Why I Want More Of Larian's Divinity: Dragon Commander In Baldur's Gate III

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Preamble

So, this came out last week....
So, this came out last week....

It would appear the much-ballyhooed Early Access release of Baldur's Gate III is upon us, and people's opinions of it have ranged the gamut. Some have found the game's "first act" to be a riveting outline of Larian's vision of a proper Baldur's Gate experience. Others have been more skeptical of the game's direction and emphasis on flashy action set-pieces. For reference, I fall somewhere in the middle. I enjoy the game's streamlined character creation suite and gritty art direction. However, the Early Access release doesn't effectively capture the spirit of the previous Baldur's Gate games due to its emphasis on combat and extended cinematic packages. Likewise, it is impossible to gauge how Larian is approaching character development or pacing from what they have released. And knowing Larian, the game will likely not be in the shape they, or fans for that matter, want until three or four months after its release.

Nonetheless, it is hard to fault Larian's approach to how they are "releasing" Baldur's Gate III as its soft-launch mimics the template Larian used for Divinity: Original Sin and Original Sin II. Which reminds me, I'm still in shock that Larian, the previous "doyenne of eurojank," is the studio tapped to make a numbered Baldur's Gate game. Indeed, they deserve all the credit in the world for what they accomplished in Original Sin 2. A game, mind you, many consider, myself included, a strong candidate as the best CRPG in the past ten years. Regardless, if you created a time machine and went back ten years, you'd be hard-pressed to think they would be the developer tasked to follow-up BioWare or Obsidian. Seriously, I double-dog dare you to play Beyond Divinity, look me in the eyes, and tell me that the developers of that game should be trusted with one of the most beloved CRPG franchises in video game history.

Okay, let's talk about a game where you control a dragon that wears a jetpack!
Okay, let's talk about a game where you control a dragon that wears a jetpack!

And now, we transition to the topic of my blog for today: Divinity: Dragon Commander. In my opinion, it is Larian's most admirable failure as a video game studio. Now, there's an interesting backstory to Dragon Commander in which Larian shit-canned its development in favor of Divinity: Original Sin, the evidence of which is pretty clear should you play it today. I fully admit Dragon Commander, when judged entirely from an objective lens, does not hold up. The RTS elements are downright awful, and the board game-based mechanics barely work as intended. It is a ROUGH video game experience, but it is one I continue to come back to after all these years. The game has all the ambition one could hope for from a small independent studio with an internal team of approximately thirty to forty personnel. More importantly, there are ideas and aspects in it I think Larian Studios should return to so they can inject some much need "soul" into BG3.

Claim #1: Dragon Commander's Political Compass System Is Vastly Superior To Tradition Alignments

Don't you love it when video games mimic real life?
Don't you love it when video games mimic real life?

One rumor that came out of the pre-Early Access release of Baldur's Gate III involved supposed discussions between Larian and Wizards of the Coast about alignments. According to the story, Larian enthusiastically wanted to have alignments play a prominent role in Baldur's Gate III, and Wizards, predictably, poo-pooed their proposals. For those unaware, alignments have been "dead" since Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition's release and exist as an ancillary legacy feature. Additionally, Wizards has only recently addressed the racially-coded origins of the mechanics after managing to dodge accountability for over ten years. So, Wizards' hesitance to make alignments a focal point makes sense. Unfortunately, the result is that Baldur's Gate III's sense of morality or ethics is mixed to dubious at times based on its Early Access release. There are not a ton of opportunities to engage in exciting player choices, and that feels like a bit of a misstep given this is Baldur's Gate, and that has been a significant appeal of every game bearing that namesake.

It is worth mentioning, Larian LOVES the idea of alignments. Over their twenty-five-year existence, they have played around with a variety of different approaches to the mechanic. In my opinion, the closest they have come to capturing all of the upsides of traditional D&D alignments, without any of the icky baggage is Dragon Commander. For those unaware, in Dragon Commander, all of the in-game races and cultures are mapped on a political compass and represent different codified real-world political and religious systems. For example, the undead represent the "religious right" and reward the player for following their spiritual dogma. In contrast, the goblins are technocrats that value player choices that further technological research and scientific progress. The critical distinction between this rather comical attempt to represent "modern" politics in a fantasy setting to a traditional alignment-based mechanic is that this system moves the player away from viewing their moral choices on a "good" versus "bad" spectrum. Instead, Dragon Commander challenges players to consider the qualities of each culture's code of ethics or morals based on their own merits, with arguments in support and against also included.

I never said Dragon Commander was
I never said Dragon Commander was "nuanced" about how it represented current events.

The primary benefit of this mechanic is immediately apparent. Even when you disagree with one of the representatives of another culture, you understand they are not innately "evil" or "good." Yes, the representatives of each of Dragon Commander's major races seek the player's approval in promoting their values across your realm. However, that's what makes the game's political jockeying more interesting than codifying the undead as "evil" and the elves as "good," as is the case with traditional alignments. Any rejection by the player is not necessarily an endorsement of "good" or "bad" but a determination of what fits in a heterozygous empire with plenty of diversity to boot. It's also a much more malleable system wherein the player can avoid feeling like they are min-maxed out of pursuing relationships with other strange bedfellows. In fact, the game actively punishes you for neglecting relations with any given race and often forces you to make decisions that fly contrary to your personal beliefs to maintain stakeholders in a shaky alliance. Without a doubt, it's an interesting system that has unfortunately never been utilized since its debut in Dragon Commander.

Claim #2: Dragon Commander Has A Consistent Tone With Plenty Of Levity

If only the RTS part of this game was not pure trash.
If only the RTS part of this game was not pure trash.

One of the recurring complaints about the current Early Access release of Baldur's Gate III is that it is hard to judge the direction Larian is taking with the game's tone. The game starts with mind flayers mounting a full assault at the legendary setting, but it is a gameplay-centric exhibition beyond that. Which, in all honesty, is to be expected as this mimics the initial releases of Original Sin 1 and 2. Larian prefers to show their mechanical "goods" before they provide a clear idea of what direction they are taking with their narratives. The issue is that this leaves long-time CRPG fans in the lurch as much of the nostalgia surrounding the previous Baldur's Gate games focuses on their stellar casts and riveting story pivots. If you wanted to know, my favorite Baldur's Gate game is Baldur's Gate II: Throne of Bhaal, and I might be one of twenty people in the world who prefer it to Shadows of Amn. Something about the plot twist in Throne of Bhaal has stuck with me after all these years. Speaking of which, I am skeptical Baldur's Gate III will attempt anything as grand as Throne of Bhaal, which leads me to my current concern Larian will not try anything ambitious in terms of storytelling in Baldur's Gate III.

In all honesty, Larian hasn't precisely been a studio known for their writing prowess. Original Sin 2 certainly has its moments, but it is a game plagued with pacing issues. Furthermore, the less said about OG Original Sin's wonky oscillations between dead-pan snark, drama, romance, and scatological humor, the better. However, with Dragon Commander, Larian shows that when they commit to a singular tone or focus, they can hit it out of the part in terms of characterization and worldbuilding. Despite the fact you never see any of the game's major races in their natural environments, as the game takes place almost entirely on an airship, you have a perfect idea of what their homelands look and feel like from the game's incredibly compelling dialogue. On top of that, Dragon Commander is a game that understands the need to insert levity following more dramatic set pieces or story pivots and not to take itself too seriously. Which, is another issue I have with what I have seen of Baldur's Gate III; the game takes its setting way too seriously and forgets about some of the previous game's goofier and light-hearted moments or characters.

No Caption Provided

Stop and think about it, but who is the most beloved character in all of Baldur's Gate? If you were to poll any CRPG fan, nine times out of ten, they would say Minsc, and maybe you'll find a contrarian who goes with Montaron. And do you want to know why people love Minsc? Because he's a larger than life character whose anachronistic nature makes him stand out all the better. Shit, ask D&D fans to name their favorite Drow, and 99.99% of them will say, "Drizzt!"Tabletop and CRPG fans love it when you invert or defy their expectations with crazy or wacky characters! It's okay that Larian is trying to blaze their own path with Baldur's Gate III, but it would be a shame if they didn't realize the setting draws all tracks of people, including those who want to have a fun time. The world of Dragon Commander is decidedly steampunk-inspired. It is also one where goblins seek out new technological inventions, and the undead are busy handing out religious pamphlets as if they are Jehovah's Witnesses. The spoofs and parodies of real-world events are wild and occasionally groan-inducing, but Dragon Commander is a game that isn't afraid to wink at the camera from time to time. That is especially the case with the game's companions, who are an assemblage of inglorious bastards and level-headed pragmatists. However, Larian shows their skill with character-based storytelling by having these companions evolve throughout your adventure. Which reminds me...

Claim #3: Your Companions In Dragon Commander Have Complete Character Arcs Built Upon Player Choice

The generals and companions in Dragon Commander are as enjoyable as the ambassadors as they usually speak to you with blunt candor and have far more transparent character quirks. However, where Dragon Commander shines in terms of its characterization is how you play an integral role in transforming how these generals behave or act. In some cases, such as with Henry and Edmund, you even watch your companions adopt new world views or beliefs. Speaking of which, I want to take the time to recognize the fantastic voice acting in Dragon Commander. The voice acting talent in the game is over the top across the board, and that is to the game's benefit as they perfectly meld with the premise of Dragon Commander being a fantasy spoof of real-world events. In particular, I want to praise the voice actor for Edmund, who provides an absolute clinic that fully cements the lizard as one of the most lovable bastards in video game history.

While on the subject, let's spend some time discussing your confidants in Dragon Commander as they provide some of the best writing Larian has done outside of Original Sin 2. What they attempt with even their goofiest of characters is downright admirable. For example, take a character like Scarlett, who, throughout the story, challenges you to support LGBTQ issues, and should you comply with their requests, will come out as a lesbian. However, should you do the opposite, they remain an emotionally closeted character that never fully opens up to you. Henry is another character with one of the more nuanced evolutions in the game. He starts as your usual brash drunkard who enjoys charging straight into battle. Yet, as time marches on, you discover he's a single father, and the player is prompted to help him realize the world doesn't entirely revolve around himself. Should you challenge him to be more honest about his emotions, he begins playing off the other characters. In one situation, Scarlett pursues a relationship with him as a smokescreen to their homosexuality. After she opens up to everyone, Henry embraces her as a friend and recognizes there's more to life than sex and beer.

When Larian really commits, they prove to be one of the best character-based writing teams out there.
When Larian really commits, they prove to be one of the best character-based writing teams out there.

Dragon Commander also offers a small reform to a recurring issue I have always had with CRPGS. Most entries in the genre, Baldur's Gate included, are guilty of progressing your companions' character arcs without any prompting or agency provided to the player. Often in these cases, you move the story forward and need to talk to everyone in a hub world or otherwise risk missing an opportunity to learn more about them and their idiosyncrasies. An essential lesson from Dragon Commander is that it makes character-based moments a requirement and actively blocks your ability to play it any further until you have talked to critical NPCs. This point might sound like an annoyance, and it is primarily the reason why the game's middle-act slows to crawl. Nonetheless, this change to the standard CRPG formula ensures that the characters evolve to whatever pace you are playing the game, and their evolutions feel like an organic extension of your playthrough.

Claim #4: The Sultry Stuff Is "Fine," But Romances Should Surface Different Walks Of Life From Different Backgrounds

We now arrive at the most problematic mechanic in Dragon Commander: the romance options. So, let's get a few things out of the way. First, the player's only choice is to pursue a heteronormative arranged marriage with one of the game's major races. The only exception being the goblins whose princess candidate dies in an explosion before your "selection ceremony." Second, the princesses' designs are NOT GREAT, with most representing clear exploitations of the male gaze. Some of your romance options get worse as they become more scantily clad as they get more comfortable with you. In one such case, Ophelia, who starts as a skeleton princess, eventually becomes a busty vampire queen who refuses to wear a top. To make matters worse, the framing for your conversations with these characters is pulled out of an ecchi anime. The camera always manages to sneak in the plunging necklines and cleavages of your female companions, even if you are talking to them about global politics or scientific research.

And before you ask, I always pick Ophelia in Dragon Commander.
And before you ask, I always pick Ophelia in Dragon Commander.

Luckily, things are not all doom and gloom when it comes to the romantic side of Dragon Commander. Each would-be bride provides a snapshot into the greater details about the game's governing races. Again, despite never setting foot off the game's hub, the conversations you have with these romantic companions fill in Dragon Commander's environmental gaps. More importantly, each bride depicts a different outlook or perspective in their respective culture than what your interactions with the ambassadors would suggest. By in large, every female companion in the game is an inverse of their culture's expectations and norms. Which, if you are wondering, presents an incredibly compelling dilemma to the player. Do you use your status and privilege to force your wife to conform to their society? Or, do you protect them and encourage their newfound independence? Again, each character is a snapshot into a different perspective, but more importantly, they force you to reconcile the contradictions in the dogma that guides the world of Dragon Commander. Though I cannot emphasize enough, the framing here is overwhelmingly patriarchal as these female companions need their husbands to defend them.

Let's run through a few romance options as a bit of a case study. With the elf princess Lohannah, she is immediately taken aback by your kingly riches, having lived a plain and simple life guided by elven statutes. In encountering plentiful food and other pleasures, she realizes that the high-elves' monastic lifestyle is bullshit and transforms into a pragmatic queen who can hold her own in a debate. You can reward this evolution by praising her, or you can spoon-feed her high-elf doctrine. Either way, her actions brand her a heretic. Your choice is to either court the favor of your council and burn her on the stake or stand by her and take a massive dent on your diplomatic relations. The dwarven princess, Aida, is also noteworthy. As you talk to Aida, you discover her father was abusive and dwarven society being incredibly patriarchal, did nothing to stop this abuse. Eventually, you find out her father is dying and needs a blood transfusion, and she is the only viable candidate. Yes, this situation is tired and true, but it melds together the gameplay and worldbuilding PERFECTLY. Her father is revealed to be a legendary warrior and slayer of orcs, and your ambassador promises his presence will significantly assist your campaign. However, Aida isn't having any of it and would rather see the man die, but defers to your judgment. We also have Ophelia, who is a skeleton princess with bone cancer, and you can either transform her into a vampire or cyborg. What can I say, DRAGON COMMANDER IS A GAME WITH CHOICES!

I'm not going to talk about it, but the best
I'm not going to talk about it, but the best "recurring storyline" about BG3 right now is Larian repeatedly proving to the internet there will be sex in BG3.

Final Word

I do not want to suggest Baldur's Gate III is terrible or that Dragon Commander is a perfectly comparable title. Dragon Commander is a bit too goofy for its own good, and Baldur's Gate III is trying to pine for a more dramatic and dire tone. That said, something about BG3 feels hallow to me, and I couldn't help but think Dragon Commander presents some viable solutions to this issue. Yes, part of this empty feeling stems from the game being in Early Access and Larian wanting players to toy with their mechanics and various character builds. But why not give players a better sense of the game's tone or story? Baldur's Gate, especially, is a game franchise carried by and large by its storytelling. Personally, I tolerate OG Baldur's Gate's tedious grind for wonderful characters like Minsc, Mazzy, and Jan Jansen. Were it not for these characters I would likely not feel as nostalgic for it as I do right now.

Before I put a close to this blog, I would be remiss to mention one irrefutable truth about Dragon Commander: it is janky as fuck. The game is brimming with potential and has the world and characters to accomplish something incredibly special. However, for a variety of reasons, it is a failure of a video game. Even with all of its novel ideas, it is downright inscrutable in parts and no goddamn fun to play. If this blog inspires you to try it, I strongly recommend you play it on its lowest difficulty setting or otherwise run afoul to its unforgiving campaign structure. To call this game a "diamond in the rough" is a bit too forgiving. Dragon Commander is a lump of coal with specks of shiny crystal you hope and pray are diamonds, but could likely be cubic zirconia. But you know what? Maybe that's precisely why you should play Dragon Commander. It's a broken mess with plenty of ideas that deserve a second shot; ideas I hope Larian revisit now that they are working with an established franchise and better budget. So, give it a try and see what the future might hold for Baldur's Gate III.

If you are looking for a
If you are looking for a "good time," vaya con dios.
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#1  Edited By Hellscream

All talk 📛 about this game, after released at that time, perhaps due exclusively for Windows only*

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I actually thought this game was canceled and never released, for some reason. This is a game I would never have given a second thought without a good write-up somewhere, though honestly it sounds like its jankiness is too much for me.

For those unaware, alignments have been "dead" since Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition's release and exist as an ancillary legacy feature. Additionally, Wizards has only recently addressed the racially-coded origins of the mechanics after managing to dodge accountability for over ten years.

So I settled on a drow while flipping through races (cleric, named Viconia, I'm unoriginal and didn't give a fuck at the time). I'm of two minds about the whole history of that race. The idea of someone who was born into a society of backstabbing bastards and managed to claw their way out of it is inherently interesting, which I imagine is why Drizz't is such a popular character in Forgotten Realms, but then you go and make that entire society a single race and... uh... yeah, you then get a case of your good guy literally being "one of the good ones". None of this writing has any malice behind it, I don't believe, but it's a good example of why you should give some real thought to what your writings can implicate.

Anyway, back around to the character I made, I've already had a few characters say something like "gee, I wouldn't expect a drow to be so genuinely helpful, thanks!" and I don't think Larian has the writing chops to toe that line well enough to actually pull something off that isn't at least a little bit icky.

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The parts that wasnt RTS was great in this game.

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For being entirely heteronormative, the romances in Baldur's Gate 2 really run an impressive gamut.

You've got Aerith-erm, AERIE if you like your bride to be submissive and simplistic, Jaheria if you want an incredibly fraught, interesting time of it, and Viconia as your wicked companion OR someone you can actually get to change alignment by dancing a careful tightrope. And that sounds dull, and it is on-paper (or if you're not a straight dude), but the thing I love about it is how it actually changes the story and some of the latter character-interactions. And sometimes how difficult it can be to pick the right option of dialog, as going with "bland niceness" only works for one of them.

You have to confront the ghost of Jaheria's husband at one point, and that actually factors INTO the story AND the relationship after-the-fact, while most RPGs just shove the romance off to the side.

That said: it absolutely fucking SUCKS that they didn't even bother to write a compelling romance for straight women (you choose a goody-goody Paladin who might turn abusive/hostile. Yippee), much less any homosexual folks, and that doesn't even begin to scratch the surface, but then again most 2020 games don't either. Anyway, I get why they're doing it, but it kinda bums me out that they're like, "Don't worry, we've seen what you can do with Source Filmmaker and the sex will be HAWTHAWTHAWT!"

Don't promise me HAWT BONING, promise me interesting, developed characterizations. It's not 1997 anymore, I can just look up porn.

Oh and all 3 Dragon Age games are actually pretty alright with the WRITING of the romance, though the first game's "just dump trinkets on them til they fuck you" is obviously...simplistic.

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Yes to all these pros and cons of Dragon Commander that you've noted. That stupid bad game really has some great things going for it, and now this blog is making me toy with the idea of playing it again.

To those who might be interested in trying this jankfest, you can trivialise all the bad RTS and board game parts by tuning down the difficulty if you're just interested in seeing the rest of the game.

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#6 ZombiePie  Moderator

All talk 📛 about this game, after released at that time, perhaps due exclusively for Windows only*

It's an interesting game that is worth remarking upon at the very least. It has some interesting ideas even if playing it is a miserable time.

For those unaware, alignments have been "dead" since Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition's release and exist as an ancillary legacy feature. Additionally, Wizards has only recently addressed the racially-coded origins of the mechanics after managing to dodge accountability for over ten years.

So I settled on a drow while flipping through races (cleric, named Viconia, I'm unoriginal and didn't give a fuck at the time). I'm of two minds about the whole history of that race. The idea of someone who was born into a society of backstabbing bastards and managed to claw their way out of it is inherently interesting, which I imagine is why Drizz't is such a popular character in Forgotten Realms, but then you go and make that entire society a single race and... uh... yeah, you then get a case of your good guy literally being "one of the good ones". None of this writing has any malice behind it, I don't believe, but it's a good example of why you should give some real thought to what your writings can implicate.

Anyway, back around to the character I made, I've already had a few characters say something like "gee, I wouldn't expect a drow to be so genuinely helpful, thanks!" and I don't think Larian has the writing chops to toe that line well enough to actually pull something off that isn't at least a little bit icky.

I'm currently playing a Gloomstalker Drow, and I can relate to what you are writing about. I think in this case, the shadow of J. R. R. Tolkien looms large. D&D's origins borrowed heavily from LOTR and included the notion of heroes on an adventure needing a monolithic evil that needed to be slayed. A lot has happened since those times and that means the hobby needs to evolve. Wizards is making inroads but at a snail's pace and given what has been reported about its corporate culture, I'm not surprised to see them drag their feet.

Also, I 100% agree with you that Larian seems earnest but lack the writing chops to pull off alignments with leaving some sort of icky feeling.

The parts that wasnt RTS was great in this game.

The RTS part of the game is not great and playing the game like a Risk-style board game isn't that much better.

@imhungry said:

Yes to all these pros and cons of Dragon Commander that you've noted. That stupid bad game really has some great things going for it, and now this blog is making me toy with the idea of playing it again.

To those who might be interested in trying this jankfest, you can trivialise all the bad RTS and board game parts by tuning down the difficulty if you're just interested in seeing the rest of the game.

This is the only way I manage to play the game today. That and I refuse to interact with the RTS part of the game and instead play it like a Risk simulation.

For being entirely heteronormative, the romances in Baldur's Gate 2 really run an impressive gamut.

You've got Aerith-erm, AERIE if you like your bride to be submissive and simplistic, Jaheria if you want an incredibly fraught, interesting time of it, and Viconia as your wicked companion OR someone you can actually get to change alignment by dancing a careful tightrope. And that sounds dull, and it is on-paper (or if you're not a straight dude), but the thing I love about it is how it actually changes the story and some of the latter character-interactions. And sometimes how difficult it can be to pick the right option of dialog, as going with "bland niceness" only works for one of them.

You have to confront the ghost of Jaheria's husband at one point, and that actually factors INTO the story AND the relationship after-the-fact, while most RPGs just shove the romance off to the side.

That said: it absolutely fucking SUCKS that they didn't even bother to write a compelling romance for straight women (you choose a goody-goody Paladin who might turn abusive/hostile. Yippee), much less any homosexual folks, and that doesn't even begin to scratch the surface, but then again most 2020 games don't either. Anyway, I get why they're doing it, but it kinda bums me out that they're like, "Don't worry, we've seen what you can do with Source Filmmaker and the sex will be HAWTHAWTHAWT!"

Don't promise me HAWT BONING, promise me interesting, developed characterizations. It's not 1997 anymore, I can just look up porn.

Oh and all 3 Dragon Age games are actually pretty alright with the WRITING of the romance, though the first game's "just dump trinkets on them til they fuck you" is obviously...simplistic.

I mean that's the issue, right? BioWare's old stance of romance = boning doesn't really work anymore even if you approach whatever game you are looking at as some sort of fantasy fulfillment adventure. I think Mass Alex has helped to reinforce my feelings that BioWare can do courtship well, but their are downright embarrassing when it comes to romance. And because what they attempted with heteronormative romances presented such a massive technical time-sink, they cut out homosexual romances.

Larian has not been challenged to go against this mold. Original Sin 2 has some interesting characters and certainly has its moments when in creates a sense of inclusiveness, but then you have a mission like going to the brothel to pick up a prostitute. When they miss, they miss hard and everyone in the room feels second-hand embarrassment.

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@zombiepie: It's just sad to me that they all wind up feeling like Persona games' romances, in that as much fun or as well-written as they can be, it feels like a split off to the side (no dialog in story cutscenes even acknowledges the possibility).

And I GET IT, if you want more romance options than 2, writing around that is tough, but at that point, just pull a KOTOR and put some dialog in at the end. Again, the fact that the romances in this are being talked about like it's a stretch goal for a Kickstarter porn game isn't promising...

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@zombiepie. ..oh no! I have feeling this game we going to see it so soon on gog.

My Rader is telling me this, not just a hunch 😅

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The only part of this game I remember is the skeleton barmaid with the big melons.

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#10  Edited By Manburger

I don't have anything to add, but wanted to say: this is a terrific piece, and you make some great points!

I like that Larian's settings might seem like generic fantasy on the surface but are actually peculiar and unique once you dive in. I recall reading intriguing things about this game before (At Rock Paper Shotgun) but my tolerance for jank is quite low, I do not possess the fortitude to grit my teeth and slug through unsatisfying gameplay to get to the juicy narrative morsels within.

Good thing Original Sin 2 is simply quite sick!

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