Even after playing the Early Access version of Divinity: Original Sin 2 for nearly 20 hours I didn't understand why I would want my party members to work against each other. It's one of the big ideas in the sequel, one of the big ways the story will improve on Divinity: Original Sin 1's - this idea that people in your party are in competition with one another. In multiplayer you're even actively encouraged to stitch your friends up, which is something we've written about before. But in single-player, where you control the party members, why would you do it?
Turns out I didn't quite understand - both about competing party members and about other things that either aren't working properly yet, or aren't implemented, in the Divinity: Original Sin 2 Early Access build. I find that out when I speak with the founder and creative director of Larian Studios, Swen Vincke, after my Early Access playthrough. He puts me straight in the hope I can put you straight, too.
"There is something that is missing in Early Access and that is why you're confused," he tells me. "It's party relations and it's scripting for the companions. Currently what you're doing is you're controlling your party members as if you were to control them all in multiplayer - and that will not be the case when you're playing single-player."
Instead, he says, think of them as companions in Dragon Age: Origins or Baldur's Gate; companions with minds of their own.
"Your companions will have their opinions and you will have to influence them," he says. "You will still be able to walk around in the world as [the character] Red Prince if you, for instance, started as Sebille; what you will not be able to do is affect Red Prince's origin's quest. You will also not be able to affect his relationships."
It's an important clarification because it means you won't give the order for conflict in your party, which was the bit I was struggling to understand. The conflict will happen around you in characters with motivations of their own, and it will be up to you to try and manage them. They are designed to clash, and if you handle them badly they may leave and even attack you. But without the party dialogues at the moment, or a relationship gauge affected by it, it's only really half there.
The characters and their origin stories are very important to the bigger picture. They are the characters you'll choose from to play as and who you'll surround yourself with, and their origin stories should completely change your experience of the game. There's the corpse-eating elf Sebille, who's on a Kill Bill-style quest for vengeance against people who wronged her when she was a slave. She tattoos the names of her targets on her body, so has names to cross off. There's the Red Prince, exiled royalty who wants to restore his kingdom. There's Ifan, a murderous gang member who finds out he's not as alone in the world as he thought he was. And there's Lohse, a lady whose mind hosts demons. They all have things to do, and further down the line Vincke says there will be cutscenes at the start of the game explaining each of them.
Four of the planned six origin characters are in the game now. Those remaining are the undead origin character and the dwarf, says Vincke. In addition there will be default racial origin stories for people who make their own character from scratch, so however you play you'll have an origin story to pursue - as of course will the people playing with you in multiplayer, or the AI companions playing with you in single-player. And these are stories that weave far into the game.
The game's overarching story starts well enough, although Act One, which is what's in the Early Access build, mostly concerns itself with setting things up. There's a prison break that's entertaining for the amount of ways you can achieve it (and because sticking it to The Man and breaking free is always fun), then there are introductions to the vying factions in the world and the baddies, plus a personal revelation to spur you on. According to Vincke it's at the end of Act One, which isn't in the game currently, that things really kick off.
"You're playing Act One but you're not seeing the full end of Act One," he says, "so the full end of Act One is quite spectacular and that's not in there. And it ends there, where you fully comprehend what your central concept is going to be and what you need to go do through Act Two."
And Act Two, he says, "is vastly bigger".
"If you want to quantify it: Act One is going to be 20 to 25 per cent; Act Two is going to be 50 per cent most likely; and Act Three is going to be the last 25 per cent. Three acts," he says, "but that doesn't mean three maps."
But the game's real imagination, for me, shines through in the incidental stories and characters. This is a game where you can talk to animals, where even the fabled RPG rat speaks, and where dogs have crossbows on their backs. It's cheeky, it's quirky and it's all the better for it.
One memorable moment is an encounter with a witch, a sultry witch who uses her wicked temptress ways to seduce me and soon we're kissing. Only, well, I've never been kissed by someone who spews insects down my throat before, or been stung from the inside come to think of it. It's for a collection of moments like this, for giving a recently bereaved bear cub some life advice, that the writing of Divinity: Original Sin 2 leaves its mark on me.
But while the story and characters have clearly greatly improved from Divinity: Original Sin 1, the star in the sequel remains that irresistible core of turn-based combat, where floors erupt in sweeping fire, or ice, or poison, or the sky rains blood, and both sides unleash an arsenal of abilities trying to capitalise on it. Added into the mix this time are powerful Source skills, which don't feature too highly in Early Access; height bonuses, and with them multi-levelled battlefields (which apparently come into play very strongly later in the game); and physical and magical armour. The latter has a noticeable effect even in the Early Access build, and means that as your characters accrue physical and magical armour they can withstand some of the elemental chaos that was once so deadly.
What's so moreish about combat is that almost every encounter, on the higher Classic difficulty, feels beyond me when the fight begins. When the top of your screen fills with the turn-order of the people involved in the battle, it's overwhelming. How on earth am I going to survive this? But with careful manoeuvring and a generous dollop of luck it is possible to win - and it's so satisfying when you do. Even the final battle in the Early Access build, which spikes in difficulty significantly, is just about doable, although not head-on - you'll have to be cleverer than that.
Feeling clever is how Divinity: Original Sin 2 makes you feel over and over again. It's as though you're outfoxing the game. And it extends beyond combat out into the world, too. Problems aren't explained but laid before you, and you must figure them out. A maze took me the best part of an hour to get through, and I'd almost given up on another puzzle until I accidentally walked into the answer.
It's not how I'm used to playing role-playing games. I'm used to so much more being pointed out, and being guided to it, but that doesn't happen here - and it takes some getting used to. There are also a few bugs and issues with the journal not keeping track quite as well as it perhaps could, which can cause frustration from having to traipse around. But Larian is aware of it.
"The journal could be a little bit clearer, that's for sure. We see that," says Vincke (who adds the camera angle will also be zoomed out a bit). "But then again, it's hard because Original Sin is a different kind of experience in that you get so much freedom that we don't have a concept of quests, and this is something that people aren't used to because they've been so indoctrinated that there's a quest, and there's a quest reward, and that's what you get.
"We give you little stories that you encounter through your journey as you follow up on your overarching goal. At the start of the story this is getting off of the island, and as you get off of the island you understand there is something more special about you - and that becomes very clear when you get to the complete end of the Act and have to deal with it. How you get there," he says, "we don't care."
There's still a significant amount of content to come to the game for release. Major things missing from the Early Access build are the undead race; the fun-sounding polymorph and summoning skill lines; skill crafting and item enhancement; Spirit Vision to talk to ghosts (well, it's in there but not used); voice acting - "we're in talks right now to see if we can voice record the entire thing, but that's not a guarantee yet that we can do it"; the Game Master mode, the Editor, and a fix for rangers, "the most boring class right now".
But already Divinity: Original Sin 2 offers a fine, 15-hour-or-more campaign, either alone or with friends. And if you want more then there's the Arena player-versus-player mode where you can test higher-level skills, Source powers and the new Curse/Bless abilities that temporarily alter the properties of surfaces. You can only pick from pre-made characters there at the moment. Vincke says they're working on letting you customise your own.
Divinity: Original Sin 2 is a beautifully made, beard-stroker of a game that's so pleasant and rewarding to play. It has some rough edges but is unputdownable once you settle in and the game hits its stride. Indeed my biggest disappointment is that I can't play it all now. Everything that Divinity: Original Sin 1 did so well, the sequel revels in, and if the double-punch of story and conflict between origin characters does what it ought to, this could be special indeed.
The question now is when we can play the rest of it.
"Only god knows, man!" Vincke laughs, joking. "No, it's next year for sure. Preferably earlier next year than later next year but we're going to take time to do it correct."
Can't come soon enough.