Divine Divinity

Developer:  Larian Studios
Publisher:  CDV
Year Released:  2003

Review by Steve Metzler (March, 2003)

I've just finished the rollercoaster ride of an RPG that is Divine Divinity, and am writing this review as the title music plays sonorously - no, make that majestically! - in the background. Casting my mind back about four years ago, while researching upcoming games, I well remember following the progress of fledgling Belgian developer Larian Studios and their RPG with the working title: The Lady, the Mage, and the Knight. The proposed story line, character descriptions, and screenshots were quite impressive, and I was really looking forward to it. Unfortunately, they apparently had trouble finding a suitable publisher, and in the end all that remained to show for their labours was a stagnant web site. But Larian finally managed to come good, and the eventual result is this delightful little sleeper of an RPG that, for the sake of sanity and brevity, we'll just call 'Divinity'.

The opening cinematic sees your character being pursued through the forest by a band of orcs. Meanwhile, in a strange ceremony taking place deep in the bowels of some ungodly dungeon, an evil-looking mage with a powerful sword takes a swipe at an embryonic divine creature. When struck, the divine creature breaks up into three separate entities, each of which surges through the ceiling as a pillar of intense light. Just as an orc is about to deliver a death blow to your felled character, one of the pillars of light enters you and frightens off the orc. It turns out that you have thus become a Marked One. You must seek out the two other Marked Ones, and then together you must defeat this evil mage and his legions before he can summon a demonic deity known as the Lord of Chaos. Of course, you can't exactly glean all this from watching the cinematic, but it is visually stunning, and sets the tone for the game nicely. The extensive backstory for Divinity is installed as a PDF file, and you can read all about it there. In any event, a very kind and knowledgeable wizard named Zandalor will be there to guide you through the course of the game, and to explain what is happening as the story unfolds...

At the outset, Divinity looks, feels, and plays a lot like Diablo. So much so, that you might begin to wonder how Larian managed not to get sued by Blizzard! The starting character classes are very similar. The weapon, armour, and skill descriptions are done in the same style even down to the colour scheme. The main stats are roughly the same. Your primary attack is on the left mouse button, and you cast spells and use special skills via the right mouse button. You also have near-identical health, stamina, and mana lines. At 640 x 480, Divinity even looks exactly like Diablo II, and I had to pinch myself a few times to make sure I had the right game loaded. However, there is much more in the way of character interaction, story, and true RPG quests on display in Divinity. In short, it is a true RPG, whereas Diablo is an action game with RPG trappings. So, you'll get over the resemblance to Diablo in no time, especially if you set it up to play at 1024 x 768 (very pretty, but objects are a bit too small to see clearly) or 800 x 600 (perfect, and then it doesn't look like Diablo any more).

Survivor, Warrior, or Wizard
You start off building your character by picking one of three classes: the Survivor (mix between a thief and a rogue), the Warrior, or the Wizard. There are male and female versions of each class, and there is absolutely no difference in either starting stats or game play as a result of which sex you choose. Your four main stats are: Strength, Agility, Intelligence, and Constitution. Each time your character levels up, you get 5 points to spend amongst these stats as you please. Your offensive and defensive capabilities are enhanced as you put more points into Agility. The amount of Mana/Magic you have is directly controlled by your Intelligence. Your Vitality/Health is controlled by Constitution. Aside from differing starting stats (Warrior has high Strength, low Intelligence; Wizard has low Strength, high Intelligence; Survivor is somewhere in between), each class also has a 'special move' that can be assigned to the right mouse button. The Survivor's special move is Sneak, the Warrior's is Swirl Attack, and the Wizard's is Swap Location (a sort of short range teleport).

But where Divinity really excels regarding character building is in the skills area. Each class has from 24 to 32 skills to choose from, each skill having 5 levels of proficiency. Each time your character gains a level, you get to choose a new skill, or bump the level of an existing skill (you actually get 2 skill points to spend on each character level that is divisible by 5). In order to prevent you from building a 'munchkin' character that gains the 5 levels of proficiency in a skill too quickly, each level of a skill has a minimum character level requirement. For instance, you aren't able to take level 2 of the Summon Demonic Aide spell until your character level is at least 30. The best part of skills, however, is this: you can choose skills from any class you like, with no limitations! So a Warrior can use the Wizard skill of Limbs of Lead to slow down opponents, and the Survivor's Alchemy skill to make potions out of mushrooms found in the wild. With this freedom, you can build any kind of character you please. I went the path of building a mighty Warrior who used Wizard skills like Freeze in battle, and Survivor skills like Lockpick in calmer moments.

Awesome scope
I reckon it took me about 100 hours of playing time over 3 months to complete Divinity. That's a whole lot of bang for your buck, and even at that there were many side quests that I didn't undertake. After you come out of the starting village of Aleroth, which in itself contains a huge dungeon, you're confronted with an immense expanse of pure black fog-of-war, with little red flags scattered throughout it indicating places that people have marked on your map. Yes, the majority of the playing area is one continuous scrollable screen! You have to see this to believe it. You can put down blue flags with your own annotations anywhere you like, but for the most part the red flags provided by the game are sufficient to guide you. There's also a handy little mini-map that shows the immediate area, and you can stick it in the most convenient corner of your screen to suit the direction you're travelling in. Really helps you to navigate when you're running around in a hurry.

There are teleporters scattered throughout the map, built by the different races. You need to find a special scroll to activate the ones built by each race. As you find these scrolls during the course of the game, more and more of the teleporters become available to you, and you'll have a lot less walking to do.

There is a quest early on in the game to obtain a pair of portable teleporter stones. You can plonk one of these stones down right next to a bed, and then use the other stone to get back there whenever you need a rest. Very handy. Just don't forget to take both stones with you when you decide to change your base of operations!

Highly interactive
You can interact with the environment to a great extent in Divinity, and you should use this to your advantage at every opportunity. For instance, moving a pile of boxes will often reveal a hidden hatch, a key, or some other valuable item. You can also do things like make honey, using a combination of a beehive, honey rack, and honey jar. And if you take 2 levels of the Alchemy skill, you can drop empty flasks onto mushrooms to make small potions. With the next level of this skill, you can make normal sized potions, etc. You can also apply charms that you find or buy to weapons and armour that have slots for charms. It took me a while to figure out how to do this. You need at least one level of the Warrior's Enchant Weapon skill (the Charm spell is something entirely different, which is what had me confused). Only when you have the Enchant Weapon skill will you be able to see the available charm slots when you click on a weapon or piece of armour that can be charmed.

A familiar interface
If you've played Diablo, then the combat interface is exactly the same, even down to being able to assign function keys to skills. But there's one big difference, and it makes a world of difference in the game play: Divinity mercifully supplies a pause key! So instead of frantically trying to assign the next skill/spell you want to use to the right mouse button, you can just hit the space bar and then browse through the skills at your leisure. Aside from that, combat is basically a click-fest. Holding down the Ctrl key automatically causes the nearest enemy to be targeted, making attack a little easier when you're surrounded. Oh yeah, and one other nice thing. Monsters in this game don't regenerate. Once you've cleared an area, it stays clear (there's nothing I hate more than monster regeneration).

To sleep, perchance...
The most economical way to replace your Vitality and Magic after combat is to sleep; otherwise, you'll be going through potions at an alarming rate. However, finding a place to sleep in Divinity is rather problematic. You don't even get the option to rent a room at most inns, and you're not allowed to sleep in 99% of the beds you find in houses or inns. But I did find a solution to the sleeping problem up on the Larian forums. The next paragraph contains mild spoilers, so you should skip it if you don't like getting hints.

[Mild spoiler alert]

The designers have thoughtfully provided an aid to finding a place to sleep involving 2 bundles of straw. These bundles are plentiful in the farmland area of the game. I'll leave it to the reader to work out exactly how to employ the straw to make a bed. Funnily enough, there were many references to an alleged 'portable bed' up on the Larian forums. I tracked it down, and it turns out to be an exploitable bug. You can move the bed in question to reveal a hatch, but then afterwards you can just put the bed in your inventory! Because the bed is not a 'real' object, it doesn't even weigh anything. But I don't think much of the idea of exploiting bugs, so I just left it there and opted for the straw solution. You see, there's a rather large portion of the game where the aforementioned portable teleporter stones aren't available to you because someone relieves you of them...

[End of spoiler alert]

Dialogue, sounds, and a warning about memory
The dialogue in Divinity is quite well done, with the major characters being enthusiastically voiced by actors. There are quite a few grammatical errors and typos in the text, but Larian is based in Belgium, and... their English is better than my Flemish (or, is it French? :-) Let's leave it at that. For the most part, the dialogue is imaginative and witty, and there is a reaction system built into the game. Say something to anger a character, and he/she/it might no longer speak to you. Theoretically, you can trade at a loss in an attempt to bribe an angry character into speaking to you again, but I found in practice that I had to trade away much more than I was prepared to in order to make this happen. Bottom line: best not to make them mad at you. One thing that Divinity does not do is give you alternate dialogue choices based on your Intelligence or charisma (because you have none. Har har). So, the dialogue system is not as rich as that found in games like Fallout or Planescape: Torment. A pity, but I suppose you can't have everything.

The soundtrack for Divinity is a delight to the ears. Even the theme that plays in the main menu is a haunting melody that is part choir, part Gregorian chant, and entirely unforgettable. It's definitely the best soundtrack for a game I've heard in ages. Every area gets its own background music. Also, the sounds of battle are fantastically done, with a satisfying clank when swords meet, and a satisfying death rattle from fallen enemies.

The minimum memory requirement for Divinity is stated as 128MB, but don't believe it! I started out with this amount, but it was taking 3 - 4 minutes just to save a game. This limitation was really bucking against my playing style, since I save a lot so that I can try things out and replay quests. So, I just stopped playing Divinity for a while, and got another 512MB of RAM (because I needed it anyway). End of problem! It now only takes 10 seconds to save a game. Another thing I'd like to point out is that Divinity saved games are enormous. Each one is circa 20MB. They must be saving off the entire database. If so, it goes a long way towards explaining why it was taking so long to save and load games. Hopefully, Larian will rectify this problem with their next effort.

The end is nigh
So what we have here is a really fun RPG that Larian obviously poured their heart into. It's huge, has a good main plot, challenging combat, and tons of quests. It's also a boon for all you stat builders and treasure collectors out there!

About the only bad thing I can say about Divinity is that the endgame is a bit of a letdown. You have to slog through a series of long mazes, each filled with identical tough creatures, and a mini-boss that you probably met earlier in the game. Let's just say that I found it to be draining on more things than my mana, my sanity for starters. There's also a 'trick' ending (the game leads you to believe that you have failed to complete a quest that was impossible to complete in the first place) that certainly paves the way for a sequel.

However, I suppose I can forgive Larian those two transgressions. Everything else about Divinity was a joy, and now I find that it's crept onto my list of 5 favourite RPGs of all time. And that's one tough list to get on, believe me!

See the Divine Divinity walkthrough. rating:  

Copyright © Steve Metzler 2003. All rights reserved.

System Requirements:
Pentium II 450MHZ or better, 128MB RAM (this writer recommends at least 256MB), Win 98/ME/2000 SP2/XP, 8MB DirectX 8 compatible video card, 100% DirectSound compatible sound card, 4X CD-ROM, 2.5GB free hard disk space