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Retrospective: Divine Divinity

by Michael "txa1265" J. Anderson, 2008-07-25

or ... Five Years Loving a Game With a Stupid Name.

One of the quirky 'top whatever' lists that appears every now and then is the list of worst names for video games. And somewhere on every one of those lists is Divine Divinity. Yeah, it IS pretty obvious why.

The game would also appear on another list - if some one could figure out how to name it. That list would be 'best deep role playing game that fans of classic RPG's have ignored because it features action-RPG combat and has a very difficult and long dungeon in the beginning.' So you can see I won't be getting a job naming lists anytime soon. Point is, this is a game that many RPG fans tried the demo and felt it was just yet another Diablo Clone and left it behind. Something about the old saying 'you only get one chance to make a first impression' springs to mind.

But in doing so they missed out on one of the best games in recent years, and one that recently celebrated its' fifth anniversary of release. So, as I am inclined to do lately, I cut some time into the aftermath of the busy fall release schedule to replay the game. While it is the fifth anniversary of the release of the game, I didn't make it very far in the game the first time I played: similar to so many others I fiddled around in the initial town a bit and made it into the catacombs ... and died repeatedly. I chalked it up as another lame Diablo clone, wrote off the money I spent getting it and uninstalled. But within a month some comments in a USENET forum made me go back and persevere and work through that section and emerge into the larger game. I'm so glad I did, and prevented myself from being one of the poor souls who missed out on this great game.

I say that they missed out because shortly before entering the last level of that dungeon you come upon a scene that reflects much of what will happen for the rest of the game - an existential discussion between skeletons about what is holding them together and how they can even talk without any connective tissue or lungs. Their self-realization is their demise, and then you return to the massive dungeon. Soon after this, you encounter a section that is typical of the game: scenes and dialog full of humor and pathos, coupled with a frantic and furious battle that will probably take you more than one try to survive.

There are a number of things I want to mention about this game, and I will discuss many things in detail ... but first let's take a look at the experience that has taken me 120+ hours for each of the several times I've played through completely (and many other partial plays). I won't go into elaborate detail on everything I experienced, just touch upon some of the highlights (and low-lights) along the way. Oh - one thing I just have to mention is the music. When you encounter the main menu you will hear the main theme. It is beautiful and haunting, and just the beginning of a tremendous sonic experience.

Creating a character is a fairly simple process - you select a gender and class, allocate a few skill and attribute points and off you go. Your character choices are warrior, mage or survivor, and gender choices of either male or female, with no choice of race. Your choice of base class gives you certain attribute bonuses and starting values, but doesn't restrict you in terms of skill choices or attribute selections as you advance. I will get into detail with the advancement system later on. Since the second time I played I have always used a female character for a simple reason - I absolutely love the female voice acting. The gender choices makes no difference in terms of attributes as it does in some games, so it is strictly a matter of personal choice.

Aleroth: The opening town, where you awake after watching yourself fall in battle in the opening movie. There are some cliched moments here - you have little to no memory, all of your equipment had to be left on the battlefield (well, at least the explanation for that one makes sense), and a series of things suddenly and immediately fall to you to resolve. Yet the quests start pretty small, and you get to start unraveling minor puzzles and mysteries, so any concerns are quickly forgotten. Some of the voice acting here is pretty bad, but in a way that is hilarious more than anything else and feels like part of a PnP experience than many more recent games where the acting is lifeless and poorly done. It reminds me of when I used to read books aloud to my kids: I would have a series of characters I'd use to work through the story. There are a number of things to do in town, but you are soon given a pressing quest that must take precedence - and one that forces you to explore the catacombs under the city. Many good gamers have been lost to the immensity of those dungeons. Here is a picture that shows just the first of five levels:



And honestly that doesn't even begin to explain what it feels like going through the dungeons - they are physically exhausting! You will face massive amounts of difficult enemies who are unrelenting and will need to use speed and strategy and skill to make it through. But it is worth it; when you arrive on the other side of the dungeon, with the main quest of the town solved and enough experience and skills to tackle some of the more difficult minor quests (hint: explore the cemetery), you are back on track to discover all of the greatness the game has to offer.

The plot starts to unfold when you try to leave town and on the road to your next major stop on the main storyline, but there are plenty of side-trips along the way. There is also plenty of combat, but the pace and intensity of combat outside of dungeons seldom approaches what you face in dungeons - which might also be impacted by the fact that outside you can more easily run away. Regardless, as you roam the roads shaded by green eaves you will see plenty of combat, but also find plenty of nice side-stories and quests and encounters that tell you once and for all: this is a classic RPG experience you are not soon to forget.

Ferol: This massive region will be the center of your operations for much of the game. Within this region there are farmlands, towns, inns, dungeons, Dwarven villages, major Orc encampments, cathedrals, and more. It also attaches to the Elven lands to the south and the large town of Verdistis to the north. It is hard to even get my head around all of the stuff that happens here, because there are large and small quests, major plot elements, fun little encounters, plenty of nonsense and some good fun.

The main thing that struck me in Ferol was how it juxtaposed my 'completist' ideas of finding every quest and uncovering every inch of map. You just don't know what you will find around the map. In some places there is just combat, but others have 'bread crumb trails' that lead you to uncover things, and still others that take you on small journeys off the main quest. The lesson I quickly learned was that not walking every inch of the map meant possibly missing out on some of the really cool stuff this RPG has to offer.

A major quest section in Ferol is dealing with the Orc stronghold to the southeast. What I love about those quests is that they accomplish multiple purposes: they forward the story in a logical way, they allow for some politics to leak into the quests as you deal with many characters with different agendas, and of course there is loads of combat and the opportunity to level up several times.

Each area of the game was rich with experiences similar to Ferol: loads of combat, loads of quests, massive areas one on top of the other, and a sense of wit and fun that makes it all worth doing! The Dark Forest areas seem to never end. You keep hitting unfolding regions as you go through the region - and it is easy to miss some of the fun little quests while taking it all in. The Dwarven Halls and Mines are yet another massive area that will take you hours to work through but are rewarding in many ways. The city of Verdistis is completely different. There are dungeons and sewers and plenty of combat, but it is largely a quest-filled area that will have you going to and from the other areas. This is great in a couple of ways - first it is wonderful having a city with so much going on and so many ways to role-play and find quests; but it is also nice that rather than just having a 'dungeon section' and a 'city section' that you get a nice mix of combat and questing throughout.

Some of the stats from the game are impressive - there are more than 20,000 screens, 150 interactive NPC's and 100 moster types to encounter as you play. The three characters you choose - warrior, wizard or survivor - each have their own 'Ways', which is made of four 'Paths'. Each of these have eight skills that can be taken up to five levels. Add on the final Divine 'Way' and you end up with 96 skills and 480 places to put skill points. Of course, there are also the standard character attributes such as vitality, mana, strength, agility, intelligence, and constitution to chew up the five attribute points you get per level.

Here are just a few of the cool things from throughout the game world:

  • Cowardly Knight: you will not be a very high level character when you come across this guy cowering in a barn, seemingly paranoid but looking as if he could squash you like a bug. He tasks you to search out the assassin. You manage to do so, and for me it wasn't too terrible - but it is the conversations that make an otherwise simple 'kill quest' loads of fun.
  • Two need healing: OK, this is actually in Aleroth, but it is one of those quests that makes you work for the solution and rewards you handsomely along the way! Plus you get abused by a human-hater as a bonus!
  • Shrimpo ... I just don't know what to say other than the whole story is sad yet hilarious.
  • Drizzt: I like how the reference to the famed drow elf is dropped into the game without ham-handedly putting it in your face.
  • I like how things are seldom as simple or straight-forward as they seem: you are tasked with finding a boy, which forces you to make some tough choices about what you are willing to give up to save the child. There are also some interesting mysteries that require you to search through several areas and complete sub-quests to finally solve.
  • Another thing I really liked is the reference to real-life people: how we get to listen to the poetry of Alrik Fassbauer, for example. There is a personal feeling that there were real people making this game who were involved with the RPG fan community and took some of them into their hearts and into the game.

A couple of comments regarding technical things. As I mentioned, the voice acting is 'interesting' and the music is breathtaking. I would put the overall audio as some of my favorite in any game ever. The voices remain intimate and fun and imperfect throughout and the music ... oh, how I love the music. As for the graphics ... let me put this simply - commercially a RPG game released in late 2002 featuring isometric combat was destined to be limited in many markets. I don't intend that as a criticism, simply a statement of fact. RTS games continue to sell very well, but have had to pump up the special effects to the point where a heavy rig is required to run them just in order to remain competitive. Isometric RPG's have become almost exclusively the purview of indie developers and small development houses outside of North America - and in that regard Divine Divinity is somewhat of an oddity, but not totally. The game looks good but not great, somewhere between Diablo II and Sacred in terms of quality - which makes sense since it was released between those games. But while Sacred - and most newer games - provides camera controls, Divine Divinity is more like Baldur's Gate in terms of having a fixed camera and perspective.

When I first played the game it was before I was working with GamerDad and was doing things that were called 'game comments' for what was essentially a Star Wars gaming fan site. I had done one back then for Divine Divinity and wanted to share some of my thoughts from my first playthrough:


"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."

I know I have said similar things here, but it is interesting how I threaded it into the context of my (at the time) relatively new love of and experience with RPG's.

 

"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 learnable. 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."


I really liked that weapons and armor wore out with use, and that you needed to either pay to have them repaired or take on the repair skill. It adds a nice gameplay element, similar to hunger or the need to rest; and it does it in a way that isn't annoying - unlike the PSP game ***** where your weapons would break every other battle!

"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."





I liked breaking down things into 'good, bad and braindead' in my Dungeon Lords retrospective, so I am going to continue with that here.

Good: The Music: George Lucas said that a major 'character' in Star Wars was John Williams awesome music. I would say that one of the main characters in Divine Divinity is Kirill Pokrovsky's incredible soundtrack. The music spans several genres and styles and features exotic instrumentation as well as simple chants, and is amazingly well suited to the game and action. There were several songs available to download for quite a while, and they have been on my iPod since the moment I grabbed them. Pokrovsky has since released the entire soundtrack on his web site, and I recommend downloading it and checking it out.

Good: Class system. My first time through I griped a bit about the generalist nature of things, but with each repeated playthrough I appreciate the depth more and more. You only get three starting classes - warrior, wizard and survivor - and no limits on using skills from any path, but don't be fooled into thinking it is not a deep system. Attributes are calculated based on your starting class, so for example a warrior gets more health points per constitution point that either other class. But there are no limits on the skill choices you make, so if you are playing as a warrior but take all mage skills, that is your choice. Of course, since your warrior gains magic bonuses and mana more slowly than a wizard you are limiting yourself. But the point is that you are free to build your character any way you choose.

Bad: The first big dungeon. There is little argument that this is the main reason why so many hardcore RPG fans have never played this game through or consider it a disappointment. It nearly stopped me from getting out of Aleroth on my first time through.

Good: The first big dungeon. Do you hate having to kill rats and meatbugs for hours before getting into the meat of things? Welcome to Divine Divinity, where your dreams are answered in the form of hundreds of undead creatures bent on cutting short your quest to uncover the secrets of what is happening to you and throughout Rivellon.

Bad: The very obvious split into 'end-game' mode. I really didn't mind the end game, but I have only scoured every inch of the maps once. My first time through I learned that the only thing awaiting me was monsters to kill, so I wander around enough to grab some goodies and experience and close out the few quests available and then move along to the next area. It is still enjoyable enough to keep you going, but with the bar set so high in the rest of the game it is a disappointment.

Bad: Get off the screen already! Whenever I play, occasionally during cutscenes you are stuck waiting for characters to move off screen so you can regain control of the game. This is because rather than jerking you out of the game, the scenes are handled in-game and whatever NPC's are around end up stuck with you are the scene unfolds. This time throuhg I was in a conversation in Verditis and after it concluded, the person was supposed to head off-screen and I would get control back. But someone was blocking their way, so even after an hour or so of leaving the game running unattended I never got control and just had to quit and reload from the last save. Times like that make you appreciate obsessive saving habits.

Ugly: "I'm not exactly sure what that just did". By the 300th time your character flips a switch and says that you are ready to scream "I dunno - maybe it unlocked a door like every other time?" This isn't like having your character exclaim "how wonderful!" or "that was nice!" when you spend skill points, as that is much less frequent - and really is wonderful in terms of working through the game. This is an event that is already commonplace before you leave Aleroth, and is just the familiar 'find the switch to open the door' mechanic that gamers have been doing forever. So why make it such a big deal?


Good: Skill options allow for tremendous replayability ... let me speak some more on that ...

In my original 'Game Comment' I also talked about replayability. I said "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." At the time I took a bit of flak from some who saw things differently. When I played again a second and third time a couple of years later I took issue with my own analysis, saying "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.".


My issue with replayability the first time came down to really needing a core set of skills regardless of my base class, but that really ended up just being nitpicking. Certainly you need some melee skills regardless of what character type you play, but as a mage I tended to heavily use spells along with melee; as a warrior I just hit things really hard and they died; and as a survivor I was quick and nimble with sneak attacks and Assassin's Kisses. I always tend to take some level of Charm so I could augment weapons, and consider that as a necessity. I also generally take some levels in Repair, because I hate having to deal with lugging broken items around to get repaired at a shop, especially given the weight limit for characters. But those concerns belie the depth of the skill system and the way that base class shapes your character as you advance.

 

You are given a rather stingy amount of skill points compared to the potential 480 skill levels - this means making judicious choices. Those choices fundamentally limit your choices - you cannot become a master hacker / swordsman / fireballer who can heal and repair everything and everyone. Just won't happen. For example - I have never been much into playing as a summoner, so I leave that entire Path untouched. Imagine that. I like playing the walking artillary barrage (i.e. offensive spells), so I bulk up on elemental magic skills as well as some of the core skills I mentioned. And I know that I will always play it pretty much the same whenever I'm a mage - just as my warriors will always carry big swords, not bows or axes. That isn't a limitation of the game - it is my personal choice. And as I replayed I have witnessed how different the game can play - I have played Aleroth probably a dozen times now, each time with a different character focus, pushing myself to play an Archer, a Summoner, and so on. And given the amount of combat, the difference in how the game plays can be tremendous. So I think you get my point - this game offers plenty of replayability and variety of character development.

It is interesting to me that there weren't too many items that cried out for 'good, bad & ugly' analysis as there were for Dungeon Lords. I guess that really reflects that there is so much good stuff throughout that I highlighted in the text that I didn't need to call out patricular items. And there isn't that much in the way of glaring flaws - just the few I mentioned.


Some final thoughts: this retrospective has taken a while to write for several reasons. First I had to manage my way through the fall release schedule, which was excruciating this past year. Then I needed to deal with the fact that I had been laid off, was working a short-term contract engineering job, and was looking for a job all over the country. Of course the fact that the game takes me over 100 hours to play factors in there somewhere, as does the actual moving and starting a new job and settling into a new house. But the thing that strikes me is that Divine Divinity has been a constant companion for me - I played much of it in the hotel I stayed at while my family was still in Massachusetts; the soundtrack has been in constant play on my old iPod, my PDA MP3 collection, and my new iPod. This is a game that started out as something I bought based on some comments in a USENET forum, nearly tossed away as a Diablo clone based on the first dungeon, yet has become part of the fabric of my gaming experience through the years. I started playing the game when I had been a hardcore PC gamer for nearly 25 years, yet it was one of the first five RPG's I bought. That relative inexperience led me to form opinions of games in the 2002 - 2003 timeframe that have radically changed over the years, some for the better and others for the worse. But my admiration and appreciation for Divine Divinity has only grown. It is definitely in my 'Top 5 RPG's' list, and my 'Top 10 Games' list, and the soundtrack was recently on the top of my Favorite Game Soundtracks list.


Have you played Divine Divinity? Did you finish, or did you get stuck after that first dungeon? If you don't own it, grab it for cheap while you can and give it a shot. If you can manage the real-time combat, I promise you are in for a RPG experience that ranks right up there with the 'big names' in RPG history ... even if the name is bad enough to have earned it the #21 spot on GameRevolution's 50 Worst Video Game Names of All Time.

Box Art

Information about

Divine Divinity

Developer: Larian Studios

SP/MP: Single-player
Setting: Fantasy
Genre: Action-RPG
Combat: Real-time
Play-time: 40-60 hours
Voice-acting: Partially voiced

Regions & platforms
World
· Homepage
· Platform: PC
· Released at 2002-08-03
· Publisher: Unknown

More information