Divinity II: The Dragon Knight Saga Review

22 Nov 2010  by
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Divinity II: The Dragon Knight Saga is a wonderful, welcome surprise. It’s been a long time since I’ve played an RPG that manages to balance a lengthy, in-depth story with such a self-aware and hilarious script. Much of the splendid protagonist dialogue in The Dragon Knight Saga (DKS) reminds me of similar moments from Anachronox (2001) and Vampire – The Masquerade: Bloodlines (2004); two other titles which managed to do justice to their respective genre influences, while also effectively poking fun at them.

But we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves here. DKS is a re-issued and re-tooled version of Divinity II: Ego Draconis (released in late 2009/early 2010 depending upon your region,) bundled with the fresh Flames of Vengeance expansion – so most of it is not exactly new. The original Ego Draconis received moderate reviews, garnering a fair bit of criticism over balance issues. DKS aims to fix those problems, tinker with a few quests and offer somewhat improved graphics. If you already own and have completed Ego Draconis, you’ll probably be best served by just picking up the stand-alone release of Flames of Vengeance. However, if (like me) Ego Draconis passed you by the first time, DKS is definitely the package to get hold of.

The twin pillars of a successful RPG are memorable characters and inventive quest design. Good writing forms the foundation for both. Without getting too mired in what ‘good’ means to different people, I think it’s broadly true to say that the further an RPG title goes to disguise the basic quest formula of ‘go here and do this for me please,’ the more enjoyable a player’s experience will be. DKS spares no expense on the funny glasses and Groucho moustache.

A specific example would be helpful, wouldn’t it? Here we go then.

There’s a point in the game where your character has just emerged from exploring an ancient tomb. He (or she) gets jumped by a group of fighters and a battle ensues. In too many RPGs, this would be a basic combat encounter without much life to it – just another excuse to farm a few more experience points. But here’s the full details of how it plays out in DKS (this is, I’m afraid, going to be slightly spoilery by necessity.) The tomb is under the stewardship of religious fundamentalists who worship dragons. Inside, your hero engages in conversation with a seductive treasure chest who wants to play sexy memory games. You emerge, only to be confronted by a freelance group of bitter dragon slayers, to whose threats you can literally respond: “You do know I’m the most powerful being in Rivellon, right?” Your foes scoff at this, adopt Power Ranger poses and then launch their attack.

This kind of absurd brilliance is not a one-off.

DKS knows precisely how ludicrous most fantasy RPGs are, and while this doesn’t stop it from pursuing a fairly standard ‘you are the chosen one and must save the day’ plot, it does mean it will take every opportunity to say ‘yes, we know this is silly.’ So expect to encounter a guy who wants help increasing his collection of erotically carved cannonballs, a lisping, stitched-together copy of a Necromancer’s ex-girlfriend and a Dark Messiah-esque voice in your head who is frustrated by your preoccupation with side-quests over her own world-saving agenda. You can also expect superb dialogue options that allow you to be a passive-aggressive sociopath at almost every turn. DKS lets you feel like a truly powerful force, to the extent that it offers the best villain-sassing opportunities since Vampire – The Masquerade: Bloodlines. After the first encounter with the main baddie (who, in classic style, lets you live) the game realises it owes you the chance to say something along the lines of ‘man, he really should have just killed me there.’

As well as being backed by fine writing, the majority of quests handed out by DKS have multiple solutions. Thanks to some fantasy plot handwaving, your character has the ability to read (some) people’s minds. Though the experience cost is not always worth it, this inventive feature will often open up fresh approaches to a current mission, or a brand new, unmarked side-quest. How about another example of this, eh? Ok.

A hilltop village is under attack from trolls, sent by a disgruntled former resident who has shut himself away in the nearby mines. Once inside the mine, you can just attack the guy and end his reign of troll-terror for good. However, it’s also possible to read his mind and discover that the only thing protecting him from the summoned trolls is a wall-mounted friendship rune. This serves as a handy bargaining chip. If you don’t fancy either of those solutions and happen to have stumbled across an odd ‘chicken rune’ during a previous dungeon raid, you can strike a different deal with the chap. He’ll cease his troll raids in return for the ability to conjure chickens from thin air, and subsist as a loner (though he’s kind enough to invite you back for fried chicken.)

The world of DKS is detailed and rewards exploration. Each ‘hub’ area (of which there are four in the main game, though two are much larger than the others) has a multitude of quests to be found and offshoot dungeons to be delved in. Some of these dungeons have rather ill-advised platform sections where the game briefly turns into Tomb Raider, but fortunately these are short, usually optional and can be save-scummed through with relative ease.

There’s very little hand-holding from the game. No quest compass. No, ‘ok, you’ve done this, now go directly here’ instructions. If, in the course of your travels, you learn that somebody keeps the key to his stash under his pillow it’s up to you to find the person’s house, and then find his loot. It’s the kind of open, free-roaming (albeit limited by the boundaries of each map hub) which more RPGs used to exhibit. Once you’ve hoovered up a decent list of quests, it’s entirely up to you which order you pursue them in. The game won’t prevent you from entering an area full of enemies that are too powerful for you to deal with, it’ll let you figure out that you’re outclassed and should come back later. All the necessary information is at the player’s disposal, it’s just never spelled out in neon letters. In short, it credits the player with a modicum of intelligence.
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From reading around about the first attempt at Ego Draconis, it seems that game suffered from rather too many areas where enemies were completely overpowering, turning the game into something of a chore. DKS fixes this issue. Playing on Normal difficulty, I was never faced with a complete inability to progress or forced into a grind for experience. There are areas (fairly obvious ones) where it’s not advisable for an early-level character to go and some fights are tough without a proper strategy (as they should be,) but it seems the problem of feeling helpless and surrounded by impossible odds has been irradicated. If anything, the developers have moved the easy slider a little bit far, particularly by introducing several weapons with substantial damage bonuses on them. These, unfortunately, can sometimes make weapon-rewards from quests rather obsolete. Lovely though Laiken’s Sword is claimed to be, it can’t ever compare with my bog standard hammer of head-pounding (+40 to magic damage.)

Combat is rarely a strong point for RPGs (oddly, no-one seems to have figured out that they should just steal the method used by Mount & Blade,) but DKS manages to pitch itself far enough away from the tedium of ‘left click on an enemy until he dies.’ Like the rest of the game, it’s in third-person, but the camera does a reasonable job of sticking behind your character. Almost everyone in DKS is kind of a glass cannon, able to pack serious punches but unable to absorb damage for too long. This means you have to stay alert even when levelled up, as a swarm of lower level enemies can still bring you down (this is, I believe, something else that was tweaked from Ego Draconis.) It’s now possible to dodge most arrows and magic spells cast at you too, adding another arcade hack ‘n slash dimension to battles. Success comes from mixing up your ranged and melee abilities, casting spells and abilities from a WoW-like hotkey action bar and being alert to avoidable attacks.

DKS doesn’t restrict you to a single class, meaning you can pick and choose skills from each of the Priest, Warrior, Mage and Ranger columns (plus more general abilities like Lockpicking from a Dragon Knight tree.) Inevitably, there are some skills that don’t really appear to be worth the investment (I’m not sure why someone would opt for ‘Master Herbalist’ when potion ingredients are plentiful in the game,) but the range of potential, viable character builds this model offers is tremendous.

Oh yes, and about ten hours into the game you gain some impressive real estate and the ability to turn into a dragon.

DKS is so intent on making you feel like a Big Deal™ that it wants you have a home base you can teleport back to at will, some hand-picked specialists (you choose these fellows as part of a prior quest, with the unlucky losers being condemned to death,) a summonable pet created from body parts you find laying around on your adventures and, yes, dragon power.

In actual fact, being able to turn into a dragon isn’t quite the game-breaking feature you might be expecting. It’s essentially a handy transportation device, allowing you to swoop and soar over the landscape (when not restricted by the rather irritating ‘anti-dragon zone’ forcefields in certain areas.) Later in the game there are also a number of dragon-specific dungeons, which turn the game into a kind of medieval arcade flight simulator complete with flaming homing missiles. A few areas in the Orobas Fjords can only be reached and explored by using the dragon form too. Sadly, you can’t attack ground targets while messing around as a dragon – presumably due to either engine limitations or balance worries. While the execution is not quite as terrific as the idea, the dragon form is still a useful tool to have and provides a nice change of pace to foot-based dungeon crawling.

DKS is full of neat little touches like the mind-reading ability and incidental conversations between NPCs that bring the world to life. The all-British cast puts in performances that are always hammy enough to be fun and often brilliant, ensuring that every town you come across runs the gamut of regional accents. It’s quite a novelty to accept quests from a demented soup-loving Hermit who sounds like Jasper Carrott. Kirill Pokrovsky’s soundtrack is also magnificent, and marks possibly the first and only time when the attitude and tone of a game is summed up almost entirely by the expression of the composer on the banner of his website.

Fans of Oblivion and the latter day Fallout games will be surprised to hear that despite running on the Gamebryo engine, DKS is apparently limited in its selection of bugs. The worst I experienced was a single loading area lock-up and a couple of villagers teleporting inside a pub. PC players should also be aware that the game is locked to 30 frames-per-second out of the box, but this can be tweaked by downloading the latest patch for the game.

For listening to criticism and revisiting an imperfect game, Larian Studios deserves high praise. The team has turned what appears to have been a near-miss into a triumphant re-release. It’s so rare to find writing this strong in an RPG, let alone one with a fantasy theme, that it should be cherished. DKS is smart, open and freeform enough to let the player experiment and explore for themselves in a way which many other games fail to deliver. Moreso than any other European-style fantasy RPG released this year, The Dragon Knight Saga deserves your attention.

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