Traditional CRPGs are always about the setting first and foremost. The Elders Scrolls games quickly come to mind. Combat or stability has never been the reason to play Morrowind, Oblivion, or Skyrim. The vast majority of the appeal the world of Tamriel is the rich history, story, and side-quests that populate the entire game. (One could also make the case that part of the fun of the Elder Scrolls series is trying to actively push the game to its absolute limits with hundreds of cheese wheels.) The best single player RPG experience in recent memory is the Witcher 3 despite an ok combat system and vast quantities of bugs and glitches. These great games obscure a lot of rough spots. I wanted to get lost and live in their wonderful, awe-inspiring worlds.
Divinity: Original Sin 2 is one of the those games much to my surprise. I say surprise because while I enjoyed what I played of the first Original Sin game, I lost any inclination to play after 38 hours. I hardly remember anything about the game. Despite the skepticism, I bought the sequel mostly to mess around with the GM mode and the Divinity Engine. And after 38 hours (completely a coincidence), I find Divinity: Original Sin 2 to be a revelation. This is what a CRPG can be. While Dragon Age and other recent RPGs seem to have abandoned the traditional style, Divinity embraces them with all the inventory, turn-based combat, complex narratives that you would expect in this progeny of the old Black Isle/Bioware Baldur’s Gate games.
However, even with a traditional style and structure, Divinity doesn’t feel like a game that is simply emulating the past like Pillars of Eternity. The systems feel like modern takes on classic ideas. The turn system of combat returns using a AP system similar to XCOM, and, like the original, there is an enormous amount of focus on elemental resistances and damage. Lighting a room filled with poison on fire or turning wet rain to hazardous ice, is a key part to being successful in combat. The player is constantly thrown into a tug of war to control what is on fire, poisoned, etc.
A tremendous improvement in the sequel is the addition of physical and magical armor. Alongside the usual pile of hit points, each character has physical and magical armor points that can provide resistance to damage and status effects. Magic Armor will resist things like fire, fear effects, polymorph, while physical armor will prevent knockdowns and stuns. Once you get through several fights, the combat becomes second nature as your party and enemies will have a mixture of physical or magical armor to facilitate strategic decisions. The heavy soldier with little magical armor should be hit with as many magical effects as needed. The archer with no physical armor should be targeted with knockdown attack that stops them from acting that turn. There is a real push and pull to the combat tactics that is largely missing in Pillars of Eternity or Dragon Age: Inquisition. In those games (especially DA:I), I usually had no idea why I survived a particular encounter where I had failed previously. For the most part in Divinity: Original Sin 2, the player understands the moment to moment action, even when the RNG feels like it despises your very existence.
In addition to the improvements to the combat and over structure, Divinity: Original Sin 2 does best what its predecessor did: story. The main campaign goes places and while it follows some of the same tropes of the hero’s journey, the ideas and places are so fantastical that it is very refreshing. Think about The Witcher 3 quest Through Space and Time and the gnarly vistas and other worlds. Divinity regularly touches parallel worlds filled with gods and demons.
The world-building feels a lot more cohesive and lived-in than the previous entry. You will want to know the back stories and understand strands of the greater machinations in play. It really does feel like very well thought out tabletop RPG at times.
I absolutely love that the dialogue options aren’t short sentences or a kind of response (Fallout 4) that cause confusion in what you are trying to say. Instead, it will describe what you are asking and not actually translate that into a bit of spoken dialogue. It is a small touch of brilliance as it allows the player to fill in the conversation themselves. The choices are describing a feeling or thought that you want to convey, and, after getting used to the structure, are absolutely phenomenal.
The side quests are wonderful. You can tell the amount of craft and love the developers have for their game by how intricate and interwoven the side quests are in Divinity. In Mass Effect or Dragon Age: Inquisition, the side quests feel like busy work and padding to lengthen game time. In Divinity: Original Sin 2, they are almost on par with The Witcher 3’s quality. The multiple branches in seemingly every quest are a testament to the remarkable nature of the game. The first main storyline has so many different solutions that every strand, side quest or not, feels integral to the whole.
Of course, the game isn’t perfect. There are several bugs I’ve run into, and some encounters feel randomly irritatingly hard. But this is the real deal. A traditional CRPG that almost insists that you play with friends, loads of imagination, and endless amounts of polish. In a gaming year full of tremendous surprises, singing the undying praises of Divinity: Original Sin 2 is a most welcome surprise.