doctor_kaz's Divinity II: Ego Draconis (PC) review

An ambitious RPG, with a lot of quirks that give it a unique feel

Divinity 2: Ego Draconis is a game that looks totally derivative at first glance. It is yet another game set in a Tolkien-esque fantasy world, where everyone speaks with a British accent while wearing armor, swinging swords, and casting spells. It has its own flavor though, and it deviates from your average, typical RPG in a lot of ways that benefit the game significantly. The signature mechanic of Divinity 2 is your ability to assume the form of a dragon, but it also has a lot of subtle benefits that separate it from the rest of the pack. It isn’t a perfect game though. There are, in fact, quite a few areas where the game’s relatively low budget and long development cycle become evident. You shouldn’t let these flaws deter you though, especially if you are a fan of Divine Divinity and you want to see what happens next in that universe.

Divinity 2 is the third game in the Divinity series, which began in 2002 with Divine Divinity, and continued in 2004 with Beyond Divinity. If you aren’t a fan of Divine Divinity, or if you have simply never heard of it, then the biggest favor that you can do for yourself is to stop reading now and go play that excellent game. It is the best action-RPG ever made, and nothing since then has matched that game’s combination of hack-and-slash combat, great interface, storytelling, and massive open world. It was the pinnacle of 2D and PC gaming. Sadly, the move to 3D and the console-i-zation of gaming devastated this once vibrant genre.

Divinity 2, in some ways, is an attempt to recapture that former glory. It is an old-school action-RPG, with a PC-centric control scheme and interface. The camera is behind-the-back, 3rd person style, but it is zoomed out so that battles are somewhat tactical affairs. It uses traditional RPG stats like strength and agility, and it has a skill system that allows you to distribute points into a wide variety of abilities. Thanks to the successful implementation of these traditional mechanics, you have many different ways to build your character and go about your business. Most of the abilities are vanilla, like fireballs or increased archery damage, but they work perfectly within this game. Divinity 2 doesn’t need to get very creative with the abilities that it allows you to use -- which is not to say that it has zero creativity. One of the abilities that you can use is mind reading, which is put to frequent use. Almost every dialog tree as some sort of “mind reading” option, where you can trade a little bit of XP for some secret knowledge. It functions a lot like the “charm” or “persuasion” ability in lots of other games, in that it gives you access to new lines of dialog and options for completing quests. It is worth spending points on, even at the expense of combat abilities. You will, however, be tempted to cheat by quicksaving immediately before you use the ability, to make sure that you don’t waste your precious XP. Some mind readings just lead you to a cache with 50 gold and a crappy gem.

There are a ton of little unique features that separate Divinity 2 from the action-RPG pack. Most of them work, at least to some degree. For example, you can choose quest rewards, which means that sometimes you can get a powerful item instead of some gold. These little differences are too numerous to mention, but they all help give the game its unique flavor.

The PC-centric interface in Divinity 2 is a refreshing change from the terrible interfaces that have plagued role playing games for way too long. Tons of pop-up information is available to tell you what your abilities and items do. You can click and drag your stuff around your inventory, or onto your paper doll that shows you what you are wearing. You can accomplish almost anything that you want with just a few mouse clicks (as opposed to games loaded with layers of menus that require five mouse clicks to eat an apple). You can set up three weapon/shield combos that you can switch to with the touch of a key, and there are 8 hotkeys set up for using potions or skills. Inventory management is never difficult, even when you are most of the way through the game and you have a ton of junk piled up. The trading interface lets you quickly find the items that you want to sell or buy. Games like Divinity 2 never get the credit that they deserve for making the game not tedious, and games like Skyrim never get enough criticism for making simple tasks twice as difficult as they should be.

Unfortunately though, the item descriptions are awful. It is an example of how an ambitious, low-budget game can be under-tested and under-polished. It’s next to impossible to figure out what bonuses you can get from an item sometimes. The descriptions have text like “Magic Amor +1… Increases your magic armor with 6”. What the hell does that mean? Are those numbers additive? The game modifies your stats green or red when you mouse over an item, which is a nice way to show you how it affects those stats, but you shouldn’t need that. Furthermore, some descriptions are so bloated that they take up the entire screen when you mouse over them, so that you can’t see how your stats are affected.

Overall, I really like the interface, but the inventory system is an abomination. Divinity 2 uses the same system as Dragon Age. You have only so many slots, and everything takes up the same amount of space. An orange takes up the same amount as a piece of armor. Fifty oranges takes up as much space as one orange. What a stupid system. It is especially stupid, since this game has a large crafting system, and you will be carrying around tons of different crafting components. Who thinks of this crap? What’s wrong with a simple weight-based system that adjusts your max weight based on your strength? It isn’t more complicated, and it allows you to take full advantage of the crafting system by allowing you to carry lots of small stuff. The Elder Scrolls series uses this system, and I have never seen a single complaint about it. The game also forces you to retain tons of quest items, which clutter up your valuable space.

Larian Studios showed off the first screenshots of this game way back in 2005, and it was five years later that the game was finally released. It shows its age – quite badly. Divinity 2 looks technologically equal to Neverwinter Nights 2 (2006) and The Witcher (2007), but with less variety, poor collision detection, and cruder animations. Clone NPCs are everywhere. Enemies rarely react visually to being hit by your weapons, and the game will frequently register hits even if your weapon misses an enemy by a few feet. These problems are ones that become more noticeable when a game switches from top down to 3rd person. That is why Larian should have stuck with a top-down perspective with this game, instead of trying to capture the XBox crowd by looking like The Elder Scrolls. Speaking of the XBox 360, the design of the world in this game appears to have been catered to the console’s badly outdated technology. Specifically, the world is a series of interconnected valleys that have only one or two access points, and each building is a separate loading zone. The Rivellon in this game bears no resemblance whatsoever to the Rivellon in Divine Divinity, which is a big disappointment for this DD fan. The outdoor areas are still big, but the game lacks the intoxicating sense of openness and freedom that Divine Divinity had – in that game, you could play for the first 40 hours without seeing a loading screen.

One old-school feature present in Divinity 2 is the difficulty and the lack of hand-holding. Once you get past the tutorial area, you are pretty much on your own. In stark contrast to games like Dragon Age or Skyrim, there is also no level scaling in Divinity 2. The game has no qualms about letting you wander into an area that is too tough for you to handle, letting you get slaughtered in the process. The sense of danger and difficulty in the game pays off later, because it makes gaining levels meaningful. You can revisit an area where you got massacred at level 13, and kick ass at level 20. A sense of discovery is also alive in this game, almost to a fault. There are some mechanics that you don’t even get to use until you are halfway through the game, such as alchemy and enchantment. However, you find components for these abilities from the beginning, with no explanation for how you are supposed to use them. For a long time, you carry around this junk, having no idea what to do with it.

There are a lot of complaints that be leveled at Divinity 2, but they generally fall into the category of “inconvenience”. On the whole, the game gets the important things right. The carrot-and-stick process of gaining levels and assigning points to your abilities and skills is well done. That addictive hook that defines the great RPGs is here. Combat is decent, and there is quite a bit of it. Its fast-paced, tactical nature gives it a unique flavor. It is also a good mix of player twitch abilities and role playing statistics. Most games struggle to achieve that balance. There are a lot of combat abilities, and a lot of ways to either defeat one big boss or take down a small crowd. There is, however, one massive flaw with combat – stunlocking. Enemies’ hits stun you for a half second and frequently interrupt your combat animations or stop you in your tracks while you are trying to run away. This problem becomes infuriating when you are taking on four or more enemies, and you die before you can get off a single move because you are being spammed with little attacks. Enemies who are weaker than you can still bleed all of your health in a matter of seconds.

The stronghold/base of operation has found its way into lots of games lately, and it makes an appearance here. Once you gain the ability to morph into a dragon, you receive a Battle Tower, where you can store your stuff, make potions, train, enchant items, and send runners out on errands. It is a nice place to take a break from combat, and you also get some good quests out of it.

The game has a lot of dialog, although most of it is quest giving, quest completing, and exposition. There aren’t any persuasion or charm dialog options, which is a growing trend in modern RPGs that does not appear in Divinity 2. There are a surprising number of quest choices though. They don’t significantly affect the story of the game, but they give it a more immersive feel by letting you choose how to go about your business. Particularly interesting is the part a third of the way through the game, when you select your companions for your Battle Tower. There are eight candidates, and you can only choose four. The other four will be struck down and killed.

A pleasant surprise in this game is that the voice acting is pretty good. It is a surprise, because the voice acting in Larian’s previous games was pretty bad. A pleasant, non-surprise is that the music in this game is also very good. It is the work of Kirill Pokrovsky, the composer who created the masterpiece soundtrack of Divine Divinity. The soundtrack in this game isn’t quite as memorable as that one, but you will, nonetheless, find yourself humming along or looking forward to returning to certain sections because of the music. It is unique and memorable, and not the generic material that populates 90% of video games nowadays.

I waited three years to play this game since its release, thanks to its mediocre reviews. That wait was a mistake. It is a very enjoyable game, as long as it is what you are looking for and you are willing to tolerate the game’s rough edges. I can understand why lots of reviewers didn’t like it, but there isn’t anything else out there like it. As I said earlier, the important things like exploration and the role playing system are done right. If you like RPGs and you missed out on this little gem, then you owe it to yourself to check it out.

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