Divine Divinity was released in September of 2002. We tried to pick up a review copy of the game at the time, but due to a lack of copies, the publisher couldn't send us one. I was the person slated to review the game, and so I was disappointed at the turn of events because, grossly underpaid as I am, the likelihood of me playing a game goes way, way down if somebody doesn’t give me a free copy of it. But, lo and behold, I finally saw Divine Divinity advertised for under $15, and so I broke down and bought it (yes, the sacrifices I make for my profession). And that’s why, in case you were curious, I’m going to review a game that came out over ten months ago.
Divine Divinity, developed by Belgium-based Larian Studios, is a role-playing game that attempts to be a hybrid between Diablo and Baldur’s Gate. Surprisingly, many more games have gone this hybrid route rather than challenge either of the two classics directly. Just off the top of my head I can think of a few, like Prince of Qin, Harbinger, and Siege of Avalon, that fit the bill. And, like those games, the combination in Divine Divinity is the same: take the addictiveness and action elements of Diablo and stir them up with the depth of storyline and quest system from Baldur’s Gate. However, unlike those other games, Larian Studios was able to mix the hybrid elements together to form a satisfying whole, while still creating a game with a great deal of polish. (Harbinger and Siege of Avalon failed in the former; Prince of Qin failed in the latter.)
Of course, Divine Divinity isn’t perfect. It has two severe problems, one of which you encounter right away: the character system. At first glance, Divine Divinity’s character system looks like it was lifted directly from Diablo (and, hey, maybe it was). You control a single character in the game, and that character can be a warrior, wizard, or survivor (thief). Furthermore, your character has four attributes -- strength, agility, intelligence and constitution -- and every time you gain a level you can distribute five points to the attributes, plus spend a point to improve a skill. That sounds fine, except that all three classes can wear any equipment and learn any skill (except for one unique skill for each class), and so there’s little difference between the classes. Worse, what small differences there are favor the warrior, and so even if you want to cast spells you’re probably better off picking the warrior class.
But once you get inside the game things start looking up. You discover that you’re a “Marked One” and that somehow you need to stop all the turmoil that has been spreading across the land. Orcs have been fighting humans, dwarves have been squabbling with elves, plagues have been sprouting up, undead have been rising, and more. There are even rumors the Lord of Chaos himself, long banished to the depths of hell, has started up his mischief again. Of course, solving these problems turns out to involve killing lots of stuff, but that’s okay. Killing stuff is fun.
Killing stuff is also pretty easy. Again, Divine Divinity borrowed heavily from Diablo, and so attacking is as simple as left-clicking on an enemy. Once you do left-click, your character will fight the enemy until it is dead, and then you’ll have to left-click on another enemy to continue fighting, or perhaps right-click to use a spell or skill, all the while making sure your health (red), mana (blue) and stamina (yellow) don’t drop too low. Of course, if their values do get low, solving the problem is as simple as pressing the appropriate (configurable) hotkey. All that should sound familiar, but one nice thing Larian Studios added to the combat system involves the control key. If you press the control key then the game automatically targets the enemy closest to your mouse pointer, and so you don’t have to worry about clicking on a moving target, or moving when you mean to attack.
Another nice part of Divine Divinity is its world. The world isn’t made up of disjoint areas (or, worse, levels) that you explore. Instead it’s made up of a huge, almost continuous block of land that encompasses towns, castles, and dungeons. The continuity is nice just because it makes the game feel more realistic, but it also has the side benefit of removing almost all the loading times most games impose on you when you want to move around. Plus, the world is laid out well so there is always something interesting nearby, and there is even a friendly portal system in place so you never have to do a lot of boring walking. Really, the only potential downside to Divine Divinity’s world is that sometimes it is too big. For example, the town where you start out has (of course) a catacomb system under it, but the caves and tunnels go down five levels, and at the end I discovered I’d killed over 400 skeletons (the game keeps track of kills for you). That’s just too many of the same enemy, and there are a couple other places with the same problem.
Actually, the skeletons illustrate another point, that Divine Divinity doesn’t work well purely as an action game. It simply doesn’t have the variety of a Diablo or a Dungeon Siege, either in the creatures you kill or the environments in which you kill them, and so killing some things (like those 400 skeletons) can get boring. Luckily, Divine Divinity doesn’t try to be purely an action game (well, most of the time). It includes a nice set of required and optional quests (somewhere around 75 in total, although it’s difficult to count since many quests have multiple parts); you’re free to move around where you want, when you want, and you can even avoid the main plotline for the majority of the game; and the text is surprisingly humorous and well written, not to mention well acted. (At one point you get to listen to a couple skeletons discuss how they can talk at all, since they don’t have vocal cords or anything. Later, there are a few funny conversations as characters try to say the magic word “xxbzptrl.”)
Beyond the game mechanics, the graphics are nice enough and the sound is excellent (Divine Divinity has one of the best soundtracks I’ve heard in while), and, taken as a whole, Divine Divinity would be a great game except for one other problem. You might remember a few paragraphs ago when I mentioned there were two severe problems, one of which was the character system. Well, the character system flaw only really affects role-playing and re-playability, two things that some people might not even care about. But this other problem is a killer. Basically, the game balance stinks. There are just too many ways to make the game too easy in the end. You can pick out all the best skills and spells and learn them. You can find a frost-enchanted weapon, which always freezes your opponent, no matter how powerful the opponent is, and make all one-on-one battles (including those against major bosses) trivial. You can add charms to equipment, but the charms are so powerful, and you can add so many, that you can make yourself immune to all elemental damage, not to mention add hundreds of points to your health and mana. By the time I finished the game nothing could touch me and the final boss was a joke.
And that’s too bad because the battles at the start of the game are challenging. If Larian Studios could have maintained that difficulty throughout the entire game, then Divine Divinity really could have been something, and perhaps reviewers like me wouldn’t call games “hybrids of Diablo and Baldur’s Gate,” but instead call them “games like Divine Divinity.” But the lack of balance turned me off, especially considering there have been a couple patches now, and so apparently the balance is how the developers want it. Still, I enjoyed enough of the game, and there’s enough potential here, that I’m looking forward to Larian Studios’ next game, Riftrunner, which is scheduled to come out this winter.