Larian’s epic sequel is one of the best RPGs of the decade.
Some rats won’t listen to reason. Just the other day, I met one at the top of a flight of stairs who asked me if the zombie-like creatures crucified below us were any danger to him, and I assured him they most certainly were. But the punk got it in his little rodent brain that I was lying for my own gain, so he tried to charge past them to the wharf beyond… and got fried by lightning that the husks vomited from their mouths. Toldja, little guy. I’d always figured being able to talk to animals would open doors to deep wisdom, but if similar interactions in Divinity: Original Sin 2 prove anything, they’re just as foolish as we are.
Moments like these are a big part of the reason why I love Larian Studios’ new adventure so much. It’s one of the finest RPGs of any variety in years, especially if you’re a fan of the old isometric Baldur’s Gate model that defined the genre in the early ’90s. But inspired imitation isn’t the chief goal here, as in the somewhat similar (and also excellent) Pillars of Eternity from Obsidian. Divinity: Original Sin 2 is a masterwork that radiates excellence in every aspect, whether we’re talking about its broad commitment to character choice and rewarding combat or the little interactions, like my chat with the rat, that make its fantasy world feel both properly “fantastic” and believable.
Don’t get the impression that it’s all about conversations with rodents. This is a proper Great Adventure, packed with high-fantasy hijinks affecting the whole world, but it happily deals less with Tolkienian absolutes and more with the nuanced, morally gray areas that make the universes of Dragon Age and Game of Thrones so appealing. Original Sin 2 has important things to say about marginalization and exclusion, focusing as it does on so-called “sourcerers” whom the rest of the world clamps with magic collars that protect others from the abilities that set them apart. If you’re new, you don’t have to worry about missing out on all the lore from the first Original Sin from 2014. The sequel takes places centuries later when the settings and characters of the first game have slipped into legend, and it stands fine on the strength of its own tale.
You’re encouraged to hunt for sidequests in the strangest places.
The tale itself achieves a commendable balance of gravitas and lightheartedness that was sometimes missing in the first Divinity: Original Sin. It’s richly written, too, with everything from the descriptions of the narrator to the most custom responses for specific races or characters being fully voiced. This quality extends even to the side quests, which stand out not only for their writing but also for how they’re found. As with so many things in this world, Original Sin 2 encourages you to experiment and hunt for them in the strangest places as they’re unmarked by the garish bluntness of a yellow exclamation point hovering over an NPC’s head. Sometimes you’ll find a ghostly knight who’s been magically impaled for centuries by playing hide-and-seek with some kid you clicked on out of curiosity.
It doesn’t hurt that Original Sin 2 is as graphically beautiful as any game of this perspective has ever been. Everything on the screen speaks of attention to loving detail and thoughtful placement, whether it’s the arrangement of flora on a sandy beach or the animations of a winter dragon thankful for being released from its chains. It’s beautiful in other ways, too, though, such as how little stories spring from items and NPCs that other games might be content to leave as part of the scenery. Talking to a random character might lead to tales of sad memories that have no bearing on the plot but are no less stirring and rewarding for that fact. Animals, as mentioned, often give a different perspective on what’s going on if you have the “Pet Pal” perk that lets you talk to them. Turning over every rock and slip of paper just to find these small wonders is one of the best parts of Original Sin 2.
Other RPGs do well in this regard, but Original Sin 2 stands out because this well-written story exists in a world that’s alive with an impressive degree of freedom and flexibility. It’s not enough that you can choose to either chat or fight your way out of most conflicts: instead, it wants you to be able to use unconventional tactics like teleportation spells to bypass puzzles or unreasonable NPCs entirely. You play as a figure with the power to affect the world, but there’s a welcome sense that the world Larian has crafted here doesn’t exist solely to cater to your whims. Sometimes, for example, an NPC who plays a key role in a long side quest storyline can die in a chance encounter if you fail to act quickly enough, thus preventing you from seeing what might have happened until a future playthrough (or a reload).
Few modern games are brave enough to lock out major content like this based on your decisions.
Few modern games are brave enough to lock out major content like this based on your decisions or those of your party members, and that approach gives these choices a rare weight. Most impressively of all, creative solutions and disastrous interactions like these never manage to break your ability to complete the main quest, which hints that Larian somehow figured out all the possible consequences of the many ways you could finish a quest. It goes a long way toward making the world we see feel real.
In fact, this degree of freedom can cause friction if you’re playing in the co-op mode for up to four players, especially since – just like in real life – your buddies can run off and do their own thing and profoundly change the way you intended on going about your business. Essential companion quest NPCs might end up dead while you’re off selling junk in town. Different people might pick up different pieces of a cursed set of armor that only plays nice if wear all the items, but its bonuses are for naught if no one can agree on who gets to wear it. And, naturally, sometimes they’ll refuse to help with a fight, leaving victory more fleeting than it is on the already challenging normal mode.
Among the many great things about Original Sin 2 is the inclusion of a “Game Master” mode that lets you guide custom scenarios with friends in real-time much like a pencil-and-paper Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master, thus allowing for fun and replayability long after you’ve completed the main story. But I found that the volatility of the normal campaign co-op mode allows for much of the same unpredictability that makes tabletop D&D so fun, although, as with any game that requires a unified, coordinated team for success, you’re likely going to have a better time if you play co-op with friends you trust rather than some randos in the lobby.
Racial tensions and the heroes’ inborn skills allow each character to feel distinct.
The strengths of Original Sin 2’s freeform approach reveal themselves as early as the character creation screen. You can choose to play as one of five races – human, elf, undead, lizard, and dwarf – and select from a dizzying array of preset class builds like Wizard or Metamorph, with the latter allowing your hero to transform huge beasts into chickens or turn their own arms into tentacles. Sound a little too kinky? The good news is that Original Sin 2 has an open-ended class system, so you can develop into something different as you learn more spells and allocate more stat points. And these are far from mere cosmetic choices: racial tensions and the heroes’ inborn skills allow each character to feel distinct from one another, and bringing along one member of each race is a handy lesson in the utility of diversity. Elven NPCs, for instance, will be more willing to hear you out of help you if you have a fellow elf in the party, and the mere presence of an undead can rattle the nerves of NPCs who might talk tough with other characters.
You can create fully custom characters if you wish, but I find Original Sin 2 is best enjoyed by choosing one of the six pre-designed characters with origin stories. That’s because each comes with a surprising variety of customized dialogue options (and, for that matter, fully voiced responses from the NPCs they interact with). Take Sebille; she’s a dangerous elf who wants revenge on the lizard who forced her to commit nightmarish acts while she was in slavery. She carves her arms with the names of her victims and – like all elves in this dark universe – she can chomp on severed arms and legs to learn more about the life led by whatever poor fellow ended up as her meal. Then there’s Lohse, an unfortunate soul whose body is treated like a Motel 6 by all manner of demons and spirits, leading her to turn on the party at some of the most inopportune moments. But my favorite is Fane, an undead scholar who’s thousands of years old (and oddly speaks with a decidedly non-Skeletorian inflection). Gas clouds that can kill other party members don’t bother him at all – to the contrary, he heals himself by chugging poison or standing in it. He can also pick locks with only his bony finger. But those skills come at a cost: should he strut about without a helmet or a magical mask, Fane may cause key NPCs to attack him out of horror and fear or go running for the hills.
It’s fun (and terrifying) to see how companions’ goals conflict.
Whatever “origin” characters you don’t choose will end up being your potential three other party members. But their goals and ambitions don’t happen in a tidy vacuum, and it’s sometimes fun (and terrifying) to see how those goals conflict. Take Sebille. The Red Prince, a lizard who’s tracking down “Dreamers” that can grant him visions of how to secure an empire, finally finds one snoozing by the beach. Sebille, though, wanted to have a chat with the Dreamer herself when we arrived. I allowed her to and she ends up slicing the dude to death to the great anger of the Red Prince. As it turns out, I could have avoided all this by keeping Sebille hanging around by herself of sight. Events like these can be devastating if you haven’t saved in a while, but I like how they force you to make careful decisions about who to bring along for a quest.
As strong as Original Sin 2 is in its stories and quests, it doubles as a fine tactical game that encourages experimentation. It proudly forgoes the real-time-with-pause format championed by many similar RPGs in favor of a true turn-based system where characters’ limited action points demand wise decisions of which abilities to use at what moment. Those decisions are made more complex by an environment that’s more interactive than anything even genre titans like BioWare or CD Projekt RED have ever produced. It’s a game in which you can have your telekinetic mage toss a boulder at a rogue standing in oil to knock him down and then follow up with some burning arrows to set it all aflame – then teleport an archer from his perch into the same conflagration. (Height advantages factor in as well.) It’s a game where you can literally heal undead NPCs to death or freeze giants careless enough to walk through water to reach you. It doesn’t even take that long to figure out how well it all works, even if you play with a gamepad rather than a mouse and keyboard, and putting together an especially smart solution grants a more powerful sense of victory than mere brute force would provide.
Better yet, this type of fun doesn’t have to end with the campaign. Original Sin 2 also comes with an Arena mode that lets you pit your wits against other players in structured PvP whenever you wish.
I still found some bugs hiding in all this, but they were little things, chiefly in the vein of NPCs who wouldn’t talk to me or puzzles that wouldn’t work without a reload. It’s a testament to how well Original Sin 2 works in general, though, that I often wasn’t sure if I was seeing a bug or if I simply needed to remove a curse or something first. At any rate, Larian has rapidly been zipping out effective patches since launch to remedy these at a speed that’s been pleasing to watch.