Friday, February 26, 2010

Divinity II: Ego Draconis - Knights, Dragons, and Bugs, Oh My!

Divinity II Ego Draconis I’m sure you’re looking at the title of this article and thinking, “What the hell is Divinity II: Ego Draconis?”  A few weeks ago, I was in the same boat.  It wasn’t ‘on my radar,’ as we consumers of media like to say.  It’s an unfortunate RPG that gets released sandwiched between two of BioWare’s most highly-anticipated games.  Let’s just say the news cycle was preoccupied.

Here’s what I knew about the game prior to its release:

- It’s an RPG.
- It’s a sequel in a European dungeon-crawler franchise and is the series’ first 3D entry.
- You can turn into a dragon.

Call me crazy, but that last one was enough to pique my interest.  Lots of role-playing games tout – among such features as ‘intriguing narratives’ and ‘60+ hours of gameplay’ – a unique gameplay hook, usually related to if not outright using the phrase ‘battle system.’  Think Fallout 3’s VATS Targeting System, Final Fantasy XII’s Gambit System, or the timing-based attacks of Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story.  However, none are as blunt as Divinity II’s bullet point: Be a Dragon.

I couldn’t help but wonder how the rest of the game would measure up to the potential of this one simple promise.  Or how it would make good on that promise.  I got a chance to answer these questions after developer Larian Studios and publisher cdv Software were kind enough to send us a copy. 

Divinity II runs on a version of the surprisingly versatile Gamebryo engine.  Other notable titles to use the engine include Firaxis’ Civilization IV, Warren Spector’s upcoming Epic Mickey, and the aforementioned Fallout 3.  I mention this because anyone who’s spent anytime in Fallout’s Capital Wasteland will recognize the myriad chinks in the engine’s armor.  Framerates stutter.  Lighting alternates between being moody and evocative and someone-please-light-a-torch-I-can’t-see-shit dim.  Geometry (boxes, rocks, etc.) will inexplicably trap your character, leaving you with no option but to boot up your most recent save.  And it best be recent.  Being an O.G. computer RPG, Divinity II autosaves incredibly infrequently.  Save often, or be prepared to lose hours of hard-fought progress.

However, I can’t promise you that frequent saving will, ahem, save you from drastic setbacks.  I regularly encountered game-crashing bugs: cutscenes would end without returning control of my character; occasionally, I’d load a save and just be dead.  A recent patch reduced the occurrence of these bugs, yet failed to eradicate them.  I persevered in spite of these issues, but I’ll admit to having jammed on the power button and walking away more than once.

It’s worth noting that I’m playing the 360 version, and it’s possible some of these issues (specifically ones of graphical fidelity) may not be as prevalent on PC.  I’m also not one to harp on technical issues (I quite enjoyed my trek through Fallout’s buggy mess).  But I can’t remain silent when a game’s underlying code so clearly hinders the overall experience.

And Divinity II is certainly an experience.  Its world, Rivellon, is dense with fiction.  Like, rainforest dense.  Scores of searchable crates and barrels (yes, it’s that old school) contain, among other things, innumerable tomes, letters, and books – fleshing out the world to the point of super saturation.  It’s impossible to discredit the ambition on display; it’s clear the team has thought about this world a lot.  I couldn’t bring myself to actually read every damn pamphlet or book of limericks I picked up, but the promise of bonus experience or skills points made sure I cracked the spines on most of them.

The actual plot, buried beneath layers of backstory, plays out without much fanfare.  You play a newly-minted Dragon Knight, out to save the world from dragons and a returning evil dude named Damien (subtle, huh?).  It’s not long before you find yourself fighting Damien’s minions, aiding dragons, and eventually becoming one. 

Too bad it doesn't look this good on 360. It’s a shame, however, that the main conceit of Divinity II – as I said, being a dragon – occurs so late in the game.  It’s not until the last fourth of the game that you gain the ability to become a mythical flying lizard at will.  Controlling your dragon form feels a lot like an all-range mode adaptation of the on-rails Panzer Dragoon games.  You fly around, blasting enemies with fireballs, razing enemy anti-air emplacements.  Rarely do the dragon portions (which are generally separated from quests on foot) challenge the player, which is a welcome change from the rest of the game’s criminally insane difficulty.

I don’t consider myself bad at games.  And I’ve been playing RPGs for a while, so I feel like I have a more-than-basic understanding of character building and combat techniques.  But I have to wonder if I’m missing something mechanically in Divinity II because the act of progressing forward often reached Sisyphean levels of difficulty.  I’m talking hurl-your-controller, save-after-every-kill hard.

This is mostly an issue of imbalance between the game’s various systems.  Enemies, as far as I can tell, never respawn.  When the going gets tough and you desperately require gold (which only drops intermittently) to purchase a much-needed healing potion (which costs way too much), there’s no opportunity to grind your way out of the predicament.  It wasn’t until the latter half of the final chapter that I felt even with the game’s curve, before that having spent hours feeling woefully inadequate.You will fight a lot of dudes.  It will ALWAYS be hard. As I said regarding the game’s technical issues, this is all a case of a game getting in the way of itself.  In addition to the looming “I, of the Dragon” concept, Divinity II’s two devices worth trumpeting are the mindreading mechanic and the Battle Tower.  The ability to read minds (a power wielded by the Dragon Knights) is an excellent subversion of the tried-and-true dialogue tree.  For the cost of some experience points, you peer into an NPCs mind and occasionally glean useful information.  It might be the location of an item, useful quest info, or an embarrassing secret that will force a sheepish shopkeep to lower his prices.  The mystery unravels a bit once you realize that a big XP cost means a big secret.  I’d like to see someone build on this mechanic, as I think it has potential to really freshen up a somewhat dusty mainstay of the genre.

The Battle Tower is one of the more unique hubs I’ve experienced in an RPG, though, like the whole dragon thing, it comes a little late to fulfill its full potential.  An interesting midgame quest has you rounding up skilled personnel with which to staff your tower: an alchemist, a trainer, a necromancer, and a smithy.  You choose between two of each position, and the people you don’t pick get fucking murdered.  Why?  I’ve no clue.  But it’s incredibly savage and kind of cool.  After the survivors move into your tower, you can use them to craft items, beef your skill tree, and construct a minion out of spare body parts.  A neat ripple effect of the staff selection process is that each person has their own set of sidequests, providing ample endgame content for someone who’s slogged their way through a punishing first half. 

And for me, that sentiment rings true for Divinity II as a whole.  The game takes a sharp turn for the better just before the plot’s final push.  Your abilities will feel useful.  Your Tower will produce support items at a reasonable enough clip.  Dragon flight/combat is fun if not a little wonky.  Save a few recurring bugs, the end of the game satisfies.  If only it weren’t such a battle getting there.

You can purchase
Divinity II: Ego Draconis for the PC or Xbox 360 for $39.99.  If you’re trying to decide which platform, may I (having only played the Xbox version) strongly suggest the PC.