History Lessons: Divine Divinity (part 1)

New readers may wish to read my History Lessons Introduction first. Part 2 can be found here. Other History Lessons posts can be found here. And, as always, you can click on images to view larger versions.

If you’ve read my posts about the Witcher games, you may be wondering why I haven’t had anything to say about The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt yet. Well, it’s because my computer can’t run it. Or rather, it can run it, but only at low settings, and it’s a game I want to experience with maximum prettiness enabled. I hope to upgrade my hardware soon, but in the meantime I needed another big role-playing game to play, so I decided to pluck one from my backlog.

When I wrote about Torchlight, I discussed how the action role-playing game (commonly abbreviated as ARPG) genre, begun with Diablo in 1996, takes inspiration from roguelikes. While some games broadened the scope somewhat beyond Diablo’s single town and huge dungeon, the focus remained on fighting lots of monsters and finding loot, with little else involved. I always wondered why no one thought to use the real-time combat systems of these games and fuse them with a more traditional Western-style role-playing game, where characters explore a large world and talk to people and do quests in addition to fighting lots of monsters.

Well, it turns out someone did do this, back in 2002, with the absurdly named Divine Divinity.

First, let’s tackle that name. According to developers Larian Studios, the game was originally to be named Divinity: The Sword of Lies, but the publisher changed it to Divine Divinity because they’d had a hit with the game Sudden Strike and felt all their games should have alliteration in their titles. This was proven incorrect when the prevailing opinion among critics and the public was that the name Divine Divinity is very silly. Still, most reviewers liked the game itself, and Larian has made several more games in the series. The direct sequel Beyond Divinity was not well received, while Divinity 2: Ego Draconis was criticized for bugs (before Larian re-released it in improved form as Divinity 2: The Dragon Knight Saga and then again as Divinity 2: Developer’s Cut), but the most recent entry, Divinity: Original Sin, was a notable Kickstarter success and received heaps of critical acclaim. A Kickstarter campaign for Divinity: Original Sin 2 recently concluded with well over its goal in funding. I’ve been interested to play the more recent games in the series, but I decided to start from the beginning and see how the games evolved over time.

As I mentioned before, Divine Divinity takes the combat and control scheme of games like Diablo and fuses them to a more traditional Western-style role-playing game with an emphasis on a detailed world and an involved story. The first sign of this comes before starting the game — a full short story outlining the history of the game world is included. While the writing isn’t particularly great, it demonstrates an earnestness on the part of the developers to create a game with a setting that’s more than just a place to fight monsters. I wasn’t too thrilled with the prevalence of demonic forces in this introductory tale, as I don’t find hell-spawned creatures of pure evil to be interesting antagonists; in fact, I never took a particular shine to the grim, dark, demon-infested world of the Diablo games either, although I enjoyed other aspects. The short story has other interesting parts, however, especially the alliance between the seven races as they faced the demonic hordes, which is a sharp contrast to the distrust and open racism between said races when the game proper begins a few centuries later. I also enjoyed the final segment of the story, written by one of the villains, which is essentially a rant about how the evil kids these days are pathetic and wouldn’t know true evil if it punched them in the face — but alas, they’re what we have so we’ll just have to hope they can manage to subjugate the world. It’s the first sign of the game’s quirky sense of humor, which becomes more evident in the game itself as it gently mocks various fantasy stereotypes even as it celebrates them.

Unfortunately, one of the stereotypes it embraces is the sexualized female character. I wanted to play a female character because I’d read that the female voice acting is better than the male voice acting, but my choices were all wearing some variation of a bikini or thong. Well, the female Wizard is merely wearing a risque dress that clings to her like shrinkwrap, but the other two ladies look beyond ridiculous. The men get comparatively normal outfits, with a kilt and chest-strap combo being the closest they come to “sexualized”. My female Survivor, by contrast, was wearing some sort of thong and corset getup that looks like it takes about a half hour to put on and is probably the least comfortable outfit imaginable. It is the kind of thing that only an exotic dancer would wear.

Having said that, I was pleased to see that the choice of character gender is not merely cosmetic. The game features three classes to choose from: Warrior, Wizard, and Survivor (a thief / rogue type), with a male and female choice for each. But each of these six is presented as an actual character, giving a brief speech about their background and philosophy when selected. The women emphasize overcoming prejudice — the idea that only men can be strong or capable — and it was satisfying to see that my female Survivor could indeed impress the various characters I met with her accomplishments. The game proper does not have too many references to my character’s gender, but there are enough that it doesn’t feel like a throwaway choice, while also not being so strongly emphasized as to become preachy or — worse — unpleasant. Most people I’ve met so far have been welcoming and encouraging. Unless I was stealing their stuff.

I was intrigued by the Survivor class precisely because I wanted to see what could be accomplished through stealth and theft. It’s an option not often included in traditional role-playing games which emphasize playing a hero out to help everyone. I also wanted to make a character who was a least a little Witcher-like, since I’m not playing The Witcher 3 just yet. Since Witchers are a specific combination of lightly-armored and agile fighters, mages, and alchemists, it seemed that the agile Survivor might actually be a more appropriate choice than the burly Warrior. I was also pleased to read in the manual that characters are free to choose skills from any class, so I could acquire magic and fighting skills to round out my character. Mostly, though, I was intrigued by the class-specific sneaking skill that the Survivor can use. It sounded much more useful than the Wizard’s location-swapping teleport or the Warrior’s whirlwind attack (although a whirlwind attack might be considered a Witcher-like move).

My choice made, it was on to the game itself. Thus began a cinematic intro, which introduced the villains before cutting to what I presumed to be the player character being beset by orcs on the road. I say “presume”, because the game seemed to assume I had opted to play as a hulking and mostly naked man. I soon forgave it this oversight, however, when the man was rescued by a cat.

When the game proper opened, the man had been replaced with my corseted and en-thonged Survivor, but I soon learned that she had indeed been rescued by a cat. The cat had come to the small village of Aleroth, found a healer (not difficult, as Aleroth is a settlement of healers), and strongly indicated that said healer should follow it out onto the road, where my Survivor’s prone form was found. The healer took my character back to his house to nurse her back to health, but was unable to carry her belongings, so I had to start the game with nothing. The healer didn’t seem to notice that my character was dressed like a stripper. In fact, he seemed really nice and helpful, and let me sleep in his basement for as long as I wanted.

Wandering through Aleroth, I found a decent-sized starting town with a bunch of introductory quests. The healers were mostly very nice, although a few spouted some racist opinions. The town contains a lot of hints that Divine Divinity is more involved than a typical action role-playing game in the vein of Diablo, with interactive objects lying around everywhere and plenty of people to talk to. The tables reminded me of the Elder Scrolls games, in that they were laden with plates, goblets, food, papers, books, or other objects, all of which I could pick up and throw around if I wished. Of course, if I did this in front of their owners, the owners would get a little upset, and their opinion of my character is tracked, so if I annoyed them too much they would stop talking to me. I could instead try sneaking around to steal stuff, but honestly most of the healers were happy to give me things anyway. But I did experiment with stealing a few items off the display cases in the general store, and was pleased when I got away with it.

Once I was done exploring the town, however, things took a more Diablo-like turn as I was tasked with exploring a dungeon directly below. And this was no simple dungeon. This place was massive. Fortunately, I’d been warned about this dungeon when reading about the game before I started, so I was prepared for a long haul. Still, it was a very long haul. My Survivor could hold her own against the basic skeletons infesting the place, but the occasional stronger variants could fell her with a single strike. Combat is a little different from Diablo and its like, in that a single click on an enemy sends my character to attack it until it (or she) dies, and hitting the spacebar pauses the game while still allowing me to issue commands. This is actually a very important feature, providing time to change targets, drink a potion, or select a different special skill (of which there would eventually be very many) and set it to activate on a right-click. Or start running away, which is something I had to do often.

At first I wasn’t sure what I was doing wrong. I had found or purchased the best equipment my character could use, but she still had no chance against these tougher foes. The only way I could tackle them was to try to sneak up on them, but most of the time they saw me and killed me, and when they didn’t it felt like cheating because they would just stand there while my Survivor repeatedly stabbed them about fifty times until they died. Not the most believable implementation of stealth. Eventually I noticed that, sometimes, these foes would strike for less damage and I would actually survive the hit. Then they’d kill me with a single strike again. I recalled that the manual had explained that enemy strikes would be calculated to hit a certain part of my character’s body, and the appropriate armor would then absorb some of the damage, be it a breastplate, helmet, boots, etc. And so I wondered if my sudden deaths were related to the fact that I still hadn’t found any pants. Remarkably, there were none to be found anywhere in town, including at the store, and while my Survivor had covered up her corset with leather armor, she was still striding confidently around in her thong. Perhaps these tough adversaries were simply targeting her exposed buttocks?

And so began my search for pants. In the meantime, I had to repeatedly attempt sneak attacks just to get by, and was more than a little frustrated. I pondered whether my choice to play on the toughest difficulty setting had been wise, but didn’t want to start over. Eventually I realized that my error had been in neglecting ranged attacks. I’d found a few bows but didn’t want to use them as they didn’t fit the character I wanted to play. Ranged magic, on the other hand, is something I should have invested in much earlier. I had originally opted for the Hell Spikes spell as it sounded good at dealing with packs of enemies, but in practice it wasn’t very effective. Meteorstrike, however, is much better. It does not match the description, which involves calling a meteor down from the skies; it is instead a standard fireball thrown from the caster’s hands. But as long as an enemy doesn’t move out of the way, it will never miss (unlike melee combat, in which each strike has a chance to miss), and it can be cast as fast as I can click the right mouse button. Which is much faster than melee attacks happen.

Soon I was rapid-firing fireballs off at these tough foes, guzzling magic potions to recharge my magical energies when needed, and was finally able to hold my own. Or at least, do a little better. Some adversaries were still extremely tough and took many attempts to defeat. Eventually, however, I bested the dungeon, even though I still hadn’t found any pants. It wasn’t until later, when I’d left the starting town, that I finally found a pair of leather leggings, and they turned out to be little more than thigh-pads, leaving my Survivor’s buttocks just as exposed as before. Go figure. After playing much farther I realized that these monsters who had given me so much trouble in the dungeon are simply super tough, at least on the highest difficulty setting, and ranged attacks are necessary to take them down. Even with full armor, they can strike down a hero frighteningly quickly. Similar challenges are present later in the game, but by then I’d amassed a set of skills that gave me more of a fighting chance. If I’d known more about the skills and magic spells in the game before I started, I would have had a slightly easier time in the beginning.

This first dungeon illustrates both strengths and weaknesses of the game. On the one hand, it’s a much more interesting introduction than a typical tutorial-style quest line about killing rats or something. On the other hand, players are immediately presented with a vast array of skills to choose from when gaining levels, free to pick skills associated with the Warrior, Wizard, or Survivor regardless of their character’s chosen profession, with little or no guidance about which of these skills will be useful for survival. I love the potential for different styles of play that all of these skills afford, but it can be hard in the beginning when characters must rely on only a few, and have no way of changing their minds and picking different skills instead.

It’s after this dungeon, however, that the game gets truly interesting. Finally leaving the gates of Aleroth, my Survivor explored the surrounding woods, fighting orcs and looking around for treasure. The woods present a wide open area around what was already a decent-sized town, so I was expecting to hit a loading zone soon, accustomed as I am to role-playing games that divide their worlds into smaller areas. But as I explored farther and farther, I slowly began to realize just how huge the map is. The town and its forest make up only the tiniest corner of this place. It’s so incredibly huge that the huge dungeon I’d just explored paled in comparison. And the outdoors was so much more fun to explore, full of settled areas and wilderness, caves and farms, castles and churches, slums and markets.

In fact, the latter was a little hard to find. I was told I was exploring the capital, Rivertown, but it didn’t resemble a city so much as a disparate mix of the above. The northern city of Verdistis was more what I was expecting, but Rivertown itself was odd until I’d explored it more thoroughly. I think the developers expected players to follow the roads at first and then explore outside them later. My more methodical approach meant I’d found a lot of the details before I found some of the basics. Like a place to sell all the stuff I’d found on my adventures.

Diablo and its ilk have a huge focus on finding items and equipment, and while Divine Divinity certainly has plenty of items, I found I wasn’t actually using new things very often. Part of this is because item use is harshly restricted in the early game, when characters do not yet have high enough stats to equip more powerful items. The developers intentionally tease players by providing some powerful items early on that characters will be unable to use until much, much later in the game. But it’s also due to the fact that item statistics are heavily randomized, even more so than is common in the genre. Even the unique, supposedly powerful items can end up being entirely unremarkable if players are unlucky. The upside to this is that upgrades are more meaningful, and specific items will hold more significance than any of the throwaway equipment in games that more closely resemble Diablo. The ability to imbue specific pieces of equipment with further enchantments only lengthens their staying power. But I did feel that my character spent a long time struggling with subpar equipment until she was able to pump up her stats high enough to use better stuff, at which point she suddenly became a force to be reckoned with.

Fortunately, there’s a lot to do that doesn’t involve fighting, or at least doesn’t involve much of it. There are tons of quests to undertake, and even several different paths through the first major part of the story. Players are free to do them all, of course, but I appreciated that some were mostly combat while others involved investigations and careful thinking rather than brawn. It’s all a part of an attempt to allow player choice and expression within the game, to let characters act freely instead of strictly confining things to a linear story path. Again, this recalls the Elder Scrolls series; there are even several guilds the player can join. But Divine Divinity is a little more limited in this respect, lacking individual quest lines for each guild and other details that define the Elder Scrolls’ approach to player freedom. Players in Divine Divinity are free to explore where they wish, sneak around and steal things, and can even be thrown in jail, but they cannot simply ignore the main story of the game and wander off making their own adventures. Eventually they must accept that they must be a hero.

My particular hero was able to solve certain select problems through stealth, but quickly amassed such a fortune that theft wasn’t necessary. She enjoyed tackling some of the more subtle quests in the game through fast talking and quick wits. But in the end she still had to fight lots and lots of things, and she got very good at it. Now she is finally covered in armor that looks like it would actually help her avoid injury, and is a mean swordfighter who’s not afraid to rain magical fire and lighting from the sky when necessary. I’m having a lot of fun guiding her as the story starts to pick up the pace, but I’ll talk more about that next time. This post has already gotten very long.

Before I finish, however, I wanted to mention the game’s art. For a thirteen-year-old game, the graphics have aged amazingly well. Since all the art is hand-crafted in two dimensions, rather than utilizing three-dimensional models which are animated and rendered, it does not suffer from limited polygon counts or texture resolutions that can make other games look outdated. And it’s pretty. Building interiors especially are full of rich detail, with bookcases, furniture and decorations that make these places look like they’re actually lived in, instead of the empty, boxy rooms often found in other games. Even the dungeons look great, with piles of rubble and garbage piled in corners and skeletal remains chained to the rough-hewn rock walls. Outdoor areas sometimes underwhelmed, however, with drab greens and browns rather than the lush vegetation I was expecting. But this is offset by some stunning and memorable landscapes. And each of these places features excellent and distinctive music composed by Kirill Pokrovsky, who also scored the other entries in the series. Far from the orchestral bombast usually found in role-playing games, the music in Divine Divinity is striking and creates an excellent sense of place. Take this piece that plays soon after leaving the starting town as an example. I was saddened to hear that Kirill Pokrovsky recently passed away. At least we can still hear his evocative music in the Divinity games.

Lastly, I should mention that Divine Divinity runs fine without any fiddling, but you may want to change the default resolution. There are no in-game options to do this, but a separate configuration tool is included with the digital release that makes it simple. Keep in mind that since the graphics are 2D, they have a set number of pixels, so larger resolutions with more pixels on screen will mean more of the game world is visible at once and characters and items (and text!) will appear smaller. I took the advice in this forum thread and set a resolution of 1280×800, which is a good compromise between crisp visuals and things getting too small.

Stay tuned for the next installment, where I’ll discuss more about my character’s skills, the combat and story, and anything else I discover as I continue to play through the game.

EDIT: Part 2 is now available here.

Divine Divinity is available from GOG, Steam, and Gamersgate.

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6 Responses to History Lessons: Divine Divinity (part 1)

  1. Kristian says:

    I’m really enjoying these articles (you’ve made me want to give Betrayal at Krondor a go). I played this back when it was released and really enjoyed it. I was underwhelmed by Original Sin, though. Perhaps I should just go replay the original.

    • waltorious says:

      I’m glad you’re enjoying the posts! I haven’t had as much time to write posts recently but I’m trying to sneak some in there. And I encourage you to try Betrayal at Krondor, it’s pretty cool.

  2. Simo Vihinen says:

    Which version are you running? I got mine from GOG a few years ago and had trouble getting the music to play right – apparently there’s two versions, one of which fixes certain bugs while also breaking the music unfortunately (only a few tracks would trigger when supposed to). Maybe there’s been another retroactive patch since though I doubt it.

    BTW you’re not the only one who would have wanted to get a few hints before getting on the road: https://steamcommunity.com/app/214170/discussions/0/648817377432211134

    It mostly contains information that honestly should have made it into the manual. The game was rushed out by the publisher AIR (= As I Recall) reading, can you tell?

    Also I found your sneaky smiley! Ha-ha! But can you find mine?!

    • waltorious says:

      Originally I just installed the version I’d downloaded from GOG a couple of years ago when I bought it (yes, I am way behind), and I had the music problems. So I just re-downloaded it from GOG and now I’m running version 1.0062A, which fixes the music issues. It also adds actual sunrises and sunsets instead of the abrupt transition from day to night I had before. I was considering mentioning this in the post, but since the solution to the problem was “don’t use the version I downloaded years ago, download the current one” I figured it wouldn’t come up for too many others.

      I did see that Steam thread at one point, but as some of the replies mention, it’s a little out of date. The timed quest mentioned after the starting town is not actually timed, sword mastery level 5 seems to be working fine for me, etc. Also some of that info is in fact in the manual, while other things (like alchemy) are pretty easy to figure out and the developers intended for players to discover them while playing. My early troubles were related more to skill choices, and not knowing that some sort of ranged damage is essential in the beginning of the game.

      Lastly, I honestly don’t know what you’re talking about regarding the smiley.

      • Simo Vihinen says:

        Sounds like certain things were patched out then, but there’s no doubt the skills aren’t exactly balanced… but hey you can do a second playthrough without any op skills to challenge yourself!

        Look carefully at the very bottom of the page.

      • waltorious says:

        Ah, I see the smiley now. But I did not put it there.

        It does seem that most bugs have been squashed in the latest version of Divine Divinity, but you’re definitely correct about the skill imbalance. I’ll have some more to say about that in the next post.

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