Everybody who likes RPGs have probably already heard of Divinity: Original Sin 2, one of last year’s top-selling RPGs. Many players had already played the first Original Sin but not a lot of them had actually played Larian’s first game: Divine Divinity.
In many ways, Divine Divinity is the predecessor of the Original Sin games. It not only has a similar name and it was developed by the same company, but it also shares some aspects and themes with the most recent games.
Divine Divinity is, in many ways, a flawed gem. It’s a very ambitious game that does not succeed in many of the stunts that it tries to pull off, but it entertains the same way. It draws some inspiration from Ultima VII and mainly from the Diablo series to create a hack’n’slash RPG that also has some exploration outdoors, depth, story and a world that you can interact with.
As you’ll read in the article, the game had several problems during the development and it shows. This is possibly the main reason why Divine Divinity was never hailed as a great RPG of this era like Baldur’s Gate or Planescape Torment or even as a flawed but brilliant gem that stood over time like Arcanum or Vampire Bloodlines.
The Story of the Marked One
In Divine Divinity, you play as the Marked One. You can create a male or a female character from one out of three classes: warrior, wizard or survivor (rogue), which does not influence almost anything in the story, and only some of the dialogue is changed if you are a male or a female. While you were happily strolling around the village of Aleroth, you are struck by a thunder. That’s when the game begins.
The village of Aleroth is composed of healers and it’s in turmoil because their source of healing magic has been drying and their leader, Mardaneus, has become crazy. After helping the village, you discover that this is only the beginning of your troubles.
The kingdom of Rivellon is in chaos. A mysterious plague is destroying the poor quarters of the realm, orcs are waging war against the humans and the late Duke of the kingdom has been killed under suspicious circumstances. As if that was not enough, a wizard called Zandalor tells you that you are one of the Marked Ones and that you have to meet him. During the story, you will know more about the past of the realm and you will be hunted, hated and betrayed just like in any good RPG.
The lore of the game is pretty well done, mostly. The late main quest involves some legends and ancient history, so all these stories are told in many books and sometimes in conversations during the game. This way, Divine Divinity able to create a sense of the world and even to foreshadow upcoming events in the story.
Another positive point is the setting. Soon after the game opens up and you can explore more freely, you will find plenty of people, many of them with their own stories and dramas. Rivellon is a dark place facing hard times and you can clearly see this. Sometimes you find people whose sons were murdered by trolls or who have been concerned about some of the tragedies that are happening concerning the main plot.
You will find people who lost everything in the war, poor people who do not have anything to do but to ask for coins (and, funny enough, you actually cannot give them money most of the time). Contrasting to the stark nature of the world, there is also a lot of humor in it to the point that it actually gets stupid sometimes.
Warning: there will be mild spoilers from a quest at the beginning of the game in this paragraph so skip it if you don’t want to read them. There is an early quest involving a necromancer who spent his whole life trying to achieve immortality. When he finally gets it and turns into a lich, the villain discovers that he still feels human pain and hunger, so he ends up regretting that he transformed all of this servants into zombies and kills himself. This is a pretty important and long quest and the ending is, basically, stupid. That is very off-putting.
Another example that comes to mind is that if you are playing with a female character, some characters in a town will randomly ask you “do you wash male adventurer’s clothes?” This is some really bad attempt at humor. There are some good bits, though, like two skeletons talking about how it does not make any sense that they can walk without having flesh. Watch the video. It’s short and hilarious. Unfortunately, these attempts at humor often do not work well and they often break the dark atmosphere that the game evokes so well.
The dialogue in Divine Divinity is actually pretty simple. Almost too simple. Most of the time your character talks alone reacting to other characters and there are not many options to choose from. You can just generally ask questions and refuse to help people if you do not want to do the quests. There are some moments in which the dialogue has more options but they are very sparse.
While the main story is actually pretty well done, if only too epic for the scope that the studio had time to create, some of its execution is also wonky. The worst offender has to be the time when the game decides that you should lose your teleporting pyramids.
When you finally enter Stormfist Castle for the main quest, the game wants you to spend some time without leaving… so an imp appears out of nowhere and says “hey, why don’t you give me these pyramids?” The pyramids are used for teleporting and are the single most important artifact that you have. After the imp asks, you simply… let me pause while I write this because this is certainly the most stupid part of the game…
You give the pyramid to the imp. He uses it and teleports away. Bye-bye pyramids. Yeah. I mean, really.
I could write a whole article about how this is a horrible plot move that could have been done considerably better, but let’s just say that stealing your pyramids, tricking you into giving them to someone that you actually knew or depowering them are all considerably better ways to take them away and keep the plot going without making you yell at the game that it’s stupid. If I did not know otherwise, I would say that Larian Studios simply did not care at all about the story or about logic after the scene.
Questing in Rivellon
What is possibly the most interesting aspect of Divine Divinity is that the game is a fully open world experience. While sometimes you will find monsters that are way too strong for you in your way, you can go anywhere you want without having to finish the main quest first as soon as you leave the first hub.
The main quest also gives you some considerable freedom as you can often complete it in more than one way. For instance, there is a part in which you have to enter Stormfist Castle, but you cannot get in without an invitation. There are three ways to do it. You can help the soldiers in the war against the orcs or, if you like investigations, you can discover what is causing the plague that is killing the poor people in Rivellon. Finally, you can also choose to discover who murdered the Duke of the castle.
Freedom is an aspect that plays a central role in Divine Divinity. The world is very interactive. You can move stones, barrels, collect herbs, etc. This was mainly due to the game’s inspiration in Ultima VII, which offered an open world experience in which you had plenty of freedom to do as you wanted.
While most quests only have one ending (or two, in case there is a chance to fail), you can use different skills to reach your objectives. The game gives freedom to how you play. Sure, Divine Divinity is no Fallout. There are almost no peaceful solutions and combat is certainly the main aspect of the gameplay, so you could consider the mechanics limited in this aspect if you were hoping for peaceful solutions, but there is definitely some range of options.
A Dark World
While they obviously look very antiquated in 2018, the graphics of Divine Divinity were pretty great for its time. Sure, it was not using 3D environments as most games of the time were, but the graphics were pretty good and they really were able to create a world that was both lush sometimes and dark and dangerous in others.
Unfortunately, Divine Divinity was released in a time that computers were really not very compatible with our current software, so you can expect some graphical glitches if you try to run the game on a modern computer.
The music is also good, if forgettable. It gives some cool ambiance during the exploration but it is the part of the game that probably has the lesser impact on the experience. The experience wouldn’t change too much if you simply turned the sound off.
A Fine Hack’n’Slash
You will fight often in Divine Divinity. Because of the success of Diablo, Larian decided to create a very heavily hack’n’slash-focused experience. You will get a taste of this right off the bat. The first segment of the game ends in a huge 5-level dungeon with difficult combat. It’s almost as if the game is telling you that if you do not like its combat, you might as well just give up early or you will get very frustrated.
Fortunately, combat in Divine Divinity is mostly great (with some occasional balancing and repetition issues). You can choose from one of three classes: survivor (rogue), warrior and wizard. This gives you an exclusive skill and an early focus, but you are able to buy skills from any class as you level up. I played as a warrior, but could easily use spells or rob from the townsfolk. The selection of skills is very big and you get one point at each level to spend on new skills (and one extra point every five levels).
While the warriors have several skills to augment their damage and focus on different types of weapons, wizards are very versatile and can use magic to attack, freeze enemies, summon allies or even use telekinesis to pick things from afar. Some skills are very useful and creative like turning enemies into harmless animals like frogs. The survivors are able to use several non-combat skills like stealing, haggling for discounts and some combat ones like poisoning your weapon or setting up traps (which are very overpowered).
If the range of combat skills is excellent (especially the wizard skills, which are the best), the non-combat skills is where the game shines the most. Many people thought that Divine Divinity was a Diablo clone back in the day, but the truth could not be further from that. Skills like pickpocketing, alchemy, item identification, lockpicking and repairing your equipment make the game become more than the standard hack’n’slash because you can only solve some quests by using them. Other interesting skills like telekinesis are very useful for interacting with the world. You can use this skill to move stones that are too heavy for you to lift if you do not have sufficient Strength points, for example, or use them to get items from behind bars or the inside of holes.
Speaking of abilities, there are four of them: Strength, which changes your damage, carrying capacity; Agility, which changes your speed, accuracy and offensive power; Intellect, which changes your Mana Points and the power of your magic; and Constitution, which changes your resistances and Life Points.
The combat is real-time with pause, a slight deviation from Diablo (but it still feels a lot more like Diablo than like RTwP games like Baldur’s Gate). At the beginning of your adventure, the encounters are very hard. You will find mostly trash mobs, but the enemies are strong and you are still very weak and cannot rest all the time to heal. If you fight a lot, though, the endgame will be very easy, but it will be challenging at least until the half of the campaign and for even longer if you skip fights instead of grinding. It is clear that Divine Divinity was made to be a very combat-focused experience that does not want to run away from fights. If you do it, you will get to endgame severely underleveled and the game can become quite annoying.
Not everything in the game is made of positive points, though. The randomization of basically every item that you can find is annoying, even if someone could argue that it is a good feature. Not even scripted items have necessarily clear and immutable stats. Because of this, it can be a pain to find an item that will serve your character well. Fortunately, there are so many items to be found that you will eventually find whatever you need.
The two really bad aspects of combat are that there is a big lack or enemy variety and you will find yourself battling the same ones over and over. Also, the skills vary too much in usefulness. There are skills that are almost useless like regeneration, which is too slow to be useful, and some skills that are way too powerful like poison and freezing. The freezing spell paralyzes 80% of the enemies in the game (including more than half of the bosses) for a long time enabling you to spam offensive spells without receiving damage and poison gives a huge damage with only a single hit.
While this makes the combat very unbalanced, the game is very hard in the beginning, so even if you take the best skills soon, you will still have some challenge (and you can always play on hard if you want).
Unfortunately, Divine Divinity never could be properly finished and you can clearly see this if you play the last third of the game. While the northern areas of Rivellon are full of pleasant (and unpleasant) surprises and quests, the Dark Woods in the southern area are clearly less populated with interesting things to do. While the area is not necessarily empty, you can feel that the game loses some of its nuances and becomes a more standard hack’n’slash near the end.
From all the things I complained about, this is possibly the worst and saddest part. Divine Divinity was a very ambitious project which started to be developed in 1999 and it was finished only in 2002. It was a long development cycle with a team of about 30 people working at it during the peak of the process.
During the development, Sven Vickle, founder of the Larian Studios and head of the project, had to deal with the publisher, CDV Software Entertainment, to convince them not to drop the project so they could have the budget to finish it. You can read his post about how he was naive back then and gave a feedback which was too honest for the studio, which then cut the budget of the game and he had to finish it with only 3 people including himself.
It was also CDV’s fault that the game has such a stupid title. Initially, it would be called Divinity: The Sword of Lies (an important artifact during the main quest), but the company was in love with alliterations since they released Sudden Strike, a 2000 RTS game which was a big success for the company.
This problem can clearly be seen in many late parts of the game. The first (and obligatory) floor of the second mandatory dungeon is pretty well designed, for example, but the lower floors have almost no secrets, only corridors filled with trash mobs.
And there is obviously the most famous problem of Divine Divinity: the endgame. There is a huge desert and a dungeon at the end of the story which became notoriously infamous because they are both empty and the dungeon is a huge labyrinth full of enemies but completely devoid of interesting things to do. Divine Divinity has many interesting dungeons, so it’s a shame that the last one is so lackluster. You fight trash mobs over and over, which makes it far from being the epic ending intended by the studio.
A Flawed Gem, but a gem nevertheless
You should play Divine Divinity if you liked Larian’s other games or if you liked the Diablo series. It’s an excellent hack’n’slash with plenty of options and fun combat. It’s also very rough around the edges and it kind of falls apart near the end, but it is still a worthy journey until there.
Larian should really have diminished the size of the game to create something that a small team could manage to do and Sven Vickle should’ve been smarter with his investors but there is no sense in crying over spilled milk. Divine Divinity is one of the best “Diablo clones” that you might find out there and is a worthy, if buggy and messy, beginning for the Divinity franchise.