Summary: Coming over from Europe, Divine Divinity promises a mixture of Diablo and Baldur's Gate, but Patrick thought it was closer to a mix of Diablo and Neverwinter Nights. Wonder what else we thought of this dark horse candidate for a few RPG of the Year titles? Read on!
Developer: Larian Studios
Divine Divinity official page: http://www.larian.com/Site/english/divinity/divinity.html
A New Entrant
The PC RPG genre is an unforgiving and harsh place to be for new developers. For every Diablo and Baldur’s Gate, there are a dozen Septerra Cores and Stonekeeps. Typically, a development studio’s first RPG is a learning process, often exacerbated by jaded and demanding RPG gamers and reviewers. With that in mind, I had a fair bit of anxiety and excitement when I stumbled upon Divine Divinity a couple of months before it went gold. The presentation was close to exceptional and the mood seemed very dark and gritty. However, my experience with European developers has been a mixed one, ranging from the exemplary The Longest Journey, to forgettable titles such as Rage of Mages (the original version was developed in Russia). Within gaming circles, Divine Divinity was being heralded as a Baldur’s Gate and Diablo hybrid. While it would be more accurate to place Divine Divinity somewhere between Neverwinter Nights and Diablo, Divine Divinity surpasses the hype in some aspects, and falls short in others.
“Midway in our life’s journey, I went astray from the straight road and woke to find myself alone in a dark wood” – “The Inferno”, Dante
A good story is often crucial to developing a RPG’s atmosphere. Some titles such as Diablo II have very strong, cinematic plots. Unfortunately, in the case of the aforementioned, it feels as though you are merely following along a trail of footsteps, as opposed to taking a direct role in the story’s unfolding. Divine Divinity strays from the norm, immersing the player in a richly medieval world that feels somewhere between Ravenloft and Darklands. When the game begins, your character wakes up in a foreign land with little recollection of past events. The world is an unfriendly place, populated by humans, elves, dwarves, lizardmen, imps, and orcs, as far as the relatively benign folks go. You are thrust into the heart of the community in which you awaken, being charged with exorcising a demon possessing a mage. People are distrustful, and you will find pentagrams, gargoyles, and necromantic and diabolic diagrams scattered about the world. While Diablo II wielded its atmosphere like a club, Divine Divinity takes a more paced approach, slowly immersing you in its world like quicksand.
Demonic possession seems to be a recurring theme in the game. Without revealing too much, the ruling Duke of the lands ends up being possessed by the Prince of Lies, and a radical personality change ensues. While Divine Divinity avoids being overly macabre with its in-game characters (ESRB rating being Teen and all), the Duke definitely does not seem to be a nice person. With the urgency of a swinging, bladed pendulum, the player ends up realizing his role in the unraveling events as the world about them begins to fester and decay under the demonic presence.
SIDEBAR: Pentium/Athlon 450
128MB of RAM
8MB DX8.0 video card
1.8GB hard drive space
A Face Only A Ghoul Could Love
The scenic palette of Divine Divinity is mostly limited to black, gray, brown, and green. The world is an uncultivated, overgrown place littered with haunted and abandoned buildings. The unholy temples and dank catacombs are places nightmares could get lost in, as torches are unevenly spaced, and the murderous inhabitants are only tempered by inverted pentagrams, summoning circles, and torture victims. Divine Divinity, quite possibly, has the best 2D artwork I’ve seen in an RPG in years. While Morrowind is alien, expansive, and far-reaching, Divine Divinity’s world often feels claustrophobic and suffocating. Nearly every screen in the 20,000 screen game is richly detailed, this consistency only falling apart by the end of the game.
The Devil’s Orchestra Pit
Kirill Pokrovsky has spun together elements distinctly celtic, classical, gothic, and ambient for Divine Divinity’s lush, and oftentimes intense, score. Again, at the risk of sounding cliché, at times the music sounds somewhere comfortably between the tribal ambiance of Diablo II and the orchestral grandeur of Baldur’s Gate. Occasionally, some of the drum-heavy tracks can get tiring to the ear, but I never felt the need to disable the musical score and load up ye olde WinAMP. While, compositionally, Pokrovsky’s score is very strong, it seems as though he could have drastically benefited from higher-quality samples. On occasion the strings sound too synth-like, spoiling the overall effect, a further disappointment given how strong Divine Divinity’s atmosphere is.
Evil Does Have A Funny Bone
A noteworthy aspect of Divine Divinity is the humor. While Fantasy RPGs aren’t the most lighthearted of material, its nice to find a balance, especially given all the depictions of the occult and torture. One of the most prominent examples of this is expressed in the statistic descriptions in the character’s diary. The game gives a paragraph directly related to the numerical value of each statistic. A high lightning resistance yields this gem: “You have a near invulnerability to lightning-based attacks. You can wear a copper helmet and stand in a vat of water on top of a church steeple during a storm shouting “All Gods Are Bastards!” with impunity.” One the other hand, a particularly low strength (such as the one you start the game with) yields this demotivator: “Frail old ladies beat you at arm-wrestling and you would have trouble lifting a weapon, let alone fighting with it.”
I’ll Swallow Your Soul!
For the most part, combat in Divine Divinity is left-clicking on a monster, and either it, or you, dies. Things become a bit more strategic with bows and throwing spears, where you’ll circle around large groups of enemies, sniping the weaker monsters off first. Spells and skills behave in a similar manner. You simply select what you want to do, left-click, and you’re off. It’s unfortunately that this paradigm in a 2D Action-RPG hasn’t been broken yet, as Divine Divinity relies strongly upon time-honored RPG techniques such as ‘leveling addiction’ and ‘treasure galore’ to induce players to make their way through the game. Except for bosses, which can kill you in a couple of hits early in the game, there isn’t much strategy to be had with normal monsters.
Thankfully, there are a number of tools at your disposal to make leveling relatively painless. The most notable aspect of this are your teleporter stones. After you finish the first major area in the game, you’ll be in possession of two teleporter stones. To make things simple, we’ll call one A, and the other B. If you drop A, then you drop B and use B, then it’ll teleport you back to A. Similarly, if you use A without picking A up, it’ll teleport you back to B. From there, you pick up B and continue with your adventuring. It’s advisable to leave A by a bedside, as you can rest in almost any bed in Divine Divinity for free to recover your health, mana, and stamina. There are no limitations on teleporting. Our wounded hero could be surrounded by a horde of skeletons led by an angry ghost, teleport back to bed, rest, and teleport back into the fray fully rejuvenated. While this may seem a bit abusive, there are certain battles in the game that are so stacked against your favor that this is a rather necessary technique to become familiar with.
There are suspicious resemblances between Divine Divinity and a certain best-selling Action-RPG. There are four attributes (Strength, Agility, Intelligence, Constitution) and three variable statistics (Vitality, Mana, Stamina). When you gain a level, you gain 5 statistic points to allocate, and one point to level up a skill. There are three classes (Survivor, Warrior, Wizard), each with 32 unique skills evenly divided into four subclasses. Each skill can be leveled up to a maximum of 5, and there are level requirements for unlocking more powerful skills and for leveling up skills. This prevents level 5 characters from maximizing Sword Expertise or Elemental Strike. As can be expected, characters may save skill points upon leveling up, choosing to expand heavily when more powerful skills and spells are available to them.
There is a fair amount of overlap between all the classes. It is impossible to get through the game specializing in just one class of skills. Equipment restrictions are based on attributes, not class. Starting attributes vary slightly, but each class has full access to the other classes’ skills and spells. The only real difference between each class is a unique skill, but these are negligible. Fighters may do a spin-attack at a considerable loss of stamina. Survivors may crouch while they’re walking (at a ridiculous stamina drain) to be less noticeable by monsters (which never really seemed to work), and Wizards may switch positions with another monster via teleport. In the end, the player ends up creating a character that fits their playing style the best. The character immediately chosen does not dictate the playing style.
There are various types of damage such as physical, fire, spiritual, and poison. Monsters exhibit varying degrees of vulnerability and invulnerability to different elements. It’s worth noting that poison damage is quite significant in this game. Unlike the laughable amount of damage poison deals in typical RPGs, poisoned weapons (poisoned by using a Survivor skill) are quite capable of clearing out bosses near the end of the game with impunity. Mana does not regenerate, making mana leech weapons or mana potions rather essential for spellcasters. Hotkeying skills and items is vital, and they are easily assigned to the function keys in a system almost identical to Diablo II’s. Weapons and armor can break, but it’s more of an annoyance than anything else. Gold is not scarce in Divine Divinity, and it’s an easy teleport back to your village/town to repair any broken or worn equipment. The game adopts a bartering system identical to Fallout, where all items have a monetary value, and shopkeepers tend not to have much gold on them. Bartering doesn’t add much to the whole experience, and early parts of the game can be irritating for players who aren’t used to carrying a mix of gold and valuables for easy trade.
SIDEBAR: Microsoft Word even as late as Office XP still doesn’t think ‘mana’ is a real word, and the spellchecker constantly highlights it. Thank the heavens for the ‘add to dictionary’ command.
The challenge of Divine Divinity tends to be quite even but with sudden, sharp spikes when the various mini-bosses and bosses happen along. Normal monsters, for the most part, are quite manageable so long as your character is fighting monsters approximately around his own level. Higher level monsters are significantly more difficult, but the experience gains are dramatic. For the most part, the game equates difficulty with ‘monster taking larger chunks out of your life bar’. Some bosses are able to kill an under-leveled character in 2 to 4 hits, making potion usage and hit-and-run tactics a necessity. There is virtually no lag or timer for potion or spell usage; keeping a large stock of vitality and mana potions in Divine Divinity is a must. The game features a pause button, as well, allowing you to swap equipment, skills, spells, potions, or to even teleport out in the middle of combat without much danger. Monsters attack quite quickly and it’s easy to be torn to pieces by a large group of opponents closing in on all sides, requiring some strategic thinking for success. Another difficulty many players will encounter is being blinded. When a character is blinded, they can see the stage as normal, but all monsters and items are invisible. In many cases, a character needs to summon a monster as a decoy in order to avert blind spells long enough to take out the offending caster.
A Memorable Journey, While You’re There
One of the significant facets of Divine Divinity are the several dozen quests scattered about the world. Unlike most RPGs, each quest tends to have a believable, not contrived, purpose and direction. Divine Divinity manages to avoid the rather one-dimensional ‘fetch and carry’ and ‘kill the bandit camp’ type of quests that plague most fantasy games, instead fleshing out multi-part scenarios that integrate seamlessly with the main plot. The character may be asked to restore a townperson’s reputation, investigate the seeming desecration of a church, or dealing with a demon summoning gone awry. Many of these quests do not have a single, simple solution, and often take some time to complete, further giving the impression of a tangible, living world.
Graphics/Atmosphere. This was, quite obviously, a labor of love on the part of the developers. These are quite possibly the best 2D graphics in a RPG since Diablo II, and despite questionable animation, the game manages to combine artistry and functionality into a crisp, attractive package.
Growth. Ask any console RPG’er what one of the best parts of a RPG is, and they’ll tell you that it’s leveling up and amassing powerful equipment. Diablo II and other MMORPGs are capitalizing on this intrinsic addiction held by RPGers, and Divine Divinity follows suit, throwing more spades of gold, weapons, and armor than most RPGers will know what to do with. Level advancement is well-paced, as well, so long as the player is willing to explore and take risks.
Concise Gameplay. It’s quite easy to get into things, and Divine Divinity’s learning curve is about as smooth as they come. Hotkeying and getting into the thick of things is kept as painless as possible, and even your most novice RPG’er will soon be a veteran orcslayer with a little bit of effort.
Length. If all the quests are completed, Divine Divinity is easily a 50 hour venture. There are a wealth of options for the starved action-RPG’er to explore, and most of them are quite satisfying. The quirky humor helps bring the game along, and most gamers will probably find themselves entertained by the amusing banter between NPCs and the quicksilver plot.
Repetitive Gameplay. No matter which way you cut it, this game consists of left-clicking on monsters. When you’re only one character with very limited summoning and area-effect spells, there’s only so many ways you can kill monsters before the whole experience begins wearing thin.
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SIDEBAR: What do you think of Divine Divinity? Does it sound like your cup of tea, or maybe latte? Or do you think that Blizzard reached the peak of the hack and slash RPG with the Diablos? in our news comments.
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