Editor's note: Final review code came in hot for Divinity: Original Sin 2, so ahead of our final review - which will be landing next week - we wanted to offer you some early impressions from the opening of the game. Enjoy!
13 hours into Divinity: Original Sin 2, and I've just left the starting island. There are some long days and late nights to go before I'm ready to review this sprawling fantasy adventure properly, when I can decide whether it's a great RPG or merely a good one (and unless it turns into a kart racer in hour 14, I'm confident it's going to be pretty good). But I can tell you this: I had more fun in Original Sin 2's character creation screen than I have in several whole games I've played this year.
Normally I find character creation a chore that must be done before I get to play the game. The abundance of choice combined with the fear of getting stuck two-dozen hours in means I normally agonise over it for ages before picking vanilla human warrior and building the party around that. But Original Sin 2 threw me a curveball in that you can play a dead guy. As soon as I realised this, I went a bit mad.
Step forward Gangly Jim, a sun-bleached skeleton with dust-yellow locks and a hipster beard. Imagine an artisan coffee-shop owner who subsists exclusively on his own merchandise, and you've got a good idea of what Gangly Jim looks like. What's more, thanks to his "Mystic" personality trait, Gangly Jim has a tendency to spout off with what appears to be random nonsense but is actually some deep insight beyond the ken of you regular plebs. Just like a real hipster!
At first I thought this was more than enough excitement for one character creation screen, and figured I'd go classic with the class and make Gangly Jim a Necromancer or something. After all, it's the easiest way to make friends when you've got no body to be with. But then I discovered the new "Polymorph" class, which has abilities based around transmutation. This includes the power to turn enemies into chickens.
15 minutes later, Gangly Jim stepped out into the world, an undead-human Polymorph with a scholarly voice, a touch of farsight, and the ability to turn you into poultry if you give him sass. Oh yeah, and he can talk to animals. But that was in the first Original Sin, so that's comparatively normal.
Original Sin's character creation is enormously powerful. I could have gone weirder still. I could have been an undead lizard-person, running around Original Sin's world as the manifestation of David Ike's worst fears. On the flipside, the game also lets you play as specific characters with fully fleshed out back-stories, characters like The Red Prince, a fearless and ferociously arrogant lizardman who seeks to restore his lost Empire, or Fane, a mysterious creature known as an Eternal, unique in all the world. Yet although their races and back-stories are fixed, you can still tailor these character's abilities as you desire, and you can even choose from a more limited range of class archetypes when you recruit them as party-members.
Larian's statement of intent is clear. The developer wants you to play Original Sin 2 your way, however strange that way may be, and the character creation is only the tip of the iceberg. It's evident in almost every facet of the game, from combat to dialogue to quest structure. This sometimes comes with a cost, but it's a cost that, so far, I've been more than willing to pay.
The opening section of the game takes place in a tumbledown castle named Fort Joy and its surrounding island. Whatever bizarre assemblage of traits you choose to play as, you're also a Sourcerer, a powerful and dangerous being who has been taken captive by an organisation known as the Magisters. Fort Joy is where all the captured Sourcerers are being held, as the Magisters attempt to "cure" them of their innate magical powers.
Your first order of business is to escape the Fort. But this in itself is a huge and multi-branching quest that involves shocking revelations, a small war and countless strange and amusing asides that range from finding out who stole the local gang boss' oranges to helping a massive ice-dragon escape from a terrible curse.
At one point, I ran into a room filled with angry guard dogs. I could have fought through the pack, or tried to talk my way out using the Pet Pal perk. But previously I'd picked up a shiny red ball and stuffed it into my inventory without thinking much about it. One squeak in front of these snarling hounds, however, and I instantly won them over.
Nothing quite sums up Original Sin 2 like a skeleton playing fetch with a bunch of guard dogs. But playing as an undead is more than just a gimmick, it has a dramatic effect on how the game plays. For starters it inverts how healing works, so poison restores you while traditional healing magic damages you, and you can also pick locks with your bony fingers.
More dramatically, however, most people in the game loathe and fear undead, so you need to keep your head and body covered when in camps and towns. Most headgear will obscure your eyeless skull well enough, but you can also acquire the ability to steal the faces off corpses and wear them as a mask (although I'm yet to try this out for myself). Playing as undead also gives you some wonderfully sly dialogue options, such as casually asking about how a potential companion feels about the "living impaired."
I'll discuss story in more detail in the final review, but so far the writing has been excellent, richly descriptive and capable of juggling serious storytelling alongside wit and whimsy, with undead dialogue options and conversations with animals being two particular highlights. Original Sin 2 is also fully-voiced, again to a high calibre. Even the narrator is fully-voiced, and fantastically so too, heightening the game's fairytale quality in a way that I didn't know it needed, but now I couldn't live without.
Combat works largely in the same way it did in Original Sin, a careful balancing act between order and chaos in which you try to inflict the maximum amount of damage as possible with a limited number of Action Points, all while hoping the resulting effects don't spiral out of control. The environment plays a key role in this, with things like fire, water poison and even blood becoming useful weapons or deadly hazards as the battle evolves.
The key difference in Original Sin 2 is in the sheer range of abilities and potential consequences resulting from any one battle, and the tactical scenarios than ensue from that. At the moment I'm particularly enjoying the power of the Rogue, who can sacrifice future AP points and her own damage resistance to enact devastating chains of backstabs, which is really useful if you want to quickly despatch one particularly powerful opponent. The tactical flexibility of the Polymorph is a good counterpart to this. The ability to sprout wings and perform a bull-like charge is handy for moving around battlefields quickly.
Whether in battle, in dialogue or just nosing around the environments, rummaging through desks for secreted loot or searching for switches to hidden rooms, I've found Original Sin 2 to be consistently engaging. It hasn't been without its frustrations however. The complex and detailed environments mean it can be quite easy to miss things, and as with the first game, Original Sin 2 has a rather lackadaisical approach to direction. Sometimes it'll provide you with a clear quest marker, other times it won't. Sometimes an NPC will direct you to the next part of the quest, other times it won't.
Still, even when I was bumbling around in some arse-end of the map trying to figure out where to go next, I'm yet to be put off wanting to play, as there's always something interesting to find, even if it's not necessarily what I'm looking for. Larian excels at making its isometric RPGs feel tactile and dynamic, and so far I've seen nothing that suggests Original Sin 2 won't be as least as good as its predecessor.