In September of 2002, Larian Studios released the role-playing game Divine Divinity. It had several balance issues making it pretty easy to play (not necessarily a bad thing), but otherwise it was good quirky fun. Now Larian is back with Beyond Divinity. Despite its name and despite what you might expect, Beyond Divinity isn’t the sequel to Divine Divinity. It’s more of a bridge between that first game and the planned sequel.
At the end of Divine Divinity, your character arrived just a little too late to prevent the Lord of Chaos from being summoned into the body of a baby. In the background story to Beyond Divinity, you learn that your character did not kill the baby at the end of the game (the ending cinematic sequence was vague on the point) but instead tried to raise it. With no surprise, the baby, named Damian, grew up to become evil and now commands the demons on the planet Nemesis.
Your character in Beyond Divinity is completely unrelated to anything that happened before. You play a paladin who was captured by demons. As a form of torture, you are soulbound to a deathknight. That means wherever you go, the deathknight has to follow, and whatever you think, the deathknight knows about it. So your goal in the game is not only to escape from the binding, but also to escape from the world of Nemesis to return to your homeland. Along the way you’ll learn something of Damian and the demons he commands, but what Damian has planned for the world and whether he’ll be defeated or turned to the Light are things left for Divine Divinity 2.
The problem with the story in Beyond Divinity -- advertised as “deep and detailed” on the game’s web site -- is that there isn’t really one. It’s not like you start out soulbound to the deathknight and from there find yourself in the middle of more ominous dealings. The entire campaign is about escaping from the soulbinding, and so while the game has four acts, there could just as easily be two or 20 instead. It’s just a matter of how many hoops you have to jump through to finish the game. If you like character depth or great story arcs, then Beyond Divinity isn’t the game for you.
Of course, since Beyond Divinity is basically an action role-playing game, you might not expect much from the story department, and only hope that it has strong character development and fun gameplay. Oddly, these are areas where it seemed like Beyond Divinity was going to excel, except it didn’t. Consider character development. Beyond Divinity allows you to “construct” skills and spells. So if you want to make an elemental area damage spell, for instance, you can specify the amount and type of damage, plus things like the radius of effect. Adding more power to the spell just means spending more skill points on it, which you receive every time you level. That sounds good, but I found that most spells cost way too much mana for the amount of damage they do, and some spells I created didn’t seem to do any damage at all, which was frustrating. And with skills, only a few are overly useful. The repair skill, for example, isn’t needed because equipment is so durable, and because it’s so easy to teleport to shopkeepers who can repair equipment for you. Then there’s the lock picking skill, which might be useful except it doesn’t work. And so I pretty much just improved how well my characters used their melee weapons, and left it at that. Not very exciting.
But how about gameplay? Can the action elements and quests make up for everything else? The answer here is “sometimes,” as in sometimes I enjoyed the game a lot, and other times I hated it with a passion. The problem here, as elsewhere, is a certain amount of unevenness and sloppiness. Some parts of the game are so easy as to be boring; others are so difficult that if you couldn’t pause and instantly gain health through potions, you’d have no chance whatsoever to survive. Some quests are entertaining; others are obscure and frustrating; still others don’t even work, or just seem like they don’t work because they were coded badly (if you pick up an object “too early” sometimes you have to drop it and pick it up again to get the quest to work). Sometimes the quest log gives useful information; other times it doesn’t; still other times it doesn’t realize you’ve accepted a quest at all. And on and on.
As an example, consider the battlefields. These should have been the highlight of Beyond Divinity. For each of the game’s four acts, there is a random “battlefield” (essentially just a new area) where the lay of the land is random and the quests are random. That sounds good, and it should have provided replayability for the game, but the implementation is horrific. For one thing, the creatures are almost all so much lower than your level that you either get no experience or little experience for killing them. And the quests are all but identical. There are dungeons in the battlefield, and all that changes for each quest is what you’ll find at the bottom of them. If you need to kill a creature, you’ll find one room with the creature in it. If you need to find an object, you’ll find one room with the object. And if you need to -- oh, right, killing and fetching are the only two types of quests available. Boring quests combined with boring enemies makes a boring area to explore, and I pretty much gave up on the battlefields after the second act. Fortunately, the battlefields are optional.
Beyond Divinity could have been fun. I liked the quirky humor of Divine Divinity, but something went wrong here. The humor is off (like when a guy claims what he vomits looks tastier than what a cook creates), lots of things in the game are broken or just don’t work as they should (despite a couple patches already), and Larian just tried to cram in too many complicated quests for the game to be breezily fun like the original (why have just a dungeon level when you can make the player pass two or ten tests as well?). So I’d recommend you be wary of buying the game, and hope for better things when Larian releases Divine Divinity 2.