Monday, September 15, 2008

Retro: Revisiting Divine Divinity

Before I did reviews for GamerDad, I wrote these things called 'Game Comments' for another site. Having just played through Divine Divinity again i thought i would go back and revisit the one I did more than two and a half years ago for that game ...
Game: Divine Divinity
Genre: RPG
Sub-Genre: Single player, isometric.
System: PC
Rating: T (Teen)
My Score: 4.5+/5
General Comments: Divine Divinity is an isometric action-RPG in the style of Diablo, but with much more depth than a hack-n-slash game like Sacred. It is a very difficult game early on, reminiscent of Gothic II, where any move from the path can result in a quick and painful death. Once your get a few character levels behind you, you are rewarded with an excellent RPG that features great interactions, absolutely amazing sound and music, and a really enjoyable story.
Graphics: The graphics of an isometric RPG are not likely to be pushing the pixels like a high-tech FPS, but most - including Divine Divinity - tend to be visually pleasing, featuring 3D characters against prerendered backdrops. There are many ice touches in the graphics, like rippling and reflective water (see screenshot, which doesn't do it justice). Another element is that the various information panes - for mini-map, character, equipment, inventory and skills - are non-modal, meaning they can br dragged anywhere on the screen and left there, or just simply closed.(10/10)
Story/Plot: This is an RPG, so you wake up with no clue about life, right? Right! You were struck down on a battlefield, and are now suddenly charged with some great destiny! Despite the cliched beginning, the game does have a really good story, if somewhat lacking in originality. But, like most RPG's, the real joy of the story is 'branches' that flow out of the main trunk of the storyline. And there is lots to do, from the typical 'I'll give you the item if you get me X', to settling disputes, tracking evidence, killing stuff, and even a bit of romance.
The game also begs exploration and talking to anyone with a name, which often results in a quest. It is a very long game ... I spent many hours I should have been sleeping or doing something else accomplishing that 'one more thing' and would estimate that the game took me close to 80 hours or so to finish - not as long as BG2, but longer than most RPG's.(9/10)
Character Development: Divine Divinity's character development system has two facets - traits and skills. Traits are your typical Strength / Agility / Intelligence / Constitution, and you can immediately see how they impact your attack, defense, hitpoints, mana points and so on. The skill development system is more complex, and took me off-balance at first. You have three 'Paths' - warrior, mage and survivor. Within each you have four areas of development, and within those you have eight possible skills. Each skill has five ranks (for those keeping score, that is 480 possible skill points ... but you'll have far fewer than that to spend). The game displays useful information about what each skill does, what requirements there are, and what the next rank will give you. Some of the skills are absolutely essential to playing the game, others help in various quests, others are just suited to your particular style. It is really through the skill system that character development shines - sure you can tailor a BattleMage using trait points (which I did), but it is through judicious skill point allocation that you become a powerhouse that can take out very high level enemies while sustaining virtually no damage (see screens for the before and after ;) ). In that screen, I have a skill that lets me see the character's properties, so I know to equip a blade with poison damage.(9/10)

Gameplay/Controls/HUD: A major area where an action-RPG's live or die is on how easily you can execute combat actions. Divine Divinity has excellent and intuitive controls for most things, and the rest (like repair) are very learable. Once you figure out how to do things, you can just sail through the game. More importantly, the game (properly) uses the Spacebar for pausing (whereas Sacred uses it for health potions), so you can easily pause, switch skills or spells, then continue the battle. Moving around, using items, and so on are all intuitive and work well. The HUD is very flexible, and just about everything can be hidden and easily recalled.
One great element of the game is 'wear and tear' on your weapons. One skill you will almost need to take is Repair, which allows you to fix your own equipment ... which can be the difference between life and death in a heated battle. With enough skill points, you can repair anything to brand-new state.
Another great gameplay element is the ability to charm equipment. You do this by taking the Charm skill and then placing charm elements on an item that can accept them. Items can accepts from 1 to 5 charms, and the charms are either bonuses to traits (like strength or mana) or to resistances (like fire or poison). The charms can range from 'minor' to 'very large', with the caveat that once placed they become a permanent part of the item. Therefore it is critical to plan before using weak charms on strong items, or strong charms on weak items.(9/10)
Sound/Music: The sounds and particularly the music in Divine Divinity are simply excellent. There are more than 35 pieces of music used, and they are highly varied and very effective. Some of the spoken dialogue suffers from typical RPG over-use, such as when you flip a lever you will get one of two clueless lines, and other lines suffer from translation issues. But typically the voice acting is very well done, and serves to move the story forward effectively.(10/10)
Value/Replay: Classic RPG's are typically some of the most replayable games out there, due to the ability to play different character types and make different choices. Which is why I'm surprised - and somewhat disappointed - to say that there is little replay value in Divine Divinity. Why? Well, as far as I can tell, any *successful* character build will likely contain elements of Warrior, Mage and Survivor by the end of the game, meaning that you won't be playing a different class as much as a different 'base class'. That is not bad, but you are left with more subtle options for replaying with any different character. The other reason you would replay is to choose 'the other path' or other affiliation or whatever. Divine Divinity plays one path, and you have no choice but to follow it, so that is removed as a replay motivation.(7/10)
Overall: I really liked this game, certainly more than I expected. It started very hard, but was pretty easy (but still intense) by the end. It is certainly available at a bargain price these days, either by itself, or bundled with Beyond Divinity in many areas. And, given the many hours and the joy of character development, any RPG fan should put this game on their 'to do' list.
+ Excellent graphics
+ Addictive gameplay
+ Well told story and quests
+ Wonderful character development flexibility.
+ Enjoyable combat
+ Music is some of the best in any game
+ Very long game without getting boring.
- Character intermixing limits replayability.
- Linear plot path limits replayability.
- Character personality doesn't allow choices.
Score: 9/10
So ... what do I think now? Actually the only thing that I disagree with in that review is the 'replayability'. I was disappointed that I needed to sword-train my mage, but it is an action-RPG in terms of combat. Upon replaying twice, I have taken different routes of character development and come up to very different builds - each of which is very satisfying.
I loved this game a couple of years ago, and I cherish it now even more.

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