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The first time I died, it was because I didn't think crocodiles could fly. In Divinity: Original Sin 2, that's a big mistake. Any enemy you underestimate is probably going to be the next enemy to kill you, or sap your magic armor, brainwash you, and make you watch helplessly as your character drinks the potions you've been hoarding and uses your best scrolls. An early fight with teleporting crocodiles drove home that I should be prepared for the unexpected, and that I'd need a stockpile of resurrection scrolls to bring party members back from the dead.
Almost four months later, with nearly 100 hours of game time behind me, my co-op buddies and I had nearly finished this insanely long, ambitious RPG. We each controlled a character, selected from Original Sin 2's presets. There was Fane, the undead wizard and thief. He got us in a lot of fights by pickpocketing people who didn't like getting their shit stolen. There was Beast, the dwarven pirate who maxed out persuasion to sweet talk our party through sticky situations. And I was Lohse, the traveling minstrel who just happened to be possessed by an incredibly powerful demon. At this point, it was pretty rare for me to die in battle. I'd been stacking constitution until I was built like a brick wall, and could crit for almost 3,000 damage with a two-handed hammer. I had a pretty badass cape. But I wasn't ready for what would happen when we finally faced down my demon.
Spoiler warning: Full-on spoilers from this point forward. If you haven't finished Divinity: Original Sin 2 and intend to, you've been warned!
He'd been toying with me over that 100 hours. Where my friends saw their races' gods in the Hall of Echoes, I saw my demon, who wanted to take over my body and use my power as a Godwoken for his own means. At the end of the game, nearly all our other questlines wrapped up, we faced down Adramahlikh, who would've been tough if he were just more powerful than any other enemy we'd faced, with something in the range of 20,000 armor and magic armor and nearly that much health. But he didn't play by the rules. Four turns into our fight, he broke the mind of the character I'd been playing for four months and irreversibly brainwashed her. She was dead for good.
Or would've been, if Divinity: Original Sin 2 wasn't a game built for save scumming. It's a ludicrously open-ended RPG, letting you play—and screw up—in so many different ways. We saved and reloaded often, to sneak our way past an obstacle we blundered into, to deal with bugs that got us stuck in annoying situations, to undo turning a crank that says "doomsday device" to avoid murdering an entire city (smooth one, Steven). But one constant for the entire 100 hours, one circumstance we never save scummed to avoid, was dealing with the deaths of our own characters. They're revivable, so we'd live with the consequences, buying or stealing enough resurrection scrolls to bring the fallen back after a tough fight.
Suddenly, here was a stunning twist. Lohse was permanently possessed. I had no control over her as she started using her polymorph abilities on my friends, chugging strength potions to deal more damage. So we did the only sensible thing: killed her, thinking a good old resurrection scroll would set everything right. But her ghostly, revivable spirit didn't appear. She was no longer mine to control.
I hadn't just failed the unique character quest I'd been pursuing for the entire game. I failed it in a way that held Adramahlikh up as a genuinely imposing villain. He broke the rules of the game as I understood them. The closer we got to facing him, the more we were told don't fuck with this guy. He's too powerful. But it'd been too long since we'd had a real challenge, and we thought we could handle anything he threw at us. And maybe we could have, but taking Lohse away after just a few turns proved he was ruthless beyond any other enemy in the game.
We reloaded the save, of course, but that didn't lessen the impression that moment left on me—the power of an RPG teaching you the rules of its world, only to upend them at the 100 hour mark. You could argue the moment would've had a heavier emotional impact if we were playing on Honor difficulty, which is harder and only gives you a single save, autosaves after death, and erases itself if your whole party dies. I would've been devastated. But to me, the beauty of Divinity is in how it lets you manipulate its systems to achieve a new outcome. Naturally, we got revenge.
The key to saving Lohse from Adramahlikh's possession was to make sure she was dead already. He couldn't target her if she wasn't in battle. But it was a tough fight, so we wanted Lohse's damage output for the first couple turns. Instead of killing her, we did the next best thing: we beat her up, then buffed the shit out of her.
Lohse entered the battle with about 20 percent HP, hopped up on a strength potion, hasted and clear-minded, spells that gave her more action points and yet more strength. Living on the Edge ensured her health couldn't drop below 1 HP for two turns, and we comboed that with Death Wish, which gives a damage buff for every percent of HP missing. I changed Lohse's armor to make her more vulnerable but bump her crit chance up to more than 50 percent, for good measure.
The first time, Adramahlikh murdered Lohse and we'd barely touched him five turns into the fight. The second time, she wailed on him with her hammer like King Kong swinging a redwood, crushing all of his armor in a few hits. That opened him up to Lohse's incredibly powerful polymorph skill Forced Exchange, which swaps HP values with an enemy. Suddenly, Lohse had 17,000 HP and he was sitting at a measly 3,000. I considered it a poetic way to beat an enemy who'd been possessing my body for his own use. The whole fight took three turns.
That's the essence of Divinity: Original Sin 2. First it surprises you, and probably kicks your ass. The second time you break it wide open, and damn does it ever feel good.
What an absolutely mad idea Larian had. Of all the solitary, longform, completely-not-appropriate-for-couchplay gaming experiences I can think of, old school isometric RPGs sit teetering at the top of Mount Impractical. And yet somehow—somehow—I played through two Divinity: Original Sin games, start to finish, with the same friend sitting next to me.
And we’ll always treasure those 100-odd hours, too. It’s just that we choose never to speak about it. Or make eye contact.
Our first mistake was to both choose archer builds at the beginning of Original Sin. Honestly, we didn’t realise quite how challenging the combat was going to be, and how important a well-balanced party is when you’re beset by sentient gargoyles and poisonous gases. It’s rarely just a group of angry chaps in Divinity, is it? Anyway, it was all fun and games as we shot through the first game’s opening like the Legolas Twins, easily downing level 1 Cursed Lieutenants on the beaches outside Cyseal and congratulating each other for well-timed and well-judged attacks. What fun.
We quickly found opportunities for get-rich-quick schemes, too. He’d keep the denizens of Cyseal talking while I’d go inside their house and steal all their paintings, then sell those paintings on to a merchant before the owner finished chatting. We’d halve the gold, you understand. Yes, in those early hours ours was a harmonious partnership, just two Source Hunters blissfully exploring a sun-drenched fantasy land with our followers, Jahan and Bairdotr, in tow.
Eight hours later, we hated each other. Not a straightforward superhero-and-nemesis kind of deal, but the silent, seething hatred of married couples cresting the hill of middle age in four-bed detached homes in the suburbs. You don’t think about how the tiny, unspoken etiquettes of a turn-based RPG can get to a pair of competitive friends, but they do.
For example, how long is it polite to leave a co-op buddy KO’d in a fight before using a precious resurrection scroll on him? What about that co-op buddy’s companion? How precisely do you divvy up gold and equipment? And does it really matter who gets the last hit, and who simply whittled down the health bar to tee it up? Given enough time, the answer to all those questions is simply fuck this other person.
We long ago discovered that Divinity: Original Sin doesn’t spawn twice the bows or arrows if you play as two archers, and entered a kind of passive-aggressive standoff every time a new one appeared in a chest. "No, you have it, I’ll make do with this one I’ve had since the start of the game, mate." Or "Ooh—that bow looks nice that you’ve just picked up, Phil. Having that one, are you?"
I’d also discovered fairly early on that I could annoy Tom tremendously by running in a circle around and around him whenever he was locked into conversation with an NPC. There he’d be, finding out some vital information about the cult of the Immaculates holed up in the Luculla Forest, and in the periphery behind his text window, there I’d be running my tiny laps. Jahan followed diligently behind, never daring to question the wisdom of his master’s orders.
It wasn’t all that funny the first time. By the end of Act One, he was quite justified in speaking to me only in single-word responses and weary sighs.
Jahan and Bairdotr had themselves become a source of tension, too. Inexplicably in retrospect, we used Bairdotr as a third archer to complement our already unwise emphasis on ranged combat. Jahan, meanwhile, was all powerful spells and staff attacks, often getting the ‘hero’ turns and mopping up enemies while the three of us held back, firing harmless arrows at varying distances between our own feet and the enemy. For Tom, who’d already had to endure eight hours of me running little circles and nicking the good bows, the chasm in aptitude between his companion and mine was a new low. Bairdotr got the hand-me-down equipment with two previous owners, while Jahan took his pick of the staffs and warrior armor.
These might seem like small grievances over the course of a normal play session. But when you know you’re going to be stuck with your decisions, your character build, and your companions for what might be another full week of playtime, they weigh heavy.
Perhaps that’s the best explanation I can offer as to why I murdered everyone in Cyseal.
By the time of the massacre, we were no longer playing a co-op adventure, but a perpetual one-upmanship sim, sprinting to every loot drop and guzzling the goodies, the pretense of splitting everything down the middle having long since departed. And I could feel that his character was just starting to edge mine for ability. He’d made some smart upgrades and used his elemental bows wisely, while I’d grown fat and complacent on the early advantage my character had. Something had to be done.
Something incredibly childish and petty, I mean. The idea had been forming for a while, and it began with that godawful cacophony in the market. You know what I mean. "Oh nooooo, traveler, your chakras are all out of alignment!" honks the spell seller. "Let’s see, halibut, tomatoes, sheep’s cheese…" says a passing woman for the 90th time, just before that bloody, bloody cheese seller pipes up with his "The man with the most friends is the man with many cheeses" spiel.
What if I just killed them all, I thought one day. That’d shut them up.
Then I thought: hang on. What if I actually, properly, did? That spell seller alone has every gold piece Tom and I have ever spent in this game, not to mention all the high-level kit and valuable trinkets. I’d be rich beyond my wildest dreams! Powerful as a God-king! And before I’d considered whether it would be much more difficult to complete the game if everyone in town was dead (it was) I had already begun my attack.
Tom, meanwhile, was miles away in the Luculla Forest and only got wind of my assault when he happened to cast an eye over my screen and saw large-scale combat. It says a lot about the spirit of our playthrough that when he saw what I was doing, he didn’t stop to ask me why. He didn’t head over to join in the fight, or share the plunder. He went straight to the western beaches and found Charla the undead merchant, whose trinkets and weapons were always incredible, prohibitively expensive, and upgradeable. And he killed her.
That’s what playing an RPG in local co-op does. It turns men into monsters, and reduces entire world maps into glorified loot chests. By the time we were done with Divinity: Original Sin, neither of us could feel particularly proud of ourselves.
But when Divinity: Original Sin 2 released, our memories of that bickersome campaign had softened at the edges and become something to reminisce about with wry smiles on our faces. So we did it all over again.
This time we made no mistakes about party composition. Tom plumped for a cleric build, while I went for a druid summoner. Sound logic. But again, we underestimated what the game would turn us into. I found myself getting irrationally and probably visibly annoyed when Tom gradually took his character away from the original healer remit and instead invested in several powerful magical attacks. This isn’t what you’re supposed to be doing, I screamed to myself in silence every time he landed a ranged staff attack.
For his part, I could tell that Tom really didn’t like my Incarnate. I pooled points so aggressively into my summonable chum that he quickly became the Cristiano Ronaldo of our party. What’s more, he gave me twice the turns every fight. The relationship soured before we even escaped Fort Joy.
Playing through one epic RPG in co-op is a unique experience. Playing through two of them is sadism. And Larian had obviously listened to its community’s tales of co-op betrayals and skulduggery in the first game, because in Original Sin 2 it’s sort of the whole point. Not only are there opportunities to undermine your partner in small ways at every juncture—I went ahead and won the gladiatorial combat challenge in the outskirts of Fort Joy to release my Source Collar before anyone else, so they were stuck with theirs—but also huge, looming shades of betrayal and tested allegiances in the main plot arc that the game loves to pick at. As Beast and Sebille were pitted against each other by their respective gods in the second act, Tom and I raised a smile in recognition at how we too had been pitted against each other this whole time.
Because Divinity isn’t a co-op game—not really. Playing as a duo is somewhere between a trolling mode and outright competitive play, because the game does absolutely nothing to relieve the obvious tensions that gold distribution might cause, while also actively encouraging disagreements in conversations. And the real kicker is: I think that’s why we kept playing.
If you feel sure you’ll always be on an even keel with your co-op partner, where’s your motivation? You’re probably paying next to no attention to the story because the chances of someone skipping every line of dialogue go up 100% in co-op. So you make your own story: a tale of betrayal and distrust told over 100 hours, in completely bespoke fashion. It’s such a carefully doled out bit of design on Larian’s part that it can easily be overlooked, or even erroneously totted up as a failing, but the uniquely combative nature of co-op in Divinity is the best thing about it.
Videogame research firm Superdata recently released its 2017 Year in Review report, which among other things breaks down how much money we spend on our games, and which ones we most like to throw it at. The big winner among premium PC games last year was, unsurprisingly, Playerunknown's Battlegrounds, which pulled in an estimated $714 million.
That amount nearly doubles the revenues earned by the second-place finisher, Blizzard's mega-hit hero shooter Overwatch, which pulled in an estimated $382 million in 2017. Counter-Strike: Global Offensive came in third with $341 million, followed by Destiny 2 at $218 million, and Grand Theft Auto 5 at $118 million.
Those numbers are nothing to sneeze at, but they still fall well short of the real heavyweights in the free-to-play division, which accounted for 69 percent of the $33 billion PC gaming market. League of Legends led that pack with estimated $2.1 billion in revenue in 2017, followed by Dungeon Fighter Online, which pulled in $1.6 billion, and CrossFire, which managed $1.4 billion. World of Tanks and Dota 2 are more down-to-Earth, relatively speaking, but still outclass all premium games but PUBG at $471 million and $406 million respectively.
"While MOBAs bookend the top-five free-to-play rankings, most of the revenue generated came from RPGs (34 percent) and shooters (22 percent)," the Superdata report says. "This trend is mirrored in the annual growth of the genres: RPGs and shooters grew by nine percent and 13 percent respectively compared to a stagnant increase of three percent for the MOBA genre."
The report also contains what appears to be a good-news story of particular interest to indie gaming fans: Larian's Divinity: Original Sin 2 made it into Superdata's top-ten premium games list, with $85 million in revenues, dropping it between Guild Wars 2 ($87 million) and Rainbow Six Siege ($67 million). That's a remarkable accomplishment for a studio that famously "murdered" a project so it could keep the lights on and finish one it really believed in.
There's just one problem with that story: Larian boss Swen Vincke says it's not so. Divinity: Original Sin 2 is a hit, yes, but not nearly to that degree.
"If only that were true," he said. "I don’t know where they got that data but we’re currently at 1.3M units, so even if you disregard VAT, the cut Steam and GOG take, and the price differences per country (i.e. you assume we sell the game at $45 everywhere), you still don’t get to $85 million. My faith in Superdata numbers received a big blow today. But that doesn’t take away that we’re still super happy about so many people picking up D:OS 2."
Superdata explained the discrepancy in a follow-up statement saying that its estimates are "based on partnerships with publishers, developers and payment providers," which enable the creation of "bottom-up algorithms for individual games based on the point of sale tracking data of over 160 million paying customers."
"Occasionally we see differences in definitions and recognition for revenue—for example, when people are reporting gross vs net revenue (SuperData is always gross), deferred revenue, non-GAAP accounting practices, and other allocations which may show different figures depending on the source. For compliance reasons, we also don't typically comment on feedback from private companies—who may be motivated by investor concerns—outside of a formal data relationship," a rep said. "However, Divinity: Original Sin 2 was a breakout success in 2017—commercially and critically—and we congratulate Larian."
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