For the sake of clarity I am reviewing the single-player experience on Playstation 4. I have not tried the multiplayer or the PC version.
Little things can make a big difference in Divinity: Original Sin 2. Whether it’s the note containing key information buried somewhere in your inventory, the elusive mouse that teaches you the trick to beat a difficult boss, or the many small annoyances that eventually add up to undermine the overall experience, the minute details of Divinity 2 are the deciders of whether or not you’ll have a good time. A devout Divinity fan might say that every choice you make matters, but the game’s lack of a coherent narrative and its focus on free-wheeling exploration results in each choice flying like a firework in a random direction. This would be fine if each one ended in a bang, but more often than not, the myriad choices, plot threads and side-quests result in a fizzle.
There are exceptions of course. A few of the companion quests end pleasantly enough (assuming you decided to help your friends and not murder them ruthlessly). Divinity 2 is the type of game that allows you a lot of leeway in how you solve puzzles or fight bad guys. You might level up a character’s persuasion ability and convince a guard to let you interrogate a criminal, or you could just kill the guard and enter the cell. Then you can kill the criminal, find out where he lives, and kill his cat too. This might aggravate the guards in the city, but if you over-level your character and manipulate the combat system enough, you’ll find that bashing your weapons against the skulls of an entire city-state is a welcome alternative to diplomacy.
Even if you like the diplomatic approach, chances are the game will troll you and make diplomacy result in exploding death puppets. Divinity 2 has a pedant’s sense of humor, punishing you for misunderstanding its painfully obtuse systems on a regular basis. For example, one status condition known as ‘decaying’ makes healing potions poison your characters. If you’re not exceedingly careful you might murder your own team while trying to play doctor. In this way, it’s the perfect game for the streaming age, where eight-year-olds can’t wait to watch you fail and laugh at your misfortune. “You should have known that the fifteenth lever from the left was the non-murder-y one!” Remember to save often, as the game’s hour-long battles can sometimes end unpleasantly.
Many of these critiques could be leveled at Divinity 1 as well, but Divinity 1 understood pacing and balance a bit better. In the original game you played as a ‘Source Hunter’, an investigator on the hunt for powerful, illegal magic called Source. You investigate a magic-related murder, which in turn leads to an epic conflict with an evil space dragon and an undead psychopath. Though the story struck me as a bit barebones, there was at least a focused core narrative, something that the player could glom onto amidst all the chaos. Divinity 2‘s plot is almost unintelligible in comparison, with much of it hinging on your character following the whims of a sarcastic witch.
The game opens with the player’s Source powers muted by the magical equivalent of a no-bark collar. Your ship is attacked by a Kraken and from there on you’re stuck in a penal colony until you can find a way to remove the collar and escape. This all takes about twenty hours of gameplay to accomplish (longer than the entirety of Spider-Man) and constitutes the game’s tutorial. From there you discover that you’re Godwoken, the game’s fancy-pants name for Dragonborn, which basically means that you and your compatriots are on the short-list for divinity. Only one of you can ultimately ascend to godhood, so you’re forced into a difficult decision. Do you help your friends succeed in their own ambitions, or use them, then leave them flailing in the dust? In this way, it’s just like life as an actor in Los Angeles.
Who wouldn’t want to be the god of a fantasy universe- Hollywood or otherwise? It’s unclear what qualifies your character for such a position, what you might do with godhood if you got it, or what makes divinity distinct from being a really, really badass wizard. A couple levels into the game you can turn people into chickens, so how much more powerful do you need to be, really? Those are some questions that are never really answered, at least not to my satisfaction.
You’ll try to ignore them as you bumble your way to victory, accidentally finding secret lairs only to be told that you couldn’t possibly have found such a place by accident. The relentlessly boring lore is a ball of knots waiting to be untangled, but I preferred to turn it into a chicken and set it on fire. I like my fantasy Kentucky Fried.
It’s a shame that Divinity: Original Sin 2 has such interesting systems and beautiful music, because a lot of it feels wasted on a blasé story. Aside from killing whomever wanted to take my Source, I never got a sense of what my character wanted or needed. Divinity, sure, but to what end? The characters felt like passengers on a train, headed in the same direction whether or not they wanted to go that way, their individual plot lines mere distractions. Every character aside from the ridiculously arch villains existed in a moral gray area without any specific layer of nuance. While superior to the wafer-thin characters in the first Divinity, the Godwoken here still felt like watered-down versions of Dragon Age: Inquisition‘s cast. Even the romantic elements felt phoned in. Love was just a matter of clicking a few text boxes.
After I’d discovered a majority of the combat abilities you can acquire, I was desperate to push forward to the ending. The game had other plans, hoping I would enjoy thirty more hours of combat. The joy I’d felt when concocting strategies for my undead summoner at hour forty was absent at hour eighty. Once you learn how to manipulate the game’s systems things become rote. Can I persuade this person? No? Then I shall murder him. There are no real consequences either way, aside from some quests not appearing because you killed a related character way back in Act One. And it’s not like any of the quests are particularly interesting- aside from the Red Prince’s companion quest, which allows you the insane and deeply questionable option of watching him have sex with his fiancé. That quest has a happy ending in both senses, even if it leans way too hard on Game of Thrones.
You could play Skyrim for a hundred hours and not get bored, carving your way through a vast world, following your heart. You don’t have quite so much freedom here, because each of the game’s areas are separated by huge bodies of water. Once you leave an area you’re gone forever. It’s off to the next “Act” to chicken-ize new victims. This becomes problematic occasionally, when your character learns of something bad, like a terrorist plot, but you are unable to prevent it until forty hours later when you get to the right locale. You will go where the sarcastic witch wants you to go, when she wants you to go there, and not a second sooner. It’s never clear if it’s a worthwhile endeavor to work with this woman, but since you have no alternatives in this masterclass of choice, you will do your wicked queen’s bidding, over and over.
What it all amounts to is a hundred-hour board game, which wouldn’t be so bad if the game had ever bothered to tell you the rules. The first unspoken rule seems to be ‘combat first, story TBD.’ Every time I was expected to care about a turn in the story, the return of a character from the first game, I sighed or shrugged. The combat is the through-line here, but as soon as you run out of new tricks to learn, the story’s shortcomings steal the spotlight. It is a game that requires patience and strategy, so you can imagine how frustrating it is when you want nothing more than to get to the ending, only to be repeatedly punished for rushing things. Maybe you’re too low in level, maybe you forgot to talk to the random NPC who knows the secret phrase for a puzzle on the other side of the island, or maybe the game just wants to kill you. In any case, you’ll finish when the game lets you finish. And if you’re like me, the only thing you’ll find satisfying about the ending is the promise that you’ll never have to play it again.