Divinity: Original Sin II – The Roller Coaster Continues

You may think that, seeing as my last dispatch from the front lines of DOS2 was both positive and constructive, that in the time since I have entered into a Utopian state of bliss with the game.

Alas, it is not so! Shortly after that post, I found myself stuck yet again, and for drearily familiar reasons. Having made my escape from the first areas of the game to the next major section, I soon found myself unable to find something I could do without getting my ass kicked. I thought my weapons and armor would serve me well for at least a little while longer, and I suffered mightily for this error in judgment. In particular, my armor was suddenly quite useless indeed, offering no real protection from enemies’ nastier attacks. All of this was made more frustrating since, and I cannot stress this enough, I had just found almost all of this equipment, only to find it was already near useless. Life comes at you fast.

Therefore, I entered a despair cycle with the game. Armor upgrades were available for purchase, but were extremely expensive, and provided only marginal increases. While I understood the force of my problems in a way I did not the first times I attempted the early game (I remain grateful that my builds themselves were not an issue), I had no idea how to break out of this rut. As I saw it, buying (or finding) upgrades required that I complete quests, and completing the quests I had found required winning battles. Yet, the reason I was so desperate to obtain upgrades was because I suddenly found myself unable to win any battles, and therefore, unable to complete any of the quests before me. What could I do?

That was quite an annoyance, but it was not the cause of my despair on its own. Rather, it was the thoughts and questions these problems gave rise to that had me in the dumps. It occurred to me that the entire rest of the game was likely to go down just like this. I’d get to a new area, struggle mightily largely because of inadequate gear, find something I could get done at all (even if it would prove massively difficult to pull off), use whatever gains I receive as a result to improve my gear, knock out more quests, get even better gear, and become an all-conquering badass just in time to be shunted off to the next area, where I would be forced to start all over from the bottom of the shit pile, yet again.

Was this all the game had to offer? I thought DOS2 was supposed to be a masterpiece. What I described above doesn’t sound like a masterpiece at all; rather, it sounds like a grind, one that continually builds the player up, only to break them back down at regular intervals. There’s no real power curve, there’s only an cycle of gear upgrades. That all sounds like a bunch of bullshit to me.

Perhaps an excellent story would paper over the game’s slog-like elements, but the story in DOS2 is…fine. It’s mostly well-executed; most significant characters are fully realized, and the voice acting is well done, but if you’ve played just about any video game RPG, ever, the plot itself nothing new. Even when I’ve been most into the DOS2 experience, I’ve never been terribly invested in the next story beat. As you can probably surmise, I don’t feel that’s enough to distract from the gameplay’s indignities.

Having hit this low point, I stepped a way from the game for a while. When I returned, my disposition towards it improved almost immediately, and success followed soon after. For starters, armor becomes significantly less expensive when you sell the armor you’re replacing. I feel like I should have figured that out much earlier, so that’s on me. Also, I lost sight of the fact that battles in DOS2 are almost always at their scariest when they begin. Having forgotten this lesson, I had written off manageable battles as beyond my current capabilities, simply because I took some scary licks during the first few enemy turns. Once I knuckled under and toughed out the early rounds of these fights, I took them down, sometimes with ease. That’s also on me.

Even though I’m having fun with DOS2 again, I’d still hesitate to call it a masterpiece. Most of my favorite video games are games that I enjoyed playing from start to finish, even if I grew frustrated with the tougher sections. I always felt it was worth it to keep going, and find a way through whatever part of the game was giving me grief.

My experience with DOS2, by contrast, has been a roller coaster of emotions. Sometimes I like it. Sometimes I love it. Still other times I’m frustrated, but not frustrated enough to dissuade me from playing altogether. And then, there are the times when I think the whole game is bullshit, and decide that my time is better spent doing something else entirely. More than once I’ve quit the game and immediately wandered around the house, looking for chores to take on instead of playing more DOS2. In these moments, I’m not mad, I’m jaded and bored. I’m so bored, in fact, that I wonder if I even like video games anymore. Perhaps I’m getting too old for such things.

Therefore, I’m trying to spend what emotional energy I have for DOS2 in the service of managing my feelings towards it. It is a good game, but it’s not perfect, and it’s definitely not my new favorite game, and that’s OK. It doesn’t have to be, and it was silly to ask that of the game in the first place.

That said, I do have issues with DOS2 that exist outside of my inner love/hate relationship with it. The first is that for some reason, gear has a level associated with it, which is meant to signify what level of characters it’s appropriate for. That’s all well and good by itself, but the problem is that, should you come to acquire gear of a level higher than that of your character(s), you take penalties for using that gear, and these penalties are severe enough that it doesn’t make sense to use this gear until your level is high enough for it.

What the hell!? I thought one of the game’s biggest strengths was the tremendous freedom of action it bestows upon the player. Placing penalties on gear for being too advanced for the player’s character(s) undercuts the value of this theoretical freedom. If the player has true freedom of action, that means they are capable of finding challenges that are meant for characters of higher level. With true freedom of action, they are also potentially capable of overcoming those challenges through some combination of cunning strategy, good planning, and clever use of resources.

In other words, if a player gets past an obstacle that is meant for characters of higher level, that means that the player is really good at the game, and deserves to be rewarded accordingly. Being ‘rewarded’ with gear that is too good to use at all isn’t a reward, it’s a punishment. Cite the virtues of delayed gratification all you wish; remember that the very second you find new gear in DOS2, it begins its journey to obsolescence. Therefore, being forced to wait to use gear because it’s too good deprives that gear of its marginal value as a reward for being awesome. That means it’s a punishment. Why let players go anywhere and do whatever they want in order to overcome challenges if the game is going to punish players for doing so?

While the writing is usually decent enough, there are exceptions, and there’s one particular trend I wish to take to task here. DOS2 takes place in a fantasy setting that features non-human races, and sometimes, in order to establish a particular NPC as a despicable character, that NPC will say something racist about one (or more) of these non-human races. As a cis, straight, white male, I do not feel it is my place to make declarations about what is or is not problematic. However, I have no qualms about calling out bad writing and bad taste. There are countless ways to establish that an NPC is an asshole. Having an NPC be racist comes of as a cheap, lazy edgelord provocation. Being a recovering former edgelord, I am certain that no one needs that. They didn’t need it when I engaged in it, they certainly don’t need it now, and you can bet your life savings that no one will ever need it in the future.

On a lighter, yet still critical note, there’s that fucking squirrel. As I’m playing the Definitive Edition of DOS2, I’ve had a squirrel knight riding a cat skeleton (don’t ask; your guess is as good as mine) following me for most of the game. I have no control over this thing; I cannot tell it to move or stay put. Usually, this isn’t a problem, but it’s a huge problem any time there are floor spaces of consequence, such as traps. Recently, I’ve come across a puzzle based around tiles on a dungeon floor. While I haven’t sussed out the solution just yet, I’m certain it involves having my characters stand on specific tiles at specific times, and quite likely in a specific order.

I can’t do this when there’s a squirrel I can’t control wandering on and off of tiles all willy-nilly! I am baffled that seemingly no one involved in making a game of this magnitude realized that maybe it’s a bad idea to have an uncontrollable NPC follow the player through a game full of floor traps and floor-based puzzles. It’s the actual worst. In conclusion, if you’re designing a game, don’t include an uncontrollable NPC follow the player through a game full of floor traps and floor-based puzzles. The end.

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