How can we put this politely? If Kickstarter has proved one thing in its short existence as a game-funding enterprise, it's that big-name publishers were dead wrong about the death of the top-down RPG.
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First we saw Shadowrun Returns barrelling over its stretch goals, followed by Wasteland 2's December beta launching to a hugely positive reception. Then Obsidian Entertainment (they of Fallout: New Vegas and South Park: The Stick of Truth fame) revealed its own Pillars of Eternity and suddenly a whole host of gamers whose beloved isometric style was believed to have coughed, hacked and died out a decade ago were spoiled for choice.
Then Belgium-based Larian Studios announced the Kickstarter for Divinity: Original Sin, a prequel to the Divine Divinity and Divinity II of the early 2000s inspired by games like Ultima VII, Fallout 2 and Dungeons and Dragons and those gamers waved goodbye to the outside world forever and began stockpiling tinned goods in preparation for the great 2014 RPG shut-in.
And about time too. "For me, personally, the direction pursued by RPGs in the last decade was different from what I was hoping for," Original Sin's creative director Swen Vincke tells Red Bull. "I like large worlds driven by strong narrative in which you can interact with and affect everything. I also like to be free to develop my character any way I want. Creating something like that, however, is quite expensive and it is cheaper to squeeze the narrative through linear pathways in which the player is pushed from cutscene to cutscene and choice is just reflected in the cutscene [they get] to watch.
"There have been great advancements in the more recent RPGs, but all of them lacked certain things I’m looking for. I’m hoping that the next generation of RPGs will serve me better."
That dissatisfaction with the state of modern role-playing games drove Vincke and the team at Larion to plan a new instalment in the Divinity series in late 2010, building much of the game under their own steam before turning to Kickstarter and Steam Early Access in early 2013. In the tradition of isometric Kickstarter RPGs, Original Sin ploughed through its initial funding target of $400,000, hitting every single one of its stretch goals up to $1m between Kickstarter and PayPal.
"We decided to start self-publishing at the start of 2011, which is also when development on Divinity: Original Sin started," says Vincke. "When we looked at it in early 2013, we decided that we had something good on our hands, but that we could make it a lot better with more resources. That’s why we went to Kickstarter and Steam Early Access. I'm very glad that we did, because the game is shaping up to become something very special and that’s only possible because our community decided to back us."
As for why the team chose Kickstarter over the traditional publishing route, Vincke's story chimes with what we've heard before from developers like Brian Fargo and Tim Schafer.
"It’s really quite simple: games like this are hard to market," he says. "Our biggest feature is depth and depth is much harder to show [to publishers and investors] than great cutscenes. Even to this day I run into reporters that think Divinity: Original Sin is a Diablo clone."
It’s anything but. Where Divinity: Original Sin differs from the other RPGs set to be released this year is in its two-player co-op focus. While optional (you can still romp around the fantasy landscape of Rivellon slaying monsters and exploring solo), the game is at its most impressive when played in tandem with a friend. The turn-based, tactical combat is the most obvious beneficiary of its co-op mode (more on that later), but uniquely, the team at Larian Studios has also built a whole new dialogue system that revolves around the interactions between the two player-controlled characters. No longer does the player who races up to a merchant or a quest-giver first get to talk, while his companion stands mutely off to the side. Don't like what your companion has to say? In Original Sin you're more than welcome to butt in mid-conversation and argue your point, like an episode of The View, but with scarier trolls.
"Conversation is an important and often underused game mechanic," says Vincke. "It’s one of the easier ways to do choice and consequence and the only bottleneck in coming up with great things is your imagination – and your budget for voice recordings.”
Unusually, the game spun out of observations Vincke made from playing at home with his partner. "The idea of making it an RPG that featured a true cooperative party – in the sense that everybody can discuss with everybody and everybody can impact the storyline – occurred when I was playing Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance with my girlfriend," he says. "We were having some fun and I started wondering what would happen if it were a real RPG in which we could discuss on-screen and agree or disagree about pretty much everything."
Arguing with your partners in the game uses checks of your characters' stats to decide a victor. In a gameplay demo we see, for instance, the characters stumble upon a magical talking seashell that wants to be returned to the water. One character wants to toss it back into the sea. The other wants to take it to the market and sell it, arguing there's probably quite good money in talking seashells. The argument weighs up characters' relative charm and intimidation stats, and the more mercenary of the two wins out. Off to the shops with you, seashell.
"When you’re playing Divinity: Original Sin and keep track of the amount of decisions you make in dialogue alone, you’ll discover that in a but couple of hours you’ll make more choices than in most RPGs and that these decisions actually matter," says Vincke.
"We linked several game systems to what you can do in dialogue, such as your social stats, your traits and even your talents. For instance, we have a Pet Pal talent that opens up an entire new line of quests because it lets you talk to animals. [Then] we also have our cooperative dialogue system, which, to work as a feature, required that we put it pretty much everywhere and that the solutions to various situations be interesting enough [to merit its inclusion]."
Which isn't to say that Original Sin has to be played with diplomacy foremost in mind. Even in its alpha stage of development, the all-important combat system ticks the two critical boxes for any modern top-down RPG: good looks and complexity. This being a game about magic and wizards, brawls between our heroes and the trolls, zombies and mean-spirited wizards they encounter are all fireballs zinging back and forth, things exploding with lightning and glowing buff spells that heal allies or put them out if they should catch fire (which, as protagonists in a fantasy game, they frequently will).
But the spells and their different elemental effects are there to do more than just look slick. In the gameplay demo we see, the two heroes are badly outnumbered (and outgunned) by a Fire Elemental and an undead horde of zombies and ambulatory skeletons. One player summons an Ice Elemental – a towering frozen bullet-sponge who does a good job distracting the enemies and soaking up all their arrows and destructive magic for all of one turn, before it explodes into shards under the punishment.
Clearly, a new approach is needed. In this playthrough, one of the player characters has specialised in ice magic, the other in fire. The ice mage can freeze enemies in place, paralysing them, but in the current arena the enemies are spread too far apart to deal solid damage to any meaningful number of them. Fortunately, there's a workaround: the ice player's character raises their arms, spins about, lightning crackles in the darkening sky and rain begins to pour down over the map.
While this puts the second player at a disadvantage with his fire magic, now the first player can summon an Ice Dragon to freeze the remaining enemies in place. With little offensive capability, the second player uses a buff spell to protect the first from fire. Paired with the sudden downpour, this makes the enemy Fire Elemental's attacks pathetically weak and after another turn or so, the enemies that had outnumbered the heroes three-to-one at the start of combat have all been vanquished. It's just one example, but for fans of dungeon crawlers and old school isometric RPGs, combat looks every bit as smart as you'd hope.
Also bundled with the main game is the editor – the same full suite of world-building tools that Larian Studios used to craft the main game and its story. Starting with a blank piece of terrain, you use a simple mouse-and-keyboard interface to stretch and warp the ground into the basic shape you want, then 'paint' it with textures to create scenery that's lush with greenery, covered in snow or submerged in water. With the terrain down, you can add buildings from the game's pre-existing library, build settlements, add clutter and NPCs, and then eventually tie it all together with your own dialogue and quests. Best of all, once you're done playing level designer, you can upload and share your own levels and stories for free for other players to enjoy.
It's a model that Bethesda has been using for years with its Fallout and Elder Scrolls series and the effect is to create, just a few months after launch, a sprawling modding community, offering up potentially hundreds of hours of extra playtime for free. It also puts an onus on Larian to deliver something extra special with future downloadable content – pitting the game's original designers against a much wider base of dedicated modders.
"Everything is dependent on how successful the game will be," says Vincke. "I'm not fan of charging for small DLC [downloadable content] and since we are giving the editor away, I guess that’s something that won’t happen. However, I do believe in expansions, so if there are sufficient people that buy Divinity: Original Sin we will be making extra content."
The game will also be spreading its roots deeper than the RPG's traditional PC home turf, with Linux and Mac versions planned for release soon after the PC version. As for Original Sin making its way to consoles, it's something Vincke isn't ruling out.
"Hopefully the game [will be] successful enough for us to continue working on it and bring it to other platforms," he says. "We’d have to redo the entire UI but I think the game systems could easily be ported. Personally, I’d love to play it on one screen with two players and a controller.”
Divinity: Original Sin on a Wii U GamePad and TV? Sounds like the perfect way to play, if you ask us.