Divinity: Original Sin II can be best summerized as "Old thoughts, new ideas". You have the freedom, harshness and difficult decision making worthy of an Ultima game, bereft of the grinding and mechanical frustrations of old. Plus you have a fantastic story to back that all up.
Set over one hundred years after the previous game, things have become progressively worse for the world. Demonic entities are being drawn to magic users, forcing the church to rapidly imprison anyone with the potential to cast spells. You are among them, but as you are dragged on board a prison ship, fate has something else in mind for you...
What is immediately the most striking quality of Divinity II is its treatment of roleplaying. Rather than simply offering a good or evil choice, or even a metagaming "perfect ending" mentality, you often have to go in with a single mindset. Many choices discard the most basic of good and evil options, with extremely well hidden consequences to certain actions. Because of this the game has boundless replay value, until you can run through the tutorial island over a dozen times, and still unearth something new. Even then, the way you exit or escape from certain domains often carries over to new areas.
The very origins of your characters and how you communicate with others will completely alter how you see some companions. Rather than following the usual RPG approach of a unique storyline and a few extra choices, you have entirely new sagas and interactions on offer. People will often greet different races differently from one another, or will be provoked by certain actions if you are a specific race. Furthermore, some histories of your companions can only be learned by choosing one of several heroes as your protagonist at the start, as they will more freely open up to some people over others. Even the abilities have another layer to them over the usual "+1 Strength, +1 Dex..." modifiers, as the undead need to hide their faces in order to not be attacked on sight, while elves can gain the memories of others by consuming their flesh.
Even secondary modifiers and stats diverge from your usual stock RPG affair. You have some which allow you the usual bonuses in combat, but also others such as a fun one which turns you into Dr. Dolittle. This leads to fun situations such as trying to track down a stray rat to see if they can serve as a witness for a murder. These are also just the ones you can choose. Others will be awarded depending upon how you act around others, but are hidden away until you make the relevant choices.
Still, some of you are likely wondering about the combat, and the simple answer is that it is fantastic. Many of the niggling issues which frustrated players in the prior game (notably the issue of mis-clicking certain commands) have disappeared without sacrificing its difficulty. While turn based in nature, Divinity II's combat is very fast flowing and intense, often rivaling the Banner Saga in its costly nature and complexity. Every class has a few strengths but notable weaknesses, meaning you always need to craft careful plans to overcome them. Melee fighters will be very exposed to spells and affects, while ranged fighters and mages will often fall to a few decided swings of a great sword.
As you often have even less health than your foes, the use of the environment or chaining special abilities is always essential to winning battles. While most RPGs would leave this at attaining the high ground or exploding the odd oil barrel, Larian opted to take things to the next level. You can use bombs, abilities and spells to make a fire cover half an area to guard your group against assaults, then use your fighter's attacks to open up a path for your brawlers to attack. Or you can even steal barrels of poison from certain places, and then set them up prior to a fight. It's these extra creative tweaks which can completely rework the way in which you approach a difficult battle.
Yet, perhaps the strangest thing about Divinity II is how many of the game's innate flaws often tie directly into its strengths. For example, while it offers a vast amount of tactical depth, this is yet another RPG which favours mages and rogues over tanks. This is in part due to the old issue of the skills of other classes overwhelming another, but largely due to the AI. Enemies are intelligent enough to know your armoured knight can take a few hits, so they'll constantly focus their efforts upon murdering your spellcaster. In the same vein the combat is frequently an up-hill battle, and the game forces you to use anything at your disposal to keep going. On the one hand this makes victory all the sweeter, but on the other it seriously takes its toll on your heroes. You will often find yourself dropping every hard earned coin into expensive revival scrolls and healing items to bounce back from the last fight.
Even without going into the combat, the questing system itself seems to take two steps forwards and one back at every turn. The notepad style of tracking down certain details is good for certain singular quests. Because Divinity II thrives on a staggering number of ongoing plots, trying to juggle between certain ones can be a problem. Sometimes to the point where, quite unintentionally, you can kill off an interesting plotline because another's objectives oppose it. Yes, that sounds easy to avoid, but it's even easier to lose track of them or perform the act unintentionally. You can even end up killing an innocent man on the first island, because a possible party member needs to murder the actual culprit. It helps to reinforce the sense that all actions can have serious consequences, but you can end up thinking "How the hell was I supposed to know that?!" in response to certain outcomes.
Yet, despite all of this, it's difficult not to love every second of playing Divinity II. As closely associated as they are, the good often beats out the bad. With so much creativity on hand, the ability to almost tailor a campaign to your exact needs and even a co-op(!!!) mode, you can easily find yourself sinking hundreds of hours into this game.
Ultimately, the experience of playing Larian Studios' latest creation is akin to experiencing a modern Firaxis game. It will often be staggeringly difficult, sometimes seemingly unfair and you will have a laundry list of problems. Yet, because of the strength of its story, the depth of its mechanics and the sheer attention to detail, you can’t help but love every minute of playing it. Anyone hungering for a modern-day equivalent to Baldur’s Gate should look no further than Divinity: Original Sin 2.
DIVINITY: ORIGINAL SIN 2 / DEVELOPER & PUBLISHER: LARIAN STUDIOS / PLATFORM: PC, PLAYSTATION 4, XBOX ONE / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW