Divinity II: Ego Draconis is the sequel to Larian Studios' Diablo-like Divine Divinity, which dug dungeons into PCs seven years ago. Most of today's gamers have probably never even heard of the original game, but that's OK thanks to a little creative storytelling that attempts to wipe the slate clean and bridge the gap for fans who may have been waiting for it since 2004's Beyond Divinity. Unlike the transition from Fallout to Fallout 2, though, the changes may come as a shock to adventurers who remember their time in the isometric world of Rivellon.
One of these changes occurs early in Divinity II's backstory. To bring newcomers up to speed, Ego Draconis uses one of the easiest methods of getting things off to a clean start: It kills the main character from the first game.
The hero who had saved the world of Rivellon in Divine Divinity has been dead for more than half a century. His death was due to a betrayal by his so-called allies, the Dragon Knights, during his battle against the demonic Damian. The wizard, Zandalor, managed to rally together the forces of good before the hero's body was cold and defeated the Divine's foster son. Damian was a nice guy before the Divine had his girlfriend killed for being evil and tried to convince his son that he was just like her. As you can tell, it didn't work out very well.
Since that time, Dragon Slayers have sworn an oath to destroy the Dragon Knights in revenge. As for Damian, the battle had been a grueling experience, and although the Divine was dead, he was still forced to withdraw his battered armies to parts unknown. Over time, word of Damian and his forces grew scarce until many believed that he would never return again.
Aside from a few neat twists and a lack of alignment labels, Divinity II delivers a textbook exercise of good versus evil, mostly thanks to Damian. I wondered why he didn't just kill you when there was a sequence that entailed him standing over you — only to be told that he's "arrogant." Several villains in the last few years have had better excuses for not being able to kill my hero right away, but here, the reason appears to be a love of cheesy theatrics — albeit well-animated ones.
Divinity II's high-fantasy fairy tale is lifted above its own tropes thanks to a clever dilemma that drives your character's quest through the game and culminating in a daring climax. Among those who have contributed to designer Jan Van Dosselaer's story behind Divinity II is Overlord's Rhianna Pratchett, who appears to have had a hand in providing some of the macabre evil, country charm, raunchy innuendo and cheeky humor. Solid voice acting provides plenty of venom for the villains, who seem to have gotten most of the better lines in the game, and Kirill Pokrovsky's atmospheric score blends in beautifully with the action, from the time it greets you at the menu to the bitter end.
A few dialogue choices provide some moral ambiguity on a personal level but have little impact on the story or in how most of the world views your character. The choice of gender doesn't even figure into the equation, although it can lead to several amusing lines from NPCs who may have been expecting to speak to a male instead of a battle maiden.
On the other side of the gold coin, several side-quests offer different ways in which to play with the possibilities, especially after using the mind-reading ability, but not enough to make me regret having betrayed one NPC to help another other. Mindreading NPCs were also something of a guilty pleasure, since much of the information plucked from the thoughts of chatty farm hands and unsuspecting guards could be filed away in the gossip section. These fun asides added interesting layers to Divinity II's characters, but it never goes any further than that.
Puzzles are also a major part of the game and will test your grey matter and reflexes, one far more than the other. Most of these were a refreshing reprieve from having to find another doodad that someone needs or in having enough attribute points, since they required you to actually figure out things or do something in order to make the magic happen.
Character creation options are limited to only a few facial, hair and voice types, and these can be changed at the start of the game in the newbie town of Farglow and much later on ... once you earn the Battle Tower. You can opt to leave Farglow with one of several "professions" who give you a boost to certain stats and give you preset skills, such as a fireball spell for opting to be a mage, but it is treated only as a starting point for its extensive customization system. If there is an underlying theme to Divinity II's gameplay, it's in giving the player a lump of statistics and then letting him mold it into anything he wants.
Points earned through leveling can be used to modify basic attributes which, in turn, have several other associated benefits, such as being able to better resist melee damage because of your higher strength score. A skill point is also earned at each level through the discovery of certain items or by mind reading powerful beings, and skill points can go toward powerful new abilities or passive effects. Selecting only a few skills on which to focus can be as much of a challenge as the rest of the game. Even completing a quest offers up choices about whether I wanted money, more experience, or a few choice items in addition to what I would get, making it an extremely welcome change from the usual "rewards" summary.
Divinity II's biggest change is in throwing out the isometric look of its predecessor to become a third-person, action-heavy RPG. The battle engine is in real time, although you have the option to manually pause the action and decide what to do. This is also deceptive since this merely pauses the game, at which point you can pick out who to bash next or which potion to drink, and then unpause to see the effects. Actions can't be queued, and everything — such as blocking, aiming and dodging — must be handled by the player. There are no hidden rolls to automatically save you from getting blasted with a war hammer or get out of the way of an attack. If you're thinking tactical, turn-based gameplay, you'll need to look to other titles, such as Dragon Age or Drakensang.
Instead, you'll need to do a lot of jumping, dodging and running, which may not sit well with veterans who were hoping for something along the lines of Sacred 2, which bears more of a resemblance to the Diablo-styled formula of Divine Divinity. Being quick with your mouse will be as much a part of button-mashing your attacks as a toolbar loaded with skills, spells and potions. If you hate moving platform puzzles or jumping and rolling around like a plate-armored gymnast, you'd best get used to it for this title.
Power-levelers looking to grind up their characters into war machines will need to plan ahead since enemies don't respawn unless by magic or machine and even then, there are limits. Summoned monsters dole out zero experience for killing them, despite being perfectly able to kill you. Side-quests are usually optional, but in Divinity II, they come off as if they were absolutely required to survive.
Divinity II's encounter balance comes across as skewed when you're slaughtering hapless bandits only to suddenly die from a boss who was evidently far superior to everyone around — including you. Many foes, even a few who appear to be at the same level as your character, hide the AI's ease of using your own skills against you. It's as if there's an invisible barrier between a character at or above your level and one who's a level or two below it, which makes the difference between being armored Cuisinart devices or cannon fodder. It's amazing what one or two levels can suddenly do.
On the other hand, the game won't keep you from exploring as far as your character can take you without dying or fighting enemies several levels higher than you are. Like Gothic, it cuts you loose to get into danger like a responsible adult and suffer the appropriate consequences. At the same time, you can't die as long as you can land in water or on solid ground, even if you fall from the sky. For some odd reason, enemies won't follow you across water, allowing you to pick them off the opposite bank with a decent bow and arrow since they apparently never attended swim class. (Only you did!)
Getting through the main quest and most of the side-quests took a little over 30 hours of play, which is relatively short as far as RPGs go. Despite how small the game world may seem, since it is only centered on two major regions and a handful of settlements, it's filled with plenty of things to do and discover — as problematic or uninspired as that may be. If finding a quill were as epic for everyone else as it was for me, the written word would have died out long ago.
I can understand when certain RPGs don't give the player the option to stash their stuff, but there are usually a few reasons behind it. By leaving containers open and then being unable to use them in an RPG as detailed as this, it feels as if Divinity II wanted to torment the player. This also gave me the eerie feeling that both Rivellon and Dragon Age's Ferelden had suffered from the same Closed Container Plague, which had somehow spread through the multiverse between them.
Like any good adventurer, I picked up anything that wasn't nailed down. It's even hinted on load screens to make sure you grab what you can so, of course, I did. Unfortunately, this also has the effect of quickly running out of space, leaving me with the only options of selling or destroying the items in my inventory if I couldn't get to a merchant. I started to leave things lying where they were and planned to come back later, but that only seemed to make the situation worse. If I can refuse to pick up items and leave stuff lying around, why is my only option to destroy things instead of just dropping them?
On the one hand, this might be a way for the game to create "life and death" decisions that add to the challenge, but it certainly isn't the best method that I've seen for it. Why couldn't I take as much of a chance as I did in Oblivion when I had lost everything that I'd put into a chest that I thought was mine? Or when I thought a house was safe for storage in Lands of Lore III, only to have it unexpectedly destroyed later as a consequence of the story? It's almost too ridiculous to think that someone might have thought to make it one of the title's biggest quest rewards ... which is what happens.
The chest that you finally get doesn't come around until many, many hours into the game — nearly halfway through and many destroyed and sold items later. On the plus side, once you get it, you can immediately store the things that you find by simply right-clicking on whatever you want to send from your inventory, although you'll need to visit it again if you wanted to retrieve anything.
Numerous other issues include unresolved dialogue options that may hang the loading screen, the annoying unskippable cut scene, and the inability to immediately load a game as opposed to watching your character go through yet another overacted death, reminding me of the pretentiously unskippable Valkyrie death scene in the Xbox 360's Too Human, although shorter. One of the worst bugs occurred when I had watched two NPCs duel, talked to the survivor afterward, and then couldn't get out of the dialogue sequence until I alt-tabbed and killed the game the hard way. Normally exiting the game was usually quick, but it would just as often hang on the menu screen.
Flying over Rivellon as a dragon is fun ... at first. However, other titles, such as 1999's Drakan: Order of the Flame for PCs and Cavia's Drakengard series on the PS2 have done the dragon-sim thing far better than the somewhat bare-bones version delivered with Divinity II's aerial assailant. It's unique, if only because you can level up your dragon form, armor it and assign points to its own set of skills, but most of these options feel incredibly underused by what the game fails to do. This was supposed to be a big thing in the game, but it feels like something had been hastily added at the last minute.
The proof shows up as soon as you take flight, which only serves to underline the superior ground game of Divinity II. Enemies simply disappear from sight, as if everything on two legs were armed with a cloaking device that makes them invisible to air attacks. This only leaves flying monsters and giant enemy buildings as possible targets, thus reducing your dragon to acting as a giant wrecking ball and fly-swatting flamethrower. Why have a dragon in the game at all if you can't roast enemies from the air? This imminent threat is part and parcel of what makes a dragon so feared in the first place.
Similarly, when you're on the ground, it seems as if you have your own anti-air cloak that makes you invisible to flying creatures; it's easy to exploit the system when you need a breather from being a dragon. Much like being surrounded by containers that I couldn't use or the inability to drop things when a battlefield remained littered with items that I didn't pick up, Divinity II's unexplained flip-flopping between these two modes makes as much sense.
It was frustrating and fun at the same time since Divinity II's adventure had quite a few fresh ideas that were strong enough to keep me interested. RPG fans who don't mind puzzles and platforms mixed in with their dual-wielding, deep customization options and brutal enemies may find enough rewarding experiences here to be worth the struggle. Despite the dragon sequences feeling like an arcade shooter, the occasionally brutal difficulty that may wear out your quickload key, and the often meandering story, Divinity II: Ego Draconis is a decent adventure on the ground, if not in the air.
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