With few exceptions, I play RPGs once and only once. And I play them. Every little quest gets done, every nook examined, every bear slain. For most RPGs, this means you get to see about 80% of the content, cause there’s always stuff that’s set behind key decision points that can only be seen after replays. Chrono Cross exemplifies this – and yes, I did replay it 3 times to get everything. Long story short, I took a very long time to clear the intro zone in Divinity 2, checking every tiny bit. And for nearly all of it, colour me impressed.
Melee vs Ranged
I was thinking maybe this would be different, but there’s no bullplop here, ranged attacks dominate melee. This is for a few reason: most ranged attacks are area effect, ranged attacks are mostly elemental with effects, caster damage is barely tied to equipment, ranged attacks have much better scaling, ranged attacks barely need to move, and they have the same action point ratio/cooldown as melee.
Not saying Melee is useless, I do enjoy the rogue build, yet it’s 1 target a time. My Geomancer/Pyrokinetic (earth/fire) mage simply destroys everything. Plus he can spec into any other casting spec (there are 7 total) with no penalty since they all use INT to scale. My rogue can either dual wield daggers or use a bow since they are the only ones that use FIN.
This breadth of choice is both amazing and very limiting. It’s entirely possible to make bad builds, especially if you don’t understand all the various elemental interactions. Compared to something like D&D (or Pathfinder), there’s no hand holding here. If you think it will work, odds are it will – but will lean heavily towards ranged.
This is a weird thing for casters, as some things overlap and trigger. Fire makes poison explode, so you have to put them in the right order. Water can freeze or stun people. You can blind, bleed, slow, knockdown and what seems a half dozen other effects.
It’s entirely possible to make the entire screen go BOOM with 2 spells. Earthquake puts our 8 puddles of oil, that oil can explode and most likely chain to other oil puddles. There were quite a few battles that were not going in my favour and I just decided to HAM the fight and things turned out well. The last fight on the jail island is a darn good example of this.
And the environment itself is a stage for a fight. Every single battle has a vertical aspect, where height makes a difference in potential damage, and prevents some elemental effects from spreading. Quite a few battles have things just lying around, waiting to explode or extinguish or block your best laid plans. It is both a great feeling to lay down a river of electric stun as it is to get caught in a puddle of slow-moving and burning oil.
I should mention an interesting talent for casters that reduces the AP cost of spells if you’re standing in that element. Extremely easy for water, quite easy if you’re undead and have poison. Fire is often manageable. That AP cost usually means another powerful spell can be cast, which dramatically speeds up fights. It’s effectively a focused haste.
I think this particular topic bears some mention across all RPGs and is directly balanced against damage. There’s a reason that old school RPGs have turn based combat, P&P battles could take hours to resolve. You needed to lock-down or disable enemies in order to survive for that long, since your damage attacks could rarely strike down a target in 1 turn.
Look at MMORPGs, where 10 years ago status effects mattered, and today everything is a DPS race. We’ve moved the needle closer to FPS models, where power is measured in time to kill (TTK) speed increased vs. survivability. Even modern “active” RPGs are like this, D&D 4e is all about a lot of small battles.
So there’s an old-school approach to managing all the types of status effects, broken down between damage, disabling, and full-on turn losses. Some fights (like a troll that can 1-shot anyone) are entirely focused on the ability to disable them in order to succeed. It’s a refreshing complexity. I will say this puts an even larger focus on movement abilities in order to avoid environmental status-effects (slipping is hilarious).
Enemy AI here is solid enough. They generally will target the healer or lowest armor/health target. It isn’t exactly focus fire though, or perhaps that’s more a difficulty modifier I have not enabled.
Combat focus from a player perspective is similar to all other RPGs, take out the most dangerous target first and have 1 person focus/control on the scraps. There is some math work here, as there are so many effects possible, it’s entirely possible a target dies while taking a step and you’re better off using an attack against another target.
The D&D Model
Most of my D&D experience is from the 3.5e model. I played a few games with 4e, which felt more like a video game as it focused (to an extreme) on combat and cooldowns, with a dramatic streamlining (some would say limiting) on class choice. A rogue only ever had access to rogue skills in 4e. 3.5 was much more horizontal than 4e. I have not played 5e, but I understand it tries to merge both models. I won’t go into the history of all this, Tobold is much better equipped than I.
Divinity 2 feels like the right balance between combat structure and horizontal choice. It doesn’t feel as obtuse as multi-classing, and there are rarely any complicated pre-requisites for any build choice – have rank 3 in fire skills and get access to all rank 1-2-3 fire skills. You don’t need to be a high elf who has ancient orc blood and cherishes the 2nd moon to get +2 damage. You can make bad choices but they are entirely reverse able on the next level up. You can’t reverse a multi-class, or a specialization in a weapon you’ll never use in a couple levels.
I think this is why Baldur’s Gate 3 seems such a question mark to me. I don’t quite see how Larian’s model can fit into the D&D mechanics. The EA reviews appear rather consistent in this challenge, and I’m quite curious as to how it plays itself out over the next year.
For now, and likely the next couple weeks at my pace, Divinity 2 is scratching a heck of an itch.