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Divinity II - The Dragon Knight Saga Review

Posted on December 17, 2010

Earlier this decade, 'open RPGs' were by-and-large the biggest fad in gaming: The Elder Scrolls series bathed in its originality across platforms, bringing the true feel of role-play to life. With the  latter part of the decade winding down, we've seen fewer and fewer titles of the genre, and - disappointingly so - more shoot 'em up, multiplayer titles. Yes, Call of Duty, we mean you. The ebb and flow of FPS games managed to wash up a pearl of open RPGs, though: Divinity II - The Dragon Knight Saga. My initial skepticism toward the game was locked into gear with the artistic style of the box art (that had looked very JRPG-esque), but the game itself is far more impressive - and, for the most part, well-written.

Divinity II came out earlier this year / late last year (depending on location), but its newest expansion pack has been released in a complete bundle of the series for a very generous $40. This review will focus on the game as a whole, but for future reference, the expansion pack has been dubbed Flames of Vengeance, while the bundle itself - and the name by which we will refer to it - is named The Dragon Knight Saga. The themes of Divinity II - DKS are founded in a dark fantasy setting, not dissimilar from the Neverwinter Nights series, and puts the spotlight on the death spiral that a seemingly-slumbering overlord has spun the world into. As far as we're concerned as players, there are three major factions in the game vying for publicity, survival, and dominance (respectively): the Dragon Slayers, the actual Dragons and Dragon Knights (who have the ability to take dragon form or human form), and Damian, the leader of an evil presence in the world. The dragon slayers have slain all but one dragon knight, and in their savage attempt to rid the world of dragons, have turned a blind eye to a dark nemesis named Damian (why are they always D-names?). In short, here's the story so far - we'll call it the TL;DR version: You become the last dragon knight, everybody hates you, you're alone in the world (aside from your tower, more on that in a moment), Damian has some perverse fantasy that longs to see you survive - despite numerous positions for coup de grace, and it's your job to unite everyone and win. Original, right?

Actually, the game does a fantastic job on portraying classic fantasy elements with a true-to-books feel. The green goblins we're all used to are brooding, one-eyed black goblins with fiery lungs in this game; the trolls send thunder through the landscape with each step; bandits are seething villains, and pull no stops to see your demise, even if you are a special dragon knight. The storyline is riddled with undertones matching those of Dark Age poetry: your existence alone brings a war to bear between the dark forces and the citizens of Rivellon (the world). I spent a solid dozen hours in the first 'real' zone before venturing elsewhere, finishing all the quests (yeah, I'm the completist type), slaying all the monsters, spelunking in all the caves - honestly, I could have played the entire game that way. However, the inevitable advancement of the storyline took the reigns and spun me deep into the foreboding story of DKS. Ninety-some hours later, and I've completed both the original game and its expansion. There are plot twists every step of the way; in fact, plot twists are so common that it is pertinent to say non-twists are more surprising. I had the wool pulled over my eyes enough time to develop a blind-sense: the execution of a dark fantasy setting has never been presented in such a fantastic manner, save for Baldur's Gate, but that's hardly fair.

Sadly, the fun stops when you start flying. The game goes from being a well-executed, albeit overdone foot-based-fantasy, to a clunky and intrusive game of point-a-to-b. If I wanted to go to that valley as a dragon, I had to disable these three levers as a human. Every. Single. Time. The entire game builds up to the point of your becoming a dragon knight, but goes to great extent to ensure you cannot thoroughly enjoy said dragon-ness. Instead of effortlessly incinerating every enemy on the face of the planet in dragon form, it turns out that the typical ground-based enemies disappear, making way for innumerable battle towers and drakes. I destroyed hundreds of towers by the end of my conquest through DKS - ballistae towers, lightning towers, and generally anything you could find in a classic tower defense game. Not even the world's most eccentric evil-doer - nay, not even Sauron and his subsequent eye - could acquire the materials required to construct so many hundreds of towers just to stop a single dragon. It's unrealistic, and frankly, decimates any chance of immersion. In fact, the towers are, from a player's point of view (as opposed to the dragon's POV), simply attempting to stop the player from breaking the game, nothing more. If I'm a dragon, I want to eat, burn, and drop dragon-sized pellets down upon every enemy in my path, not strafe left-to-right and breathe fireballs at stone structures (which, apparently, is not so effective against dragon's fire).

Gameplay in and of itself is fairly well thought-out, but I can't emphasize enough the utter removal of role-play during the wing-flapping stages of the game. In fact, the glitchiest part of DKS was when I transitioned from dragon form to human form (or vice versa); more times than I can count, I had to return to my human self to hide in a corner and take a breather from the towers. However, each time I did this, my attack indicator would lock-on to invisible enemies (and they weren't supposed to be invisible). They didn't fight back, either. I could poke them with my weakest attack over the course of several minutes, or simply launch a face-melting fireball in their direction, and regardless of how long I took to kill them, a sword was never lifted in opposition. Had I been in human form the entire time, the enemies would have spawned appropriately and given me a challenge - but since I had transformed to-and-from dragon form, they were undeniably broken and unfightable. Taking a break from the dragon's glitches for a moment, the actual balance of abilities, spells, and attacks within Divinity II: DKS stands no chance against veteran RPG-ers. I didn't even have to min-max to figure out that the most powerful combination in the game was a mix of a boost to magical damage, a potion of intelligence, and a single fireball to slay everyone in my path. Was it viciously entertaining? Hell yes. But in boss fights, I expect to be near death every time I finish a fight, not merely let out my held breath and brush off my armor. Ignore the balance and glitches altogether, and you are left with an immensely enjoyable gaming experience, especially when taking into account the player's stronghold (a battle tower), staffed with workshops and alchemists alike. You can equip and dispatch 'runners' from your tower on quests to scavenge for enchantments and other exotic items, making for a fun surprise on every return to your dragon-y abode. We regrettably cannot ignore the glitches and balance, though, and are left with a tainted experience that falls just short of the finish line, reaching a fetid hand out for help in attaining that final goal.

Divinity II - The Dragon Knight Saga has created a framework that other story writers should follow: my highest commendation goes to the creative team of Divinity II, for successfully bringing my favorite dark fantasy books to life. I honestly think Divinity II is worth a purchase at a lower price point, probably $30, because the environs are so beautifully etched into the world of Rivellon. Character development and the artistic direction are paramount in DKS, the first thirty-some hours of the game, before I discovered the glitches, had to be the most immersion I've felt in years. The bestiary and story structure are vivid and enthralling, providing an initially believable world - but they give way under the strains of dozens of needle-sized bugs, as well as the bigger ones already discussed.

For a game that has been allegedly 'remastered' for a new release, I am stricken with horror to imagine how many bugs must have been in the initial launch - considering what's left, that is. The ominous level design of DKS' open world is remarkable, emitting a point of brilliance from the shadows of this dark fantasy RPG. Plot development and implementation leaves a definitive mark on this reviewer, forever classifying me within the 'wanting more' spectrum of RP gamers. The ill-fated world of Rivellon is tarnished only by laughable balance and glitches, and severely damages not only replayability, but playability as a whole.