metzomagic.com Review

Beyond Divinity

Developer:  Larian Studios
Publisher:  Digital Jesters
Year Released:  2004

Review by Steve Metzler (June, 2004)

Divine Divinity is one of my all time favourite role-playing games. You can read my review here should you be leaning towards the side of disbelief. Of course, it would be presumptuous of me to expect you to agree with my assessment. But you have to throw us old reviewers a bone once in a while. And so it was that I agreed to take on the next title set in the Divinity universe: Beyond Divinity.

Whatever you do, don't assume that Beyond Divinity (BD hereafter) is the sequel to Divine Divinity. In the FAQ, Larian Studios have assured us that BD is not Divine Divinity 2. No, we are assured that Divine Divinity 2 is still on the cards, so rather best to think of BD as a Divinity expansion pack. And that's a good thing, because it gives me hope that Divinity 2 will be a much more worthy successor to Divinity than this... well, expansion pack.

Party-ish
In BD, your character has been soul-forged with a death knight by the demon Samuel. Neither of you are especially enamoured of this situation, because your character is a goody-two-shoes paladin type, whereas the death knight is your typical embodiment of all that is evil. But you'd better get used to it, because to overcome all the obstacles set before you in this game you must work through them as a team. I suppose Larian listened to the gamers on this score. The original Divinity, being single character, was pretty much a Diablo-esque click fest when it came to combat. BD on the other hand is more strategic. Since you now control two characters, you can't/don't have to click on an enemy each time you want to attack it. Rather, you just sic one or both of your characters on a foe with a single click and then sit back watching until it's dead. If you get into health trouble, you can hit the space bar at any time to pause the game. Then you can run away to heal, quaff a health potion, change weapons, etc. In short, it's like the combat in Planescape: Torment if you have ever played that. Much less stress on the old carpal tunnel and slightly more cerebral.

Another addition to the gameplay is in the form of summoning dolls, whereby you get to play necromancer. However, I found that the summoned entities were not powerful enough to ever be more than a minor distraction to whatever was attacking you. You could upgrade them in levels to give them a bit of strength and agility, but they always got killed off rather quickly no matter how carefully you nurtured them along, and they would exterminate themselves whenever you moved out of the immediate area. I gave up trying to use them early on in the game.

Act II, take 47
There are other aspects of BD that bear the hallmarks of listening to player feedback from Divinity, and you must also credit Larian for that. While Divinity was pretty much open-ended (though you wouldn't find many Ultima fans complaining about that!), BD is split into four distinct acts and is, alas, more of a spoon-fed affair in regards directing you what to do next. However, this is not to say that it is easy by any means. There is still a good degree of quirkiness about the place, and the gameplay can be more than confusing at times. BD is full of keys that have no apparent matching lock, and door levers that serve no obvious purpose. Mix all that in with a good dose of inventory bugs (I played with patch version 1.44, and it was still quite buggy), and it will have you visiting the Larian forum more times than you should have to. Once, I had all the items required for a summoning on my character's person, but an insistent NPC kept informing me that I didn't. Several hours later, I discovered on the Larian forum that the only way around this problem was to go back out of the room, put the required items on the floor, pick them all up again, and enter the room once more. This did work... but how come problems like this didn't show up in play testing? And this was not an isolated incident.

Skills and spills
It is apparently very difficult to balance an RPG so that magic users and melee fighters are on an equal footing, especially early in the game. This was a problem with Arcanum, and it is also a problem in BD. Take my advice. Start off with the death knight as a Warrior and your character as a Survivor (thief). It's remotely possible to cast your character as a Wizard, provided they can hang at the back of all battles to fire off spells undisturbed, but if you are attacked by more than two enemies, they will inevitably swamp your Wizard who is powerless when faced by a melee attack.

Speaking of spells and skills... this was a strong point of the original Divinity in that you could browse a beautifully realised skill tree to decide what skills to take next. Each skill had a pretty good description, and told you at what character level you could attain the next level of the skill. Not so in BD. Here, you have to purchase random skills from teachers you find throughout the game. You can read the manual to determine what skills are eventually available, but you have no idea when the appropriate teacher will be encountered, and so often can't decide whether to hold back skill points in the hope you will eventually be able to purchase that 'uber' skill you are looking for... or to opt for a less favourable skill that you can purchase right now. Also, the descriptions of what a skill actually does are woefully inadequate. For instance, I was putting points into a Paralyze skill, but was not being told exactly what the next level of the skill did for me. Did it paralyse my enemies for longer? Did it allow me to paralyse enemies with a stronger resistance to the spell? Who knows? I put 10 skill points into Lockpick (you only get one skill point per level), and I still couldn't pick all but one or two locks on the many chests and doors that I tried throughout the whole game! It was virtually useless :-(

Fortunately, once you discover that a skill is useless, you can buy your way out of it and gain back the skill points. This option becomes progressively more expensive as you near the end of the game though.

Realisations
BD's plotline is standard fantasy fare, but isn't too bad as far as that goes. This time around it involves mischievous imps, an evil necromancer that keeps teleporting you into his realm with annoying frequency, and an ancient race called the Ranaar who had mastered the art of opening up rifts into other universes. You eventually learn this art of 'riftrunning', but you only get to open two rifts! One is a practice rift that leads to nowhere, and the other to the end of the game. Larian could have done much more with this aspect of the game, the idea of portals to other universes being realised more fully in games like Planescape: Torment.

Another small gripe I have is regarding the cut scenes. In Divinity you had this beautiful opening cinematic that equalled the quality of the movies in Diablo II, to which Divinity owes more than a passing homage. In BD, the opening and closing cinematics are merly static storyboards. Not as awe inspiring by any means.

The in-game graphics are roughly the same as in Divine Divinity, with some improvements. I was able to play BD in 1024 x 768 whereas this was not possible in the original Divinity because objects and text were too small in that resolution. Also, the control panel that occupied the whole bottom portion of the screen in Divinity has been minimised and moved to the top right. Music is once again provided by Kirill Pokrovsky, a very accomplished composer.

Battlefields
In Divinity, it was often difficult to find places where you could gain experience in order to level up prior to facing the tougher enemies in a new area. This situation has been remedied in BD by the addition of a sort of alternate universe called the Battlefields. You gain access to the Battlefileds via various magical keys that you find scattered throughout the game. Once you have found a key, you can teleport from anywhere in-game straight to the Battlefields. There are four merchants permanently camped out there. One attends to your magical needs, another to thieving, the third supplies weapons, and the fourth armour. You can also purchase skills from these merchants, and obtain quests. All the quests invariably involve sending you to the bottom of some godforsaken dungeon to obtain a magical weapon or piece of armour from a difficult to kill creature, but they do serve the purpose of gaining you equipment and XP. Once you are finished doing the necessary in the Battlefields, you can teleport right back to where you were in-game.

As you can probably discern from the tone of this review, I was not exactly bowled over by BD. Larian did obviously listen to their fans, and on the basis of this feedback tried to adjust the gameplay to deliver a better gaming experience set in the Divinity universe. However, you will inevitably find yourself getting tired of all the levers and keys, and frustrated by the scripting bugs and inventory glitches. I can also guarantee that from the very first frame of the opening storyboard sequence, the voice of the death knight will begin to grate on you. He sounds like a U.S. Marines drill seargent, full of in-your-face 'attitude', a voice that is totally out of place in a fantasy setting like this.

Well, here's hoping that Larian will learn from this experience too, and deliver the sort of brilliant gaming experience that was Divinity in next year's Divine Divinity 2!

metzomagic.com rating:  

Copyright © Steve Metzler 2004. All rights reserved.

System Requirements:
Windows 98 SE/2000 SP2/ME/XP, Pentium III 800 MHZ, 256MB RAM, 64MB DirectX 9 compatible 3D graphics card, DirectX compatible sound card, 4X CD-ROM drive, 2GB free disk space