A game by any other name would still smell as sweet
Divine Divinity has probably one of the stupidest game names ever. I�d say it rates up there with Donkey Kong and Lode Runner in names that don�t describe the game whatsoever. Donkey Kong would probably have best been named �Rescue the damsel from the big ape� and Lode Runner �Get loot from the generic bad guys using only your stupid digging ray gun.� Divine Divinity? Is this some sort of crappy religious game from Wisdom Tree software?
So it�s no surprise it was more or less looked over by US gamers, which is a real pity, because it�s a fun game. It�s not wholly original, it�s not always well thought out, but it is a cultural descendent of Diablo 2 and Ultima 7. Meaning that if you liked these games, but thought they were missing something (any real point in Diablo 2, any action in Ultima 7), you should like this one.
The plot: This is an epic scale RPG, a little like some of SquareSoft�s more winding epics, where there�s one main plot, and a whole scad of quests that don�t really contribute to the main plot. And like Final Fantasy and it�s ilk, you start off as a weenie who has no dang clue as to what�s going on.
You first start out in the healing village of Aleroth, having apparently been conked on the head and all your stuff stolen, so you have to make do with what the guy who found you gives you, which isn�t much. The village also has a very insane, very powerful wizard, and he starts causing trouble. Just outside the village, orcs are patrolling around, looking for somebody soft and pink to kill, and you just happen to fit that description, so you really have to deal with the insane wizard problem, whose madness is caused by a bunch of undead just beneath the town. Gee, folks, if there were undead actively cruising around in your sewers, I�d consider hiring a fumigator. Or moving.
Once you deal with this problem (and gain a few levels and some gear in the process), you can slip by the orcs and get out into the real world� and start finding out more about the plot. Turns out there�s a war brewing between orcs and humans, that you�re a Marked One, which apparently is a big thing, there�s a group of bad guys called the Black Ring who have a hate on for Marked Ones, and the new duke (the son of the recently-and-suspiciously-dead-former-duke) is apparently the Divine One, the prophesized one who will bring all under his heel. All of these elements are going to come together sooner or later, but in addition, there�s any number of shiftless peasants with problems that you and only you can solve, and this is where the story gets both complicated and fun � there�s ethical conundrums. Sorta.
Most quests are pretty simple (go and kill some things, investigate some mysterious activity, go find me something), and the reward is usually fairly paltry, just some experience, but some quests are actually fairly convoluted and involve some decision making on your part, which is nice. One side quest involves cattle theft; turns out some farmer has been losing a lot of cows, and it�s not very difficult to track down a bunch of bloody carcasses in the slums. If you blow in the thief, he gets executed for theft, if you keep it quiet, you don�t get a reward. Not all the quests have defined �win� scenarios, and the main plot winds and weaves around all these people who it affects. Which would make sense in an epic saga.
There are literally dozens of quests in this game, and run the gamut from trivial to really complex. Obviously, the main plotline is a winding road, and me describing it here would spoil it for you. Suffice to say, it�s a good enough story line to keep you moving.
The gameplay: So varied, I�ll have to break it down into further subheadings: Interacting, combat, character building, and my favorite, cheating.
Interacting: Larian cribbed from the best. When something dies, it sprays out goodies (a la Diablo), you can highlight important items by holding the Alt key (Diablo), every container pops up an inventory box (Ultima) and items are clicked and dragged where you�d like them to go (Ultima). You converse with characters in a branching dialogue tree (LucasArts� SCUMM system), almost all items can be interacted with/moved about/taken (Ultima), and almost all characters can be talked to/robbed blind/killed (Ultima). In short, there�s almost every option available to you, and that means fun. Unlike, oh, say, Diablo, where villages were filled with sprites who would absolutely NOT talk to you, everybody has something to say, even if they�re generic peasants or guards.
It boils down to a fairly rich world. All the people in the game stand around in their locations 24/7 (which is odd, because the designers even went to the trouble of giving NPCs back rooms with beds in �em), so that�s a little odd, but everything else in the game is yours to muck with. Want to trash an unlikable character�s house? Just drag broken bottles and garbage into your inventory, walk into their house, and dump it out on their bed. Want to force the kingdom of Ferol to go vegan? Make it your goal to slaughter every barnyard animal you encounter. Want to trap characters in a corner until they (theoretically) starve? Lock the doors in their house, push boxes in their path, and pin them in helplessly. There�s no real response to doing all this, but you get the satisfaction of shaping the world to your own liking, and that�s far, far more than most RPGs allow you.
In one deft stroke, you get to rent or buy a house later in the game; it doesn�t really matter, because you can sleep anywhere you dump a bale of hay, but it�s nice to have a place that�s really yours. To decorate my pad, I made it a point to steal every throne in the game (there are 4, but one isn�t takeable), heads on pikes, skulls, and bottles of body parts. The thrones went around the dining table, the skulls were piled up outside as a warning to others, and the bottles of guts replaced all the wimpy flowers that were junking up my pad. It doesn�t matter one whit; nobody ever comes to your house, but all the wimpy townsfolk that blunder by my place had better think twice about snooping around. If that gives you any idea of my sick sense of accomplishment, so be it. It should also give you the idea that you�re really free to do what you like in this game, and at very few points are you actually railroaded. I like that.
Combat: Once again, Larian cribbed, this time utterly from Diablo 2. You fight with your left and right mouse buttons; left is your weapon, right is whatever option you assign. Weapon swinging is automatic based on the weapon�s speed; you run up to the monster you left click on and start batting away with your sword, mace, axe, hammer, or dagger, or you open fire with a crossbow or bow. Hammering on the left click button is pointless; your guy won�t swing again until the weapon has recovered, so there�s definitely a quest to get faster weapons, same as in Diablo 2.
What is a departure is that you assign a lot of functions that you couldn�t do in Diablo to function keys. There�s all your special abilities and skills, such as shooting lightning, poisoning weapons and doing a whirlwind attack, which you assign to a function key and pull off with a right click, but you can do more than that. Weapon toggles and potion drinking are also done with a function key assignment, and that�s pretty nice � instead of having to muck through your inventory to swap to a ranged weapon, you simply hit a function key, and voila, instant weapon switch. Unlike Diablo 2�s expansion, you�re not limited to two different weapon set ups; you can assign as many swaps as you have weapons. You can�t do this while you�re fighting (duh), but if you step back, you can toggle immediately.
One nice thing that is actually novel to Divine Divinity is that you can pause the action and enter commands. So long as you don�t interact with anything, the game won�t unpause. Need to make a get away? Pause the game and open your inventory, then drink an invisibility potion. As soon as you quaff the potion, the game unpauses, but all that time, you weren�t getting beat on. This also lets you assign function keys during a fight � that�s very useful.
So that all said, is combat fun? Yes, if you like fighting mobs. You�ll very seldom go mano-e-monstero in single combat, instead, you�ll largely fight clumps of monsters. Because the odds are stacked against you, you�ll need to use a variety of tactics to soften up the pack, either by freezing a few and picking off the rest, poisoning some and backing up, or buffing yourself up and charging in there. Simply running up and clicking monsters until they drop probably won�t work; some monsters are incredibly powerful, and you�ll be killed. This is where some tactics are required, and your range of tactics depends largely on your skills and weapon choices.
Character building: Divine Divinity has a freeform character template; there are three character archetypes, warrior, mage, survivor (thief), and each has two sexes. Beyond starting skills, starting point allotment, and your special skill, there are no differences between the characters; there�s absolutely no reason why a mage can�t learn fighter skills or a fighter can�t learn how to backstab. In fact, you�ll pretty much have to mix and match, which is a pity, because it means that no one character template has enough skills available to survive.
I�ll say this right off the bat: The skill system is seriously unbalanced. Simply put, you can�t possibly win this game as a mage; monster resistances become way too high, and despite how plentiful restoration potions are (you can make them yourself, or just buy them), you won�t have enough mana to take down some monsters. Even the fighter and thief range from incredible to pathetic, and there�s no rhyme or reason as to why this is the case. It�s like the designers all went into separate rooms, came up with skills, and implemented them in the game without doing any checking to see if some skills were unbalanced compared to others.
The most notable example of this is in your special skills. Warriors get a whirlwind attack; it�s not the pack-crushing skill it was for barbarians in Diablo 2, but it�s a quick sweep attack that has a chance of smacking everybody around you. It does cost some stamina, but that�s easy enough to recover. This is an effective way to deal with a pack of enemies. What does the survivor get? Sneak. That�s great and all, in that it gets monsters off your back, but you can do the same thing with shadow potions. How about the mage? Something cool, like turning monsters into frogs or creating a magical barrier? Nope. You get to swap positions with a monster. Which would be great� except monsters tend to clump up, and swapping positions will simply put you in easy biting reach of all the other monsters it was traveling with. Doh! Beyond the starting skills (each character starts with 2, non randomly assigned skills), there�s no reason NOT to play a warrior. �But,� I hear you saying, �Teleporting could help you cross barriers.� And indeed, it can.. but all classes can buy a 24th level warrior skill that lets you leap attack a monster, thus teleporting you to where a monster is. Making that skill utterly redundant.
Every level, you get a skill point; every 5 levels, you get 2. All skills have a minimum level requirement, but there are no prerequisites, so you won�t have to buy a lot of crap skills to get to the one you want. Which is merciful, because a lot of skills are utter crap. In addition, each level (up to 5) in a skill has a level requirement; you�re allowed to spend the first skill point at level 12, the second at level 18, and so on. Thus, your character actually grows as you spend your skill points, and it isn�t just a parade of �Well, I spent all 20 of my skill points in my ultimate skill, so now I�ll go through the rest of the game using that one skill� like you did in Diablo 2. That�s well thought out.
So what about these unbalanced skills? Well, first, let me explain resistances. Monsters get resistances, same as you do, to fire, lightning, poison and spiritual damage. Most monsters are weak against fire and lightning early on, particularly anything obviously wielding metal (orcs, steel skeletons, etc). Also, it makes sense that the undead are immune to poison; after all, they�re already dead, making them feel urpy probably won�t affect their performance much. The undead don�t resist spiritual damage very well, which also kinda follows, what with the whole holy-defeats-undead schtick. Animals (snakes, boars, bees, etc.) are always immune to spiritual damage. I suppose Larian Studios don�t believe in doggy heaven.
So how does this affect skills? Most skills only deal one type of damage, or have an upper limit on effectiveness compared to resistances. For example, for every level you have in Polymorph, you can affect monsters with 5 x level spiritual resistance or less. Meaning, at level 5, you can only affect monsters with 25 or less spiritual resistance. Bad news, folks � every monster later in the game has at least a 25, if not a 50, in each resistance. There are two spells that lower resistance, and they�re useful, but if the monster has 100% resistance, lowering it by 10 or 20 won�t bring it to the threshold it needs to be for your skills to work on it.
I found this out the hard way. I had designed a warrior to use a maul, which, compared to swords, suck ass, but I found a good maul with level 5 deathblow. Deathblow is a skill that has a 1% chance per level of instantly killing a target if they don't have a high spiritual resistance. In addition, hammer mastery gives you a 1% chance of the same per level, and you can buy the skill deathblow as well. Hey, a 15% chance per strike of killing a target instantly � good deal! Except that every damn monster in the game has a high spiritual resistance later, meaning that I don�t get to ever see anything drop dead.
Can you have fun with this? Yes, very much so. There are some VERY powerful skills, and I didn�t give them an equal share. Just understand that there are skills that sound pretty good, but due to poor balancing, they don�t work at all. That�s part of the fun of the game, capitalizing on the less balanced skills, which brings me to�
Cheating: Oh sweet lord, can you cheat in this game. I think this is on purpose, but the designers made it so rewarding to cheat, that there�s absolutely no reason not to. We�re talking robbing shopkeepers blind, luring guards to their doom, ripping off castles and slaying innocents cheating. Oh yeah.
The environment is interactive enough that shop keepers not only have a personal inventory of wares, but like any shop, their goods are lying around in the open. If you take one of their items, the shop keeper will ask if you wish to purchase it. If you do, they�ll put it in their inventory and open up the sales window, where you can haggle the price. If you say you don�t, they�ll fuss at you for taking their stuff, and their opinion of you will drop (thus raising prices). Do it again and they�ll call the watch, meaning you risk losing reputation (thus raising prices and lowering starting opinion of you). So you don�t want to go into a store and swipe everything. At least while anybody is watching. You can do away with the pesky shop keep stealthily, by luring powerful monsters into their shop and sneaking away, or by throwing poison potions at their feet, or you can do it the fun way � turn into a spider and bite their ass. You get 3 statuettes in the game; the frog and cat statuette are pointless, but the spider statuette is pretty cool � you temporarily turn into a giant spider. Monsters won�t attack you because you�re a monster, and you can bite people. Soldiers and guards will fight back, but your average peasant and shopkeep will run off, letting you transform back and swipe their loot.
While there�s no real purpose to doing this (i.e., it won�t really allow you access to any good treasure), you can get every unimportant NPC killed by �training� monsters into their midst and sneaking away. The giant heavy orcs are bruisers, and unless you�re very heavily armored, you do NOT want to melee them. Guards and soldiers aren�t all that tough, and you can butcher them at a low level, but it�s fun to watch a single orc slaughter the entire human army. This is chiefly useful in the town watch HQ, where there is a lot of good treasure, but too many watchmen guarding their own stuff. A little visit from a pet orc will put out those watchful eyes.
You can have a lot of fun with the Resurrect skill � if you stay close to the monster you rez, it will remain loyal and ethereal � if it dies again, it dies permanently. However, if you walk away far enough, somehow the monster will forget it ever died and was �saved� by you, becoming a normal, hostile monster, complete with the ability to drop loot. You can literally experience treadmill off of profitable monsters by wiping them all out, resurrecting them, and going away. Rez, rinse, repeat.
In short, so long as nobody is watching, there�s no reason you can�t get away with it. Ripping off stores, running off with chests of loot and lockpicking them later, quietly doing away with peasants, etc are all allowed. Sure, you�re the Marked One, but you gotta eat, right?
The aesthetics: Beautiful music, somewhat ho hum graphics. There are some very talented video game musicians these days, and the same thing that was done for Diablo 2 worked here � getting a composer and orchestra to make the tunes for the game. No cheesy midi here; you�re getting a complete orchestral suite, complete with vocal complement, by the time you get to the opening credits. Consider the bar pretty highly raised on video game tunes for me; I loved the music in this game, and it definitely warrants downloading and listening to. Check out www.larian.com if you want a freebie.
The voice acting is passable but patchy. Some characters are pretty well done (Zandalor the wizard sounds pretty slick, Kroxy the orc has a nice rumbly voice, Janus, the obnoxious new duke has a petulant kid voice), but a lot of characters sound like they were done by the same person, and that same person really had no business doing voice acting. Elves in general all sound pretty gay. The problem is that the voice acting is patchy. There�s no rhyme or reason as to why sometimes you�ll hear the spoken lines, and sometimes you�ll just see the words. I appreciate that it�s not worth making all the proles in the game speak, but if you give a character a voice, be consistent. I shouldn�t complain that much; they didn�t have to bother at all with the voices, but that they did a half-assed job of it makes me pretty sad.
So what about the graphics? Meh. They�re sufficient. Monster models are good but not breathtaking, spell effects are sparkly but not awe inspiring, item icons are kinda ho hum. A sword looks like a sword, whether it�s a rusty two-hander or the legendary Troll slayer Crushbite, which does massive fiery damage and also makes julienne fries. I won�t hold it against them; they had to design so many icons for plates, cups, vegetables, heads in jars and what not that I doubt any one item got attention lavished on it. It doesn�t seem rushed like the voice acting undoubtedly was (as I�d imagine studio time is not cheap), but it�s also not the prettiest thing ever. Whatever.
Major Beef: I�m not terribly upset by this, but as this may be a deal breaker for the rest of you, I need to mention this: There is no multiplayer to this game whatsoever. Not even any announced plans for it. It�s an enjoyable single player romp with a largely linear quest that doesn�t have any real room for expansion. Thus, I expect this game falls off of the radar for many people because of that. Still, as Joe pointed out in his Diablo 2 turnaround, there is no real multiplayer experience in Diablo 2 � there are multiple people playing in the same world, but at no time are you really playing together. Treat this game for what it is, a single character on a single quest.
The only quandary with no multiplayer is that there�s no ability to transfer items from character to character, which is all I ever did in Diablo 2. Fear not, however � there�s always cheating for that, too. Simply start a new character, and copy all the Item and Object files into that new character. Voila, you�ve duped everything you own and everything stored in containers. Getting a nifty suite of items for all occasions gives this game a little replay value it otherwise doesn�t have � good bows are hard to find, so if you plan on making a bow character, dig around for a nice bow with some other character, and transfer it when you get one. The same is true for spell books, rings, amulets, charms, etc, etc.
Cheating. It�s what makes a good game great.
Final Thoughts: I spent more effort detailing the flaws of this game then I did the good, and I did that for a reason � I don�t want you to go into this expecting a perfect gaming experience, and then being bitterly disappointed by some unbalanced skills. This game is flawed, and a lot of the flaws are inexcusable when you contrast them to the bright points of the game. The game is a milestone in game design in that it makes every attempt to allow you to do what you want, yet all the while trying to tell a story. When I play a paper and dice role playing game, this is EXACTLY what I�d expect. The same is true here; you have as much free form as a video game, with finite options and pre-packaged creativity, will allow. The only sour spots is that, despite the fact that you can do just about everything, it�s not always feasible given the limitations of the skills � frustrating, because the game lets you try it, and fail.
If you want to pick up this game, and I strongly encourage it, be prepared to experiment. Save the game before you spend a precious skill point, and test that skill out on a variety of foes. If you�re happy with it, make the most of it. If it sucks early on, it�ll probably always suck, so reload the game and try something else. Most importantly, have fun with it. Treat it like you would a pretty good movie � sure, there might be things you would have done differently, and yeah, they probably could have picked a couple of better actors, but by far and large, it was an okay experience for you.