IGN Review of Divinity II: Ego Draconis
The more you play, the better it gets. Such is the way of things with many role-playing titles as their gameplay systems evolve, narratives progress, and new items and skills become available. It's especially true of Larian Studios' Divinity 2: Ego Draconis since it starts out so slow. The next in the line of Larian's Divinity games, this is a Western-style traditional high fantasy setting filled with fireballs, wizards, goblins and dragons. It's the type of fantasy world we've seen plenty of times before, most recently in Piranha Bytes' Risen and BioWare's Dragon Age: Origins, though those examples contain a greater breadth of distinguishing qualities that make them stand further out from the pack than Larian's effort. Still, there's plenty of satisfying content to dig into in Divinity 2, provided you're willing to overlook some of its generic and underdeveloped aspects, of which there are quite a few.
Please note that much of this review applies to the PC version. If you're looking to buy this on Xbox 360, well, read the closing comments of this review and see if you're still interested. While it's a pretty good adventure on PC, it's a messy game on Microsoft's console thanks to various technical and interface issues. Included below is the review of the game's content in case you're curious, but you really shouldn't be picking up this version of the game for any reason.
Events whir into motion with your character joining the ranks of the Dragon Slayers, an order that likes to hit dragons with magic and sharp things to wipe them out. Soon after the introduction and brief tutorial sequence everyone's alerted to the presence of a nearby dragon, and you're whisked away on the most unremarkable airship ever designed to a large forested zone with a town filled with NPCs and quests. Instead of heading after the dragon, it's recommended that you hang back and talk to the townsfolk, and in this way you'll start to collect quests and swat baddies in the field, swapping Goblin hearts for cash and experience, and hopping through trapdoors into dungeons to shatter skeletons, banish ghosts, and tangle with bandits. Considering your character is pretty weak while this is going on, your gear isn't very good, and the overall quality of the fiction and setting are fairly bland, I'd understand if someone bailed out at this point. If you stick with it, though, it gets a lot better.
While many of the game's more interesting bits aren't made available until later on, one part you do encounter almost immediately is the mindread function. This is a character skill that allows you to swap experience points for extra information when engaged in dialogue sequences with NPCs. I suppose it adds another layer to interaction, and can sometimes offer up additional information like secret passwords or quest information, but I just had such a hard time appreciating how it worked. It's a personal preference, so maybe you won't find the system as unlikable as I did, but the frequency of the rewards didn't feel like it matched up well with the value of what I was required to give up.
On the subject of character skills, what you get here isn't particularly novel, but entirely functional. Divinity 2 uses a classless system, so as you gain experience and level up you're free to drop a point into any of the available skills. They're split into your basic ranger, mage, and fighter categories, and while useful, they're all pretty basic. You get things like poisoned arrows, fireballs, magic missiles, creature summons, and heals, and the best bit about it is that you're free to mix and match whatever skills are available at your current level and develop your base character statistics to match your play style. It's not a system that's going to surprise anyone, but it works well enough and allows for a number of different hybrid character types to be constructed.
It's still going to be a challenge at the beginning because of how powerful the enemies tend to be when you enter a new area or main dungeon. This isn't so much a criticism of the game, but the power of the opposition and the fact that they don't respawn once killed means you'll want to clear as many fields and complete as many side quests as possible before tackling the main story content to ensure you'll have a shot against some of the ultra powerful bosses and enemy group encounters. The good part about this is that it forces you to carefully consider which skills you're powering up as you level, and to take advantage of some of the game's quirkier systems, such as your summonable creature.
This leads into the parts of game that add some welcome depth to the experience. By consulting a reclusive necromancer early on, and later through your Battle Tower, you can mix and match heads, arms, torsos and legs to create a helper creature that can be summoned in the field and in many cases prove to be quite useful in combat. There's a wide range of parts to include, and while many offer simple variations of statistic boosts like more health and defenses, others change the class of the creature entirely from fighters to mages tied to different spells. If you're a mage or ranger that prefers to fight from a distance, it's great to have a melee creature to run interference, and for fighters it's helpful to have a partner launching magic from afar.
More customization systems are conveniently consolidated when you finally take charge of the Battle Tower, which then serves as your primary base of operations. Here you can brew potions, enchant equipment, and find numerous other NPCs who are willing to help you out on your journey. You can even send out runners into the field to collect reagents and spend cash to improve their armor and weaponry to better ensure success. At this point in the game, which is a fair way in, you'll also be able to morph into a dragon, which has a significant effect on zone design and exploration from that point forward.
Because the game allows you to freely swap between dragon and human form, the first zone you encounter after gaining the transformation ability, Orobas Fjords, is designed to accommodate your ability to fly and breathe fire. Your dragon form can also be upgraded with additional abilities and can be further augmented with dragon armor pieces. Larian adjusted exterior and even some interior spaces to accommodate your dragon's flying ability, which keeps the game interesting and makes the latter parts feel far different from the humble and frankly boring beginning bits. While that lends a nice sense of progression to the game, the generally clunky combat and AI issues tend to limit the appeal and depth of the encounters.
Since you'll often find yourself going up against powerful foes, you're going to have to get creative. Instead of rewarding player skill in terms of the abilities you've selected, combat is often more about exploiting AI glitches and slamming potions as rapidly as possible to stay alive until you're at a decent enough level to steamroll everything in your way. It's unfortunate that enemy pathfinding tends to be so weak since it breaks whatever sense of immersion the game tries to cobble together, but it's also fortunate since it allows you to duck behind debris or pillars and regenerate health and mana reserves in the midst of an otherwise impossible fight. You'll also find enemies tend to get stuck, even while out in the open, which seemed to happen more frequently when they reached the edge of their agro range tethers, which makes the experience feel unpolished.
Regardless of which style of combat you decide to engage in, the fighting doesn't have much of a feel to it. Swings with large swords don't feel weighty, there's no sense of tautness to pulling back a bowstring, and launching magic blasts doesn't feel like it has much of an impact. Every attack feels floaty and disconnected from the actions taking place on screen. The spell and magic effects aren't impressive at all, which doesn't help, meaning you'll need to rely solely on the damage numbers to get a sense of your growing power. At least some of the item drops you get can be useful, particularly when you factor in the charms and enchantments that can boost their power.
The story itself is interesting enough once it finally gets going, though it's peppered with some ridiculous fantasy clichés. There's a wizard, for instance, who actually wears a blue robe decorated with stars, has a giant white fuzzy beard, glasses, and a pointy hat. On the outskirts of your Battle Tower are an enemy type called a Dragon Elf…wonder how they came up with that one. Yet for every cliché there's often a counterbalance, such as a stitched up necromancer's love interest who spews her rage through a hilarious lisp and lots of other quirky humor elements. The disposable nature of your Battle Tower gatherers, for instance, is suitably underscored by their names: Tom, Dick, and Harry. These don't quite redeem many of the game's more disposable narrative elements, but do a decent job of giving this fantasy world more of a distinct personality.
The visuals that bring this world to life aren't going to impress anyone, as the standard fantasy armor designs, environments, tombs, dungeons and characters have been seen plenty of times before. They're still well executed however, and the later areas are much more interesting to look at than the beginning sections. The way everything animates is more distracting, particularly when it comes to how exaggerated some of the death animations can be. Hit an enemy with an arrow and they might fall over or pinwheel in the air like somebody slammed their ankle with a sledgehammer. Music is even less noteworthy. You can tell Larian was trying to lend an epic feel to the world and encourage a sense of boundless, fantastical adventure, but the uneven and derivative nature of each track feels like it'd be more appropriate as an ironic choice on the jukebox of a local bar. The voice work, on the other hand, occasionally rises from mediocrity to deliver flashes of genuine emotion and humor.
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