Version tested: Xbox 360
Seeing as it's coming out in the same month as BioWare's recent dragon-themed RPG, and was produced with a fraction of the development time and budget, there was always going to be a scaly, fire-breathing elephant in the room when it came to Divinity II. It's not really a direct competitor - being an action-based, lone hero take on the fantasy canon as opposed to Dragon Age's tactical party management - but CDV's slant on Wyrm-hunting still sits firmly in the PR shadow of EA's game.
As such, it will probably go unnoticed by a fairly large portion of its target audience. This is a bit of a shame because Ego Draconis represents a decent stab at bringing some fresh ideas to a genre which has, in many respects, become staid and predictable.
Players take on the role of a Slayer, who belongs to an ancient order of warriors dedicated to ridding the world of the half-human Dragon Knights - generally considered to be bad eggs. You weigh in just as your training comes to a close and it's almost time to be imbued with the dragon memories which grant the Slayers their formidable powers.
Things quickly get complicated, however. As a result the player character ends up becoming one of the semi-draconic quarry - turned against their erstwhile allies and forced to pursue the aims of the Dragon Knights instead.
The up side of this, and the hook with which the game pulls you in for a frustratingly large number of hours before delivering, is that you can eventually turn into a fully-fledged dragon - swooping around the large and rather pretty Oblivion-esque rural idylls or burninating desolate mountain passes.
As USPs go, it's a goodie. Dragons are, if you're of a remotely fantastical bent, pretty awesome, and their combination of agility and power makes them perfect for a late-game power boost to keep you interested. More on the dragon later, however, as there's a significant portion of the game to be spent trotting around on more traditional legs first.
At its core Divinity II is an action RPG, with a wealth of stats and skills augmenting the point-and-kill combat model. The use of hotkeys and cooldowns give proceedings a very MMOish flavour, with toe-to-toe combat pretty much unavoidable for even characters specced for ranged engagement.
Action skills tend to be fairly straightforward and immediate, not really requiring the sort of stacking and management which you might expect online. The wealth of progression options - which are split across the categories of priest, mage, warrior, ranger, slayer and later Dragon Knight - are fairly ordinary fare, although well represented.
Each level-up, and the occasional book, grants an extra skill point to be assigned, with an initial maximum of five applicable for each skill. These can be put anywhere, unrestricted by any class system. The result is you can build a very subtle blend of hero, although where you choose to apply the five stat points you receive for each level has a significant bearing on how effective many of these skills will be.
The system offers flexibility without the drudgery of too much fine tuning, with equipment offering further tweaks via permanent charms and exchangeable enchantments, boosting stats and skills. There's an excellent feeling of control over your character's spec with no punishment for multiclassing other than the necessary stat-spreading. My personal choice was a bit of a polymath, throwing a chunky fireball as an opening line from across the room, followed by a rush attack to get within snogging range and buffs to health and resistances to make sure the job got done.
The combat itself, in contrast to Divinity's rather physical running and jumping third-person exploration, is a little disappointing. Whilst spells fizz and whistle suitably, and short combos flow together pleasantly, there's a definite feeling of disconnection to the blows. It's perhaps a symptom of the distance between camera and player, or the fact that third-person perspectives obscure much of the actual steel on bone action. But too often the actual cut and thrust felt a little wishy-washy, with none of the impact so necessary to engage the player. Animation also feels a little bit 1996, with repetitive monster movements and stilted, juddering movement from some characters.
Conversations, conducted in a pleasing array of well-voiced regional British accents, offer a fairly binary set of moral choices, although quest outcomes are decided on actions, not words. In fact, with a couple of notable exceptions, there are very few palpable consequences to be had from playing either good or bad cop. Treat someone with vicious contempt and they'll still offer you pretty much exactly what they would have done otherwise. There's certainly no reputation to be gained for your character, no real ramifications for behaving badly. It's something which could have deepened the experience considerably, and certainly given more pause to conversational decisions.
One nice thing about the conversation system is the ability to mindread. This Slayer power comes at the cost of an XP debt, usually directly related to the usefulness of the information gleaned. Rewards for this mental snooping can range from stat and skill boosts to passwords, anecdotes or quest information, right down to completely useless musings on what the NPC had for lunch. Given that you're told how much of a penalty to expect before you have to commit, it's not hard to work out how useful the thoughts you're about to steal will be but nonetheless it's a fresh and interesting option to have.
Not long before you inherit the full suite of Draconic powers, Divinity II proffers another interesting gameplay vol-au-vent by establishing you with a hefty base of operations, complete with trader, enchanter, trainer, alchemist and necromancer. These tradesmen make sense of the various ingredients, ores and recipes which you collect over the course of the first half of the game. Although their services are all available from other people, spread around the Broken Valley where you'll be spending a good portion of the early game, collecting them in one are makes them far more convenient. Once established in your tower, their services are also expanded and become upgradable - making your home a nice little side project.
In fact Ego Draconis' non-linear approach to things like this, with a definite lack of railroading allowing you to abandon the world saving for a while whilst you nip off to pick up a book for your necromancer, is one of its real strengths. The explorable world is pretty vast, and has many nooks, crannies and non-essential dungeons to explore. A fast travel system makes this exploration a pleasure rather than a chore, too, with too-tough areas never more than a couple of minutes away once you feel up to them.
The quests themselves are interesting enough, occasionally verging into excellent, although they're stymied somewhat by a poor logbook system and a lack of map indicators.
Level design is solid - despite a slight over reliance on the traditional fantasy crypts, caves and crags - with pleasingly physical puzzles and key hunts. There are a few smatterings of platforming thrown in, too, although these additions feel a bit misjudged given the floaty nature of the jumping - frustration kicks in pretty quickly when movement feels as inaccurate as Divinity's can.
Once your dragon skills become fully realised a new perspective on everything opens up. Free of gravity's shackles, areas can now be traversed very quickly, with controls feeling instinctual and tactile. Morphing into your dragon means that ground targets disappear to be replaced by flying enemies, so don't get too many ideas about offing troublesome mobs with swathes of cleansing fire.
By the time all of this happens, depending on how anal you are about side-quests, anticipation of power is burning pretty brightly, and the freedom and new abilities you unlock do not disappoint. However, by introducing a new class of enemies for each form Larian Studios also keep the empowerment balance in check. Your Dragon is certainly not invincible.
People reaching for wallets should be warned, however. This burning sword of positivity is about to be tempered in the cold waters of disappointment. That's because Divinity II, for all it's effort, is not a polished game. Targeting is essentially quite broken, skills sometimes refuse to work for no apparent reason, three or four times (playing on 360) I fell through the floor entirely and ended up floating around in a sub-terrestrial netherworld, trapped in graphical resin like a prehistoric bug.
Certain cut-scenes, all rendered in the in-game engine, stuttered and jumped around bizarrely, with actors wandering aimlessly and voices diembodying themselves from the action. Exiting menus with the B button inevitably activated whichever skill was mapped to it, especially annoying given the long cooldown period associated with some of them. Inventory management is extremely poor, there's no mechanic for sneaking up on enemies - once you're in range they'll see you automatically, no matter if you're hidden or not.
Whilst I encountered nothing game-breaking I did lose count of the number of minor irritations the engine threw at me, and more than a few expirations were the result of the skills simply refusing to trigger. A little polish could have gone a long way here. I can't help but feel that an extra couple of weeks in Q&A would have nudged Divinity II from an almost-ran into the winner's enclosure. As it is, this is a good game which suffers a death of a thousand cuts - a viable alternative to Dragon Age for the less statistically minded, but sadly prevented by becoming a winner in its own right by any number of minor faults.
The story is compelling and well told, and there's certainly enough flow to put it in the category of "just ten more minutes" games - but you'll need a lot of patience to get the most out of Ego Draconis.
6 / 10
Divinty II: Ego Draconis was reviewed primarily on Xbox 360, although the PC version was played in order to contrast. The differences were not considered enough to justify a separate review.