This is the latest entry in our ongoing countdown of the Top 25 RPGs of all time. This week: while major publishers avoid the form, Larian Studios finds success in classic computer role-playing games.
For a long time, the computer role-playing game (CRPG) genre was defunct. The heyday of the style saw a slew of classics like Baldur's Gate, Icewind Dale, Fallout, Planescape: Torment, and the Ultima games. As technology and presentation improved, putting numerous story paths and interesting choices in front of the player gave way to dramatic cutscenes and voice acting.
One of the previous standard bearers of the genre, Bioware, had begun to transition to a different model, leaving behind the deep role-playing experience for more action and romance. For a time, Obsidian Entertainment chased Bioware into the premium, mass-market RPG market. Fallout landed in the hands of Bethesda, becoming a first-person adventure. Many publishers believed there was no money to be made in the old point-and-click style.
Everything changed with the rise of KickStarter. In February of 2012, Double Fine Productions showed that niche genres could be revived with its multi-million dollar funding drive for the Double Fine Adventure. A month later InXile Entertainment kickstarted Wasteland 2, the sequel to the game that preceded the original Fallout. And only two weeks after that, Larian Studios, the Belgian studio behind the action RPG Divine Divinity, decided to make its own pitch for the RPG it always wanted to make.
"Picture a modern version of a world not unlike that of Ultima VII, explored either alone or with a friend, that sees you engage adversaries in tactical turn-based combat reminiscent of the great turn-based RPGs of the past. A world that is filled to the brim with choice and consequence situations, reactive NPCs, and a considerable amount of surprises. A world that captures the feeling of playing pen and paper RPGs with our friends," said the original Kickstarter's vision statement.
And Larian Studios delivered on every word of that vision two years later.
Divinity: Original Sin is a class act of an RPG. Its success isn't necessarily in the narrative framework, but the execution. In fact, the premise of Divinity: Original Sin is rather boilerplate and vanilla: in the world of Rivellion, magic is a way of life, with the exception of dangerous magic known as Source. Your dual protagonists are Source Hunters hunting a Sourcerer in the town of Cyseal; your investigation uncovers a deeper conspiracy that threatens the fate of the world itself.
Yeah, it's pretty standard. Where Divinity: Original Sin excels is in all the stuff you can do around that story. Larian Studio wrote a bunch of interesting characters, crafted a bunch of unique spells and skills, and then let the world react accordingly. There isn't a single way to complete objectives; instead, players are tasked to come up with creative solutions to the problems in front of them. While many modern RPGs are fairly linear with a few major story branches, Divinity: Original Sin was as close as players could get to enjoying the old pen-and-paper RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons on the PC.
Let's take the side quest involving the elven Eglandaer and the orc librarian Victoria. Eglandaer wants you to kill Victoria, a peaceful descendant of a once-vicious orc tribe as retaliation for the actions of her ancestors. As proof of the kill, he wants her amulet. From here, you have a number of options. Kill Eglandaer, because to be honest, he's kind of a dick. Kill Victoria and take the amulet, which removes a relatively peaceful character from the game and makes you an enemy of her patron, the town's mayor. Steal the amulet from Victoria or convince her to give it you, then lie to Eglandaer about fulfilling your end of the bargain. Or talk to the local law enforcement about the guy outside of town asking passing adventurers to murder a citizen.
Which way you go with that quest is up to you and that's only one small side quest in Divinity: Original Sin. Many of the quests in the game are crafted with the same care. Will you help a cat who's having relationship troubles? Do you pay off some bridge trolls, take them out, or uh… pay someone to keep one of them company? Will you help an angry snowman who wants revenge against a rabbit for biting his carrot nose, or defend the small creature? Divinity: Original Sin's quests ranged from the mundane, to the epic, to the weird, but all of them are at least interesting.
This focus on free-form play also extends to the combat system. Every spell and skill has an effect on its targets and the world. If there's a patch of oil on the ground, you can light it with any ability that creates fire and douse the blaze with a conjured raincloud. Part of the fun of Divinity Original Sin is finding out which spell combinations will allow you to triumph over obstacles, in sometimes broken and hilarious ways. Many times, your best laid plans also end up with members of your party dead.
Teleport an enemy into burning lava or in range of your stealthed Rogue's well-placed Backstab. Use Rain to create a raincloud, Fireball to turn the water into steam, and then Blitz Bolt to electrify the cloud of steam. Dump water onto an enemy and then use Chill to freeze them. Deadly Spores not only poison enemies, they also explode on contact with any fire source.
The trick is your enemies have access to the same spells that you do. Frequently what happens is you're setting up a random spell combination and then an enemy interrupts the process with its own spell. The resulting mix creates a cataclysmic reaction that kills you, your enemy, and several innocent bystanders. Then you reload the game and try again. Mastering these combinations and reactions is key to winning and some of them feel impossibly powerful once you figure them out. Combat in Divinity: Original Sin is about coming up with unique ways to overcome a fight, thinking on your feet, and rolling with a bad situation.
Divinity: Original Sin is equal parts frustrating and rewarding. Part of having such an open-ended quest and combat system is not holding the player's hand. You will get lost, you will have no clue what to do next, and you will die. Many times. The game asks you to commit to its world in a way few RPGs do these days. While the narrative foundation might be simple, the characters, the quests, and the fights you undertake are anything but. Divinity: Original Sin came from this small Belgian studio and reminded players of what real RPGs look like. It's a masterpiece that's only outstripped by its sequel and that's why it's one of the Top RPGs of all-time.