In 1988 I strapped on my black velcro Reeboks and wandered over to the neighbor’s house. There, a Commodore 64 rested upon a small stand in front of his television. He slipped a five-and-a-quarter-inch floppy disk into the drive, typed the load command, and the tv screen illuminated with the Pool of Radiance logo. It was a bit of magic. Off to the right, a stack of Dungeons and Dragons books remained from our weekend play sessions. But here, on the screen, was a computer dungeon master, taking us through an adventure. Pool of Radiance was the first of SSI’s Gold Box Dungeons and Dragons adventures, and for years the company would churn out newer and better games using the same formula. It was all 2D graphics and barely animated sprites, but it was nonetheless fun.
In the late nineties, Baldur’s Gate rekindled the old-school roleplaying niche and in the two-thousands Dragon Age continued it. More recently, Pillars of Eternity resurrected the Baldur’s Gate engine. On the most part, though, adventure games become first-person affairs, and the old isometric scheme was mostly abandoned.
The first Divinity: Original Sin was a breath of fresh air. It had the structure of Baldur’s Gate but the “do anything” approach of pen and paper roleplaying. “Do anything” was particularly focused on elemental mayhem. Rain water down upon enemies, cast a lightning bolt into the puddles they stand in, then freeze them solid. Shoot a flaming arrow into an oil barrel and watch it chain react in glorious fiery chaos.
Last week, Divinity 2 was released for Mac. I quickly scoffed it up while it was on sale and have been playing it since. It has all of the fun things I enjoyed in the first game with some new twists (both good and bad). Overall, I like it.
The biggest noticeable change is that you have more of a World of Warcraft array of races to choose from, instead of just male or female humans. Your party is weird, but in a good way that reflects the weird parties players rolled up with pen and paper games. My group consists of a lost royalty lizard called The Red Prince, a skeleton with a magic mask which makes him look human, a dwarf called The Beast, and a female bard named Lohse. Each has a detailed back story and personal quests. A truly delightful moment occurs early on, for example, when Lohse bumps into an acquaintance from her tavern days and they two decide to sing a duet for old time’s sake. The resulting performance sounds great and they laugh about it. It’s details like that which are brilliant.
The environments are even lusher and more detailed than the previous game. Every place you visit you’ll enjoy seeing. Although isometric, it is fully 3D modeled and you can rotate the camera any way you like for a better view.
The inventory system is much improved. All four characters’ inventory is displayed side-by-side, making it easy to drag items between players. The other significant change is that armor now has physical and magical hit point values, and attacks do physical or magical damage. This basically works like Star Trek shields. When your shields are down, you start taking damage. You can regenerate your shields through various means. This analogy is quite literal: one of the skills is named “Shields Up” and regenerates part of your physical and magical shields. While you still have magic armor hit points, magical effects are blocked (not just damage, but spells like Sleep). I don’t really like it. It becomes quite the numbers game when a foe is bristling with magic armor but has no physical, so you just smash him with physical attacks as if he were wearing pajamas.
One of the other nice changes is the inclusion of a narrator. In many ways, the narrator is like the Dungeon Master, giving you bits of verbal information like, “You find a wry old man lounging against the wall, a guitar slung across his back. He gives you a smile and a wink when you glance at him.” Including the narrator, voice acting is present for all of the NPC interactions, and is excellent. A gruff ice dragon’s voice sounds exactly as you’d expect.
Other welcome changes include the use of bedrolls which instantly heal the entire party when used outside of combat. These are a nice upgrade versus the previous game’s approach of casting Restoration on every character one at a time until health is replenished.
Divinity 2 still uses a skill (as opposed to class) system, so you can make a Battlemage/Scoundrel/Huntsman or any other crazy custom combination of abilities. One nice update is that party members ask you what you’d like them to be upon joining, so if you don’t need another mage but want Fane to join your party because, well, he’s a skeleton who wears people’s faces as masks, you can just ask him to be a Ranger, for example, and the game will create him with the appropriate skills.
If you liked the elemental mayhem of the original game, Divinity 2 dials it up to eleven. There are many more abilities which create surfaces. The Red Prince breathes fire in a cone, for example. Nearly every combat is a screen full of inferno and electrical maelstrom.
eGPUs are becoming more popular for Macs, and I was happy to see that Divinity 2 includes eGPU integration. With my eGPU plugged in, I could simply select it from Divinity’s graphics option menu and run everything smoothly at full Retina resolution with Ultra settings. Without my eGPU, I ran it at 1440 x 900 with Medium settings on a 2016 MacBook Pro.
Divinity 2 still suffers from the same problem as Divinity 1, which is that a one level difference between you and an attacker is huge and can quickly make battles impossible. As a result, although you are mostly free to wander around the map, in reality you must explore it in precisely the way it is intended or you will leave the “level one” corner and enter the “level four” corner. Many of its situations have multiple endings - you can help someone or double cross them - but often you will find yourself using the internet a bit too much to figure out how to proceed. It’s not that puzzles are too hard, it’s that they often require a Groundhog Day type of foreknowledge to complete. Sometimes it’s things like “be sure to talk the statue that’s hidden behind the rock before exiting the cave or you won’t be able to proceed with the plot,” which can be maddening. There’s also a general lack of direction, in particular at the beginning in Fort Joy, where you are required to talk to everyone and every animal to find something to do. Once the plot kicks in, this improves, and you find events daisy-chaining together to lead you along.
Aside from some of the quirks, it’s a great game, and evokes much of the nostalgia and wonder of those old SSI gold box titles.