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It’s no secret that from the start, the Divinity series has had its sights set on respectfully dethroning Ultima 7. "Everything out there after Ultima 7 never did it as good as Ultima 7," Larian founder Swen Vincke once said. It's for RPGs what The Secret Of Monkey Island is to adventures, what Doom is to shooters, and what Shakespeare is to English literature, and not just because it's the last time a game was able to get away with 'thou', 'doth' and the rest of ye olde English without the world justifiably taking yonder piss with a catheter.
It hasn't been an easy road. The first Divinity game suffered from trying to do Ultima 7 without the lessons of first making Ultima 1-6. The passion was there, but the time wasn't right. Similarly, later games soon set a trend of having phenomenal ideas—psychic powers, turning into a dragon, being soul-bonded with a death knight and so on—but without the budget or RPG foundations to really make them sing.
With Divinity: Original Sin though, Larian finally pulled it off, gambling everything on a game that nearly bankrupted them. The multiplayer-first design meant that every system had to be rock-solid, Kickstarter offered both the money and the need to build a reasonable framework, and in those limits, the company's passion and talent finally found the home that it deserved. Fast-forward, and Divinity: Original Sin 2 is even better, tightening up the storytelling, greatly improving the characters and questing, and still overflowing with ideas and humour, without being quite as goofy as its predecessor, and offering a less convoluted but far stronger plot.
In short, I absolutely love Divinity: Original Sin 2. It's one of my favourite RPGs in years, and when I put that in the context of having not liked the original Divine Divinity much at all, that's only to reinforce how glad I am that Larian kept pushing forwards, kept the faith, kept evolving, and finally created a sequel that unquestionably carries the spirit of Ultima while still having its own very different, distinct soul. On any terms, it's an absolute triumph.
But speaking as an old-school RPG fan, how goes its quest to beat it? Is it finally time to stop bringing up the 90s classic in every conversation and move on?
I know it's an unfair comparison, because it’s not really Ultima 7 the Divinity series is going up against, but the legend of Ultima 7—the Platonic ideal of the open world RPG that was established back in 1992. I was thirteen when I not simply played it but got blown away by it. That huge open world. That freedom. The fact that you could bake bread and eat it. It was both a design and technical milestone in an era where 256 colours were still a novelty. The villain could talk to you. In real speech! You could blow up the world with Armageddon!
Never mind that games like Minecraft have long since surpassed its scripted, largely sign-posted crafting, or that the combat was dreadful, or that the world isn’t actually THAT big if you take a step back. No game will never supplant my love of Ultima 7 because no matter how much tech or how much brilliance you put it in it, it will never fill my soul with the magic that those chunky VGA sprites and a few speech files did back then. The same goes for many longtime RPG players, who hold Ultima 7 in high esteem - perhaps even Vincke himself. And no, you'll never experience that same feeling now, if you play Ultima 7 in a world with the likes of Planescape: Torment and Skyrim and Dragon Age. You missed it. Sorry.
At the same time, Ultima 7 doesn’t just cast a shadow. In being that illusion of a perfect RPG, even if in practice it’s far from it, it offers a great guiding light for Divinity as a whole—highlighting both how far it’s come, and where the issues still are. Again, it’s come a hell of a long way. As much as I hate to say it, Divinity: Original Sin 2… deep breath… is a better game than Ultima 7 in pretty much every way, from the depth of its world simulation to its raw mechanics and combat and character building. Certainly, as a standalone adventure.
But what more might it be? What else has Ultima 7 to teach?
Let’s start with the world. By far the worst part of both D:OS and D:OS 2’s design is that they pretend to be an open world, but they’re not. In practice, there’s a strict path that you’re meant to follow around the world. Trouble is, it’s unmarked, usually makes little logical sense, and is managed by the fact that enemies with even a slight level distance on you are notably more powerful and will typically squish you flat.
To use Reaper’s Coast as an example, you start on a main road leading north, with a town off to the west. Despite the map pushing you onwards and upwards, exploring that way only going to lead to your death. The design actually wants you to go into down and poke around there. While less problematic than some of D:OS’ pathing, this fights against both your natural inclination to explore, and often the drive of your character’s own quest at that, and the fact that the goal of the map is open in a similar way as Baldur’s Gate 2’s second chapter—to hook up with Sourcerers and learn from them, in essentially isolated modules that feel like you should have more freedom than you do.
Let’s compare to Ultima 7. One of the big lies of Ultima 7 is that it’s an open world game. This is true to a point, in that you can go almost anywhere, but in practice the intended journey around it is linear (this is why when you die, you return to the same place to be told where the people you’re chasing have gone next, to put you back on the correct course). The map itself is then typically controlled not by beef-gate monsters and impossible fights but environmental hazards like poison swamps and locations it’s pretty clear you’re not equipped for. It’s a far more naturalistic approach than just throwing in some assassins or similar to block the way, especially when the scenery itself can convey the hint that you’re getting out of your depth.
Whether Divinity wants to convey the feel of an open world or not, this is something that needs improving next game. This doesn’t mean dragging the player around by the ears or cutting out exploration, just better guidance. More clearly name checking the next camp they have to go to. Having extra NPCs and encounters point them in the right direction, and making the map progression feel like encountering natural resistance instead of punishment for not reading the map designer’s mind. The guards in Reaper’s Coast who warn you away from one of the local evil Sourcerers are a great example of D:OS2 addr—you’re welcome to ignore them and head off into a spooky part of the map anyway, but it’s on your own head.
On a similar level, and this isn’t unique to Divinity by any stretch, D:OS2 features a lot of old school moments where the designer’s intent simply isn’t clear and intuition doesn’t cut it. Many older fans chafe at modern niceties like flags on maps and being led through every step of a quest, and that’s fine. The catch is that you can’t simply remove them without having something to take their place, especially with a map and suite of skills as big as D:OS2’s. I remember not being able to find a location I ‘knew’ was on a creepy island because I was failing a stat check, despite it being on my main character’s critical path. Later, almost at the end of the game, being Mr. Clever about one puzzle solution involving a judgemental statue meant never even speaking to the character who was meant to tell me how to get past a later puzzle. Cue a vast amount of frustration and resorting to Google.
Now, Ultima 7 offered no in-game quest log at all. True. It was the era where you were expected to have a notebook on standby. However, it was good at directing players to the next location, and its puzzles and situations weren’t typically that complicated when you arrived. For all the baking bread talk and world simulation going on, dungeons tended to be about basic stuff like pressure plates and dragging things onto things versus pen-and-paper style adventure modules.
When you’ve got as many characters and subquests as a modern narrative game, a notepad doesn’t necessarily cut it. Modern narrative driven RPGs offer far more tools and possibilities than the Avatar and friends had, and that player feedback is important. It’s not a question of dumbing down, but designing so that the player can better intuit what the designer wants. After all, in real life if someone asked you to deliver a package, you could at least outright say “OK. Where to, exactly?"
Most of this is of course implementation rather than design philosophy per se, and again, D:OS2 is a massive jump over its predecessor. The same applies to the story. It’s a wonderfully simple concept where all your party members are competing to become the next Divine, against a background of wider political and metaphysical messing around. It’s a fantastic RPG story because it’s simple enough to grasp and appreciate the implications of, wide enough to allow more or less any smaller story within its confines, and feels both epic and personal. It’s not as complex as, say, Planescape Torment, but it works in a similar way.
So why does Ultima 7 still feel like it has an edge? A couple of reasons. The first is that its world of Britannia is a place that doesn’t simply have lore, but history. You’ve visited it as the same character, and adventured with the same Companions, and seen the same towns many times over. It’s like a virtual home away from home, kept interesting by the constant changes to the status quo in each game—in Ultima 7, the biggest being that you’ve been gone for 200 years and life has moved on without you. You see it as you explore, both in the stories you hear and the quests you complete, and in the incidental details as people go to work, go to bed, head to the local tavern, and otherwise show off all kinds of NPC scheduling fun that’s all the more incredible for how hard that stuff is for games even twenty-five years later.
That sense of life would of course be wonderful to see in Divinity. However, even excluding it and focusing on the sense of Home that Ultima 7 offered, it’s not hard to see how the series has squandered its potential somewhat and doesn’t have the same foundation. The big reason is that despite all the games being set in the world of Rivellon and having a few recurring characters, each game time-jumps and focuses on completely different areas each time. They’re connected by lore, yes, but that’s not the same visceral sense of returning to a beloved world that you get in long running series like, say, Tex Murphy’s Chandler Avenue and Monkey Island’s corner of the Caribbean, nor are there many familiar characters there to greet you and feel like old friends who are glad to see you back.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with this approach per se, but it does mean that the familiar tends to be mechanical, like the Pet Pal perk, or mythological like its pantheon of gods, versus recurring characters to deal with on a more human level, like Bracchus Rex, Damien and of course Lucian the Divine.
The second is that while their success has arguably been overly glorified over the years, the Ultima games from U4 onwards were overtly About Something in a way that very few RPGs manage to be. Ultima 4 of course was about becoming a hero, Ultima 5 about the misapplication of justice, Ultima 6 about racism and tolerance, Ultima 7 about corruption and the power of religion, and Ultima 8 about a hero forced into a position of doing evil for the sake of the greater good.
(We don’t talk about Ultima 9).
Specifically, Ultima 7 features persuasive moral philosophy and shows how it can be perverted to promote selfishness and obedience to a cause, the much denied but blatant fact that the villains are a pastiche of Scientology, and smaller stories involving many important themes of the time such as drugs and the growing violence of the media, as seen by the fact that your first encounter is a bloody sacrificial murder site full of assorted giblets.
This isn’t to call out Divinity: Original Sin 2 for not following the same storytelling path. Both its main story and its character based plotlines are excellent. It is however a big part of Ultima’s core design philosophy—that RPGs can be about more than gods and monsters and saving the world. Though nothing else has truly surpassed it, bits of that have wormed their way into many RPGs since, to make them more than the sum of their adventures. Planescape has ‘What can change the nature of a man?’, while Fallout followed both its catchphrase ‘War never changes’ and the unspoken ‘even as the world does’ in developing its world.
These are the touches that help a story really resonate; to sink their claws in and stick with you as meaningful long after the credits rolled. That resonance is also a big reason why other classic RPGs like Might and Magic and Gold Box games may be beloved by fans, but the likes of Ultima and Wasteland remain nothing short of legendary decades after their time.
The Divinity series isn’t quite at that level yet. But as I said at the start, that’s not intended as a criticism—talking in these terms, and about that possibility, is intended as a huge compliment. Nothing has ever gotten closer to beating Ultima 7 at its own game, and that includes its sequels. To accomplish that and still have time for ideas as great as Pet Pal, talking to ghosts, and a campaign that works just as well if you play it straight or if you team up with friends and murder everyone Diablo-style is nothing short of incredible.
The fact that there’s still inspiration to be taken from the classics is honestly exciting, especially after seeing the love and commitment in every part of the jump between D:OS and D:OS2. Maybe the next Divinity: Original Sin will finally push over the edge, or maybe the company will go in a different direction entirely—to take the vast amount learned so far and create something that’s entirely their own, as, say, Troika did with Vampire: Bloodlines, Toby Fox did with Undertale and BioWare did with, ooh, let’s say 2.9 Mass Effects.
But that’s for tomorrow. For now, let’s stick with what really matters. Whether Ultima 7 can ever officially be ‘beaten’ or not, nobody has come half as close as Divinity: Original Sin 2. It’s a great RPG on its own terms. It does the greatest RPG of all time proud. Most of all though, it should give RPG fans everywhere reason to be excited about the future of both the Divinity series, and the as-yet unknown promise of anything else Larian might have bubbling away over in its labs. Anyone else’s fingers crossed for urban fantasy?
Summer Games Done Quick isn't over yet, but there's already a Mad Max-style trail of demolished games lying in its wake. Doom? Destroyed. Half-Life 2? The bastards skipped the . Dark Souls 3? Completely humiliated. In fact, few PC games have walked away from the event with their dignity intact. Speedrunners are a savage group.
This year has had a fantastic showing of PC games—many of which have never been run at the event before. There's the return of some old classics which, while fun, we've already covered at and . But, this year, we're calling out some new contenders you should be sure to watch.
Time: 23 min 47 sec
Let's start strong with my favorite speedrun from SGDQ 2017. This is Divinity: Original Sin's first showing at the event and the results are spectacular. For one, I have to acknowledge that runners Shaddex and Drtchops manage to beat a 50-plus hour, relatively linear RPG in just over 20 minutes. That's thanks to a string of ingenious skips which largely rely on a pair of pyramids each player has in their inventory that allows them to teleport to the other instantly. At one point, Drtchops clips a pyramid through a wall and Shaddex warps to it, skipping 90 percent of the game in one fell swoop.
The best part, however, comes from the main objective of the run. See, Divinity's combat is pretty damn tough and the two under-leveled players don't stand a chance in hell against the unavoidable final bosses. So they spend almost the entire run going around the world gathering over 60 heavy barrels to put into an indestructible chest until it's so heavy that they can simply drop it on the final few bosses and kill them instantly. It's one of the funniest game exploits I've seen. If you watch one run this year, watch this one.
Time: 26 min 43 sec
Ignoring that this high-octane platformer took longer to beat than Divinity: Original Sin, this Clustertruck run has an excellent twist. If you're not familiar, Clustertruck has Twitch integration that allows viewers to alter the game by voting in the chat. Speedrunner 097Aceofspades continually has to contend with very thin trucks, trucks with lasers, or inverted mouse controls. But halfway through the run, Clustertruck's developer hacks into the game and starts screwing with him in the best possible way. It might not be anywhere near the world record, but this run is so unpredictable and fun to watch. 097Aceofspades never once loses his cool even when the entire world seems to be conspiring against him.
Time: 1 hour 43 min 05 sec
Nier's combat can be complicated for people who have use of two hands, but Halfcoordinated makes it look easy with one, pulling off some very technical skips to bypass huge sections of the game. If you haven't played Nier, you don't have to worry too much about spoilers either since every cutscene is skipped and Nier doesn't make any goddamn sense anyway. The only thing is that the whole run is set to a constant barrage of Nier puns from the commentators that range from clever to cringey. If you're a fan of dad jokes, this is your El Dorado (also Halfcoordinated's dad sends him a message via donation that's really cute).
Time: 21 min 14 sec
Nothing makes you more aware of how bad at videogames you are quite like watching two people crush Super Meat Boy in 20 minutes. This head-to-head race is a photo finish because both Fimbz and Warm_Ham are just so damn good. Despite the odd mistake, watching them tear through each level is almost dizzying. It's speedrunning in its purest sense because neither runner exploits game-breaking bugs to gain an edge. Instead they each use a series of very subtle tricks, like pausing the exact same frame that they jump to basically trigger auto-jumping and bounce through a level extremely quickly.
Time: 1 hour 03 min 49 sec
This is probably my second favorite run this year for one reason: It's nearly impossible to tell when Matchboxmat is exploiting the game. See, Mirror's Edge Catalyst boasts a big open-world to run around in but the game still pushes you along a linear path from objective to objective. In the true spirit of parkour, Matchboxmat uses many of Faith's abilities to go outside the intended path and pull off some legitimately impressive stunts without actually breaking the game. Unless you're familiar with Mirror's Edge, you might not even realize the moments when he's gone out of bounds or is doing something extra tricky because, like the best parkour, it all looks so effortless. The best speedruns are those that give you a newfound appreciation for a game, and after watching this one I felt a much deeper fondness for Catalyst.
Time: 35 min 14 sec
Similar to Mirror's Edge Catalyst, this Dishonored 2 run is all about inventive use of Emily's powers to quickly skip through entire levels. Speedrunner Bloodthunder whips through each zone so quickly you'll forget that this was supposed to be a stealth game. Because Dishonored 2 is so story-driven, there's a lot of unskippable cutscenes that need clever tricks to avoid. The most common one is finding ways to damage yourself after the cutscene begins in order to interrupt it, like when Bloodthunder tosses a bottle in the air that'll hit him in the head seconds later. Also there's an exploit called the "Jesus Jump" that let's you skip across water like a rock, so extra points for that.
Time: 44 min 19 sec
One of the best showings at Games Done Quick is always traditional platformers like Mario and Sonic. They just never get old. But this year, I was blown away by Fladervy's run of Freedom Planet. My love for this run comes down to two things. First, Freedom Planet is a wonderful homage to classic Sonic games in a way that very few imitators ever achieve, which also means that watching it as a speedrun is as thrilling as the real deal. Secondly, Fladervy is an absolute machine. Not only are the levels large and very intricate, but he navigates them at such a breakneck speed it's sometimes hard to keep up. Fortunately, the commentary from his friend fills in all the gaps and you'll quickly begin to appreciate Fladervy's skill. Like Super Meat Boy, this is a speedrun that relies heavily on dexterity and muscle memory rather than exploits.
As the year draws toward its final frosty furlong, I’m slightly surprised that one of the games I’m most looking forward to playing is also one of my favourite games from 2014. It’s Divinity: Original Sin, a game that I adored when I played it last year and that I expect to lose myself in again when the Enhanced Edition comes out next week. It’s not the only RPG that I’ll have revisited this year – both Pillars of Eternity and The Witcher 3 sucked me in at release and then lost me for a while when I realised they were going to require weeks of attention, but I used their expansions as an excuse to pick up where I’d left off. Here are five reasons to love digital expansions.
Divinity: Original Sin no colon Enhanced Edition is now out on Mac, Linux, and that newfangled SteamOS, meaning you can play it on that fancy Steam Box your mum's getting you for Christmas. I wasn't supposed to tell you that. Oops. Here, let me distract you with the news that Larian have updated the PC game so it's "in synch with the Mac & Linux version", oh and they've also "fixed a number of stability issues reported by players". That certainly sounds like a sensible thing to be doing.
I'm getting Divinity for Christmas, and I'm quite excited after hearing people banging on about it for months and months. The game made it onto our Best RPGs of All-Time list, so I'm blaming PC Gamer if I think it's rubbish.
As the dragons finally return to their nests to hibernate and the ghosts don their chains to help remind misers of the meaning of the season, we approach the end of another year. As is tradition, that is time for we at the guild-house to award both quests and questers the ceremonial Scrolls of Honour . (Chorus of affordable angels)>
Scribed upon only the finest vellum in ink taken from a particularly recalcitrant octopus from the Abyssal Depths, they are a testament to skill and imagination and occasional disappointments that mean exactly nothing whatsoever except that I have a column and so I can hand out whatever made-up crap takes my fancy. Lo! We begin!
One day I’ll write a Desert Island Discs about the games I’d keep with me until the end of days, given a choice of ten. It’ll no doubt be a Desert Island Digital Downloads given the absence of physical media in my life. I live with the ghosts of entertainment.
Rather than compiling the list of games I’d take to the Vault with me though, today I’m aiming to put together a collection, one from each genre, that I’d use to introduce those genres to a PC gaming newcomer, or a lapsed gamer. A friend inspired this particular bundle of joy, someone who grew up with an Amiga but developed other interests and hasn’t touched a game for more than a few minutes at a time, either console or PC, for over fifteen years. A recent illness has left him unable to engage in his usual outdoor hobbies and games have filled the gap.>
Every videogame has an EULA—End User License Agreement—and nobody reads them. And before you leap into the comments to expound on the unflinching attention you pay to the fine print, yes, I know that some people do give them the once-over before clicking the button that allows the action to proceed. But it's a tiny portion of the gamer population who bothers with them. I certainly don't. And because of that, I, along with just about everyone else, missed out on a little something being cooked up by Divinity: Original Sin developer Larian Studios.
Larian revealed today that it performed "a little experiment" with the Divinity: Original Sin Enhanced Edition EULA, just to see if anyone read it. "Our EULA on Steam included the following phrase: '16. Special Consideration. A special consideration in material or immaterial form may be awarded to the first 100 authorized licensees to actually read this section of the EULA and contact LARIAN STUDIOS at email@example.com. This offer can be withdrawn by LARIAN STUDIOS at any time.'," it wrote on Facebook.
"We're telling you now because the results are in and it turns out that you in fact do read these things. Our lawyer feels good about this," it continued. Unfortunately, there's no indication what the "special consideration" offered to those who were paying attention might be, or if it even exists at all: It may well be one of those amusing ideas that doesn't quite get the full follow-through it deserves.
Either way, it has since been withdrawn, and section 16 of the EULA now reads, "Miscellaneous. Nothing herein shall be deemed to supersede or derogate from LARIAN STUDIOS's remedies at law," yadda yadda booboo—the sort of mind-numbing lawyerspeak that keeps people from reading EULAs in the first place, in other words.
It's not the first time that someone has decided to have some fun with a license agreement—remember when Gamestation collected 7500 immortal souls from its customers?—but more often than not, that fine print is more likely to to bite you in the ass than to tickle your funny-bone.
We got a look at the major changes being made in Divinity: Original Sin Enhanced Edition last week by way of a handy overview video that touched on the important points. But for those of you who prefer to get down and dirty in the details, Larian Studios has now posted a far more detailed breakdown of what's been done to the game. It is "the Enhanced Changelist," as the studio described it, and it is ridiculously long.
It's so long, in fact—10,000 words, spread across nearly 1300 lines—that I'm not even thinking about including the whole thing here. Yet while it's comprehensive, it's not complete. "We don't even think this list says it all, because sometimes one little change took weeks to get just right, and other changes were deemed too small to make it to this list," the studio wrote. "We even didn't list bug fixes in here."
A lot of it is relatively minor stuff, like new animations for using a wand, but there are some significant changes, beyond what's already been revealed, as well. There's a new cut scene that plays after freeing Icara, to select one such change at random, and there are now "DIY" weapons that can be upgraded with special items that are hidden throughout the game world. A large number of changes are reserved for the new Tactician Mode, and they provide some insight into how it will make combat tougher: Enemies will be more numerous and have access to more skills and abilities, and perhaps most worrisome of all, "The drunk goblins of Luculla are not drunk." That can't be good news.
If you want to dig into the meat of the Enhanced Editon changes, you may do so at the Larian forums. Divinity: Original Sin Enhanced Edition is out today, and is free for all owners of the original.
We knew that Divinity: Original Sin – Enhanced Edition [official site] was coming today, so its arrival is no surprise. We knew what to expect too: split-screen co-op; improved graphics; more voice-over; controller support; a reworked story; revamped loot and economy systems; an overhauled skill system; and so on. I’m still impressed looking at the changelist detailing almost 1,300 changes that are now here for Larian’s fantasy RPG – and that’s excluding bug fixes and things too minor to mention.
You go on ahead and download the Enhanced Edition now – it’s a separate download, but free to all Original Sin owners – and I’ll pick over the changelog.