History Lessons: Divine Divinity (part 2)

You should read part 1 first. New readers may also wish to read my History Lessons Introduction before proceeding. Other History Lessons posts can be found here. And, as always, you can click on images to view larger versions.

Well, this didn’t go as planned. After writing part 1, I was ready to finish the game and share my final thoughts with part 2, but then I found myself without the time to continue playing for nearly a month. I did finally get back on track, however, so here is the belated post.

I’ve covered a lot of things already, but I wanted to go into a little more detail about developing my character, the combat that is so prevalent throughout, and how the story and later stages of the game shape up. Read on!

First, let’s go over some character skills. As I mentioned before, I wanted to create a character somewhat similar to a Witcher, and also wanted to sample what could be achieved in the game using stealth and thievery. On both counts I was only partially successful. I’ve already written about my inept and fiddly attempts to sneak up on giant animated skeletons while trudging through the first huge dungeon in the game, and unfortunately I didn’t really improve at sneaking later in the game either. My Survivor’s class-specific sneaking skill seemed to have a random chance of success, without much feedback about whether or not it worked. If the giant skeleton turned around and murdered me, I was pretty sure it hadn’t worked. But if I was trying to steal something from a shop, the only real indication of whether or not the shopkeeper could see me came when I actually pocketed the item — if they got mad and asked me to put it back, then I surmised they could see me. If not, then apparently I’d succeeded at stealing it. And could then sell it back to the shopkeeper without them noticing that it was their own stock. Although, to be fair, that problem has existed in other role-playing games for a long time.

There also wasn’t much opportunity to build my skills as a thief. The pickpocket skill didn’t seem very useful, but I never tried it that much so I’m not sure. Lockpicking skill is of course useful for any character, but I ended up using it mostly to open locked chests in dungeons rather than as a means towards stealing things. I was intrigued by the Embrace Shadows skill, which seemed like an upgrade to my regular sneaking ability, but in practice it wasn’t really useful for theft at all. It turned my character invisible, but only in dark areas, and it was never clear which areas would be too bright. Worse, my character automatically became visible again if she took any action other than moving. Including opening doors and picking up items, two things I very much wanted to do if I was trying to steal something. In the end, the easiest way to steal things was simply to make sure no one else was around to see it. But there was little incentive to bother. As I mentioned in part 1, I soon had way more money than I knew what to do with, and I never found equipment ripe for stealing that was any better than what I’d already found just by exploring.

The skills associated with the Warrior class (which any character is free to learn; there’s only one special skill per class, the rest are available to everyone regardless of class) weren’t much more interesting. Since I was aiming for a Witcher-like skill set, I wanted to use swords as my primary weapons. So I invested in Sword Mastery, which simply provided increasing bonuses to my sword damage and attack speed. I’m glad I did, because despite early appearances, swords are clearly the best weapon category. I could have invested in mastery of maces, axes, hammers, or spears, but I rarely found examples of these weapons that were worth using. The randomized loot did not often provide items that could compare with the unique artifacts available, and in terms of weapons those were almost entirely swords. Still, it might make for an interesting experience to try the game with a focus on a different weapon category, intentionally limiting oneself as an extra challenge.

Aside from Sword mastery, I hardly bothered with anything else from the Warrior skill pool though, as most other skills simply provided incremental passive benefits (barring those related to bows, which I wasn’t planning to use), and I was seeking something more active. I did use the Repair and Eenchant Weapon skills, which are not only extremely useful to any character, but also seemed appropriate for a Witcher’s careful preparation before battle. Enchant Weapon is a misnomer. It actually governs enchanting any piece of equipment, be it a weapon or armor, and it became very useful later in the game when I had lots of equipment with open slots awaiting powerful magical enhancers.

Since Witchers are skilled alchemists as well as warriors, I invested some points in the Alchemy skill. Unfortunately, potions are much more limited in Divine Divinity than in the Witcher games. The basic potions are simple health, mana and stamina restorers that will be familiar to anyone who has played Diablo or its action role-playing game brethren. Alchemy skill let me mix these potions into more useful forms — so useful, in fact, that I would argue a point in the Alchemy skill is essential for any character. Higher skill levels let me harvest potions from plants around the world, which was pleasingly Witcher-esque, but soon became boring. It was much easier to just buy potions with the heaps of cash I’d soon accumulated.

To fit with the monster-hunting profession of a Witcher, I invested in the Know Creature skill. In a clever move, this skill governs whether the player can glean information on a highlighted foe, such as it’s remaining health, its vision and hearing range, its damage output, and its resistances. In practice, much of the information given at low skill levels isn’t that useful, but high skill levels provide a monster’s damage output and resistances, which are very useful things to know. The damage output is a dead giveaway for one of those super-monsters that made my life so difficult when I was starting out as a young Survivor with no pants. With the extra warning, I could prepare to face these powerful foes. Resistances indicate the best approach to tackle a given enemy; a high fire resistance means I shouldn’t bother with my fire magic, but I might see a negative lighting resistance, which means the creature will take extra damage from my lightning bolts.

Which brings us to magic, the last tier of Witcher skills. The magic skills in Divine Divinity are by far the most interesting. There are a huge variety of spells to choose from, simply by learning the appropriate skills. To approximate a Witcher’s signs I focused on elemental magic, which tied in well with my ability to see an enemy’s elemental weak points. But I was a little disappointed to find that the only real elements are fire and lightning. There’s also poison, but not so many spells that do poison damage; poison usually inflicted by poisoning one’s weapon or arrows. I never invested in the Poison Weapon skill, but in retrospect maybe I should have. I did spend a lot of time mixing and applying the appropriate blade oils for specific foes when playing the Witcher games, after all. But anyway: fire and lightning were pretty much it, so the more powerful elemental spells tended to simply be combinations of both types of damage. Where they differed was in the type of attack: simple projectiles, hail that rained from the sky, single-target insta-blasts, and various types of multi-target damage. In practice this provided decent tactical options, but I would have liked a wider array of element types to make finding and exploiting monsters’ weaknesses more rewarding.

The other spells in the game are stranger and quite possibly more fun; I only had enough character points to try a few of them. There are a whole array of summoning spells that I never used, some defensive spells (like a Witcher’s Quen sign!), and lots of weird ones. I could have caused a wall of flame to appear behind me as I moved, and then run circles around enemies while they burned. I could have encumbered my enemies with curses, or summoned spinning blades to fly outwards from my character, shredding nearby enemies. I was able to sample a few of these at low levels, and they didn’t seem that powerful, but they may well have scaled up to become much more powerful at high levels. The Hell Spikes spell that I tried at the very start of the game, and dismissed as useless, turned out to be deadly when it was used against me by some powerful enemies late in the game. So maybe some of these other spells would have turned out to be excellent options in battle.

And, no matter how much sneaking or smooth-talking a character indulges in, there will be a lot of battle. The hordes of skeletons infesting the first dungeon are a good indication of what is to come: huge swathes of monsters to fight. The broad array of skills discussed above provide many means of dealing with them, which keeps combat an interesting prospect much of the time, especially as one’s character is growing and learning new spells and abilities to take into battle. But one significant weakness is in enemy variety. Not throughout the game, as there are lots of different types of enemies, but in any given location. Most places have only one enemy type, repeated over and over. A fight with a pack of lizardmen, including their assassins and mages, is fun, as I learn their behaviors and how to use my chosen skills to take them out. But doing that fight 227 more times while exploring a dungeon gets tiresome. The later parts of the game especially suffer from this, offering giant maps full of enemies and little else. It’s possible that developers Larian Studios had wanted to expand these areas and make them more interesting, but did not have the time or resources to do so. Regardless, they drag on, and I felt that the game should have been shorter.

It’s hard to say whether I would have felt the same when Divine Divinity was released in 2002, however, since today there are so many different games available that players are inclined to try many different titles, and don’t mind if many of them are shorter experiences. Back then, with fewer games available each year, players put more value on games that could last them a long time. Still, if I wanted more from Divine Divinity I would have preferred to play through it multiple times, trying out different characters and skill choices. That’s certainly possible in the current game, but if it were shorter it would better facilitate multiple playthroughs, and I suspect each of those would be more enjoyable.

I don’t want this post to sound too negative, however. The end of the game isn’t the strongest part, and I’ve been nitpicking about many of the skills, but the majority of the game is a lot of fun. Everything between completing that huge initial dungeon and entering the game’s final act is a joy, a wide open world full of quests where players are free to wander wherever they please. Sure, the options for thievery and conversation are not as fleshed out as the combat, but they’re huge improvements compared to traditional action role-playing games. And while the story did force me to assume the role of a hero, it has some details that elevate it above the bog-standard fantasy hero story. As a hero my job was not to single-handedly defeat some epic evil, but rather to act as a leader, uniting the seven squabbling races in the realm so they can stand as one like they did long ago. It’s a clever conceit, because it’s a perfect excuse to travel the world and see each race’s homeland (although some races get the short shrift, again possibly due to time constraints in development). In fact, it bears a remarkable similarity to the premise of Dragon Age: Origins, one of the bigger role-playing game hits of recent years (released seven years after Divine Divinity). An important difference is that Divine Divinity never takes itself too seriously. The writers are aware that a lot of the cliched stories in fantasy games (and books, for that matter) are silly, and it doesn’t mind poking a little fun. I don’t want to spoil these moments, but I will say this: remember the cat that rescued my character at the start of the game? That wasn’t the last I saw of it.

Things like this made Divine Divinity a pleasure to play for most of its running time. It certainly has weaknesses, but its strengths are interesting enough to make it worth playing. Most of all, I find it to be an intriguing starting point for the series. As I said in part 1, I had always wondered why no one had tried merging the action-packed combat of action role-playing games like Diablo with the open worlds, conversations, and quest structures of traditional role-playing games, before learning that Divine Divinity does exactly that. The later entries in the series, however, all seem to differ in significant ways, marking Divine Divinity as possibly the only game to ever truly attempt this design. The direct sequel Beyond Divinity looks closest, but apparently involves controlling a party of adventures rather than a single character, and Divinity 2 appears (by eye, at least) to control more like the Witcher games or other recent third-person role-playing games. And the most recent (and most heavily lauded) entry, Divinity: Original Sin, uses a turn-based combat system that hearkens back to games that predate Divine Divinity. I’m interested to play through these games and see how they have evolved across the series. For now, though, I need a break from huge role-playing games, so I’ll find something else to play next.

If you want to give Divine Divinity a try, it’s available digitally from GOG and Steam. The latest versions fix the bugs that plagued early digital releases, so you can just install and go. Although you may wish to change the resolution, see part 1 for details on that. Enjoy!

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3 Responses to History Lessons: Divine Divinity (part 2)

  1. Simo Vihinen says:

    I found sneaking to work perfectly in this game. Maybe you just had false expectations of how it works? Cause the ability never fails, what it does is causes enemies to notice you from across a shorter distance, and so you could well sneak through a large horde of baddies so long as there was some kind of gap. And whenever you got seen you just drank a shadows potion. That was the most fun I even had with the game aside from the dialogue and some of the fighting.

    It’s for sure that some of the skills you mentioned were underdeveloped and ill-balanced. I never got anything out of a nearly maxed-out pickpocketing ability either.

    Actually what we need to draw out of this is your experience will vary a lot depending on your skills, because there’s a whole bunch that weren’t even mentioned here including some game-changing ones. If you wanted the combat to be easy, you could always… well, cheat with the trap skill like I (inadvertently) did. It was also a bit of fun managing the scorpions and played well to the kind of physically weak rogue-type non-melee character I was playing. And for me, I would generally be able to find better bows as I explored more of the game, which made it feel worthwhile checking all the relevant types of drops each time. They even had slightly different purposes: one for instance was my “scouting bow” because it increased my sight by several units so I could see further ahead.

    All kinds of restriction runs would probably make this a more interesting game to play as you say. Anyway good luck with whatever you’re about to play next!

    • waltorious says:

      When you talk about sneaking, do you mean the Survivor’s class ability, or the Embrace Shadows skill? Because the Embrace Shadows skill (which appears to have an identical effect to drinking a Shadows potion) was totally fine for sneaking past enemies, it just wasn’t useful for robbing people.

      As for the Survivor’s class ability, it may well have been more effective for sneaking past enemies, but I was trying to use it to backstab unaware monsters. Sometimes this worked, and I could sneak up on them and kill them. Usually, however, the monsters would see me and attack. The fact that I was sometimes successful in my sneak attacks made me think there was some percentage chance of successful sneaking. But maybe you are right, and the skill was intended more for sneaking past enemies instead of fighting them. Unfortunately, I needed all the experience points I could get, so it was always preferable to fight if possible.

      I had intended to mention the trap skills but forgot. I didn’t pick them because they didn’t fit the character I wanted to play, but they certainly would have changed my approach to combat. I also didn’t use bows, but they looked to be more fleshed out than melee combat, with a variety of bow-specific skills, and (as you said) lots of variety in the bows themselves. I would imagine that playing an archer would be a very different experience.

      And, to be clear, I did have a lot of fun with my swords-and-magic character. I was mainly interested in stealth for non-combat purposes, hoping there’d be more opportunity to engage in theft and espionage, so in that sense stealth was a little disappointing. But it would probably have paired well with a ranged fighter and/or a character who laid lots of traps for enemies. I’ve also heard that poison is surprisingly effective, which could provide another way to handle tough adversaries.

      You are definitely correct that the choice of skills can change the game significantly. Which is part of why I wish the game were a little shorter, because I’d have more incentive to try out some different combinations. Maybe I’ll come back to Divine Divinity someday to try out a different skill set. If I do, I’ll be sure to write about it here!

      • Simo Vihinen says:

        Yes, sorry, I meant the class ability. And yes, I realized after writing that that if I had had a melee build it would have been a different story. I’m not sure the sneak attack skill (whatever its proper name) is actually even affected by monsters being aware of you or is it just a percentile chance for each dagger attack, you never know with this game… Embrace Shadows I never tried.

        As for exp the “cheat” I mentioned would provide me with all I needed, and I frankly don’t feel bad about resorting to it. The OP scorpion traps (if you want easy combat) are sold for cheap by the shady guy near the magic emporium and even a fairly frequent drop. If you get the ability that makes them follow you around, you become invulnerable for the rest of the game and can focus on the story and stuff. 😀

        I guess you could just play a character until you get to the wasteland and project what the rest would probably have been from there? 🙂

        BTW anyone reading this: you can pick up a free copy of Divine Divinity off GOG’s Winter sale that’s currently running here: https://www.gog.com/. You get it for free for any purchase of 5$ or more. Not that it would have cost much 🙂

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