After years of half-formed plans and vague resolutions, I finally built myself a PC sufficient to fulfill my gaming desires. For years and years, I was scared of building. I’m neither an electrician nor an electrical engineer, and I would not describe myself as particularly handy. Sarah and I make a pretty effective Ikea furniture assembly team, but that’s the full extent of my comfort with putting things together. Computer components are both fragile and expensive; I am a ham-handed klutz. That seemed like a pretty terrible combination.
But, after five and a half hours, moderate levels of frustration, and one partially unsuccessful boot (the motherboard fired up just fine, but I neglected to properly complete the GPU installation), I had a computer that totally works! It felt good and feels good, even though my cable threading is a goddamn mess. Special thanks to Sarah, for finding both the microscopic text on the motherboard that told me where to attach the smallest, peskiest case cables, and also for finding the teeny-tiny standoff that I dropped on the rug, where it was immediately camouflaged.
Anyway, the point is I have a computer capable of running games more taxing than certain late 90’s RPG remasters, which shall remain nameless. Therefore, a brave new world of modern gaming is open to me. I can play all of the modern RPGs and Tactical RPGs and other RPGs that I can squeeze onto my fancy new machine.
Divinity: Original Sin II has lived rent-free at the very tippy-top of my list of Games I Would Very Much Like To Play, Please And Thank You for over a year and a half. It is a Western-style, party-based RPG with turn-based, strategically deep combat, a full suite of character and party member customization options, a neat enough story, and dialogue options for days. That’s a pretty fitting description of my ideal video game, and to top it all off, it was made by Larian Studios, who are also making Baldur’s Gate III, a game whose release I am anticipating with insane fervor.
(Yes, I am fully aware that Baldur’s Gate III has received an Early Access release already, but while I’m beyond excited for the game, I’m not so excited that I’m willing to shell out 60 of my wife’s hard-earned American dollars for the privilege of playing what is essentially an open-beta demo. The game isn’t done, therefore, I don’t consider it released. Really, Larian should be paying the players to do this dirty work, if you ask me, although I suppose I must acknowledge no one did. They can call me when the game is actually done, is my point.)
I’ve wanted to play DOS2 so much for so long that, last summer, I bought it on Steam sale despite not having a machine capable of running it well. I did take it for a spin on the old laptop, which Sarah bought in…I wanna say 2015?, on the cheap, and for the express purpose of working from home at her old job. To say that it is not optimized for modern gaming performance would be an understatement. It can, in fact, run DOS2, but extremely slowly, and on the lowest possible graphics settings. It was only playable on the ol’ lappy in the broadest sense of the term, so after poking around with it for a few hours I decided to hold off on going further until I had a computer capable of doing the game justice.
Once I finished my build and got Windows up and running, downloading and playing DOS2 was my first priority. After another five and half hours or so of sitting around waiting for the download to finish (I mean, yes, I suppose I could have fucked off entirely to do other things, but I was nervous about the computer falling all the way asleep and thus interrupting the download), it was time to get back to it, and that’s exactly what I did.
I’m here to report that Divinity: Original Sin II is a well-made game. To answer my own question, and in defiance of standard procedures regarding titling blog posts in the form of a question, as established under the 2013 Scottsdale Convention Regarding Clickbait Blog Titles, no, DOS2 is not bullshit. But I’m also here to report that Divinity: Original Sin II is hard as a motherfucker, so much so that I’m not sure I’ll be able to get anywhere in the game, let alone get through it.
In contrast to many other genres of video game, where difficulty gradually increases (or is meant to, at any rate), it’s quite common for RPGs to start out at or close to their hardest. This makes sense, once you think about it; your characters are low-level and low on pretty much every other resource, too. They don’t have particularly nice weapons, armor, or magic, nor do they have the money to afford immediate upgrades. They don’t have much in the way of health, and in some cases are only capable of taking one or two hits before expiring. Characters typically have few special abilities to start out, if any, and the ones they do have are often extremely limited.
Put all of this together, and it’s easy to see how it can be tough to get a foothold in many RPGs. In many ways, I do feel this is part of the fun; this is the time to learn how the game wants you to play. When you have minimal resources at your disposal, combat is reduced to its bare essence, giving you the opportunity to experiment and figure out which strategies and abilities work well, and which ones are less effective than you would have guessed.
Once you get through a few battles, you start to get a feel for good strategy, and once that happens, everything gets easier. Seemingly impossible battles become tough but doable before becoming not so bad at all before becoming routine, the sort of thing you could do in your sleep. By this time, you’ve also gained some levels, found some money, and picked up some nice equipment. Few things are more rewarding and cathartic than coming across an enemy (or set of enemies) that used to give you fits and then annihilating them without a second thought. The difficulty may ramp back up later, but the most frustrating parts of the game are behind you.
DOS2 works in that very same way, except that every aspect of early game struggle is taken to its furthest extreme. After the introductory chapter, you are left to wander around the starting area with horrendous equipment; your armor may as well not exist, your weapons are halfway broken, and you can only afford a single healing potion by selling off most, if not all, of your other stuff. It is imperative that you find potential party members and recruit them as soon as possible, lest you be utterly annihilated by anything other than the very least ambitious encounter groups. Once your party is assembled, it’s time to wander the starting area, desperate to find something, anything you can do without getting your ass handed to you.
Of course, the reason the lack of equipment and abilities are such a problem in the first place is because of the way combat is structured. Everybody reading this has played Mass Effect 2 at some point, yes? Whaddya mean, no? Very well, I guess I’ll just have to explain it; it’s my just desserts for assuming everyone shares the same life experiences. So in Mass Effect 2, enemies have health, but they also have defenses (such as armor or shields), and you cannot do any damage to their health until you’ve completely taken down their defense(s). More importantly, your many and various crowd control abilities only work on enemies that are down to just their health; they are almost always completely useless against any enemies with any defenses remaining, whatsoever. Therefore, your first goal in every battle is to remove your enemies’ defenses as quickly as possible.
Combat in DOS2 works on a very similar set of principles. Enemies can (and usually do) have either Physical Armor, Magical Armor, or both, on top of their health. Your attacks and abilities target either Physical Armor or Magical Armor, and will not do any damage to enemy health unless the relevant armor type is depleted. And, of course, your many and various crowd control abilities have an associated armor type, and only work if said armor type is depleted. For example, fighter-y types have access to a variety of abilities that knock enemies prone, but those only work on enemies without Physical Armor. Your mage might be able to stun enemies for a turn or two, but only if those enemies lack Magical Armor. Therefore, your first goal in every battle is to remove your enemies’ armor as quickly as possible. Doing this efficiently requires diagnosing what enemies have what types of armor, and in the case of enemies with both types, this also entails determining which armor type has a lower value, and will therefore be quickest and easiest to remove.
That doesn’t sound so bad, does it? Identify your enemies’ defenses, deplete them as soon as possible, then commence with the murder; what else is there to get? If only it were so simple. Remember, combat in DOS2 is turn-based. Action economy (that is, how many things you and your party members are able to do in a round of combat, compared to how many things your enemies can do in a round of combat) is an extremely salient concern. Combat is tough enough when you are in equal number to your enemies, or even at a numbers advantage; when the enemy is in greater numbers, you are in very, very deep shit, by default.
On top of that, almost all of your abilities have recharge times greater than one turn, and in most cases, recharge times are in the 3 turns or more range. Looking to use your fighter’s knockdown ability on that pesky mage who doesn’t have any Physical Armor? Go right ahead, just be sure that you’re not gonna need it again for the next 3 turns. Does the cleric need to patch somebody up? Well you better use Restoration on them immediately, but understand it’s going to be 4 turns until you’ll be able to punch in another one, and that you are doing so at the opportunity cost of hurting enemies who probably already have you on the ropes, given that you’re already taking time out of your short and precious turn to heal up.
Allow me to return to Mass Effect 2 as a point of comparison. Yes, most of your powers that are not meant for crowd control are meant to break enemy defenses, and yes, all of your powers have recharge times, but combat in Mass Effect 2 happens in real time, and firing your weapons doesn’t have anything to do with your characters’ stats. You know what’s also a really good way to lower defenses and control the crowd in ME2? Shooting enemies in the face! You can always shoot enemies in the face. You don’t even have to wait until your next turn to shoot an enemy in the face, because there’s no such thing as turns. The only limits on your action economy are your aim, your reaction times and, to a certain, lesser extent, your power recharge times. (I guess ammo scarcity is potential problem too, but in my experience it’s rarely an actual problem, even on Insanity.)
The turn-based nature of combat in DOS2, however, imposes a massive set of constraints, one that has a ripple effect on every aspect of strategy. It creates a particularly huge problem for build options, both at the individual character and party levels. See, what I have yet to really mention is that characters in DOS2 are ludicrously, stupefyingly customizable. Not only can you make your main character into whatever you want, you can choose a class for each party member when you recruit them. I’d never seen this before, and find it both actually pretty neat and also baffling in equal measure. Being a person who is prone to crippling decision paralysis, this is tough for me to manage, and it would be a bit of a bear even if this were the sort of game where every build is potentially viable.
This is absolutely not that sort of game! It is frighteningly, terrifyingly easy to end with a main character build and/or party composition that is incoherent and excels at nothing, and will therefore be totally ineffective in combat. Again, your goal in combat is to remove armor quickly and efficiently. A good build, therefore, is one that facilitates efficient armor depletion while also including a robust suite of crowd control options, and is rounded out with other abilities that work well in concert with the rest of the build. Understanding the force of the problem is pretty simple, but due to the staggering amount of build options at your disposal, cracking that problem is not.
Being the kind of person who isn’t above checking out a strategy guide or two, I took to the internet to try and figure out what I was doing wrong after hitting a massive wall in the early game.. I have found the Divinity: Original Sin II Wiki to be an indispensable treasure trove of strategic advice, one that shows just how much care and consideration needs to go into selecting build options and creating a viable party.
The central thesis of the strategy wiki seems to be that it is best to maximize the damage a character does to a specific armor type, and therefore, when building a character it is best choose abilities that effects just one armor type. Unless you decide to split which types of armor you’re affecting, which you can totally do provided you keep a bunch of other considerations in mind. There are rules for good builds, but in away, there sort of aren’t; as it turns out, many (if not most) of these seemingly infinite build options are viable, but only if you get them right. It gets very complicated, very quickly, and while the wiki’s embedded video guides are extremely helpful, it can be hard to keep their counsel straight simply because the game has so much going on, strategically.
Anyway, after browsing the wiki and doing my level best to absorb its wisdom, I concluded that part of the reason I had hit a wall was that while my main character’s build was sound enough, my existing party construction was an absolute mess, and that my best option was to back up as far as I could stomach and rebuild my supporting cast from scratch. Sometimes you have to back up in RPGs, but, upon realizing that I would need to completely restart the first chapter after the intro, I realized that was a bigger slice of humble pie than I could stomach, and deleted all of my save files in a fit of despair and annoyance, deciding it would be better to start over entirely.
That was a week ago now, and I have yet to summon the fortitude necessary to dive back in, knowing that even getting back through the few quests I did manage to complete will take some doing. DOS2 rewards extremely methodical, deliberate play. There’s nothing wrong with this at all; in fact, it’s one of the things I admire most about it, but it does mean that you can play for a hours at a stretch without feeling like you’re making that much progress even when things are going well, to say nothing of the near-glacial pace of the game when you’re stuck. It makes the thought of starting over from scratch all the more emotionally taxing.
While I think I’m maybe starting to understand how the game wants me to play, I can hardly say I’ve grasped the basics, or even come close to doing so. I fully intend to come back to DOS2, but it may be a bit. I got a few other games I’m checking out at the moment; my video game backlog is the most clogged it’s ever been in my entire adult life, and it looks to remain so for a long time, since most of the other games on my list are pretty involved, themselves.
Given my struggles with this game, I’m also starting to wonder/worry whether or not I’ll actually like Baldur’s Gate III as much as I want to, once it arrives. It’s obviously done in a very similar style to DOS2, which is good and well made but also supremely tough to get into. I remain optimistic; after all, it’s based on Fifth Edition D&D rules, which I’ll already know pretty well going in. Even so, BG3 will certainly interpret those in a specific way, one that may itself prove tricky to comprehend, and which may reward different strategic conclusions than my own. We’ll see; my understanding is the completed game won’t be out until late this year at the earliest, so this is a problem for another day.
In the meantime, I have Divinity: Original Sin II to struggle through. One last thing to note is that the game does feature a Story Mode, which is intended to be easier. I could play on Story Mode, I suppose, but my will and spirit are not broken enough for me to so, at least not yet. I can totally do this. I think. Wish me luck.
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