(PC Review) Divine Divinity

Developer: Larian Studios
Publisher: CDV Software
Genre: Action / Role-Playing Game
Players: 1
ESRB: Teen
Reviewer: Nick Stewart

Overall: 8.5 = Excellent

Minimum Requirements:
P2 450, 128MB RAM, 8MB video card, 4x CD-ROM, 2.5 GB HD, Win 98/ME/2000/XP

(Originally published on November 06, 2002)

Without a doubt, this year has truly been a banner year for RPGs. Rarely have fans of the genre been privy to such a large number of high-quality titles within a single calendar year: between the likes of Morrowind, Neverwinter Nights, Geneforge, Avernum 3, Icewind Dale 2, Dungeon Siege, as well as the upcoming Arx Fatalis, Gothic 2, and Morrowind: Tribunal, it truly seems as though there’s no shortage of tremendously entertaining—and tremendously different—offerings. As the year winds down, Divine Divinity quietly makes its way onto this extremely competitive scene, without much fanfare or publicity. Don’t let the game’s quiet arrival into the RPG arena fool you, however, as its understated charms and time-tested qualities easily elevate it to a level comparable to its peers.

Set in the standard fantasy world of knights and mages, humans and orcs, dwarves and elves, Divine Divinity tells the tale of a single adventurer—you—who, while fighting a handful of orcs in the woods, finds him- or herself struck unconscious by a beam of white light. You are discovered by a wandering healer, who takes you back to his small community of like-minded healers and informs you that all is not well with the world. Sure enough, you soon discover that an ancient evil is set to rise up once again, and only the Divine One is capable of stopping him. Naturally, you’re one of the three Marked Ones who may or may not be this savior, leaving you to travel high and low while fighting armies of enemies while discovering the deeper mystery of the land’s sicknesses, as well as the possibilities of who you truly are. As far as fantasy tales go, the story is not particularly original; in fact, it’s downright derivative. Thankfully, the completely non-linear approach that the game offers, which allows you to crisscross between the main story and countless optional quests, helps to dilute the generic plot while giving the gameplay a more wide-open feel that too often is missing in modern CRPGs.

In virtually every interview he gave prior to Divine Divinity‘s release, Swen Vincke went to great lengths to emphasize that no matter how it looked, his game was in fact absolutely, positively not an extension of Diablo II. Upon firing up Divine Divinity, one can guess as to why Mr. Vincke so vehemently protested the apparent resemblance, because the game does in fact bear a tremendous and at times overwhelming similarity to Blizzard’s blockbuster action title—at least initially. It takes time, but you’ll gradually come to realize that, although it borrows much of its combat stylings from Diablo II, Divine Divinity possesses infinitely more depth, refinement, texture, and soul than any straight-up hack-and-slash. With that said, the similarities are still worth noting and discussing, as they make up certain core aspects of the game.

For starters, the combat is much the same, as a single click is all that’s needed to get your hero to target their enemies and mash away until they die. And there is certainly no shortage of bad guys to kill; in fact, there are waves upon waves upon waves of them lying about throughout the game, which more or less places this title in the “Action RPG” camp—not that this is a bad thing, necessarily. However, this often means that even the good ol’ Diablo II combat ethic of “pound away the healing potions, flee, rest up, and then drink more healing potions” is fully in effect here. Fortunately, this particular combat system—like much of the entire RPG canon—has been considerably refined and streamlined, and made much easier to use. Grafted onto Diablo II‘s combat skeleton is a Baldur’s Gate-ish option to pause the action at any given point; this allows you to think through whatever tactics you might wish to employ, and to make whatever preparations might be necessary, such as quaffing potions of healing or strength, and activating spells or skills. This tends to make the protracted bouts of combat much more palatable and definitely more engaging; of course, you can do away with it altogether and just mow through entire armies without stopping for breath, if you so choose. In this sense, the game’s combat system can work extremely well for fans of straight-up action as well as vaguely tactical combat, though players who like their RPGs a little slower paced will definitely find themselves turned off. This is especially true in the beginning stages, where you’re forced to play through one of the largest monster-infested dungeons in the game; this is sadly misrepresentative of the larger experience, as a great deal more non-linearity and role-playing freedom is offered as you persevere.

The formation of your character via the skill tree and barebones attribute system is yet another example in which Divine Divinity instantly reminds one of Diablo II, though, as with the rest of the game, there are enough changes and adjustments to arguably make this the better offering. Each of the game’s three classes—fighter, mage, and thief (or survivor, as it’s called here)—possesses not only a special class-specific ability, but also a series of skills that can be upgraded with points earned by boosting one’s level. The terrific advantage here is that you’re not barred from dipping into skills from other classes; in other words, a warrior could very well toss a few points into spellcasting, while a mage could invest in such thiefly talents as hiding in the shadows. It is a truly rewarding system that enables you to break free of any built-in restrictions, and allows you to craft your character in whatever way you see fit. As a result, you could have a warrior that can cast healing spells and pick locks, as well as a thief that can repair armor and cast defensive spells. It’s a liberating experience, and it definitely contributes to the terrific sense of non-linearity that is so very much a characteristic of the game as a whole.

Of course, due to this cross-class use of skills, players might initially assume that there’s hardly any use of distinguishing between warriors, mages, and thieves, as they can all use the same abilities anyway. To attempt to do away with this impression, the game imparts each class with a singular talent that is specific to their realm of expertise. Warriors can pull a barbarian-style whirlwind swing that hits any nearby enemies; mages can switch places with any enemy within eyesight; and thieves can slip into the shadows at will. These talents, though interesting, aren’t going to make or break the game; in fact, the only area in which this truly makes a difference is with regards to the warrior. For instance, a beefed-up thief might be able to use his borrowed skills to enable him to more easily pound through enemies, but an actual warrior will have a much easier and quicker time of dispatching armies of bad guys thanks to his specialty move. Sadly, this difference doesn’t apply to the other two classes. Both warriors and mages can essentially purchase the thief’s specialty talent within the appropriate skill menu, and the mage’s body-switch ability is relatively useless when it matters most. As a result—and Morrowind had the same problem—the only time where class choices make a difference is during the beginning stages; once you start accumulating skill points, the barriers effectively come down, making class distinctions and specialties largely moot. Die-hard RPG purists can always restrain themselves from certain choices to try and preserve some sense of class individuality, but they shouldn’t have to. This shouldn’t necessarily be seen as a knock against the game, as it’s actually refreshing to see a title that has too much freedom rather than not enough.

This is where the similarities between Divine Divinity and Diablo II end, as it’s in the details that the game truly takes on a highly addictive life of its own. Nowhere is this more noticeable than within the reams of items that are liberally strewn about the land. In this respect, the game more closely resembles the classic Ultima VII—which is no coincidence, as Mr. Vincke has stated it as a major influence. In other words, you’ll often find yourself surrounded by countless objects, some of which are just decoration, but most of which can actually be picked up, manipulated, or used. And although you can’t quite delve into the level of depth permitted in Lord British’s world, you can come awfully close; for instance, you can use various items to collect honey from beehives, while an appropriately skilled character can even use garbage and rotted food to create various types of poisons. This aspect even offers tactical benefits to sneakier characters, as the various torches, candles, and lanterns all cast shadows which can be hidden in; failing that, you can even extinguish them altogether, allowing you to sneak about in the cover of darkness. It’s an interactive world the likes of which are almost never seen in modern RPGs, and considering the visually elaborate but functionally impotent backgrounds of the likes of Baldur’s Gate, it’s great to once again be able to be actively involved with one’s environment.

The types of quests you’ll receive throughout Divine Divinity thankfully range beyond the standard “go here, deliver this” Fed Ex-style goals that so many RPGs are happy to throw your way. Whether you’re searching for lost children, investigating a string of murders, or blowing up orcish supply trains and poisoning their wells, you’ll often find yourself running completely different types of missions, which helps to lift the occasional monotony that results from hacking and slashing for hours on end. What makes it all even better is the goofy sense of humor that pops up every once in a while; for instance, while pounding through a dungeon, you might find two skeletons who collapse after having a discussion about the impossibilities of their own existence. While pervasive, it’s not overbearing, and never really detracts from the seriousness of the overarching story.

Divine Divinity also introduces an interesting system of trade that actually feels a great deal more realistic than we’ve come to expect from most RPGs. Instead of offering set prices in set areas or simply basing costs upon your reputation—which is still a factor, incidentally—the game’s many merchants mostly begin with a relatively neutral opinion of you, which directly influences how much they’re willing to charge you. An improved reputation will help to lower this price, but it’s only a small portion of the bigger picture, as repeatedly giving them business will gradually boost their opinion of you. As a result of this particular system, you’ll often find yourself frequenting specific merchants as your mutual trade relationship improves, and sometimes you’ll want to hold off selling your treasure to closer, more convenient individuals in favor of your preferred trader—something that the developers surely had in mind, and it works beautifully.

You can also make people happier by offering them gifts, which is sometimes necessary if you’ve angered someone to the point where they’re no longer willing to trade or talk with you. This unfortunate turn of events can often occur if you alienate them through regular conversation, or if you regularly attempt to steal their goods in front of them, or even sometimes by attempting to explore their personal chambers or off-limit areas. A hilarious example of this type of negative influence appears early in the game, where you’re faced with a particularly surly dwarven healer; irritated with his disagreeable ways, I slaughtered one of his pet pigs, which earned me a death threat and steep increase in barter costs. His mood wasn’t improved any when I accidentally destroyed the remains of his ancestor; needless to say, he was barely worth speaking to after that point. This type of behavior isn’t tolerated in larger cities, where you’ll find yourself fined, or worse, thrown in jail for repeated anti-social acts. Still, imprisonment can be circumvented, so players who want to try and follow a more unethical lifestyle can attempt to do so without too many negative repercussions.

As Divine Divinity‘s gameworld can be quite expansive at times, it’s fortunate that a few methods of travel have been implemented. Apart from tromping about on foot, there’s also a number of interconnected teleporters scattered around the landscape that enable you to instantly zap between them. The only hitch is that you have to find and activate them yourself, not to mention that you also have to earn the proper activation tools from various groups around the land. This adds more incentive to explore and seek out the different guilds and races, which is only a good thing. More useful to the adventurer, however, is the ultra-handy pair of teleport pyramids. By placing one of them on the ground somewhere useful, like, say, next to a safe bed, you can use the second one to snap back to your safe haven whenever you need a quick rest from a heavy battle. If you dropped your second teleport pyramid before using it, you’ll even be able to return to where you left off, ready to kick back into combat completely refreshed. It’s surpassingly handy and shaves eons off your travel time, which can make all the difference when you need to dump some of your overly heavy equipment, or simply to take a break.

The only kick is that, like much of Divine Divinity, these teleport pyramids offer an exploit that simply shouldn’t exist: by pressing the SHIFT key and scrolling to the edge of the screen, you can see for miles. In fact, as long as you have the patience to sit and wait while it scrolls, you can see forever. The problem comes in when you realize that, as long as you can see something, you can throw an object to its location, which means that you can lob a boulder, dagger, or more importantly, a teleport pyramid just about anywhere. That’s right, if you’re on one side of the map, scroll, toss and use your pyramid, you can teleport to the opposite end of the map. Now, one can’t knock a game for possessing exploits; the problem is that this is a pretty big one, it’s extremely easily discovered, and it’s representative of the many gaps and holes you find in Divine Divinity. It’s fortunate that none of these are on the same level as those found in Ultima IX—arguably the buggiest, most unplayable big-ticket game in recent memory. It should be pointed out that crashes to desktop are fairly common, and many of the quests are extremely easy to break; explore one area before talking to the right person, or take X before doing Y, or a million other things, and you’ve effectively busted the quest. Since most quests are optional, this isn’t terrible; there’s only one game-breaker I’ve seen thus far, and it is somewhat fixable. However, it is a definite irritation and scratches a little bit of the shine that makes Divine Divinity one of the brighter RPG experiences to be had this year.

Divine Divinity is easily one of the best-looking 2D RPGs seen in recent years, and although it doesn’t quite match up to the sheer artistic beauty of the BioWare titles, the sheer interactivity of its backgrounds instantly makes it every bit as impressive as Baldur’s Gate or Icewind Dale. Even though the primary backdrops of your adventures tend to consist of forests and dungeons, the accompanying details tend to be intricate enough to make you forget about the thematic blandness.

And make no mistake, this game is rife with wonderful visual details: the countless items that can be interacted with all stand out beautifully, instantly evoking images of Ultima VII as you’re able to not only collect the food on someone’s dinner table, but their plate, utensils, and drinking mug as well. The fact that you’re able to see all of this extremely clearly is a testament to the game’s sharp visuals, a quality that largely dispels the admittedly minor flaws that crop up every so often. For example, while your equipped weapons and armor show on your in-game character, some items are portrayed with generic placeholders, which ruins their novelty; being able to arm yourself with a broom or a pitchfork is extremely cool, but there’s very little point in actually doing so when equipping them simply puts a bland and boring staff in your hero’s hands. Also, certain item animations need to be tweaked: on a P3 667, you might find that a chicken roasting over a fire is rotating more than a little quickly. On my P4 2.4, I’m surprised it didn’t fly clean off the spit, as it appeared to be spinning at speeds approaching Mach 3. Fortunately, this problem didn’t extend to character animations, which were quite appreciable and clean, if not a bit sudden at times. Your hero can move and run with surprising fluidity, but it’s a tad disconcerting to suddenly see his weapon pop to his back and then to his hands again as he slows from a run to a walk. Ultimately, though, this is just simple nitpicking, as the graphics are by and large colorful, appealing, and beautiful.

When you sit back and simply listen to Divine Divinity, it’s difficult to believe that a tiny group of developers such as Larian Studios could create an aural experience that’s every bit as majestic and immersive as anything you’ll find among the year’s A-list titles. The soundtrack is full of thunderous, epic tracks that fit nicely in the fantasy realm, and although they’re not quite on par with Jeremy Soule’s Icewind Dale or Morrowind scores, they’re impressively close. The voice acting is almost as good as the music, with only occasional vocal blandness marring an otherwise professional-quality showing. Something that’s definitely appreciated here is that there are essentially six different playable character prototypes—three classes, two genders for each—and all of them feature a different and distinctive voice that goes a long way towards bringing each character to life. There’s also the sound effects, which are largely well-done, and only become truly irritating when it comes to combat, as the death of each enemy results in a different sound as their corpse falls to the floor. This is fine on its own, but when you’re wading through literally hundreds of bodies at any given session, it’s quite easy to get sick of the constant clangs and thuds of your fallen foes. Still, they’re generally quite good, and stand nicely alongside the music to create a complete audio experience.

If there’s one aspect where Divine Divinity truly shines, it’s in the realm of control. Like no other game, this title features such a strong, streamlined control system that it’s hard not to be impressed by how drastically it simplifies your life as an adventurer. For starters, there’s the wealth of hotkeys that bring up virtually anything you could hope for at the touch of a button. If you’re not fond of the pre-set configuration, you can always remap it to suit your needs; you can even create an entirely new set of hotkeys as you’re able to easily apply the F-keys to whichever skills, spells, weapons, or potions you prefer, which happily does away with the need to pause every time you want to change or use something. Naturally, this salvages a lot of the combat frustration inherent in the likes of Diablo, something that the game builds upon by removing the difficulty of frantically attempting to click on your numerous enemies as they run around, trying to kill you. This is accomplished by using the CTRL key to instantly and easily target your nearest foe, which is a definite life-saver.

You can even keep track of the treasure lying about by pressing a single key, which in another Diablo-esque fashion will reveal anything collectible that’s lying about, such as potions, weapons, or treasure. The only negative to this otherwise terrific feature is that it ruins much of the suspense of key-hunting. After all, it’s obvious that the developers have gone to such lengths to take advantage of the moveable and interactive objects by hiding necessary keys under packages, boulders and so on, and it truly is a shame that being able to instantly see them with this function removes the fun of having to look for them. This is a fairly minor complaint, though, and becomes truly inconsequential when you factor in such tremendous bonuses as an automatic cash-balancing system for use in trades, a compact automap, a fully annotatable map, draggable and floating windows, a self-updating quest log, a list of all your kills, and most impressively, a complete and time-stamped log of all conversations you’ve had. This is the single most polished and versatile control scheme you’ll find in any RPG, and is one that truly befits the game itself.

Divine Divinity isn’t innovative, nor is it groundbreaking or original. What it is, however, is an extremely solid, incredibly addictive, and highly entertaining game that takes the best elements of past RPGs and fuses them in a wonderfully engaging whole. Borrowing the action from Diablo II, the tactical combat pause and open quest systems of Baldur’s Gate, not to mention the non-linear and interactive style of Ultima VII, this game has an impeccable pedigree, one that’s only enhanced by its stunningly polished and intuitive control scheme. Although it’s easy to fault Divine Divinity for being as derivative as it is, there’s simply no denying the sheer, unadulterated fun to be had from exploring its expansive landscape. And while the vast amounts of combat will likely label this as an action-RPG, the game features actual role-playing, non-linearity, and a blissfully versatile skill system that combine to enable players to mold their characters as they see fit, giving them the chance to help create the kind of experience they wish to have. It might be a tad rough around the edges, but Divine Divinity‘s got more than enough where it counts, and easily stands as one of the best RPGs of the year.

(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)

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