Unsolicited Advice – Divinity: Original Sin II

When I last wrote about Divinity: Original Sin II (and yes, I know that was the only time I wrote about the game previously, but rhetorical devices are hard to come up with so stop hassling me), I was, shall we say, struggling to grasp the game and thus, I was struggling to enjoy it. It’s one thing for a game to be hard, and quite another for a game to feel impenetrable, as though there’s some way the development team intended for it to be played that you’re just not picking up on. I was fully feeling that frustration and isolation at that time; I just wanted the game to want me to love it, or something like that.

However, I am pleased to report that, a couple of days or so after wailing these lamentations, I started over, got my character builds in order, and have started tearing through it. It’s fun! I know I’m not the only person to have picked up the game and immediately felt lost as to what to do, so I’m taking this opportunity to share what I’ve learned about the game and how it works, that you may in turn figure out a way through DOS:2 that works for you.

That said, I’m not positive I would have ever figured out how to get my build off the ground without outside assistance. Once again, I would like to send a special shout out to FextraLife and their DOS:2 Wiki for pointing me in the direction of a party build I could understand well enough to execute. Much of the advice I have to give is clarifying, expanding on, and/or re-synthesizing the advice I found there, and I encourage everyone starting out in the game to check out their guides for more specific info on what a good character build and party look like.

Note that discussions and advice on specific builds are largely outside the scope of this column; again, I encourage you to do your build shopping on FextraLife, starting with their guide to party composition. My task here is more about helping you understand how the game works a little bit better, because with a scant few exceptions, the game speaks in riddles. You won’t know you’re doing anything wrong until you start dying constantly, and these defeats won’t necessarily elucidate anything.

What’s more is that while the influence of games I’m much more familiar with (especially old BioWare games from that studio’s long-gone heyday) is keenly felt in the presentation, character interactions, and story structure of DOS:2, the gameplay and strategy are often quite different. I have found that, in order to get anywhere in DOS:2, I had to rethink or entirely discard many of my previously held assumptions about how I thought the game should work, based on my experiences with similar games in the past. This was the biggest mental barrier to understanding the game I encountered, by far. My hope is that the advice that follows will help you step outside your own prior experiences with RPGs, so you that you, too can see the actual shape of success in DOS:2.

First and foremost, it is vital that you understand that there is no such thing as character class in DOS:2. There are only build options. This is the most important thing to know going into the game, and in many ways, it’s also the hardest to grasp. True, there is a loading screen advice blurb that hints at how malleable characters are, but the game doesn’t provide any specific examples of how to apply this advice. Beyond that vague, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it musing, the game seems to teach the opposite.

The character creation process starts out by presenting the player with a choice of ‘class’, even though these ‘classes’ are merely bundles of pre-selected attribute and ability point assignments, and three pre-selected skills and talents to go with them. However, you can make wholesale changes to these selections freely, and in some cases it is wise to do so. The same is largely true of party recruitment. When you pick up a new party member, they will ask you what class you want them to be, and based on your answer, their stats will be rounded out with pre-selected attribute and ability point assignments, and pre-selected skills and talents to go with them. The only difference is that you will not be able to change these selections (at least, not immediately; hold this thought).

It is wrong to think of these as discrete classes, however. There is no essential quality to any of these suites of options. They do not provide access to any abilities or skill sets that other ‘classes’ cannot access, and they do not determine anything about how you assign attribute and ability points down the line. They are only a set of decisions made for you in advance, all of which can be undone in time (or potentially right away, but again, I’m getting to re-specs later so bear with me).

The most important corollary to this is that you don’t need to build a ‘balanced’ party in the traditional sense; you only need a party that can deal damage effectively. When I got stuck in the game a few weeks ago, I was rolling with a party consisting of, in essence, a fighter, a cleric, a thief, and a wizard, because I figured that’s probably what I was supposed to be doing, based on my experiences with other RPGs. Not only was this a mistake, it was a mistake that doomed this playthrough to failure. Since there aren’t actually classes, as such, building a party is not about making sure key roles are covered. It’s about giving your main character and party members a set of skills that work together to make your enemies dead, and does so quickly and efficiently.

For example, in my doomed playthrough, I figured I needed to have a rogue of some kind, for picking locks and disarming traps and all that. What I came to understand later is that while there are some traps and some doors and chests in the first portion of the game, almost none of them are required. My rogue came with a pre-packaged set of skills that were only moderately useful in a fight, at best, and certainly didn’t work well with the rest of the party’s capabilities. I thought I was filling a necessary role for any RPG party, but as it turned out, I was only adding dead weight.

Don’t get too stuck on the build of your player avatar. By all means, select a build for your avatar that you think you’ll have fun with, but know that the amount of fun you’ll have is less dependent on your avatar’s build than you’d think. Combat is turn-based, so you’ll be fully responsible for everyone else’s actions in combat, too. On top of that, every build involves some degree of sophistication. Your tanks will have crowd control skills that work at range, and sometimes your spellslingers will have little to on their turn but knock out a couple of mundane attacks. In either case, you will have to put real strategic thought into each party member’s actions on their turn. No build is a one-dimensional bore.

Eventually, you’ll have access to the Magic Mirror, which lets you re-spec your avatar and all your party members at no cost. You’ll be able to reassign attribute points, ability points, and talents, but not skills. Therefore, the best use of the Magic Mirror is to take points out of abilities and attributes characters aren’t using, and reassign them in places they’ll be more useful. Your recruited party members, in particular, probably came with points assigned to abilities that aren’t useful for the build you have in mind for them. This is a great opportunity to reassign points into secondary and tertiary abilities, so each character can get access to utility skills that their build can actually benefit from.

Note that if you’re playing the Definitive Edition (which I am, so uh…full disclosure, I guess? Too late, you say? Ok, fine), or have purchased the relevant Gift Bag DLC, there’s a Gift Bag option which lets you place a Magic Mirror in the Fort Joy Arena. You’ll have to select this option as soon as possible, but if you do you’ll be able to re-spec much earlier in the game than you would otherwise. I did not use this option, nor did I need it. As long as you understand which attributes, abilities, skills, and talents are most important for your build, sub-ideal point assignments are unlikely to have catastrophic consequences. You should be able to tough it out until you get to the first regular Magic Mirror. That said, if you’re not using this Gift Bag, create a manual save file (as opposed to a quick save, which will be automatically overwritten eventually) before you do your level ups, in case you do make a decision you come to regret.

Lack of offensive firepower is the number one cause of doomed playthroughs in DOS:2. Again, this isn’t the sort of lesson the game teaches you in a tutorial. It teaches you this lesson when you inevitably stumble across a fight you cannot win (at least, not without great difficulty and a little luck) in the early stages. One of the specific problems I was having was that, when I was getting whaled on in difficult battles, I turned my attention towards healing the party members whenever they were getting into trouble.

This was a huge mistake! While it’s perfectly acceptable to spend time healing now and again (especially in certain, harder early-game battles, where no one in the party has good Physical or Magic Armour), spending too much time healing is a great way to get killed, slowly and painfully. Not only does using healing skills cost valuable AP that you could be using for offense, the cooldown times of healing skills are limiting. If you think your party member is in trouble now, imagine how they’ll look after 3-4 more rounds of this!

To the extent that you do focus on defense, focus on replenishing Armour. Armour protects against not only direct damage, but also against crowd control abilities and status effects. Again, this is not to say you should never be healing, ever, but if you find yourself needing to heal withing the first few rounds of a given battle, it’s time to try something different. First, try a different strategy. Positioning is key in DOS:2. Charging straight into battle is often a mistake, as it will often leave your entire party vulnerable to area of effect attacks.This is especially true in the early game, when you have little Armour and are thus more susceptible to crowd control-based attacks. Instead of diving head first into battle, try splitting party members up so that they can take high ground or other tactically advantageous positions. If that’s not working, consider finding something else to do, and come back to that fight when you have better gear and more skills.

If you’re executing your chosen builds correctly (or at least, mostly correctly), combat strategies for your builds will start to make sense sooner rather than later, so I’m not going to spend too much more time on tactics. What I will say, however, is that you should use your crowd control skills as soon and as often as you possibly can, without worrying about cooldown times. Crowd control skills are skills with effects that restrict your enemies’ options on their turns; several of them force them to lose their turns entirely. Examples of crowd control effects include Oil, Chilled, Shocked, Frozen, Atrophy, and Knocked Down. If the skill’s relevant Armour type (as specified in the skill’s description) is depleted, the crowd control effect will kick in. Note that if this skill also does damage, it will damage the relevant Armour type. If this damage will completely deplete the relevant Armour type, the crowd control effect will still trigger, with any additional damage applied to Vitality.

Yes, all crowd control skills have cooldown times, but don’t think of this is as a reason to not use them. Crowd control wins fights, and when you use a crowd control skill effectively, you’ll probably win the fight before the cooldown time is up, anyway. Even in harder fights that will take more turns, don’t let cooldown times stop you. Limiting or eliminating enemy turns is a fantastic idea, and you should do so whenever you can.

The only caveat is that, when choosing between one crowd control skill or another, don’t use a skill that can effect multiple enemies if only one enemy will be effected by the crowd control. For example, say you have a character who has both Battle Stomp (which can set multiple enemies to Knocked Down status) and Tentacle Lash (which can set one and only one enemy to Atrophy status). There are two enemies nearby. In this case, it is wisest to use Battle Stomp if and only if both enemies will be Knocked Down. If only one would be Knocked Down by using Battle Stomp, it’s better to use Tentacle Lash, thus saving Battle Stomp for a time when it can effect multiple enemies. If Tentacle Lash is on cooldown, but only one enemy would be Knocked Down with Battle Stomp, use Battle Stomp anyway. Some crowd control is always better than none, even if you have to be inefficient to get it.

Does that make sense? Yes? No? Maybe? Too bad, I’m moving on!

Be sure to grab at least one bedroll on the ship during the Intro chapter. Your bedroll is your best friend.Using a bedroll is only possible out of combat, but it will instantly heal your entirely party in full and give everyone the Rested condition (although it only lasts for three turns, meaning it will probably wear off before your next fight). Having a bedroll will greatly decrease your dependence on healing items and skills, and with it, the temptation to spend your hard-earned gold on healing potions. This will also enable you to sell off a lot of the food you can pick up. A single food or drink item isn’t worth much on its own, but they add up when sold together. You only need one bedroll for your entire party, but there’s more than one on the ship. Grab as many as you can find and sell the extras.

It’s also crucial that you understand the role of money, and its relationship to gear. Money is primarily for purchasing skillbooks; purchasing gear and consumable items is a luxury. This is one of the aspects of the game I found most counter-intuitive. After all, your starting gear is just about completely useless, and will need to be upgraded post-haste; even marginal upgrades in gear can provide a huge boost to your party’s efficacy. Since every early battle is potentially quite difficult, it may also be tempting to use whatever money you can scrounge up on a healing potion or two, even if you thought to grab a bedroll.

However, spending money on upgrades and items is not the solution. As is the case in most RPGs, the best gear in DOS:2 is found, not bought. You can get better gear and enough healing items simply by exploring, and by completing the few quests and battles that are manageable when you’re getting started. In particular, try and kill the crocodiles as soon as possible. Yes, they have lots of HP and hit like trucks, but they also have no Magic Armour whatsoever, making crowd control easy as pie. Your reward will be the Gloves of Teleportation, which will enable you to access areas of Reaper’s Eye and Fort Joy that you couldn’t get to previously, many of which contain significant gear upgrades.

Obtaining skillbooks is just as high a priority as upgrading your gear, quite possibly more so. Every character, including your player avatar, starts out with three skills. For most builds, this is exactly one skill fewer than you need to get your build all the way off the ground. Unlike gear upgrades, it’s rare to find a skillbook just lying around, and it’s rarer still to find a skillbook that is directly useful for your builds. If you’re in need of a specific skillbook, buying it is going to be your best bet. Early game skillbooks are about 300 gold each. This is a steep price indeed, but if you’re smart with money and aren’t afraid to sell items you don’t need, you’ll be able to purchase that fourth skill for each party member before you know it. Note that even though just one of each skillbook is visible in each vendor’s inventory at a time, any purchased skillbooks will automatically restock after a while. If you want to buy a skillbook for two party members, you don’t have to worry about buying it for one at the expense of the other.

Once you get a bit further in the game, you’ll have a great deal more walking around money, but this change does not signal a fundamental shift in prudent fiscal policy. The only thing that will change is that maybe you’ll be able to afford an armor or weapon upgrade or two every so often, if someone needs it. You’ll still need to buy more skillbooks, and higher level skills cost more money. Therefore, you’ll still be better off finding most of your weapon and armor upgrades, when possible. Also, don’t get too attached to the gear you do have. All gear becomes obsolete eventually, so upgrade as soon as you can and don’t have any compuctions or reservations about selling gear you’re no longer using.

Explore, explore, explore. Poke around every area as best as you can; be deliberate, thorough, and take all the time you need to pick an area over. Holding down [Left Alt] will display every item on the screen that can be picked up – this ability is also your best friend, and you should always use it any time you move into a new area. Note that [Left Alt] does not display the locations of containers, so you’ll have to scan manually to find those. Be sure to pan the camera, so that you’re seeing everything in a room or area. (I don’t know if there’s an equivalent function to [Left Alt] on the console versions, but I feel safe in assuming there’s a way to pan the camera.)

In the early stages, grab everything you can find and carry easily. Even if you’re not going to use it, you can sell it, and you’ll need that money for skillbooks. Whenever you’re talking to someone, always check the dialogue menu to see if you can barter with the person you’re talking to, and if you can, always check out what they have. Usually their wares will be a bunch of crap, but not always, so every bartering menu is worth checking. If there’s any chance a dialogue will turn into a fight, make sure to check the bartering menu before it does.

Finally, note that you don’t really need to craft items. You’ll need to know how it works from time to time, and it’s certainly possible to craft some useful things, but regular item crafting isn’t necessary for success. As best as I can tell, crafting is a mechanic in the game for the benefit of players who are into that sort of thing. As someone who is prone to both hoarding items needlessly in video games, and who also suffers from horrific decision paralysis in all things, I am not even close to being that kind of player. I craft special arrows when I can and Resurrection scrolls from time to time, but that’s about it.

That said, I always make sure to read any and all recipe books I find in the wild. It’s better to know recipes than not, even if you’ll never use the vast majority of them. Since crafting items can always be sold, they’re still worth picking up, too. Magical crafting items often fetch particularly good prices. Repairing items is also unnecessary. Yes, weapons have durability ratings, but they don’t take damage from regular use in combat. They only lose durability when they’re used on items, such as locked doors and chests. You can use the All In skill, which is granted from all two-handed melee weapons, for smashing purposes; this will not do any durability damage to the weapon used. For this reason, I always keep a two-handed weapon on hand, even though I don’t use them in combat. (This is not to slag two-handed weapons in general, it’s just that my chosen builds don’t really have use for them.)

That’s the full extent of everything I’ve learned, so far. To sum up, think in terms of builds, not classes, and prioritize offense. In combat, replenish armor, not health, and use crowd control skills as early and as often as you can. Sell everything you’re not using or not going to use, and spend your money on any skillbooks you want for your builds before spending it on anything else. And, no matter what else you do, always grab a bedroll during the Intro!

Once again, I’d like to give Extra Special Thanks to FextraLife for getting me out of Fort Joy in one piece!

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