Larian Studios earned a lot of goodwill with many a gamer with Divine Divinity, including us as noted by our 2002 review. Featuring a design based around a refined DiabloĖstyled combat system combined with an Ultima-styled interactive and open world, Divine Divinity was and remains quite unique. The 2004 follow-up, Beyond Divinity, was something akin to a role-playing 1980s buddy comedy with your character, a servant to the Divine, having to venture forth while attached to his sworn enemy; and while not a bad title, it was underwhelming, due to the quality of its predecessor. But after six years we finally get it, Divinity II: Ego Draconis (Divinity II), the true sequel to Divine Divinity. Youíre again in the shoes of a chosen one, but now, instead of being a simple devotee, you are dealing with the consequences of the Divineís actions throughout the ravaged lands of Rivellon.
Despite the change to 3D, away from sprites and the traditional isometric perspective, Divinity II is very much the successor to Divine Divinity. From the beginning, fans of the series will notice a familiar set-up. After meeting a handful of trainers and experimenting with their skills, you pick one of the three primary classes: warrior, ranger, or mage. The trainer whose class you chose will bestow upon you one skill and one weapon, in addition to a boost of three points in stats. The weapons and abilities are pretty standard with fighters receiving a boost to strength with a whirlwind attack and a sword; rangers a focus in dexterity with a bow and the ability to launch a poison arrow; and the mage increased intelligence with a mace and fireball spell.
Your decision doesnít lock you into any class, but it is instead a jumping-off point. Each skill tree Ė priest, mage, warrior, ranger, and dragon slayer Ė is open from the beginning. Four attribute points and one skill point are given for each time you level up, which allows for a good degree of customization early on. Skills are initially maxed at a level of five but can later be incrementally increased up to 15, leading to some truly devastating characters. While I chose to start out as a mage, favoring strength, spirit, and intelligence over agility and vitality, I slowly crafted a battle mage that could deal severe damage from afar while still being able to hold his own in close combat. Many of the abilities are more traditional Ė magic missiles, life drain, healing auras, splitting arrows, fear - but being able to mix and match them without any penalties, in addition the dragon slayer skills like open locks and expert dual wield, makes leveling all the more addictive.
I was surprised to find much of the design reminiscent of an MMO. In both level layout and enemy placement, the game invokes the likes of Dark Age of Camelot more than Oblivion. The areas are high fantasy and largely generic, with dungeons and hordes of enemies that offer loot and experience. The dungeons function as they do in most titles, with the goal being to slay the monster or collect some prized treasure at the end; and enemies can be pulled, as in MMOs, eventually returning to their zone if outpaced. Even if youíve tired of pummeling enemies or cleared the area, there is still work to be done, because, true to the series, Divinity II is full of things to do. The world is littered with items to pick, mine, collect, break into, uncover or, even better, read. Books are actually an important element to understanding the interesting yet convoluted plot, because they are heavily relied upon to convey the elaborate backstory of the divine Lucius, vengeful Damian, betraying Dragon Knights, and zealous Dragon Slayers. The only problem with this approach is that the books are often found out of order, and it wasnít uncommon for me to be stuck with the first and third entries in a four-part series. The upside is that books also convey all kinds of information, both useful and entertaining, such as insights that bestow additional skills and some genuinely funny articles, such as the guide on how to properly rob a nobleman.
The biggest surprise comes from the fact that you eventually become both a Dragon Slayer and a Dragon Knight. By being both, you receive the mindreading abilities of a Slayer and the Knightís ability to morph into a dragon. Badass. As interesting and primed for awesomeness as the dragon element is, it is underutilized by limited engagements and pales in comparison to mindreading, its implementation I was truly impressed with. Eavesdropping into someoneís thoughts does come at the sacrifice of some experience, but it is often worthwhile as a way to find alternate ways to complete quests, hidden loot, earn additional experience and skill points, and have merchants lower their prices. To keep from a powerful read taking you down a level, a debt account is used that must be paid off before advancing. Aside from just being an interesting addition, it often ties in well with the exceptional quest structure. Even if the quests arenít always great, they are often ingeniously linked together, with an item or information coming in handy several hours later. It is also fun to just converse with other characters because they are often amusing, and the voice-over actors do a uniformly good job in a purposely over-the-top sort of way. The game doesnít take itself too seriously, either, so youíll encounter an Augustus, Nero, Caligula, and a necromancer with an undead girlfriend who has a nasty lisp due to a poorly sewn mouth. As silly as the game can be, itís rarely too much, managing to be charming rather than downright goofy.
Larian also knows a great way to reward a hard-working hero, and thatís by making you the lord of a base. Once the master of a Battle Tower, you will host numerous assistants and trainers that will do everything from fetch ingredients for potions and enchantments to using those ingredients to brew potions and enchant arms. The crew also assists one another on your behalf, with each expert aiding the three runners from their platforms. By offering better weapons (skill trainer), armor (blacksmith and enchanter), and first aid (alchemist), the runners will be able to fend off attackers to bring back your requested ingredients. The others help you as well, of course, by brewing your potions, enchanting your armor, upping your skill levels, and animating makeshift undead creatures. There is even a singer and dancer to entertain as you sit hunched over on the throne, Conan style. I would have liked for this segment to be more involved, maybe sending out on the armed runners on the menial quests that have been out-leveled, but it does offer a nice change of pace.
But for all of the things that Divinity II does well, and it does indeed to a good many things well, it is also marred by innumerous technical and design flaws. The technical problems are many and are immediately obvious. Draw-in, pop-up, tearing, and skittish framerates are a constant. No matter where you are or what you are doing, something goes awry once you start moving. I had actually become accustomed to many of the problems by the end, but even then the game managed to surprise me. Animations are also frequently devastated by these problems, with deathblows often ending in awkward slow-motion summersaults. Melee is also made difficult, because it can be hard to judge when to swing or what skill to engage; likewise, fighting at range is also problematic because enemies might not be seen, only felt. Worse is whenever enemies ambush you but donít load until after they have landed an attack or two. The absence of character models also occurs during conversations, making for some very confusing situations. Morphing into the dragon always brings a small load, and any time you spend in the air is filled with slowdown. With that in mind, itís more as if Divinity II is like playing an MMO under heavy lag.
The engine isnít the only thing that couldíve used a little more polish, either. Some of problems have to do with the loss of precision when moving from a mouse to an analog stick Ė targeting smaller items is often a pain Ė while others are all its own. A welcomed pause mechanic is used to easier target enemies during the heat of battle, but even then it can be taxing to land a hit on larger creatures; however, if you prefer action, you can play without pausing and use a lock-on feature for targeting. There is also a distinct lack of interesting enemies. Just as interesting as many of the people and creatures you encounter, those you fight tend to be very bland and spawn from a mere handful of creature types; I lost count of how many skeletons, imps, and robbers I killed. On top of that, the protagonist, Damian, looks like he stepped right out of Mortal Kombat 4 - and is about as interesting. But unlike MMOs, there arenít any other people to liven up the largely lifeless world, giving it an unfinished feel. And beware, some quest text might not show up; thank goodness for FAQs. Divinity II manages to be a strange combination of the imaginative and the generic while surprisingly far surpassing some expectations and not coming close to meeting others.
So much potential squandered. Itís tough when a game is rich in so many ways that it comes so close to being great yet canít get itself together. Still, even with Divinity II: Ego Draconisí problems, I still had a good time venturing around Rivellon. As much as I actually did enjoy Divinity II, however, I canít give it a blanket recommendation because there are times when its faults are genuinely shocking. There have already been patches, but much work remains to be done, as I ran into a nasty loading bug amidst all of the other problems. For the patient and forgiving fan of the genre, there is a good chance that you will get a lot out of Divinity II. For most people, however, its eccentricities and nuances wonít be enough to stave off the mounting disappointment as each problem finds new and more creative ways to reemerge and frustrate.
(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)