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Review: Beyond Divinity
05.14.04 / 03:34PM / Boris

Paint-by-the-numbers-RPG, colored in with dried up, gummy old markers

I set myself up for disappointment, sometimes, and crap like this really bugs me. I go in with super high hopes for video game experiences, because, at their best, video games are a lot of fun. I don’t need to preach to the choir about this, obviously. The problem is, when things aren’t as good as I think they should be, I force myself to stay with the experiment until I can’t help but be crushingly annoyed by its flaws.

Beyond Divinity set itself up as a wonderful experience based on the strengths of Larian’s earlier title, Divine Divinity. In fact, Beyond Divinity is based on the engine developed for Divine Divinity, so the only thing they really had to provide was a fun game to stretch over a workable canvas. That they didn’t really got annoying, particularly since the engine’s gotten even more buggy since its last incarnation.

The Plot:
Minimalist. Think Diablo minimalist. The whole punchline is spelled out to you in a cut scene as the game opens up, voiced over by your new bosom buddy, an evil Deathknight. A bunch of paladins were crusading against evil, when all the sudden, a major demon by the name of Samuel decided to smush them. One of the paladins was left alive, to torture, as is the way of major demons. You can tell the deathknight didn’t mind that idea; but when the paladin made an abortive escape attempt, Samuel decided to punish the deathknight in charge of that prison wing by soul-forging the two together. Sick sense of humor indeed. Neither member of this odd-couple like each other, but they share thoughts and fates – if one dies, the other dies, too, and the only way they can break this is to get another powerful demon, who might get along with the deathknight, to split you up.

So, your quest begins under no more noble aims than that: You’re not out to stop evil, you’re out to find a means of escaping a curse placed on you and a lesser evil. That’s an ok sub-plot… but that’s hardly material for 100 hours of gameplay, which the box boasts of having.

To stuff more plot in to this fairly threadbare story, you’ll meet inept guards, pesky imps, and a dying race called the Dranaar, among others, who all have minor quests for you to do. Trivial, non-world saving crap, mostly like “Go kill this monster” or “fetch this item” sorts of quests. Why should you care about these? Because they’re worth XP to solve… and that’s about it. At no time do you give a rat’s ass about these shiftless peons; in fact, your deathknight chum provides a running commentary on the losers who beg you for help – when the imps are dying of a plague, the Deathknight mutters, “Good idea! That’ll wipe the little pests out once and for all!”

The sad thing is, you can’t help but agree with the Deathknight on this. There’s no compelling reason why you should give a crap, except that you need XP to get levels, and occasionally the escape of a certain act depends on you cooperating with some NPCs. This all became pretty painfully obvious in Act 2, when you get to the imp town – there’s about 20 annoying quests (kill something eating their livestock, find a lost spider, save an imp who fell in a hole, find an imp’s husband, steal a box for an imp, etc. etc.) that have no bearing on the plot whatsoever, and the only reason you hear about them is because of a gamer’s natural inclination to click on every peasant and see what they have to say. That’s fine and dandy that there are minor quests; not everybody needs a hero to go slay cow demons to get a pitcher of milk – but when ALL of them are minor quests, there’s hardly any sense of accomplishment.


I’ve only gotten to act 3, and I think that’s as far as I’m going to get. However, the first two acts have an amazingly unsatisfying ending: You do all that work and save all those peasants, then the plot kills everybody in that act. In act 1, you have the option of blowing up the citadel stronghold you were imprisoned in; in act 2, after following the imp plague quest to its end, your demonic former captor shows up and slaughters all the imps. Great. I just cured the little gnats, and you don’t even let me walk around their town and be the big savior for even a minute. You’re conveniently teleported out of town when Samuel’s committing impicide, so upon your return, one imp informs you, remorselessly, that all of his kind are now dead. Woohoo! Too bad I missed that! Why exactly did I find a cure for your stupid disease?


The Gameplay:
I’ll break this up into a discussion of skills, and a discussion of other game features; skills are the glaring flaw in this game, but if you can handle that, you might be interested in the rest of it.

Quests aside (which are, sadly, a major part of the gameplay), you pretty much just roam around, murdering monsters. You and your deathknight buddy are partied from the beginning, and you can either direct them both, or command one and let the other one go do his/her own thing, which means they mindlessly run after monsters and chop them with whatever weapon you’ve given them. That actually works out ok; there are so damn many monsters running around, not clicking on all of them is a huge blessing. The problem is, there’s nothing about combat that makes it fun, largely due to a laughably poor skill set up.

The skills were unbalanced in Divine Divinity. Mages got short shrift because creature resistances went through the roof, making the end-game a losing proposition for a dedicated spell slinger. Warriors and survivors (rogues) had plenty of fun skill options, however, so combat remained largely fun for a weapon-user who occasionally relied on a tactical spell or two. Beyond Divinity seems to have completely loused up even that broken formula: Mages are the only characters who have anything OTHER than passive skills, and the spell costs for magic are enormously draining – half of your mana tank to even cast a pissy spell that probably won’t kill anything anyway.

Imagine playing Diablo 2, where your only abilities were “Click on monster” and “Do more damage when you click on monster” and you’ll have a fine idea of what playing Beyond Divinity is like. Warriors start with their whirlwind ability, survivors start with sneak. That’s all you get to use to kill monsters with; everything else you do makes you do more damage when you swing or take less damage when monsters swing at you. All of the latter abilities are passive abilities, meaning you never need to think to use them.

Even for as simple as a set up as that, Larian screwed it up utterly. Your weapon proficiencies are laughably redundant.. with a particularly annoying caveat: They don’t overlap. You have weapon proficiencies for one handed and two handed weapons. So, depending on your choice of using a shield, that seems like a no brainer so far. However, there is a specific proficiency for one handed weapons WITH shield. If you train up your 1 handed weapon skills and pick up a shield, your character will automatically use it… thus removing ALL bonus you had for pumping up your 1H weapon skill, since you now fall under the “1H + shield” skill set. If that wasn’t annoying enough, there are weapon proficiencies for each damage type of weapon – slashing, blunt and piercing are the standards, and that you would expect; fighting with a spear and a sword are very different things. However, some weapons deal elemental damage instead of physical damage, and despite the fact that it’s still a spear, a Shadow Spear deals shadow damage, and thus requires its own training in order to wield. Of the 290 skills the box boasts of having, a full 135 are spent in this morass of skill points. Literally, your tree does this:

Handedness (3 types) -> Weapon Type (9 types) -> Bonus attributes (5 types)

Bonus attributes are things like extra accuracy, extra damage, % critical strike, % deathblow and weapon speed. Each attribute can take skill points, and have little benefit for doing so. Bows and Crossbows have similar features, so tack on 10 more skill sucking trees to the pile already produced… and you can gain proficiency in arrow types as well, so that’s 10 MORE skills to do very little.

As a means of offsetting this, you can buy back, at a cost of gold, spent skill points. This wrecks the reality of your training, but considering how badly set up the skill trees are, it’s a blessing. If they had made skills matter, they wouldn’t ever have needed to include this “feature,” but skill buyback is a workaround for sloppy game design, and clearly a concession to annoyed beta testers.

Magic is no better off, but at least magic doesn’t have such a crappy overlapping problem. No, the problem is all in game balance: Even a simple 1 skill point spell eats 50 mana. Your character starts with about 100, so by the time you spend your first skill point, you’re geared up for… 2 spells. Fine, 1st level D&D wizards were about that gimpy. Problem is, you only get mana increases when you spend stat points on intelligence, an otherwise useless stat, to the tune of 15 mana per point spent. You get 5 points per level. So each level you completely sink your 5 stat points into smarts, you get a whopping 1 spell more.

Unless, of course, you decided to make a more complex spell. Instead of having fire bolts or lightning streaks, you can choose to buy missiles or instant zot spells of any element you like, earth, fire, wind and water. Building up a few points in a lightning zot doesn’t raise the mana cost that terribly much… but if you mix two or more elements, the cost doubles. The effectiveness hardly increases, but expect to run out of mana twice as fast. Goody! Add to this the fact that no matter how costly your spell, they hardly dent monsters, and you’ve got a recipe for more click-the-monster goodness.

Non-combat skills range from useless crap to world breakingly good, and there’s no reason why this should be, except for bad game balancing. Lockpick is bugged, and quite frankly, pointless, because holding down the alt key will reveal anything on the screen, including keys. There are never any times when you’d need to pick a lock, which is good, because the skill doesn’t work at all. Pickpocket, however, is disgustingly huge – you can rob any merchant up to about 4-5 items worth (a stack of gold counts as an item), and they never catch you or care that you’re doing it. You can sharpen weapons, which nearly doubles their damage for every level you put in it (at the cost of increasing agility requirements for that weapon). You can convert arrows to more damaging types (or types that sell incredibly well). You can waste points on identifying items or repairing them, although merchants provide these services and are instantly available. You could poison weapons, but it does crap for damage. You could make potions, but collecting the ingredients is a pain in the butt, and it’s just much easier to steal them off of vendors. You can improve the selling costs of items, but the gain is incredibly minimal and you have to click each item in order to do it. And so on and so forth. Learning which ones have any play value is somewhat fun, but not when it costs you a small fortune to get rid of the crap ones. Considering how many skills are complete crap, saving and reloading becomes vital when spending precious skill points. That isn’t fun at all.

The Battlefields
An odd, and clearly tacked on inclusion to the game are the randomly generated battlefields. Along your quest, you’ll find battlefield keys, which have no bearing on the actual plot, and are completely optional. When you use a key, you get whisked to a flavorless dungeon dimension, more or less like Tristram, with some shiftless merchants standing around. Each of them has a randomly generated quest, of the “Kill this monster,” and “Fetch this item” variety, which are completely optional. If you leave their camp, you’ll find a sprawling area filled with monsters, and in each subdivision of area, a dungeon of rooms, hallways and monsters. At the bottom of some dungeons is a boss, but if that dungeon doesn’t have one of the randomly generated quest endings in it, the bottom is completely bare, meaning you’ve fought your way down 2 levels to get… nothing. Absolutely nothing. Blizzard North was kind enough to put a gold chest in Diablo 2 dungeons that didn’t advance the plot; Larian is insistent that finding nothing is reward enough for 2 dungeon levels of critter XP.

The battlefields are touted as a place to get some experience if the main game becomes too challenging. In other words, it’s a way to not fix the balance of the main game. The sad thing is, the battlefields are generally better places to be then the main area; the treasure is better, the monsters far more plentiful and easier to manage, and the merchants readily available and stuffed full of good treasure. Merchants on the main game are few and far between, and most of them are crap peddlers. Whenever I’m stuffed with treasure, I warp to the battlefields, unload, shop, repair and go back to the main game. If I encounter a merchant in the main game, I mostly just rob him blind and sell his loot to the battlefield merchants.

I made use of the easy experience extensively in Act 1, since I was so crappy that generic monsters were slaughtering me. Later, I did it because I thought it’d matter if I did the quests. Finally, it turned into a shopping spree, just like town portalling back to town does in Diablo 2. There’s no other reason to go there. When you beat the game, you can play an endless series of battlefields. Why you’d do this, I have NO idea.

Summoning Dolls
In a bizarre innovation, Beyond Divinity brings you totally disposable party members. Your Deathknight and Hero are inseparable, and one can’t die without dragging the other to his death. However, every act will net you a summoning doll, a totem which can spring forth a party member. These pocket warriors act just like your main characters, in that they can spend skill point and stat points, but they never gain any experience. If they die, their summoning doll suffers a respawn penalty, and then, about a minute or two later, you can pop them out again.

Basically, treat them like mules and crash test dummies. You could, at the sacrifice of valuable stat points, train them up and give them skills, but why bother? They’re too gimpy to survive a fight, and their main purpose is to hold loot for you and march brazenly down suspicious looking corridors, setting off traps by prancing around on them and dying. Since they never gain any levels, there’s no reason to treat them other then meatwalls and mules, since that’s all they’re really qualified to do. However, since you can teleport to the battlefields and unload loot as soon as you’re encumbered, bothering to fill up a summoning doll with gear is pointless. Thanks but no thanks; I’ll just keep them around as bomb sniffers and monster distracters.

The Bugs
It’s a shame this game got released in its current state, and these bugs might all be patched later.. but probably not without creating other bugs. Larian is pretty active on their forums, but are a small company, and they give no real sign of what it is they’ll be fixing in patches. Some bugs are completely crippling, however, and it’s complete crap that this game was released with such glaring flaws:

Item weights: They seem to increase with the quality of the items; I have some very nice amulets and rings that weigh about 213 pounds, whereas my fine sword weighs in at about 70. Paper and fruit weigh 1 each. Even Mr. T doesn’t need that much jewelry weight on him. Conversely, each stack of arrows weighs 12, no matter the quantity. A single arrow of a given type weighs 12; if you’re carrying 1 or 10000 of that type, it’s always the same weight. So there’s no reason not to lug around quivers of 1000 arrows, they sell incredibly well. (Note: Fixed the ring weight bug in 1.43)

Goofed items: Occasionally, you’ll find an item with no properties, or an item with the wrong name; pitchforks with stats like shields or rings named Bone Spear that lie on the floor in the randomly generated battlefields. You’ll find keys in the battlefields that open up nothing. Set items have no properties unless combined with all other items in that set, and lose their properties when you change acts, meaning that you’ll never collect a working set ever. Uniques tend to lose their properties when you change acts, too.

Crash bugs: You’ll just dump out of the game for no reason. A sign of a polished product if ever there was one.

The Aesthetics:
Same graphics as Divine Divinity, with the notable exception that you can zoom in on your characters. So, you can see what your character looks like wearing a particular armor. Great. There’s no reason to do this; models are detailed but not gorgeous, and it of course makes you myopic to the rest of the monsters stomping in on you. The effect was sufficient in Divine Divinity, but it’s been years since then – I can overlook graphics if the game is fun, but when the game is flawed…

Sounds are minimal, except for voice acting. Voice acting is common and complete (for the most part), very few NPCs don’t have a full set of spoken lines. The Deathknight is the real standout; the demo version had an obnoxious, snotty voice that sounded like it was coming from a bucket. The retail version replaces this for a boasting buffoon voice that sounded like it was coming from a bucket. I kinda find it funny, myself; the elite foot soldiers of chaos are overstuffed jerks running around in a tin can, but it’s hardly professional grade acting.

Music is still gorgeous – but it’s like listening to a 100 piece orchestra providing the sound track to a stick figure cartoon. The swelling and engaging music completely flies in the face of the non-engaging quests you’re piled high with – it’s hard to get emotional about the plight of the dying imps, no matter how impassioned and tragic the music turns.

Final Thoughts:

Avoid. Or at least avoid until they fix the thing. I doubt they’ll actually revamp the skill system, however, and that, plus the lack of game play diversity, turns this into a meaningless time killing exercise in monster-cide. It’s “click the monster: the game” for about 100 hours, interspersed with ho-hum dialogues with meaningless peasants you’re not allowed to butcher.

I really had much higher hopes for Larian as a game company, but I won’t be buying another game from them.

05.14.04 / 03:34PM / Boris


The game's already up to patch 1.43, and it's just been out for 2 weeks. Not that I'm complaining about support from developers after the sale, but this "Buy game, download patch immediately and then wait for more patches before you play the game you bought weeks ago" business model has got to stop. If I bought a car this lousy, there are clauses in the contract that let me take it back to the dealer for a complete refund.

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