It took all of five minutes for Divinity: Original Sin to charm the pants - talking pants, no less - off me. Standing on a beach, talking to a flowery giant clam, I didn’t have a clue what was going on, and I couldn’t have been happier. It was the first bizarre surprise in a long, long series of novelties, quirks and clever moments that make up what is undoubtedly Larian’s greatest ever game.
The influence of the classics, Ultima VII, Baldur’s Gate II, they’re in there, but Original Sin is very much its own, unique grand adventure. Like an alchemical concoction, bright and experimental, it stands out even from its clear inspirations. And it makes all the Divinity games before it - a diverse bunch - seem like preparation.
Recalling how Divinity: Original Sin begins, humbly, produces a wry grin. Fresh off the boat, the two protagonists - Source Hunters (essentially members of an Inquisition dedicated to eradicating an apparently malevolent magical force) have a fairly simple task. A prominent member of the Cyseal council has been murdered in the seaside town, and the Source Hunters have been dispatched to solve the case and ensure there’s no “sourcery” involved, and if there is, to deal with it.
That goal is quickly blotted out by a dozen other threats and your typical fate of the world malarky, causing the Source Hunters to go off gallivanting across the realm (and time and space) in an effort to stop armageddon. The main narrative rarely deviates from tried and tested genre conventions, serving as a familiar backdrop that eases one into what is an extremely eccentric world.
It’s that world and its unusual denizens which gets its hooks in you, not the plot. Fast-talking impish historians that live at the end of time; love-sick felines that need to be set up on a date, an elemental realm in chaos, presided over by a fat snowman king - there are so many curiosities to be found in Rivellon that it’s a wonder heroes actually have the time to save the world.
I’m being a bit slapdash by saying “heroes”, because Source Hunters aren’t particularly heroic. The order itself seems fairly tyrannical, though ostensibly for good reason, and both protagonists can be friendly do-gooders, mercenary money grubbers or merciless cogs in the Source hunting machine.
Novelly, both of these not-really-heroes are equally important and influential. Lesser companions can join the party - two at the moment with more on the way - but the original two party members are both main characters. It’s a perfect setup for a co-op game, allowing each player to have their say and go off and do their own thing, never making one or the other feel like a minion or sidekick.
When playing alone, however, there are a few hiccups, but thankfully only when it comes to dialogue choices - though they can still have quite the impact. Both Source Hunters get a say when it comes to decisions both important and mundane. An NPC might ask for assistance, and while controlling Source Hunter 1 - whose default is a burly fellow named Roderick - I can agree to help this NPC out, because I’m just that sort of guy. But then my fellow Source Hunter gets to chime in, and she - Scarlett, if you choose the default character - might have other plans entirely. If she does, then a game of rock, paper, scissors must be played out, with the winner getting the final say.
Thanks to this system, I missed out on quite a few quests and rewards, and nothing positive comes out of this. The main issue is not that the AI can, on a whim, cut a player off from some of the game, but that it does so with such inconsistency. Sometimes Scarlett would be cruel and cold, other times she’s a hopeless romantic. It’s completely random. Indeed, it’s so random, that reloading the game and selecting a different dialogue option for Roderick could also lead to Scarlett choosing something different as well.
The solution I came across requires some hindsight. If Scarlett, or your second Source Hunter, is selected just before a conversation begins, you have control over what she says and what Roderick say, giving you the power to not only grow both characters’ personalities, but also ensuring that you don’t miss out on rewards or quests. The wonderful Richard Cobbett pointed out to me that you can also switch the AI off and have full control over both Source Hunters, which is significantly simpler than my method. It's something not really explained in the game when choosing the AI personality.
Outside of dialogue, the party system is a complete triumph. Fiddling with the band of adventurers is a consistent delight. Original Sin doesn’t divulge all of its tricks, not even most of them, so new discoveries are frequent. Early on I decked Team Source Hunter out in the finest of accessories, filling their minds with new spells and abilities after I realised I could control the rest of my party even while I was in combat. NPCs have a field of view, so it was a simple matter of keeping the shopkeeper facing one character, deep in conversation, while the rest of the party robbed the poor fellow blind.
As I said earlier, Source Hunters are not heroes.
Everything that’s not nailed down can be looted, moved around and generally interacted with. It’s integral to the whole adventure. Through telekinesis, heavy objects can be moved and used to detonate traps, block holes that are spewing gas or flames or weight down buttons to open doors. These are just the most regular, dull uses for them, as I have no intention of diminishing the joy of experimentation.
The room Original Sin gives you to simply try new things and push the limits of the game’s rules and laws is also what drives it. Each new encounter, area and quest holds the promise of a unique oddity or serves as the inspiration for unconventional thinking.
Puzzles can be exceedingly clever, and even when they are simple, spanners are frequently thrown in the works. So it keeps you on your toes at all times. But beyond the puzzles, Original Sin continues to be a thinking person’s RPG. This is really emphasised by the combat system; a system that stands as one of the best in the genre.
It comes back to the party again, because the turn-based fights are all about synergising spells and abilities. While it’s possible to just build each character around abilities that seem interesting, battles go a lot smoother when each member of the party has been designed to fill in gaps and work in tandem with the rest of the group.