Role-Playing Reflexes from Euroland

I recently found good deals on both Divinity II: Dragon Knight Saga and Two Worlds II, two major third-person action RPG releases which I've been wanting to try out on my new computer. Apart from having intentionally stupid titles and a light-hearted sense of humor, these European (Belgian and Polish, respectively) action RPGs both try to combine huge game worlds and a wealth of character customization options with relatively straightforward hack'n slash combat.

From what I can tell, TW2 and DKS have been fairly well-received among old school RPG fans - with more mainstream players being far less enthusiastic about the lack of strong narratives, breadcrumb trails and level scaling - and I think it's going to be very interesting to see to what extent these games differ in size, scope, specific mechanics and overall design philosophy. TW2 has been primarily praised for its extensive crafting mechanics and extremely flexible create-your-own-spell system, whereas DKS's main novelty lies in its dragon-related gameplay elements. Dragon Knight Saga also sports more traditional high fantasy aesthetics with stylized characters and lots of primary colors; whereas Two Worlds II attempts a relatively realistic, toned-down approach (at least as far as the environments are concerned) which can perhaps come off as a little plain at times. The first time I saw DKS last year I got something of a Might & Magic vibe out of the sunny, endearingly generic fantasy settings, and that's a good feeling I certainly would want to to hold on to...

A lot of so-called "action" RPGs base their subgenre classification on the rather basic fact that stuff happens relatively fast whenever the player clicks with the mouse, and in many of these games there isn't necessarily a strong sense of realtime action going on. Case in point is the quintessential PC action RPG of all time, Diablo, which is a curiously detached affair involving a whole lot of button presses but not much else to connect the player directly to the character he or she is ordering around.

While the Divinity series may have started out as Diablo clones back in 2002, Dragon Knight Saga introduces a new level of directness to the controls and overall combat mechanics. Even though clicking like a madman is still very much part of the experience, it's equally important to have quick reflexes and respond rapidly to changing conditions. Timing and movement is almost as important in DKS as it is in any third-person action game, and avoiding enemy attacks, projectiles and spells is therefore by no means relegated to the realm of mere dice rolls.

As a result of the genuinely action-oriented combat system, the player can defeat enemies of a higher level than his or her character (at least one at a time) by evading potentially lethal attacks and by utilizing long-range abilities. This kind of hit-and-run tactics can be theoretically possible even in action RPGs which place far less emphasis on the player's own agility than DKS, but it tends to be so tedious and time-consuming that it's just never any fun. By contrast, Divinity II's fast and responsive controls make for tense and exciting confrontrations with difficult enemy units, and while it's not quite as well-designed and balanced as in, say, The Witcher 2 but it works much better than in many similar games like Diablo or even Borderlands.

Note: I wrote my first very blog post on GB in response to a Quick Look in which Vinny and Dave gave a very negative impression of (the console port of) an earlier edition of Divinity II. While the GB staffers pointed out several things (such as graphical problems and sudden difficulty spikes) which the pre-Dragon Knight Saga version of Divinity II was heavily criticized for by a majority of players (again, mostly on consoles), I primarily reacted to just how quickly Vinny and Dave seemed to dismiss the game in annoyingly universalist terms due to a perceived failing to live up to their own very specific preferences. I realize that this is in many ways completely in line with the spirit of the "Quick Look", but when you're having a very different experience of watching the exact same gameplay (i.e. I thought everything they showed in the QL looked rather fun) it's simply hard not to react.