Tuesday, September 24, 2019

There's Bodies In The Streets! This Place Isn't Free, Not Any More

And I'm done! It's been a lot of fun to dig my teeth into a big ole' RPG again; I think the last major RPG I played through to completion was Torment: Tides of Numenara, nearly two years ago. Divinity Original Sin 2 is a ton of fun, and also feels nicely distinctive in many ways from the other major western RPG franchises I've played and enjoyed in the past.

I've got a lot to say, but let's start this off with a quick run-down of what I liked and didn't liked.

The Great

Challenging and finely-tuned combat. I've mentioned this in every post before, but it bears repeating. They're always interesting and significant and worthwhile.

Creative variety in combat. It took me a while to understand that every single fight in this game is unique: it's honestly shocking how many special enemy abilities only appear in a single encounter and never after. They're much more like puzzles to solve than traditional resource-based battles, which is all the more impressive given the vast number of potential solutions. All those useless water balloons you picked up over the course of the game? It turns out that they're incredibly useful for one specific area!

Beautiful environment design. You can move through some of these areas very quickly, but I always enjoy pausing and sweeping the camera around to look at my gorgeous surroundings.

The Good

Music. I was particularly attracted to Lohse's theme and the Hall of Echoes theme. There are beautiful and haunting variations that develop over the course of the game; Lohse in particular culminates in a mesmerizing and surprising performance. The songs take on more emotional import as the game continues and your relationship to the themes strengthens.

Humor. I kind of hated the [JESTER]-specific lines, but in general I appreciated the gentle fun the game indulged in from time to time, which kept things from getting too dark and didn't undercut the drama of the game.

Plot. It's complex and weavy and interesting; I don't know that we need another "Save The World From Total Destruction" storyline, but they did some original things within that framework, and I stayed curious about and engaged in the steady trickle of revelations.

Characters. Malady is a particular highlight, super well-written and fantastically voice-acted. She's intriguing and mysterious, really funny and engaging. She shoulders a lot of exposition while making you feel like you're in on the joke. For most of the major characters in general, you get a good and distinct sense of their personality, can predict how they will react to certain situations, and feel some level of investment in their fate (but note my comments in spoilertown below). Minor characters run the gamut from intriguing to aggravating, but nobody significantly outstays their welcome.

Puzzles. I occasionally had to resort to wikis to figure them out, but usually could solve them myself. The last puzzle in the game is one of the best I've played in any RPG and has prompted me to reflect on how to better handle puzzles in any future games I work on. Too often, puzzles are just something that confuses you until it snaps into place and you've suddenly got it; this is a great multi-stage one where you can try stuff out, see how things work, fail but make progress, partially succeed, and gradually work out how to do everything you need to do.

Voice acting. I often read ahead of the dialogue and skip before the line is delivered, but none of the voices are actively annoying, and some of them (Sebille, Malady, etc.) are fantastic.

The Medium

Crafting. It's a deep and vast system, it's worthwhile, resources are limited and useful but not excessively scarce, and the UI is pretty friendly; I particularly appreciate being able to learn recipes from both books and experimentation, and having those permanently recorded. But there's paralysis with having thousands of items in your bags and not knowing whether anything has multiple uses. I would have loved some way to see what known recipes a given item is used for, and then I could more confidently decide whether to sell it, use it, or save it for later.

Sharing teammate skills. This is a really cool idea, and I wish it was more widespread. It's very helpful to share Lucky Charm when opening containers so I can do that with any character instead of always switching to Beast, and it's a great quality-of-life to not need to switch to Sebille every time I want to identify something with Loremaster. It would be nice if I could use my highest character's Wits to highlight loose objects on the map. As it stands, I feel like I'm forced to explore with my Wits character in the lead, then hand off loot items to my high-Strength character to carry, then spend time in the inventory screens dragging all the high-strength character's Wares items into my high-Bartering character's inventory before selling it. Doing all that stuff doesn't make it any more fun.

Pathing is kind of inconsistent. Followers will automatically stay out of dangerous surfaces like flames, electricity, or poison. (Nicely, undead followers prefer to walk through poison to pick up the free heals.) They will walk around the surface if they can, or just stay put if there's no safe path; sometimes that's good and sometimes it's not, but on the whole it's much better than them always dumbly crossing. Given that smartness, though, it's perplexing that party members will happily walk right over a trap after you've discovered it and shouted "I've spotted a trap!" And even with high Wits, your lead character typically doesn't spot a trap until you're almost on top of it, and you don't automatically stop moving when you spot it, so very likely to hear "I've spotted a [CLANG] [FWOOSH] ARGH!" On the plus side, though, traps are normally clustered in an area, so once you see your first trap, it's usually worthwhile to slow down and explore more cautiously; if you haven't seen any traps lately, it's usually safe to run through an area without worrying about traps.

Activating Spirit Vision. I had to resort to wiki lookups several times in Act 2 to figure out how to proceed, and almost always it was because I had to use Spirit Vision in a particular place. After a while I got used to it, and would automatically tap the icon as soon as I came across fresh corpses, which is usually (not always) what Spirit Vision is good for. I do kind of wish that Spirit Vision was just always on, so I wouldn't accidentally miss content; but it is probably more gameplay-y to have it be something you actively do than just a passive story-based power. I dunno.

The Annoying

Vast inventory. I keep harping on this, and it's by far my least favorite aspect of the game. One specific annoyance: finding a particular item, like the blackroot I needed for one of my quests. You can search for recipes, and I really wish there was a similar way to search your inventory, both when crafting and just in general.

Containers. I'm still confused why Alt highlights loose items and corpses but not containers, which is the opposite of how Infinity Engine and similar games work. It's been that way since Original Sin 1 so I'm sure it's intentional, but I'm not sure why. I feel like I'm getting too old to play hunt-the-pixel.

Repeating ambient dialogue. If you stand in the same spot in a town, you'll hear the same dialogue over and over and over and over again. This is particularly bad in places like the Driftwood Square, when you're spending what feels like hours managing inventory and keep hearing "How are you holding up, Bree?" "All right, so long as I don't think about it." AAAAARRRRRRGGGGHH.

After-combat DOT effects. There were a whole bunch of times when I would win a fight, but surviving party members would still be on fire or poisoned or bleeding or whatever, and they would die after winning and before I could heal them. It's pretty frustrating to be shoved right back into non-pausable real-time mode after so carefully and successfully managing everyone during a long turn-based fight. I eventually started addressing this by keeping a bedroll in my quick-action bar and tapping it after combat, but this doesn't always work. If the party is too scattered, or if the one carrying the bedroll died, then I won't be able to quick-heal. The worst is when you're forced to talk at the conclusion of a fight and your party bleeds out while you're stuck in the conversation interface.

Okay, I have a lot more stuff to talk about! Let's jump directly into the


Let's talk about romance!

I mentioned in an earlier post that I wasn't sure if this game had "real" romance arcs, or just the occasional option to flirt. Welp, it turns out that there is true romance. It feels a little underweighted, particularly early in the game, which I think is at least partly because of the sheer scope of the game: if you're playing for 100+ hours, romance will necessarily just be a small fraction of that. Early on I often wished there was more content. At least in my romance (playing as Lohse, romancing Sebille) it was pretty much just saying occasional nice things when the opportunity presented itself, then eventually reading about some kissing. That said, it's a recurring complaint of mine for any RPG: I always want more, more, more romance. Which does seem like an unfair burden for a roleplaying game to bear; I should probably play romance games if I want more romance!

I do need to say, though, that that was a great sex scene! It's maybe one of the best I've come across in a game. Visually, it's weird and laughable: you're reading text about sexy stuff going on with your naked bodies while visually the two characters are silently staring at one another while wearing full suits of plated metal armor. But that text is terrific, way more explicit than I was expecting. In some ways it's an opposite presentation from BioWare, which is visually much more ambitious in attempting to animate sex scenes while being very light on the actual sex content, while Larian doesn't even try to do something visual but really delivers sex well (without making the encounter just about the physical connection). Oh, and there are interior choices where you can guide and respond to the action, and good attention to all of your senses like touch and taste and smell, utilizing all of the tools at a game-writer's disposal to make the experience as vivid and engaging as possible. It's so good!

Let's talk about choices!

Some of the big choices in the game feel a bit muddled, such as the part on The Nameless Isle with the conflict between the Shadow Prince and the Heart Tree. It's a big choice, and was kind of hard to make, but I felt pretty adrift and unsure about the world and the context in which it occurs, as opposed to unsure about my choice. Can I really trust these people? What are the consequences to my actions? I think the game periodically dumps new information on you right before demanding you decide something, which is probably intended to raise the stakes and make it more exciting, but generally just makes me more baffled about what is going on and why I should care.

To me, the gold standard of choice in an RPG remains Caridin's Forge in Dragon Age: Origins. I agonized over that decision for what felt like an hour precisely because the stakes felt so clear: you've spent days fighting alongside the dwarves, can viscerally feel the helplessness of their eternal battle against the Darkspawn, you've witnessed the impassive tenacity of the golems as both friend and foes, you've spoken with many dwarves who've lost loved ones, you've pieced together the horrors of the sacrifices Caridin demanded. You've really felt and experienced the stakes directly, as opposed to having them related to you through exposition, as happens in many of the significant plots of DOS2.

As another example, I'd been moderately intrigued by Beast's long-running personal arc with Justinia. Conceptually it was one of the more compelling dynamics in the game, a revolutionary uprising to overthrow an oppressive monarchy. I wish more games would feature revolutionary struggles! It would have been significantly more compelling to me if Beast wasn't himself a royal by blood, but whatever. Anyways, though, we never see any of this: we never witness Justinia's rule in action, we never spend time with Beast's comrades, we never see the dwarven homeland or get a sense for the class structure there: the entirety of the scenario is based on Beast's conversations with us. And then when it's time to make The Big Choice, Beast is just like "I don't care, do whatever you want." And Justinia is all, "I sorry :-(". It just feels really toothless. We haven't met any victims of her reign, and the choice is kind of re-framed as "vengeance or mercy?", which is a far more conventional and thus less interesting choice. I ultimately chose mercy once it's framed that way, and it doesn't really seem to matter at all: she's still deposed in the closing slides and nothing changes in the rest of the game. (Contrast this with, say, DA:O's choice of supporting Prince Bhelen or Lord Harrowmont, which had profound repercussions that affected Orzammar during your time there and significantly affected the Darkspawn threat long after the end of DA:O.)

BUT, there are other cases where the stakes in DOS2 feel significantly more vivid than in most RPGs. One is Gareth's ongoing plot. It seems like there's a clear "good" path to his storyline: you need to pass Persuasion checks to convince him to show mercy to his enemies and remain true to his calling. But this has enormous consequences! His parents get murdered as a direct consequence of the mercy he showed! There's follow-up, too, where he's understandably pissed and you can talk him down again... but by this point I was seriously questioning my own counsel to him. Why is it so important that he remain loyal to an order that we now know is thoroughly corrupt and evil? Why are we making him endure such suffering? Aren't our short-term virtuous decisions causing greater long-term evil? These stakes feel very real because we're in direct contact with these people, like Gareth and Jonathan and his parents' home and other magisters and paladins, so there's a big resonance to this storyline that (for me) was missing in some of the ostensibly "bigger" plots.

Likewise, one of the first villains we defeat is Kniles in Fort Joy. He seems like a straight-up baddie: he was responsible for creating the Silent Monks and is a gruesome sadist. In the next act, we meet his mother, an innkeeper in Driftwood, who talks proudly of her boy. Errrm... Suddenly it becomes an awkward social encounter. Do you blame her for the monster her son became? And of course you start thinking about how everyone has a mother, there is a human network around every opponent you come across. But it isn't over yet: the situation becomes even more complex once you encounter the mother's soul inside Adramahlihk's dimension. You discover that she knew her son wasn't normal, that she felt guilty and worried. She didn't want those bad feelings, and over time she instead grew proud of him. This is all really messed up and interesting! This probably wouldn't be nearly as compelling if we only had some random person delivered by exposition in the demon's dimension; it's fascinating because we've met and interacted with these people over a long period of time.

So, yeah, despite a few plots feeling underwhelming, DOS2 shows that it can strike powerful emotional and thematic notes. One of my favorite parts of this game, and something many other franchises don't do well, is reminding you of the complexities within an organization. By the time you arrive in Arx you know Dallis's plot and all the bad stuff the Magisters are up to; but, as you meet individual rank-and-file Magisters outside the city, either escaping or deceased spirits, of course most of them have no idea of the faction's true aims. Should you hold them accountable for the evil they unwittingly help commit? I appreciate the options for mercy shown here, without feeling like it's the slam-dunk right choice.

I've chatted a little about Beast above: On paper, I really dig his "fight the power!" storyline, but in practice he was honestly the most boring PC to me. I'm not entirely sure why. It feels like he has less banter and dialogue in general than the other characters. It probably also doesn't help that he has a super-boring and super-predictable Scottish Dwarven accent; the voice acting definitely isn't bad, but it feels like such a tired and hackneyed presentation of Tolkienian dwarves by now. 

In contrast, Fane really grew on me over the course of the game. Particularly in the early acts, interactions with Fane are mostly about his personality, which is really vivid: he's prickly and arrogant and condescending, which sounds awful and at first is awful but becomes surprisingly endearing over time, and it feels very earned when he finally begins to pay attention to you and value you as an individual. That's a nice change from Beast, whose interactions are always talking about people you haven't met and things you don't care about. Unlike Beast's arc, which takes place almost entirely off-screen, Fane's arc is extremely closely tied to the main plot of the game, which was surprising and makes him even more compelling of a character.

Sebille was awesome, really scary and intense. I smacked my head during the closing credits when I realized she was voiced by Alix Wilton Regan, who did a brilliant job voicing the Inquisitor in Dragon Age Inquisition: I hadn't recognized her voice during this game (acting!!), but it's the same high quality, being brought to a considerably more troubled person. Anyways, since I was intent on romancing her I constantly supported her in everything, which felt a little weird ("No, no, it's perfectly normal that you dream of stabbing out peoples' eyeballs with your needle!") but I enjoyed it. As I noted above, the romance arc felt a little abrupt or even thin early on: the gap in meaningful dialogue between "Sebille, I think you are not a terrible person" to "Lohse, you are the eternal love of my life and I will sacrifice everything to be with you" was razor-thin, but the actual content once you're in the romance felt really powerful: unlike other RPG romances that peter out or vanish after the initial sexual encounter, the arc here has some nice and meaningful development; I particularly enjoyed that at the end of the game you don't spend the rest of your lives together and happily agree to go your separate ways without turning that into a tragedy.

I liked playing as Lohse, but honestly had a difficult time getting a lock on my interpretation of her personality. Sometimes I was a straight-up "good person", other times I was like "I've suffered through a LOT and I'm gonna get some POWER around here so I can FIX ALL THESE PROBLEMS." It is a little weird to be such a semi-voiced character in the midst of full VO; unlike Origins, where you're silent, and DA2/I, where you're fully voiced, most of Lohse's lines here (with me as the PC) are silent, but some lines are still spoken. Anyways! I murdered the Doctor and that's what's important.

It's... interesting that two of the six playable characters are women, and both of their personal plots are about them being mind-controled by evil men. I'm not sure how I feel about that... it isn't necessarily a bad plot, but it does seem gendered. (n.b.: Maybe the Red Prince and/or Ifan have mind-control-based personal plots as well, in which case I withdraw my observation.) It seems particularly weird that, while Sebille and Lohse do occasionally have dialogue, they never talk about them having a similar struggle in common.

Oh: At the end of the game, I was thrown yet again by the final choice. I was expecting to be able to pick between ruling as the Divine (getting immense power and influence over Rivellon, at the cost of keeping the world vulnerable to the God King and the Voidwoken) and purging the Source (sacrificing yourselves and upending the religious hierarchy but saving the world from the Void). I was startled to see a third choice: to return the Source that Lucian had been hoarding to all the people of Rivellon. I was kind of flummoxed by this, as I don't remember it being floated as a possibility earlier in the game. As with earlier choices, I was baffled by what I was being asked: What would this mean? What were the risks? I did really dig the democratic/egalitarian sound of dispersing Source equally, so I did it.

I thought the ending was very well done. By now I feel like there's a gold standard in how to wrap up a long RPG: Have a cool final battle, have some big final choices & big final reactivity, have time to say goodbye to the most important people you've spent time with, and then have a ton of slides that describe how your various choices have affected the world. DOS2 adheres to this formula with aplomb, and I was highly satisfied with how everything wound down. (I should admit here that I know very little about the broader Divinity universe; it's my understanding that these games span over a thousand years, and they aren't told in consecutive order, so there are necessarily some limitations on how much of the world state you can alter at the end of a given game. That said, it does feel like a big impact.)


Phew! This game has been a big part of my life for months and months, and for the most part it's been a very welcome part. I can't think of another RPG whose combat I've enjoyed more, and it told a compelling story with some memorable characters. I complained at length above about some of my mechanical irritations with the game, but none of those are remotely fatal: many have to do with my own personal preferences for more streamlined gameplay, others are just nitpicky interface quirks. Playing a game this big is an investment, and at least for me, that investment paid off well. And, while this is certainly not the main point, it makes me more confident than ever that Larian will do a good job at ushering my beloved Baldur's Gate franchise into the future.

Edit: Just remembered I forgot to include my top-level stats. According to Steam, I've spent over 150 hours in the game; that does include time when I had it backgrounded while looking up wiki articles or whatever, but I think I'm definitely over 140 hours. I was playing on Classic difficulty. I had a pretty completionist playthrough, closing out almost all of my journal quests and doing every fight I could find, including optional ones; I probably could have squeezed out a bit more XP from a few places but not much. I finished the game at Level 20, hitting that value shortly before the end of the game. I had something like 250k gold pieces left at the end of the game, and I was much more generous than I typically am in RPGs when it comes to buying equipment and supplies from shops. The end!

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