it by; it was immensely by-the-book. Its sequel would be no different, were it not for the fact that cRPGs are becoming rarer with every passing year.
So how does this tie into Dragon Age? Besides the fact that Divinity II was released the same month as DA:O (the chief reason for its obscurity), it carries essentially the same gameplay, interface, and general plot. Indeed, the graphics and art style carry uncanny similarities and yet both games couldn’t be more different. There are so many minor divergences, variations, and design decisions that add up to a completely unique experience.
If there was only one thing that could be said about this game, it would be about its narrative. Very few games successfully pull off plot twists that the player doesn’t see coming (Bioshock is another example), nor are there very many games that keep to a near perfect pacing. Divinity II easily reaches the limited pantheon of games where the quality of its writing propels the game forward more than any of its other features.
Unfortunately, this means that explicitly discussing the game’s story and a few of its gameplay features cannot be done without revealing several massive spoilers. However, there will be none of that in this review, so you may proceed without fear!
The Divinity franchise includes two full games before Divinity II, thereby automatically lending a very rich backstory full of detail and wonder. Playing these games, however, is not required to gain a full grasp and understanding of the world. The NPCs at the beginning of the game will straight-up tell you what happened, why it matters, and what you should be looking forward to. Furthermore, the game world is littered with fully readable books (just like in Oblivion, sort of similar to the codex entries in Dragon Age) that comprise everything from backstory to quest clues to humorous frivolous entries that grant the world so much more character. Hell, there’s even a book on how necromantic torture may result in some hilarious slapstick comedy.
Indeed, Divinity II is absolutely full of dark humor. Somehow it all strikes up a perfect balance so that it is effective in comic relief but never feeling like a parody. Most NPCs carry unique personalities with various tics and subtleties, which the voice actors brilliantly pull off. The dialogue is perfectly crafted, the acting refined, and the character animation fluid enough to convey more than the dialogue ever could. Most games lug around the industry buzzword “cinematic.” Divinity II is, in contrast, “theatrical” in everything that it does. Perhaps it’s merely the infusion of so much British culture that lends it such a unique flavor, but the story of this game is less epic fantasy and more Shakespearean comedy, right down to what are essentially audience asides if you read an NPC’s mind.
What? Mind-reading? Yes, sir, you can read every single NPC’s mind in order to get quest clues, experience, treasure locations, or just humorous thoughts that range from superficial banter to laugh-out-loud moments. Mind-reading will cost you experience points, however, so use it sparingly.
There is always a second or third way to go about a quest and there are absolutely no shortage of choices. In the very first map after the tutorial you can decide the fate of over a dozen NPCs. One of the largest shortfalls of the game, however, is the utter lack of consequences to go with the multitude of choices. In fact, pretty much the only plot-changing consequence is at the endgame. There are also no consequences to the way you talk. You can choose a neutral dialog path and then go straight to asshole without a penalty to NPC disposition.
Combat in Divinity II is real-time hack-and-slash. There is no auto-attack and everything is very responsive. In fact, with the exception of a few powers, projectiles can be dodged and blocked using cover. Your character is also extremely acrobatic (this is explained in the story) and can basically somersault through the air and roll about like a dervish from hell. There are no pre-determined classes but rather four pools to choose skills from – Priest, Mage, Warrior, and Ranger – which you can mix and match to your heart’s content.
Skills do have some major balance issues, however. Almost everything from the Priest skill pool is useless, skills do not level with you and require extra added points to become effective (often still not enough), and other skills are so overpowered that I literally became impossible to kill. However, that was towards the end and skill points are very slow to come by throughout the length of the game.
I felt that Divinity II was mostly biased towards melee characters. The best and most devastating, not to mention fun, skills can be found in the Warrior path and are very easily complimented by the other skill sets. I initially set out to be a Ranger, but to my surprise, the game became a third-person shooter. Though you can auto-aim you can also manually take control of the direction you shoot your arrows, which is incredibly cool but really only useful if you’re shooting at targets from a distance auto-aiming doesn’t reach. A quarter of the way through the game, it became evident that the only way you can succeed is through the use of close-quarters weapons and fire spells.
Although there is no party system, you do get a pet. It’s probably best that there isn’t a party system because the AI in Divinity II is practically nonexistent. Path-finding is atrocious, NPCs get stuck all the time, and there isn’t any semblance of unique tactics or attacks. Thankfully, the game will automatically transport stuck characters to your position and keeps important people immortal.
The inventory system is just like what you would find playing any MMO. There are armor slots for every major section of the body, different armor values (common, rare, epic, etc.), and math-heavy statistics. Your inventory is very generous in size and, past the halfway point of the game, you can automatically transport items to your storage no matter where you are in the world. The reason for this is that you will take control of your very own fortress that you can upgrade a la Overlord. You will have command over several NPC underlings who can craft potions, armor, enchantments, skill upgrades, and pet upgrades. You can even have scouts go out and find ingredients without having to search for them yourself.
I haven’t mentioned the most significant gameplay feature in the game because it was a pleasant surprise. Unfortunately the gameplay tips that are shown in the loading screen may spoil it if it shows up too early. However, as you might infer from Divinity II’s subtitle, the game has a lot to do with dragons. You start out as a Dragon Slayer, a member of an elite guild of super-powered warriors that exist to exact revenge against the dragon race and their descendants for crimes committed before the game’s story. Telling you anything more would spoil it.
The user interface is one of the cleanest and most minimal you will find in an RPG, which is absolutely refreshing. Dungeons and mines do get a little repetitive at times, but for the most part they’re unique and usually small enough that you won’t die of boredom. Huge dungeons that are integral to the main quest are very imaginative and full of puzzles, most simply being mindless platforming and lever-pulling although one dungeon in particular murdered my brain. It involved solving a series of math-based riddles that the creators admit may be a complete lie. It took a while to figure it out, but when I did, I almost had to jump up and high-five myself, something only Portal has made me do before.
Divinity II is built on the Gamebryo engine, the same one used in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion and Fallout 3. Whilst not the most jaw-dropping game out there, it’s still very pretty, with a colorful environment and a lot of atmosphere. The draw distance for NPCs and mobs is a bit crappy; they won’t appear until you get somewhat close to them. However, the environments are very detailed and there is an amazing sense of depth.
What is jaw-dropping, though, are some of the cinematics. The intro, outro, and a few other scenes resemble something Blizzard or BioWare would create. Unfortunately, most of them are not like this, instead consisting of pre-rendered low-res movies made within the game engine.
Do not play Divinity II with a multi-card setup. Your FPS will be halved and the game will be unplayable. And despite the game using a pretty dated engine and being under two years old it is quite the resource hog. Its poor optimization is not ideal for older PCs or notebooks.
Divinity II isn’t just a fun, foreign RPG to try out when there’s nothing else to play. It’s actually one of my favorite RPGs of all time. It was a memorable experience from start to finish that I enjoyed every minute of. At the end of this 60-70 hour journey, I felt upset that it was all over. Too many games feel like a chore to complete, especially towards the end, but Divinity II was absolutely engrossing the whole way through.
Even though I am head-over-heels in love with this game, I admit it might not be so well received by everyone else. It’s a classic computer RPG with a lot of confusing and redundant statistics and randomly-generated loot; it won’t hold your hand at any point. At the same time, it departs from that formula with its fast-paced, real-time combat. The game can range from extraordinarily frustrating to pathetically easy depending on which unbalanced skills you choose. Thankfully, you can re-roll these skills at the cost of some gold any time you want.
Despite its flaws, I wholeheartedly recommend Divinity II: The Dragon Knight Saga to anyone with a passing interest in the genre. (It’s actually an enhanced re-release of Divinity II: Ego Draconis and includes the large expansion pack Flames of Vengeance.) Unfortunately, the game hasn’t come down in price, with the cost remaining $40 from Steam or GamersGate and $32 from Amazon. I believe it’s more than worth that price, but with winter sales not too far away and many big name games looming on the horizon, it may be best to wait for a sale to snag it half-off.
This review of Divinity II: The Dragon Knight Saga was written by Synchronous Failure, an active member of FiringSquad's community of hardcore gamers. If you're interested in contributing something of your own to be published on the FS front page, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
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