This is better than, or on par with, DOS1 in just about every way. It looks great. The voice acting and tone no longer have the off-putting cartoonish intensity I had complained about, and the game is probably funnier for it. The plot isn’t as convoluted — though it is still messy. And there are too many little improvements to the interface and mechanics to count. That a small studio relying at least partly on crowdfunding pulled off this cooperative CRPG experience is quite hard to believe.
And yet it is a small studio making a deeply ambitious CRPG, which makes it unsurprising that despite the thickness of Larian Studios’ face in rereleasing this as the “Definitive Edition”, it is still as riddled with bugs as the “Enhanced” DOS1 was. It’s an issue, to be sure. But I don’t see anyone else making the next Ultima 7. While Larian is breaking ridiculous new ground with the awkward voice chat moment of entering into an adult romance with a companion in a co-op game, everyone else is just sleeping on the job. The Elder Scrolls? Don’t make me laugh. More like The Elder’s Games. Because they’re stuck in the previous century of game design.
There’s a lot of jank, and to make things a little more frustrating, much of it is the same jank from the previous entry in the series. To be clear, this is a much more polished and stable game, but many underlying problems haven’t been solved. We still had desync issues where my connecting friend would not see his weapons equipped, but only rarely. We would also still see attacks, projectiles, and grenades fail to do anything, or get stopped by non-obstacles along the way, maybe at times because we misclicked and targeted the ground due to a finnicky hitbox, and at other times for no discernible reason at all. We’d still sometimes walk to a clicked location instead of attacking there.
And there were new problems: my summoned incarnate would fail to join a combat encounter with the rest of the party, in one instance even exiting the encounter without my noticing, causing its spawn duration to rapidly tick away and be wasted. (I think numerous types of spell and potion effects should have been configured to last until the end of the next encounter or the next rest, rather than ticking away ruthlessly fast outside of combat.) Generally, even by the endgame, we found it impossible to get through a full battle without at least one or two screw-ups or wasted attacks. That’s too many.
And then there’s the story. What makes it so burdensome to stay on top of? To be fair to the writers and to myself as a player, I think one’s reading comprehension is bound to get dulled in a co-op setting. After all, you tend to miss nuances when you watch a movie from a friend’s couch, too — or at least I do. But even if that was the only problem, the onus would still fall on the writers to anticipate it and keep their narrative straightforward. They should understand how people are playing it. And the lore books? No one reads the books in Skyrim. You think I’ll do it in a co-op game, with another player waiting on me? I won’t. But I can’t say it’s all the fault of multiplayer. There are a number of easily conflated MacGuffins (like the Aeteran and Anathema), factions and characters not properly introduced (some being carry-overs from past games in the series I know nothing about), and a half-dozen villains who are, if not competing directly with each other, at least each with their own motives. Perhaps you could say it’s well thought-out that the antagonists don’t all see completely eye-to-eye in the service spreading murder, death, and blood, and that I’m not just being told where to point my swords. But in the execution, it’s a problem when I’m just meeting one of those characters for the first time before the final boss fight, and I’m not completely sure who he is. But there’s some good character writing in there, and I liked the story modules for the preconfigured party members, like Lohse dealing with the doctor, and Fane’s meetings with other Eternals.
I was very impressed, not so much with reactivity, but with specificity. In other words, it wasn’t so much that the game was responding to my choices, as that it was showing me many things that I would not have seen, had my party composition been at all different. I’d argue that in the case of the Pet Pal talent, which provides conversations with animals, they probably should have just let all your characters talk to animals for free, and worked it out on the lore side of things. But I would see, for example, a creature react to my Pet Pal character having the Spider’s Kiss talent. Or I’d have to pass a persuasion check for a specific attribute with an animal, or there’d be a persuasion check only open to elves, or to Fane, or I’d get into some unique situation with an NPC with my premade companion character, whom I might never have spoken to at all if my co-op companion had done so first. And what about the million ghost NPCs you won’t find at all if you aren’t constantly casting Spirit Sense? The further this specificity goes, though, the easier it is, I suspect, for permutations to go overlooked and untested. And we did break at least a few quests, perhaps more depending on your definition of “broken”, although that may have had nothing to do with the specifics of our party composition. Other quests apparently just didn’t make it into the game with a satisfactory resolution in the first place. Sometimes inexplicably fucked up stuff happens, and we aren’t sure if it’s caused by some skewed idea of reactivity, or what.
Mechanics and incentives
There are some pretty cool new tricks here. One problem in DOS1 was an overreliance on crowd-control (CC) effects: if you don’t spend every turn knocking down enemies, stunning, freezing, charming them, etc., you’re giving the enemies more turns to whip your ass, and each of those CC effects would come down in large part to RNG. CC is still hugely important in DOS2, but more tactically now, and not right out of the gate. Units have magical barriers and physical armors that must be destroyed before CC effects can be applied, but when they can be used, they’re consistent (unless the jank happens and your charm grenade just blows up in midair). It makes encounters more thoughtful, as you need to decide which kind of armor to target and to use the appropriate skills.
The theft system is very good, too. As before, there’s no RNG in pickpocketing; only meeting the requirements (by gold value or weight limit) to successfully steal something. Other party members get to participate, by talking to and distracting nearby NPCs who might spot the character in the act. Most interestingly, DOS2 tries something new — once a pickpocketed NPC is no longer distracted by one of your characters, an NPC will quickly notice that they’re missing items, and will demand to search through the inventories of anyone nearby, leading to a little more action on behalf of the party — usually passing a persuasion check if they don’t manage to leave the scene. If I’m being honest, this is not much of a big deal in itself. Warping your party away from the scene of a crime takes about a second, and the NPCs won’t care by the time you come back (even if you sell their stolen item back to them), so it doesn’t add a lot of complexity. But it’s a step in a direction I always wanted to see, where detection of a crime isn’t really about the split-second where the crime is actually witnessed, but the consequences of a valuable item’s disappearance. In this simple mechanic, I can see the makings of that.
What isn’t so good are some of the abilities, especially the civic ones. 5 points in Loremaster is mandatory. Telekinesis is very niche. Stealth is almost useless, doing very little for sneak-attacks, and is only sometimes paired with Thievery when there are a few too many NPCs around to be distracted by your other party members. Persuasion is important, but it absolutely sucks in its implementation, where you have to pass checks on the basis of your ability scores, eg. Strength. Even if you have a ton of points in Strength, you won’t pass the check unless you have the points in Persuasion, too, so your Persuasion character has to do all the talking, and will sometimes not have the right ability scores anyway. This is irritating in co-op if you want to talk to someone or even just be the first person into a room while the Persuader is under the control of your partner. We actually ended up giving up Lucky Find and having both our main characters as Persuaders, but it’s also made vastly more complicated by the fact that NPCs will often initiate conversation with you, and they’ll just pick whomever is nearest to them, rather than talking to the person who could actually pass their Persuasion checks. Furthermore, once in dialogue, they will only care about that one character, ignoring everyone else in the party who is standing two feet away. And this is, I think, my single biggest gripe with DOS2. It should have been that the dialogue box was split into columns, with each player able to interject on a conversation in the order of first-come, first-serve, but each player taking part in the same instance of communication, instead of this weird partitioning whenever one player tries to finish a quest that another had started.
In DOS1, every living thing was a source of EXP, which incentivized the killing of everything, down to the last rat and villager, all in the desire to be even one level higher than expected by the end of the game. DOS2 doesn’t grant EXP for the killing of simple animals and villagers anymore, but it still has the same fundamental problem. I had been wondering why a forgettable character from the first act (Gratiana) got a shout-out in the epilogue, until I realized that they were giving us the post-script on virtually everyone of note still alive in the world, and she had been one of the few characters we missed our opportunity to murder in cold blood. (In other words, our epilogue could have been a lot longer.) I think there are a number of ways they might have curbed this impulse, but the one I think is best would be to just reward EXP for quests and for specific enemy encounters, so you get nothing for killing a quest NPC if you’ve already resolved their quest a different way.
The next Ultima 7
In some respects, Original Sin is still uncomplicated by the standards of other CRPGs. There’s no day-night cycle. NPCs stand in the same place all the time, instead of moving from their jobs to their beds. Even though I love that sort of thing, I didn’t really miss it too much: while it would have been cool, if you can’t put the time in to do it right, it only makes it irritating to find the questgivers you’re looking for. Larian seems to have decided not to bite off more they could chew there, instead sticking to their strengths. And while the day-night NPC schedule stuff has been in games since at least Ultima 7 in one form or another — which I happened to learn was a huge influence for the studio — so was the ability to just spend an hour crafting bread or some bullshit, or carrying around a stack of crates of everything on a boat, features which have made the cut.
Speaking of crates of everything, that’s another area where there’s room to make me happier. Features like item-stacking, sending a selection of items to a chest, and putting labels on containers would have gone a long way with me. I could easily spend dozens of hours just assembling a vast library and collection of scrolls and crafting materials, and I probably did. As The Real Texas showed, I get weirdly invested in this type of gameplay. I would be thrilled if the aforementioned day-night stuff makes it into the next Larian game, but honestly, if they continue in the direction of “item-collecting open-ended base management CRPG” like this with some ease-of-use enhancements, and additionally let me climb onto moveable objects to get over walls and onto rooftops, as I could in Ultima 7 (or in Breath of the Wild, for that matter), I would gratefully declare Ultima 7 obsolete in a heartbeat, and stop talking about it forever. Ultima’s combat and dialogue sucked, after all. Did I constantly laugh after accidentally setting a cloud of poison gas on fire in every single battle in Ultima 7? No.
Plus, I mean, co-op always adds some fun.
The exploit factor
It’s really hard not to cheese the shit out of DOS2, and Larian made no effort to stop this at all — second verse, same as the first. You can still make chests that weigh a billion pounds and drop them on people. My partner thought to kill a particularly nasty undead enemy by health-linking to it and sprinting into a patch of instant-kill deathfog. I also thought to carry a patch of deathfog around the final act by using the spell Terrain Transmute for all sorts of shenanigans, but let’s be honest here: the devs invented a substance that instantly kills living entities, and then gave players a spell to move that substance around the map. they knew what they were doing.
I discovered another particularly ridiculous strategy after taking the time to teleport a hundred-plus corpses together into a single pile and then using the Bone Cage skill to gather temporary armor from each nearby corpse. If a player does this while another starts a battle elsewhere, the Bone Caged character can teleport to the other, entering battle with fifty times more armor than god himself. Using this with the Reactive Armor skill — which does more damage the more armor you have — you can one-shot basically anything as long as you still have access to your corpse pile (which rules out the final boss). We goofed around with this, but it was ultimately ill-advised, as the corpse pile really strained our load times — not to mention our framerates when we went anywhere near it. Larian, look into some kind of optimization when there are a hundred corpses on screen, please. We’re trying to break your game here, but it keeps breaking.
Not all cheesing is of the combat variety, either: my co-op partner and I spent 25 embarrassing minutes trying to solve a puzzle involving rotating pipes to send fluid into the proper receptacles, when I finally said “Can I just Gordian Knot this shit?” and managed to throw my teleporter pyramid onto the other side of a barrier, allowing myself to just leap down to the other end of the room and generate the fluid with spells and grenades instead of sending it through the pipes. I’m still unsure whether I’m a moron or a genius for this, nor can I truly know if my solution was intentionally permitted, but I think it’s perfect for the design ethos of the Original Sin games. Sure, any combat encounters designed solely to provide challenge to the players can be ruined by this, but at the end of the day, it’s not being done in a PvP setting, and the goal is to have fun. In terms of games that let you have the tools and freedom to thoroughly and creatively wreck the balance, this is the best I’ve played. Better than Morrowind.
So, to reiterate, for the dream CRPG: Simpler character-driven story, expanded crime AI, climb on crates after stacking them, day-night cycles, fix the combat jank, and tighten up the graphics on Level 3. You can do it, Larian, I believe in you.
One more thing
There’s something called Game Master Mode. You can set the stage with prefabricated Divinity assets and play out a D&D-style adventure with other players. If I ever played this game with more than one other person, I think it would be very neat to mess around with. Some of the mechanics I find most annoying in the base game, like the conversation and persuasion systems, could be entirely circumvented by talking them out traditionally over voice chat, and rolling dice. The game master can of course take control of NPCs at will, and control enemy combatants directly in battles. It seems exactly like the sort of video game Wizards of the Coast should have tried to put together for D&D a decade ago, but that’s all I can really say about it.