Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Divinity: Initial Thoughts

I hadn't planned to pick up Divinity: Original Sin. We're just a few months away from the one-two sucker punch of Civilization: Beyond Earth and Dragon Age: Inquisition; surely I would be able to tide myself over with the DLC for Fallout New Vegas or some of the other unplayed goodies filling up my Steam library. But I kept hearing more and more good things about the game, and when my brother started to confirm them, I decided to take the plunge.

DOS is part of a broader trend towards reviving old-school isometric RPGs (which Felicia Day highlighted in a recent video). This movement was born on Kickstarter, with very successful projects to revive beloved old properties like Wasteland, Shadowrun, and Planescape: Torment. I think we're now seeing the second phase of that movement, which is the creation of new and original IPs that continue in that classic tradition, which had been largely abandoned after the shift to fully 3D RPGs by games like Neverwinter Nights and the Elder Scrolls series.

DOS takes place in an existing game series called Divinity, although from the little I've been able to tell, DOS is the most successful entry in the series so far. It unabashedly harkens back to classic gaming, which is both good and bad: gameplay is deep, but you'll end up spending a lot of time futzing around inside of inventory screens.

I think I'm still pretty early in the game... I just recently reached the sixth level, have completed several side-quests but no major quests yet, and am just starting to get some hints at what might be the overarching story for the game. I figured I'd pop in here during a breather and report my initial impressions thus far.

The Awesome

The music! It's really, really good. It's varied, too: you don't just hear a single tune cycled for each location you're in, but there's more of a rich playlist that transitions smoothly between songs. It's all well done; there's one piece with a subtle choral element that I particularly enjoy. Considering how much I've played it already, I'm impressed it hasn't gotten on my nerves yet.

Dual PCs. Most modern RPGs have you create a single player character, who may either quest alone (as in Elder Scrolls) or as the leader of a party (as in Dragon Age). Most of us have a standard approach to building this PC: we'll seek to recreate our real-world selves as accurately as possible with the tools available to us, or create an alter-ego, or draw inspiration from favored role models (Han Solo, Aragorn, etc.), or try to tell a particular story within the bounds of the game. In DOS, though, you make two characters, and then role-play each of them. By shaking up the template, I think DOS does a great job at making us think critically about our characters: we really start to get a feeling for what makes them tick, and then can encourage them to perform like actors in our play.

Dual dialogue. One of the coolest aspects of the game is how you can control both of your PCs in dialogue. When one of them makes a decision, the other one can back them up, or argue for taking another course of action. The back-and-forth here does a fantastic job at further fleshing out the characters, and also provides a nice solution to the old dilemma of resolving a situation where you prefer one choice for role-playing purposes but another choice for the gameplay outcome: here, you can have one character on record as taking a particular stance, even though the opposite ends up happening.

Character creation. It's really simple and really good: you have a handful of discrete options you can change (hair color, skin tone, etc.) with about a dozen pre-defined options for each one. In contrast to the insane flexibility of, say, the character creator in modern EA games, you can't specify the bridge width of your nose or the separation of your brows, but it's very quick and easy to create distinctive, good-looking heroes. I also really like the names they give to skin tones, like "Mahogany", "Autumn Wheat" and "Burnished Bronze".

The Good

Combat skills. There's a terrific variety here; in particular, fighter types get a much richer set of combat options than I'm used to in RPGs, with moves that let them zoom around the battlefield, deal massive AOE damage, debuff enemies, and more.

Build flexibility. You choose classes when creating your character, but that is just a convenience for defining your starting stats and skills. As you play the game and get a feel for how it works and the needs of your party, you can evolve and invest more in the skills that are most relevant to your game.

Traits. In many of the dual dialogues between PCs, taking certain positions will cause your character to establish traits. These are all dichotomies, such as Romantic/Pragmatic, Considerate/Blunt, Independent/Obedient, etc. These help establish your characters' personalities, and also lead to in-game bonuses: being Considerate will make your character more charismatic, while being Blunt will make them immune to being charmed. These trait dialogues are a fantastic way to make you think about the decisions you're making even when they don't have plot-related outcomes.

Encounter design. Like Shadowrun Returns, each fight is a setpiece, kind of a puzzle that you need to solve. You're usually outnumbered and outpowered, and to win you must make smart decisions based on your party composition and your environment. You can tilt the scales in your favor by unleashing environmental effects (like bursting a barrel of ooze, then setting that ooze on fire to create a wall of flame between you and your enemies), or by carefully managing the flow of combat (using freezing spells and stuns effectively to take certain enemies out of the picture early on, then focus on them later). It's occasionally frustrating when they feel heavily tuned against you - I had one fight outside of a cave entrance that I had to attempt multiple times to complete - but that makes it more rewarding when you finally make it.

Combat mechanics. This may be the best example I've seen yet of an RPG featuring simple mechanics that can combine in powerful ways. The most obvious example I've internalized so far is environments, which can be things like water, blood, poison gas, or flames. These will all have effects on creatures inside (entering flames will make a character start burning, entering ooze will poison them), but also as a medium for future effects (if a pool of water or blood is electrified, all creatures inside can be stunned). There are just a handful of environments, and another handful of effects, but exponentially more combinations, which can lead to incredibly cool emergent strategies. Combined with that, they have a solid conventional combat system that recognizes things like zones-of-control, stealth, flanking, cover, destructible obstacles, and other useful concepts.

The Ambivalent

Dialogue. It isn't as deep as I'm used to from games like Shadowrun Returns or Dragon Age; in fact, it reminds me a lot of the shallow conversations in Elder Scrolls games like Morrowind, particularly when speaking with anonymous citizens. On the bright side, it has a distinct sense of humor which I appreciate.

The art style. It's cuter and more cartooney than I'm used to, and looks much more like the exaggerated style of World of Warcraft than the more realistic fantasy RPGs I prefer. That said, it's probably a good thing that not all of my games look the same, so I'll cut them some slack. There are some moments of delightful goofiness their style enables, like a charmingly fat sheep that performs unexpected backflips.

The Mediocre

Character portraits. Specifically, there are a finite set of these, and there are a lot fewer portraits than character model combinations. It was occasionally frustrating to settle on a look that I really liked, only to spend a long time flipping through all of the portraits and discovering that none of them matched. I would have preferred a system like the one used in Shadowrun Returns, where selecting a portrait will automatically update your body, and you can then customize the body further if you want.

Trait metagaming. This is more of a complaint about me than about the game. While I love the idea behind traits, in practice some of them will be more appropriate for a character than others: for example, my rogue Sariya will benefit from the +20% backstab change from Heartless, while my cleric Tindali won't get any use from it and should always be Compassionate instead. So, I often save before dialogues and then reload them afterwards if it caused my preferred traits to shift. I'm not sure what the best way to resolve this would be... they could surface the name of the traits inside the dialogue so we at least knew what choices we were making, or shift the consequences to be more universally useful (e.g., things like extra HP or AP that everyone benefits from more or less equally) instead of being so specialized.

Inventory management. Again, this is probably mostly a personal taste thing. In the games I grew up on, I was accustomed to managing incredibly complex inventories, which often required prioritizing and evaluating and shifting and consuming and divesting. I find that my tolerance for this has decreased rapidly as I grow older: I hate spending fifteen minutes just fiddling around with items in a window instead of adventuring. Given that there is an inventory focus, I like a lot that Larian has done with it: they don't have any space restrictions, and very generous weight restrictions, so you almost never need to manage inventory just to carry your loot; there are good menu options for sorting things by various criteria; graphics are well-designed and clear; it's generally easy to compare two given pieces of equipment and determine which is better. Still, I have to spend much more time than I would like just sorting items to decide what to equip now, what to keep around for later, what to throw away, what to sell, what to craft.

Crafting. The idea is kind of cute - you read actual recipes in books, and then must translate those English phrases to in-game actions - but it just becomes really annoying to find anything: even if you know that you found a recipe for making a sleep potion, the recipe for it won't be labeled Sleep Potion, so you'll need to read (not scan) through a ton of entries until you find the correct one, and then manually look through all of your inventory to see if you have the items it requires. It is annoying! I would kill to have something like Skyrim's crafting interface: once you have a recipe, it just appears in a menu (labeled as itself!); you'll be able to see at a glance what items it requires, what items you have, and then click a button to make one or more of them. Heck, I'd even be fine with requiring the first crafting to be done free-style, just so I don't need to repeat the painful process several weeks later.

Saving games. Again, I think this is mostly me - when I tried it out on a laptop with a solid state drive, saves seemed fast, but when I use my main gaming desktop with a traditional hard drive, it can take a really long time. Some of that is probably inherent in the complexity of the world state they're trying to save, but still, it's pretty annoying, to the point where I'm not quicksaving nearly as often as I would like to.

Thieving skills. I was initially delighted to see the return of my beloved, favorite, classic thief skills which have sadly been excised from modern RPGs: pickpocketing, sneaking, lockpicking. Unfortunately, it usually isn't worthwhile to invest skill points here. Lockpicks are expensive and single-use only; you'll always be able to find a key lying around somewhere, and even if not, it's better to bash the chest open with an unbreakable weapon or a spell. Sneaking hasn't been effective for me in combat, and hasn't been relevant so far in any other parts of the game. I suppose pickpocketing could be a good way to get money, but that isn't the way I want to roleplay my characters. I think I get why things are this way: you have a small party, and they didn't want to force you to bring along a thief (especially since there don't seem to be any NPC thieves you can recruit); and given that they can't assume you have a thief, they always need to provide an alternate solution anyways. Still, as a die-hard thief, it's been a bit of a letdown so far. Despite the presence of these skills, pretty much every encounter comes down to combat now, with sneakier alternatives rarely available.

Morality. The game doesn't have a "moral system", which I'm completely fine with, but I'm finding it hard to navigate the "right" way to play. The game implements an ownership system, where items can be owned by NPCs. If they notice you interfering with these (picking up items, opening doors, fiddling with equipment, etc.) they will give you a warning, and then get upset if you continue messing with it. So far, so good, and after some brief reflection I'd decided to play Sariya as a chaotic-but-not-larcenous rogue. But, in the main questline, the game requires you to steal from a character, break into a protected part of her house, and generally be a criminal around her, even though I'd already deduced that she wasn't responsible for the acts attributed to her. I resisted it for a while, but eventually realized I'd need to go ahead and do the "bad" things to progress with the plot. So, once that was done, I had to decide whether there was any reason (either in-game or from a roleplaying perspective) to not just go around stealing everything I could get my hands on. Other quests in this game have been good about providing multiple ways to find a solution, but having a forced path through the muck didn't feel great.

The Bad

Backstabbing is hard. I play a dagger rogue, and finding the spot where I can stab from is tough at the best of times, and nearly impossible if the enemy has an unusual shape or is knocked down. I often end up wasting some AP just trying to find the sweet spot. I would really like to have something like the circle indicators used in Dragon Age: Origins to show where the backstab area is, or be able to enter a backstab mode that will move your character into the correct position before attacking (instead of the shortest distance), or use an on-ground indicator of when you're hovering over a valid spot, similar to the circles that appear to warn you when a move will trigger a zone-of-control attack.

Targeting in general is hard! Particularly when you have one or more melee characters up close to an enemy, it can be really hard to find the couple of pixels that will let you target them. If you mis-click, then your character will just walk into the indicated position behind the bad guy, which may make you waste your turn, acquire a negative status effect, etc. To make matters worse, enemies are animated, so even if you are targeting the enemy, by the time you click they may have moved their head or arm out of the way, causing you to click on the background instead. You can make this slightly easier by zooming way in before clicking; but even then, the game will automatically zoom you back out after each attack, so with my rogue I'll need to repeat and hunt for pixels up to five times per turn. I wish that they would just make each character a solid cube or cylinder hit box instead of tracking with the animations.

Locating items is hard. You can press "Alt" to bring up tooltips that show each loose item lying on the ground. In general, you can hover and click on these to pick them up, but every once in a while an item seems to fall below a piece of map geometry (like a sloped hillside) or under an enemy dead body and becomes untargetable. You can see its label, taunting you, but the actual item is unacquireable. Something like a "look all" button would help a lot here.

Locating containers is even harder! I was actually a bit surprised by this: ever since Baldur's Gate 2, I've gotten used to being able to hold a key like Tab to highlight interactable items. That works here for loose items, but for whatever reason it doesn't light up containers, which means that I need to play several fun rounds of sweep-the-mouse-over-the-screen when I enter a new area. Most of these became pretty straightforward after I got used to the game - crates and barrels are very recognizable and always are lootable - but it feels like a weird oversight.

That's It!

I'll postpone any discussion of the plot for a later post after I've gotten a better look at the big picture, but I'll go ahead and describe my build now:

My two characters are Sariya, a charming and ruthless rogue, and Tindali, her long-suffering cleric friend. As noted above, I've pretty shamelessly been metagaming their traits, so they end up being opposite in almost every respect, except that both are Independent (which actually helps explain why they butt heads so frequently). Still, whenever there isn't an in-game benefit for taking different paths, I generally have them getting along with each other, praising one another's skills, and supporting the other members of their party.

Sariya is a dagger-wielding rogue. She started with a set of soft thieving skills, but as noted above those haven't proved useful, so instead she's been mostly focusing on her attacks and Scoundrel abilities. She's also the "face" of the group, and always takes the lead in any negotiations or shopping expeditions. She hasn't invested any points in those skills, but I've coordinated a useful set of Traits that make her the best-equipped to wheel and deal our way to success.  She's also our Loremaster, and can easily identify the powerful items we come across.

Tindali started off as a cleric, although I'm already getting concerned about her spreading herself too thinly. Clerics combine Water magic (most notably the Heal spell) with single-handed weaponry, along with a trait that encourages them to use blunt weapons. However, one of the few recruitable NPCs is already much better than her at Water, so now I'm expanding her warrior abilities while also branching out into fire and earth magic. I get the feeling this will hurt her effectiveness at high levels, although it is kind of nice to have a switch-hitter who can fill different roles. She currently specializes in buffing and summoning, but has mainly been pushing her STR stat, and absorbs attacks pretty effectively with her club-and-shield loadout.

In terms of personality, Tindali usually lets Sariya lead conversations, although she'll chime in on important matters. Tindali tends to be more practical, serious, and law-abiding, in contrast with Sariya's exuberant, free-wheeling chaotic attitude.

I've also picked up Jahan and Madora from the first town. Madora is a two-handed-weapon fighter with a solid set of combat stats and skills; there's not really any tanking in this game, but she's good at soaking up damage. Jahan specializes in water and air magic; he tends to hang back from the front line, just close enough that he zap enemies with lightning bolts or fling them around with teleportation. Jahan is also my crafter, who maintains our weapons and armor and performs simple upgrades.

As noted above, every combat encounter is like a separate puzzle to be solved, but in general, here's how it's been going down for me:

Sariya, with her speedy rogue attributes, always goes first. She'll usually haste herself at the start (extra movement and AP), advance close to the enemy, then turn invisible so they can't target her. Madora and Jahan will typically skip their first turn entirely: that lets the enemy waste AP moving towards us, and gives them a full set of max AP to use on the second turn. The enemy usually moves next, so they'll usually advance; ranged archers might get off some shots here, but melee usually isn't close enough to hit us on the first turn. Tindali is usually one of the last to move per round; if she didn't do her buffs before a battle, this is where she'll summon a spider or fortify an ally; if some enemies are clustered together in range, she might toss a small fireball at them; if any enemies have already closed the gap, she might attack.

In the second turn, Sariya will position herself behind the squishiest and deadliest enemy and start backstabbing. It isn't unusual for her to completely take down an enemy mage or priest in a single turn. If the enemies include a big powerful brute, she might try to Charm it; I've come to really appreciate having more bodies on the battlefield, which does a ton to blunt damage against your own characters. She also might Stun a dangerous offensive enemy if she can't take it down. Otherwise, for the most part she'll keep moving around the battlefield, picking off the weakest enemies. I've come to really appreciate her 2AP attacks, which lets me be more surgical when finishing off an almost-dead foe.

Madora will typically start her second turn with a Battering Ram into a group of foes; if they're positioned well, she might be able to make knockdown attempts on six or so of them. Her goal is to end in the middle of a tight cluster of enemies, whereupon she will immediately follow up with a Dust Devil; I'll usually be able to line this up to hit at least three enemies, and five isn't that unusual. This one-two punch can completely destroy weak enemies, and leaves some of the survivors helpless on the ground. For the rest of the fight, Madora will usually just attack the enemy closest to her, though occasionally she'll unleash a Crushing Fist against a foe who poses a threat. Whenever an enemy is incapacitated, I'll make sure that Madora and Tindali adopt their Power Stance before swinging: your chance-to-hit a stunned or knocked-down enemy is always 100%, so the loss of precision doesn't hurt you, and the damage is a big help. Thanks to my party loadout, I'm often able to apply these conditions to a bunch of enemies throughout a fight.

Jahan tends to be a bit more strategic. Teleport is a fantastic spell: I like using this to pick up an enemy and dump them into burning fire, but I'll also sometimes use it to bring a mage into range of my melee fighters so they can whale on him, or remove an archer to the far reaches of the battlefield so he can't interfere with us for a few turns. It has a long cooldown, though, so most of the time I'm shooting lightning at enemies. It has a pretty good chance of stunning them, which does wonders for managing the crowd. I rarely move Jahan at all, and if I don't have any good attacks available I'll often just skip him to get more AP on my next turn.

Tindali is the most jack-of-all-trades of the bunch. She also has Battering Ram, and will often follow Madora's lead. Tindali and Jahan both have Heal, so either one can lend attention to any allies who are falling low in health. She doesn't do quite as much straight-up damage as Madora, but I still like dropping her into the thick of combat since she's pretty capable of dealing with damage. She also has two flame spells, and can be incredibly useful in situations where I can detonate barrels or do other environmental damage.

So far, I haven't been making much use at all of the scrolls I pick up; I'm pretty sure that this would have helped with some of the harder fights. The biggest regret I currently have is not having an archer, mainly because of the vast quantity of special arrows I've picked up or crafted; Sariya has the dexterity to wield a bow, but I've completely ignored the marksman skills for now. I suppose that if I max out her Scoundrel and Single-Handed skills, I might diversify into that.

So, uh... yeah! I realize that the above list contained more negative items than positive ones, but that produces a pretty misleading picture: despite my complaints, I'm having an absolute blast with this game. I wouldn't complain if I didn't care about the game so much! I'm impressed at the tactical depth of the game, and also feel like I'm only beginning to scratch the surface of the story, so I'm very eager to see where it goes from here. I imagine I'll be dropping at least one more post here after I make more progress!

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