What happens when a lizard, a skeleton man and a Dwarven sailor walk into a bar? If you answered "chaos ensues, as the whole place goes up in flames following a bit of a disagreement about a shipment of oranges that went suspiciously AWOL, while the guy who started the fight turns himself invisible, but forgets to move, making him easy picking for a passing wizard", well, you'd somehow be pretty much right. Such is the average day in the world of Divinity: Original Sin II, another epic role-playing adventure we couldn't wait to sink our teeth into, as we donned our mages robes, readied our bag of holding +4 and gathered a party (it does co-op, don't you know) before venturing forth on another fantastical adventure.
Like its predecessor, Divinity: Original Sin II is a game that found its way into the world via the wonderful world of Kickstarter - and as such, it's one of the more ambitious role playing games around. The story here centres around the mysterious, magical forces of something called 'Source', which some individuals, known as 'Sourcerers' are able to channel into casting spells, bettering their combat abilities or other such skills. Thanks to the propaganda the ruling Divine Order have been spreading, these Sourcerers are very much seen as second class citizens, and have been rounded up, bound with a Source-inhibiting collar and shipped off to a remote island, the ironically-named 'Fort Joy', to be 'cured' of their Source powers - and you are one such Sourcerer.
However, en route to said island, your ship gets into a bit of an altercation with a rather unhappy sea monster, and while most onboard now sleep beneath the waves, you and a few survivors wash up on the shores of Fort Joy unharmed. To make things even more awkward, if the mysterious voice you heard while you were being tossed around in the waves is to be believed, you are none other than the legendary "Godwoken" - a divine being who it just so happens is the world of Rivellon's only hope of finding lasting peace. Turns out the Godwoken is the only one capable of holding back the nefarious Voidwoken - a race of evil beings who threaten to bring about the end of the world, and the very things the Divine Order are trying to keep at bay. But of course, if you want to fulfil your holy prophecy, you'll need to find a way off this godforsaken island first.
Washed up on shore, with nothing but the tattered clothes on your back, it's up to you to explore Fort Joy and beyond, as you recruit companions, form a team, and gradually get strong enough to take on the world - although as with all things, you have to start small. Nabbing a suspicious lizard that stole someone's hallucinogenic oranges, finding a dog's missing friend, and dealing with a strange figure eating corpses on a nearby beach are amongst some of the earliest quests that come your way, with helping out folks being key to getting stronger and advancing your quest. And with plenty of peculiar characters with plenty of unusual requests (especially if you get the 'Pet Pal' skill that lets you talk to animals), there's plenty to be going on with, with the vast majority of quests having multiple outcomes, and multiple ways of "solving" them, depending on your preferred style.
For example, should you choose to pair up with the slightly bonkers elf Sabine, the aforementioned orange thief quest will come to an unexpectedly swift end (as will the orange thief himself), albeit one that saves you the trouble of grassing him up to the boss... But as in real life, everything in Divinity seems to have a knock on effect on something else - and if the orange thief is dead, another of your potential companions won't be best pleased, as he was rather hoping to have a bit of a chat with the guy - and an actual chat, rather than letting a dagger do the speaking. Really, it's incredibly clever how so many quests interweave and affect each other, often having unforeseen consequences later on - so you'll want to think carefully about how you approach each quest, and choose your dialogue options carefully, just in case.
Like many games of its ilk, Divinity: Original Sin II lets you create your own custom character to take on your quest - but, if you're not feeling especially creative, you can also take one of the pre-made characters out for a spin instead. While these characters already have their own unique back stories, conversation responses and histories with other characters you'll encounter along the way (Lohse can break out in song chatting to an old Dwarven sailor, for example), you do end up losing something by opting for one. You see, the choice of pre-made characters essentially draws from your pool of potential party members, giving you one (or two, if you're playing in co-op) less companions to choose from - and therefore less quests to complete too. And as Divinity: Original Sin II's companion quests are arguably some of the more involved and lengthy quests you'll complete, and it's well worth chopping and changing your party members periodically to make the most of them.
As wily as an adventurer can be, there's only so much you can settle with words, and with Divinity: Original Sin II, you need little excuse to bloody your sword. Traditional turn-based battles see you and your opponents taking it in turns to attack, sling spells and defend, in battles that take place in the world itself, rather than a specific battle arena. Different character classes have different strengths and weaknesses in battle - fighters and knights are your heavy-hitting, close-quarters combat specialists, with plenty of health too; while witches/wizards and such tend to be much less sturdy, but can deal large amounts of damage with longer-range elemental spells. Figuring out how best to use your characters is part of the challenge, especially as Divinity: Original Sin II likes to make heavy use of status effects and elemental damage. For example, a battlefield covered in oil from a broken barrel is just asking for a fire spell, with the added bonus of burning anyone in the vicinity, slowly sapping away at their health. Needless to say, learning to exploit the terrain is a key part of turning the tide of battle in your favour.
But though the battles may be clever, they're also one of the biggest issues with Divinity: Original Sin II, as if anything, they're too flipping smart for their own good - at least, on the standard 'Classic Mode' difficulty. Even in the game's initial hub of Fort Joy, it's all too easy to accidentally stumble into a fight with folks many levels above you, whether it's the result of a conversation that went awry, or simply wandering into an area you haven't been before, with death comes swiftly and a little too frequently for comfort. Woe betide those who haven't saved for a little while, not expecting there to be a flesh-eating maniac lurking on a quiet beach on the outskirts of town, or a previously-unknown-guy to take umbrage with one of your party members and start a random brawl. Even the simple matter of returning some stolen oranges can end in a battle if you don't choose your words carefully, and it's generally not a good idea to take on a camp commander of sorts when you've washed up on the island mere hours before, a lowly level 2 wizard with barely a pair of tattered pants to your name.
It wouldn't be so bad if Divinity: Original Sin II's battle system wasn't so complex. On the surface, it may be a fairly standard turn-based affair, but there's approximately a gajillion different status effects, elemental combinations and more running beneath the surface that can throw a spanner in the works if you're not that well versed in Divinity's battle system. For example, our Enchanter can cast a rain spell, which makes her surroundings wet - great for putting out fires, dispelling poison gunk and other such things - but it can also make people conduct electricity that much better too. Hit a bad guy with an electrical discharge spell and you'll do even more damage and stun your foe, although there's always a risk your team mates may turn into impromptu electrical conductors too, if they're either standing in the same puddle, they're standing too close to your target, or seemingly if the wind's blowing the right way that day. Somewhat confusingly, our Dwarven warrior has a similar electric-type attack - Shocking Touch - but for some reason, using that while standing in a puddle ends up stunning you rather than your enemy. Why? Who knows - and the game doesn't exactly go out of its way to explain, or help ease you in. Other spells and abilities can be combined too - oil slicks and fire spells being the obvious example - but though the game all but requires you to be "clever" to fight your way through even the earliest fights, there's always a risk that things may not turn out quite the way you envisioned, and on the game's bog-standard difficulty, such slip ups will almost always end in your defeat.
Dial the difficulty back though - which you can do at any time from the options menu - and the easier 'Explorer' and 'Story' modes make the game a much more enjoyable, and much less punishing experience. While they don't eliminate those times when you accidentally end up in a battle with next to no warning, they do mean that you'll (mostly) be able to tackle whatever the game throws at you, as enemies are way less tough, leading to less frustratingly unfair fights. It also gives you much more room to experiment with some more creative solutions to problems - as was the case during one early mission, where we came across some poor guy called Delorus, being interrogated in an underground prison, before being knocked unconscious by his captors.
Despite having no idea if Delorus was a good guy or not, we took it upon ourselves to save him, first by sneaking around the outside and lobbing a barrel of oil towards his captors, then setting it alight with a fire spell. Unfortunately, in a development that's perhaps obvious in hindsight, Delorus burnt to death in the confusion. Quick reload, take two. Next we tried teleporting his unconscious body out of the way, with the help of a recently-acquired teleportation glove - but unfortunately for Delorus, seemingly the landing was a bit rough, and the poor guy died from the impact. Our third attempt saw our brave editor Ian act as bait, grabbing the guard's attention before legging it into a nearby room, where the rest of the the party were waiting in strategic positions. Once Ian had safely returned - and the guards were now well away from poor old Delorus - we set about setting the doorway, and some of the hallway outside, on fire, burning the guards who tried to come near us. Sure, it meant Ian the fighter didn't have a great deal to do, save taking the odd slice at any flaming guards who managed to force their way in, but our wizards and ranger were in their element, slinging spells and arrows in the bad guys' general direction, until we were the only ones left standing.
While Divinity: Original Sin II's wonky difficulty curve is an issue, there's still an awful lot of fun to be had in its huge, sprawling world, filled with oddball characters, entertaining quests and unusual conversations. Even better is that you can bring along a friend or three for the ride (two players offline to a maximum of four online), making for some epic evenings spent causing chaos in the world of Rivellon - like our repeated attempts to rescue Delorus. However, we'd strongly recommend dialling the difficulty down a notch or two, otherwise the fun will quickly turn to frustration as you get repeatedly defeated by Divinity's too-tough army of enemies.
Format Reviewed: Playstation 4