Larian Studios isn't a name that you might associate with RPGs, but its Diablo-esque romp in 2002, Divine Divinity, followed in Diablo II's footsteps (as did many other titles) to satiate fans' monster mash and loot lust. Fashioned after the same isometric look and hack 'n' loot fantasy that Blizzard's epic had consistently delivered, Larian Studios' title was set in a wholly different world with its own unique challenges, and the title earned quite a few accolades.
Divinity II: Ego Draconis was announced last year to the surprise of many. Even more surprising was that instead of sticking with a familiar formula, the designers opted to rewrite everything from the ground up in a daring effort to reinvent the series to appeal to veterans and newcomers alike.
Although Divinity II has already been released in Europe, Larian Studios opted for a January 2010 release in North America, probably as part of the effort to avoid the shadow cast across retail shelves and online stores by EA/Bioware's giant, Dragon Age: Origins. Our preview build already had English voice acting and translated text in place, and there was plenty of gameplay to sort through. The only things missing were the optional extras that are being offered as pre-order bonuses, but they are hardly necessary to get an idea of what the game brings to the table.
Kirill Pokrovsky, the composer who had scored Divine Divinity, greets the player at the opening menu with a wonderfully subtle and atmospheric piece that sets the mood for the game. The story won't require players to know anything about Divine Divinity to understand the sequel. As stated earlier, Larian Studios has set out to make this title as accessible as possible to newcomers and veterans, and one of the ways that it has done so is with the story.
Not only does this help cover the gap in time between the original Divine Divinity and this Divinity II, but it also starts things anew with a character who's completely unrelated to the past. Over 50 years have gone by since the events of Divine Divinity had shaped the world of Rivellon, so what does the writer do to cut loose the baggage of the past while preserving some connection to it for the present? Kill off the old hero.
This is all covered in remarkable detail on the game's official Web site, but all you need to know is that the hero who had saved Rivellon is dead. He was slain at the hands of a traitorous Dragon Knight while fighting against his demonic foster son, the non-Sam Neill version of Damian. The wizard Zandalor had managed to rally the forces of good against Damian in time to turn the tide, forcing him to withdraw and disappear into history in the following decades.
That's where you come in. Ever since their betrayal of the Divine, the Dragon Knights have been hunted by those who sought to destroy them for their deed. The Dragon Slayers were formed to fight them, and they've apparently done an extremely good job of killing dragons and their Dragon Knight servants. You start the game as a trainee who's about to undergo the final ritual needed to become a full-fledged Slayer.
Of course, this is only after you've had a chance to fiddle around with your character's appearance through a small set of preset options for face, hair and voice. After punching in a name and choosing a gender, I thought that selecting a class would come next. Instaed, in one of the more unique approaches to character customization, I played through a ritual that ultimately provided the answer.
A newbie village where the ritual takes place is provided to get players' feet wet with the basic game mechanics, but it also shows off the 3-D engine that now shapes the world of Rivellon. Divine Divinity had almost copied Diablo's look down to its cobblestones, but Divinity II tosses that aside and dives back into the genre as a third-person action RPG that's similar in appearance to Radon Labs' Drakensang.
Combat still requires you to button-mash your way through hordes of foes, but instead of simply clicking on enemies until they're dead, you'll also need to contend with a camera to find them, a space bar to dodge and roll away from blows, and jump onto platforms to reach levers and treasure chests. If you're a fan of Divine Divinity, this may come as something of a surprise. Whether or not longtime fans of the first game will view these changes in the same way that Ultima die-hards did with Ultima VIII, though, remains to be seen.
Exploring the village revealed several trainers, each representing a particular "class" whose power I could have once my training was over. Each class also gives me a boost in the stats and starting skill level for that discipline. I could sample each one in a small arena and pick the one I felt more comfortable with, whether it was flinging fireballs, shooting arrows or swinging a sword. The classes weren't set in stone, however, and I was free to customize my character with any skills I want — once I set out on my own and have earned enough experience.
Before leaving, I could even change my looks for free if I wanted to tweak my character's appearance or name, all of which was nicely explained. Even the ritual that made me a level one newbie again and explained how my skills would return over time was fleshed out in the same way; it's a refreshing change of pace from having yet another amnesiac with a mysterious history.
My character has the mind-reading skill, which I immediately used on the first available NPC, much to my amusement. There's no set limit on how often you can use a skill, but it draws on your experience points instead of any magic, making it an issue of how much you want to be in debt. Depending on how strong the mind is that you are trying to read, the experience cost in using this skill can vary from a miniscule 30 points to a few thousand points. The rewards, such as extra options during dialogue or gaining particular insights that reveal unique rewards like a piece of an armor set, can make the gamble worth it. Hearing the reactions from each of Rivellon's thoroughly entertaining NPCs is often a reward in and of itself.
After I was happy with my character, it was time to leave and see the big world. Off we went to a village in the Broken Valley so I could mess with the locals and engage in side-quests until I was powerful enough to not get killed by boars in the woods. One of the things about Two Worlds that I, and apparently many others, detested was the initial difficulty scale that awaited a so-called seasoned warrior. Simply dying from a wolf attack soured the experience enough that some of them gave up on the game, although it had other issues that were far worse. This approach has also been used to some extent with Piranha Bytes' Gothic series, although it was slightly more forgiving in clearly delineating where you shouldn't go while providing plenty of other incentives to improve your character near the starting zone. Divinity II is closer to Two Worlds' approach in that regard, but it's not quite as harsh.
Several of the side-quests in the game, particularly a few of the early ones, can be approached in multiple ways. It's completely your choice if you want to side with a miserly merchant who hires thugs to perform "collections" or help the guard who says that he's the one being shaken down. There is no real reputation system in place or alignment to consider in Divinity II, only consequences. In the case with the merchant, siding with the guard could very well result in much higher fees from the slighted salesman.
Divinity II: Ego Draconis looks to be a solid entry in the RPG market for PC dungeon crawlers who are looking for something a little different. With a soaring score accompanying a richly detailed world, Divinity II's action-oriented adventure and deeply customizable skill system will offer plenty of opportunities for would-be heroes.
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