LOS ANGELES—Larian Studios had been making OK-to-pretty-good PC RPGs for years. The company had its dedicated fans, but it was hardly mainstream. So 2014’s Kickstarter-driven Divinity: Original Sin surprised many by being not just the studio’s best game, but maybe one of the best PC-style RPGs ever made.
You could argue that Original Sin didn’t quite reach that state until the Enhanced Edition, though. That launched alongside console ports for the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One in 2015. The update added full voice acting, greatly improved the multiplayer experience, added couch co-op and a 360-degree camera, and made significant changes to content.
Last year, critics and fans seemed mostly to agree that the sequel, Divinity: Original Sin 2, was even better than the first game’s Enhanced Edition. It included all the enhanced features from that title and more. So with the Definitive Edition of Original Sin 2 coming August 31, what is there left to add?
Console support, for one. The game will launch on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One—and for the first time, Larian is adding PS4 Pro and Xbox One X enhancements (PC players who already bought the first release of Original Sin 2 will get everything console players get for free in August.) But Larian says that the game’s story has also seen dramatic changes, especially in its later segments.
Ars sat down with Larian Studios Product Manager Kieron Kelly at E3 last week to go over what’s new in the game, how the developers tried to make the Definitive Edition as appealing as the first game’s Enhanced Edition, and what it took to port both PC-style RPGs to consoles and gamepads.
A primer on Divinity: Original Sin 2
Both Divinity: Original Sin and Divinity: Original Sin 2 are top-down role-playing games influenced by both the Baldur’s Gate series and the Ultima franchise. The studio approached its games with the objective of emulating the freedom of choice in table-top RPG sessions as closely as possible. Larian got closer than most people expected.
Yes, Original Sin 2‘s PC version has mod support and a game master’s mode for creating custom campaigns, and that’s part of its appeal. (Though Kelly told us that game master mode won’t make it to consoles—the verdict is still out on mods). But the main ingredient is what Kelly describes as Larian’s “N + 1” philosophy for game design:
There must be N + 1 ways of solving the quest, which means that if you create a quest with only one or two ways of doing it, it is not going to get past QA in terms of—our design team is simply not going to allow it. So, we make sure that there [are] always multiple ways of solving the quest… So, we always have fallback; usually it ends up being something like a journal or another way of communicating a part of the story, but I mean, we’ve always told our players that you can walk into the world and kill almost everybody, and you’ll still be able to complete the main quests.
Divinity plays similarly to a classic Black Isle CRPG and can be played with up to four players simultaneously, but they can wander apart from each other, work together, work against each other, help each other, kill each other, or whatever else. And with so many options for finishing quests, the possibilities aren’t endless, but they feel close enough to it that they remind players of tabletop experiences.
For that reason, the Divinity franchise is a natural fit for consoles, despite its old-school PC default interface. Couch co-op with a game like Original Sin 2 is reminiscent like playing Dungeons & Dragons.
A CRPG on console
Original Sin launched on consoles some months after the PC release, and the timeline for the sequel is similar. Larian was mostly silent about its plans for the console versions when Original Sin 2 first came out, but Kelly says they were always in the plan:
We know that we have a dedicated fan base that are on console and that they are waiting for that day. In fact, the day we launched Original Sin 2 on PC a year ago, our community manager had a list of names of people who are like, “PS4? When is it coming to Xbox?” We have dedicated fan base there that we know to reach out to, so it was always a goal to come out to console with the definitive edition. Evidently, when we go back to something, we don’t just rest with a port. What would have been a three-to-six-month port ended up being 12 months because we went back and changed a lot of stuff.
Porting this kind of computer RPG to consoles is mainly a challenge in terms of the interface and menus. There’s a lot of text to display; that’s not a challenge if the player is six feet away from a 65-inch television, but it is if they’re playing 12 feet away from a 43-inch one. The environment is stocked with numerous interactable objects like books, barrels, junk lying on a table, and so on. That more or less demands a mouse pointer or touch controls, and the PS4 and Xbox editions have neither.
“When you think of say, the shooter, the first-person shooter really took a leap forward with Bungie and Halo,” Kelly recalled. “There’s been an evolution of using a controller for certain genres. And maybe our RPG—the traditional RPG that we like—hasn’t really been on enough maybe to see that evolution.”
Here’s how he said Larian tried to tackle this:
First of all, we don’t want to dilute the system in any way. We don’t want to dilute the experience. But we know that we have to completely rework the UI because, first of all, you’re going to be sitting back. You’re not as close to the screen, so dialogue and reading is not as easy to do if the fonts are different… so it’s about making sure that we equip you, and in as intuitively a way as possible, to do all of the different things.
And mostly it’s to do with the wheel. So when you hold R2, you can do the various things—that is returning from the last one. And then little tools like the virtual mouse and being able to hold A down for instance to scan the area so that you can interact with various objects. Our team is just consistently going back and forth.
I’ve played both games on consoles, and I think the company did a solid enough job. Like Kelly said, you can press down a button to bring up a scrollable list of all the items in reach and use the D-Pad or thumbstick to select which one to use. On the other hand, targeting spells to a spot on the ground with the “virtual mouse” isn’t done in the most optimal way. Is it the most efficient way to play Original Sin 2? No, not really. But it’s arguably worth it for the couch co-op experience.
As for Xbox One X and PS4 enhancements, Kelly says that Larian is doing its best to make sure it’s “using the absolute limits” of both platforms. “We’ve definitely upped our resolution somewhat,” he said, “and HDR is there.”
And what about a Switch port? After all, a similar game—Wasteland 2—was recently announced for the platform. Kelly says not yet:
I think every developer is probably thinking about Nintendo Switch. It’s obviously a very exciting platform. Unfortunately, right now we are focused on the Xbox and PlayStation versions. If we do, there will be news about it, but right now it is just the Xbox and PlayStation.
Aside from console support, most of the changes in the new release are story-related.
Kelly told us that the team found themselves in a conundrum with this release: they’d added major enhancements in Original Sin‘s re-release, so how could they do the same when all the enhancements they’d added then were in the first version of Original Sin 2? “What we did this time,” he told us, “it was more to do with the changing and improving on the existing game.”
More specifically, that involved plenty of rewriting—and thus, re-recording. “So it was a million words voice-acted in the last game, when we launched—we’ve re-written at least 100,000 words that have been re-recorded and voice-acted,” he said.
The team made significant changes to the inventory and quest UIs, too. Kelly started by describing narrative changes to Act 3 (don’t worry, it’s spoiler-light):
There’s a large city called Arx, and a huge part of the Act 3 happens in that area. So a huge amount of that area was redone completely—new situations, new dialogues, new pieces of information for you. And the main reason for that is actually because we didn’t feel like all the threads tied together or ended as well as we wanted to.
There were changes to a story in Act 2, and to character storylines:
There’s a situation where you run in to a child who has been possessed in Act 2 and we’ve actually added a new situation to tie off her story. We’ve re-worked a big chunk of Beast’s storyline, our origin storyline.
Most importantly, Larian elevated the antagonist to help drive the narrative forward, based on feedback from players:
One of the main antagonists at the end of the game is Chem… a lot of our players were struggling to figure out why he was so important, and in typical Larian Style we’d put lots of bits of information everywhere but it obviously wasn’t gelling right, so we re-wrote some of that. We also added some new situations where you can really realize why this guy’s a big deal and he’s a problem in the beginning. We’ve re-written the epilogue so that’s a more satisfying ending as well.
Much of this was possible because Larian had a much larger writing team this time around. “We had only one-and-a-half writers for Original Sin,” he said. “I say half, because one of the guys had to go on a very extended holiday for whatever reason. But on Original Sin 2, we have nine writers.” The tone has changed a bit from the first game. If you’re coming from Original Sin, you might notice that the sequel’s not quite as goofy. I loved the silly humor of the first game, but it’s a little bit less pervasive this time around.
“It was actually heavy criticism that we had to bear with Original Sin,” Kelly explained. “A lot of people were like, it’s too goofy.”
The team sought a better balance in Original Sin 2:
We wanted to have more gravitas with your actions with the world you were living in—that it wasn’t so whimsical. But we knew that humor was a part of our DNA; we didn’t want to get rid of it. I think we’ve got a much better balance that works. It’s a little bit more serious, but we’re still not afraid to drop in that humor where it matters.
Personally, I have mixed feelings about these kinds of changes. On one hand, I appreciate that the company is this attentive to its games after launch and that it’s this focused on adding value for a re-release. It’s also good that all these changes will be available free to PC players who’d bought the initial version of the game. But on the other hand, Original Sin 2 is a gigantic, long game, and it’s unfortunate that the first people to dive in didn’t get the complete experience until a later release.
If you played Original Sin 2 previously, you’ll have to decide if these changes sound worth another trip to Rivellon. If you haven’t, this is as good a time as any to jump in. Just note that Original Sin 2 is not for everyone; it’s a hardcore game that will stress some players out with its myriad choices, high combat difficulty, and sprawling length.
But to fans of classic ’90s PC RPGs, that probably sounds awesome.
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