As far as I know, when Divinity: Original Sin came out, it was an entirely new idea to have a CRPG in the style of Baldur’s Gate or Fallout that could be played entirely in cooperation with another player. It was probably for this reason that this Kickstarter-funded successor to some Diablo clones I’ve never heard of generated quite a bit of interest in 2014. Playing a game like this with a partner is very different from the way I normally go about these games: I like to quickload when I didn’t really screw up all that badly, just because I think I can do better. I also tend to never use scrolls, grenades, or other consumables, because I’m “saving them”. But it’s different when you don’t want to drag things out for another person. We still reloaded quite a bit, but I’d sometimes get caught stealing and live with the penalties to an NPC’s disposition towards me. I’d start battles from a clumsy position, or I’d fail on critical skills at the start of battle and keep going. It’s probably a healthier way to play, and I like that co-op incentivizes this, with no further work on the developer’s part.
CRPGs are the hardest games to avoid bugs in, though, and we ran into a lot of them. If this was Enhanced, I’d hate to see the original: the mechanics were often clumsy, there were UI problems, quests could end up in unresolvable states, and at least one map was unfinished, with a visible but inaccessible path behind a statue that could not be moved, devoid of items or other content, according to the Internet.
We sometimes had to reload saves or exit the game when my co-op partner’s stats were all set to 5 and he couldn’t use any of his skills, due to the fact that he wasn’t correctly syncing with me, the host. Health often wouldn’t sync correctly either, and my friend would think he was low on health when he wasn’t. Occasionally, skills would just fail to apply when used: I would cast Adrenaline or Haste or something, the skill would go on cooldown, and there would be no notice of a miss or failure, but I wouldn’t get the buff — even when I wasn’t in an Invulnerable state where I couldn’t be buffed or damaged. Targets would be inexplicably undamaged when they were right in the thick of a spell’s active zone (and not immune to the element of the attack).
The controls were a problem. It was all too easy to misclick. Left-clicking an enemy to attack them always came with the risk of clicking to walk to a space on the other side of them instead. Certain spells would be nearly impossible to aim correctly, stubbornly snapping to the wrong targets. I would also sometimes try to get into the cone behind an enemy where they might be backstabbed, but I would be completely incapable of stepping into the space behind them, even when there seemed to be plenty of room.
The AI was bad. Characters would path horribly and run into traps. Enemies would pass their turns for no reason or target Invulnerable characters with their skills, or provoke opportunity attacks on themselves and die during their own turns. The scariest part of the end boss was that three allied NPCs joined us: my main character had the zombie perk which allowed them to heal from poison damage in exchange for taking damage from regular healing spells, and I was killed twice by my own allies trying to heal me, when I otherwise would have been fine.
Information was often poorly conveyed. It’s hard to count the passage of turns, and hard to plan ahead without counters for the remaining cooldown times of skills. I assume there was some reason characters would have their turns skipped, or an ally would rarely get their turn back immediately after using it, but I have no idea. I really appreciated the chaos and strategy of environmental effects, but when moving or aiming skills, there was often no indication of some barely visible puddle of water on the ground that would cause me to electrocute my whole party by accident, and area-of-effect radius markers could be way off, causing me to start an explosion from a poison cloud that I had never expected to reach a lit brazier in the back of the room. It’s also hard to plan a build when it’s unclear how many points are needed in Speed before I gain an extra AP per turn, or whether a few points in Strength will help my damage more than a few skill points in weapons training, extra weapon damage, or whatever else.
We had to leave a few quests unresolved on our log due to glitches, which always bothers me. Hell, not splitting the quest log into main and side quests bugs me, but by Divinity’s standards, that’s extreme nitpicking. A few other quests were failed without any warning when we collapsed a mine, which I don’t mind as much, though I do prefer clearer points of no return for things like that. But as I already said, it seems easier to swallow non-optimal outcomes in cooperative play. CRPGs often leave players with a few things they wish they’d resolved differently in retrospect anyway, but I’m far less likely to ever replay this one, because it’s upwards of a hundred hours long and it’s hard enough to find time to play with a friend as it is.
There’s definitely room to try a variety of builds out, but some skills and talents seemed far more useless than others. With so few skill points to go around, the bulk of the Personality, Craftsmanship, and Nasty Deeds skills are completely wasted: money is practically infinite if you’re willing to fill your bags and spend 10 minutes selling them every once in a while. I tried to use Pickpocketing on everyone in the first town, and it got me a few extra early skill books, but that and Lockpicking were rarely helpful afterwards. I could have greatly benefited from a respec, but as this erases all learned skills, it can be impossible to find second copies of skill books the player doesn’t wish to forget, even if players have the money to buy them. My main character remained a mess, but fell into a role of summoning skeleton allies, throwing grenades, and casting a handful of buffs and debuffs each turn, as she couldn’t really take hits or deal out big damage.
A lot of gear is carried around for boosts to specific skills the players don’t need all the time, like Crafting or Loremaster, but you can’t save preset configurations of gear, which results in a lot of tedious shuffling of items every time the player wants to identify something. I also think some things are influenced too much by player attributes, as I could barely push an empty crate or barrel around, and my co-op partner had to do all of that, even when it was just to move something slightly out of the way, and not to try dropping a thousand-ton object on somebody.
The co-op mechanics work well, for the most part. Though players can’t move to entirely different areas without bringing the whole party, it’s often fine to have one player run back to town on their own in some of the bigger areas. Early in the game, the players get a pair of “teleporter pyramids” that allow one player to teleport to the other, and these are really cool: a player can also throw one over an obstacle and have the other player teleport to it, resulting in some interesting puzzle solutions. Unfortunately, most puzzles come down to spotting some hard-to-see switch on a wall or doing something extremely esoteric, like snuffing out candles in a room, so we tended to think of the puzzles as frustrating speedbumps to our progress more than anything else, and had to check a guide more than a few times.
But it’s not as though the incorporation of multiplayer into the CRPG design was seamless. Only one player can actually be the one to click on an NPC to start a conversation with them, and a second “eavesdropping” player can’t hear a line of voice acting that had already started when they joined the conversation. This means that one player always misses the first page of spoken dialogue, though they can still scroll up and read the text. But there were also times we found it impossible to join into another player’s conversation at all. It seems like it would have been trivial to send a “joint conversation” request to another nearby player while clicking on an NPC, which could be declined if the other player didn’t want to take part. You can’t have both players simultaneously trade with the same merchant, either.
There’s a cool system where the two heroes get to express their personalities and opinions during quests. We were often already talking about whether we wanted to kill someone, or help them, or whatever when the dialogue options came up, but it was also kind of interesting to say nothing over voice chat and let the other player discover our choice in-game. Apart from some messing around in the early parts of the game, we never actually opposed each other’s choices, but it makes sense to arbitrate conflicts within our own party through rock-paper-scissors. However, one thing I don’t like is that the same rock-paper-scissors system is also used to pass speech checks with NPCs who don’t know you, which is pointless RNG.
Story is integral to every big fantasy RPG, but I got absolutely nothing out of this one, except for some good jokes with my friend, like, “Don’t worry Bairdotr, we definitely didn’t kill your boyfriend Jareth while you were taken out of the party, and your quest to find him is definitely still on our log. Anyways, you have the highest Loremaster skill, so I need you to identify these Boots of Jareth.” Or, after finally sealing the Void Dragon end boss inside the Godbox: “I wasn’t paying attention, but we can open that big treasure chest and collect our loot now, right?”
The game doesn’t really have an aesthetic beyond generic fantasy, unless you count the cartoonish voice acting, which wasn’t really bad acting per se, but it was too much. The plot was mostly convoluted nonsense neither of us were ever invested in. In the early game, I couldn’t keep things straight between Icara, Leandra, Evelyn, Cassandra, Astarte. Who was the Conduit? The White Witch? Have we met Zandalor? Was that the Councillor? No? I eventually figured it out, but I never cared about them. In the final battle, when Astarte was at low health, I asked my co-op companion, “Do we care if she dies?” He responded, “Are you asking if I care, or if we need to keep her alive to beat the game?” I laughed, because the answer to the first one was all too obvious.
Divinity still has the openness of a great CRPG, even if it may be an awkward and clumsy one. It’s real funny to create a circular barricade of about thirty crates and then start a fight with someone by teleporting them into the middle, where they can’t do anything. Although the player’s capacity for hijinks isn’t quite at the level of something like Ultima VII, it’s great to do this in co-op. I’ve read that you can even fill a chest with a hundred thousand kilograms of items and drag it onto an enemy’s head to kill even bosses in one blow, as the damage calculation is weight-based and has no upper cap. That’s the exact sort of nonsense that makes CRPGs one of my favorite genres.
I would have preferred a more involving story, and some polishing of the controls and mechanics, but the co-op CRPG is a very untapped idea, and the game delivers on that promise pretty well, for the most part. I always have fun with the genre, and however annoyed we might have been when some bug or bad puzzle wasted our time, we clearly had a lot of fun, and it was somehow a foregone conclusion that we’d be playing its sequel.