20 November 2009

Divinity II: Ego Draconis

 Divinity II: Ego Draconis - first look
You’re a dragon slayer. You’re also a dragon. Tricky one

The Divinity series, like its classmate at High Fantasy High School, Gothic, is a big deal in mainland Europe. Until now, neither RPG has made much of a dent in either the UK or US. With its impressive translation, convincing animation, inventive quests, and combat and reward systems reminiscent of Diablo, Divinity II has the best shot yet.

Cast in the role of a Dragon Slayer, your role is, oddly enough, to slay dragons. Once a regular-ish presence in the land of Rivellon, the leathery fire-bastards are largely banished thanks to the efforts of the slayers. But, ack! Some more have turned up for an unexplained reason. Time to get levelling up, offing standard goblins, bandits and miscellaneous undead spooks in an attempt to hone your abilities to a dragon-biffing peak.

Confusingly, on reaching the later levels, the game also promises to let you become a dragon. Cue bemused glances as your silver-eyed slayer wonders whether he’s next in the kill-queue. Those silver eyes come about thanks to your ‘dragon memories’ – a set of implanted visions jammed into your cranium by your obliging trainer early in the game. Conveniently, this means the dragon slayer forgets the previous 20 or so years of hardcore training at the dragon-training dragon-facility. We can only hope he’s still able to tie his dragon-shoelaces after this nasty onset of forced dragonesia. Fortunately for those would-be players who want to craft their own specialized dragon-character, the resulting dragon-slayer is a blank slate, ready to level-up in the usual kill-baddies/get experience dragon-fashion. Dragon.

This baddie-killing is a satisfying prospect, as combat is simple and fast. Very much of the Diablo school of enemy-twocking, speedy clicking is the most effective way to fight. However, it’s not all broadswords and close combat. The first township is a form of training ground, where three of your friends hang around, each with a specialization. Go for the heavily armored chap beating the splinters out of a dummy, and you’ll get the ‘warrior’ specialization, but the classic ranger and mage are also on offer. You’re given time to practice your new-found skills on conveniently provided goblins before leaving the town and selecting your class, but the game also promises the ability to alter your favoured method of bloodshed further along the narrative.

Taking down early enemies is a problem for an unlevelled character, necessitating a good amount of lower-level slaughter to be able to compete. You can be easily swarmed by baddies, and one of the first major foes you’ll need to strike down to progress will stomp you in seconds unless you’ve killed enough boars to keep a particularly fat peasant family fed for life. Fortunately, with combat so unfussy, batting down a small camp of goblins isn’t a chore, at least in the short term.

Quests are, as you’d expect in this comforting duvet of a classic Tolkienesque fantasy realm, pitched between lengthy and serious: investigate a tomb to find an item to kill a dragon! – and short and mischievous: save my pigs because I love my pigs! Most quests appear to have a number of resolutions, from the stereotypically uncaring to the more sneaky. Preview code quests have given us the opportunity to play characters off each other, or employ perhaps Divinity II’s most intriguing addition to the classic RPG template: mind-reading.

Slayers are given the opportunity to muscle their way into the heads of other characters, gleaning either important information or just a bit more background information about the world of Rivellon. There’s a small risk/reward mechanic in such psychic shenanigans: attempting a mind-read will cost one experience point. Small beer, but more hardened discussion partners won’t give away their secrets easily, meaning you could be throwing away valuable XP.

The colorful, almost cartoonish realization of Rivellon is a relaxing hub in which to begin quests. Dappled autumn shades and quaint farmhouses dominate the towns seen so far. When the game decides it’s time for serious business, a slight filter descends, lending the surroundings a darker hue. It’s a nice visual warning, and keeps town-based jaunts jolly in tone.

It’s an ethos that seems to permeate Divinity II. There’s a lot here, but it’s not as po-faced as its competitors. Lightweight in combat and generic in story, it might not grab those looking for a transcendental, truly immersive RPG. But, given the series’ reputation in mainland Europe, there’s enough of you out there that’ll be enchanted by its good looks, customizable loot and sense of fun to while away 40-plus hours looking for mythical beasts to murder.

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