When Divinity: Original Sin was released last year, it surprised a lot of people. It was a complex role-playing game carrying on from a semi-obscure franchise created by a semi-obscure Belgian developer, Larian Studios. With publishers increasingly uninterested in takings risks, Larian turned to fans, asking for $400,000 on Kickstarter.
It worked, both in the sense that the project got more than 200 percent funded, and in that the final game was fantastic.
One year later, Larian is preparing to test whether it can repeat this success. The developer is returning to Kickstarter to help fund Divinity: Original Sin 2. But contrary to play it safe, this sequel has some wild new ideas and ambitions far beyond the scope of the already-impressive first game.
Despite being days away from launching a new Kickstarter campaign, Larian Studios CEO Swen Vincke has flown from his home in Belgium to the United States. Tomorrow, he'll head to Seattle, where he'll show off the new project to fans attending the Penny Arcade Expo. Tonight, a jet lagged Vincke orders room service in a downtown San Francisco hotel. He kneels on the floor, crouching in front of a laptop, where he loads up a pre-alpha build of Divinity: Original Sin 2.
"Original Sin 2 is built on top of Divinity: Original Sin Enhanced Edition," Vincke tells us, referring to the new version of the first game currently in development for Xbox One and PlayStation 4. "So some of the things you're going to see will look incredibly slick and polished. Other things will look very pre-alpha, because it is a pre-alpha. But we're building further on the engine that we have already."
The first moments we see of Divinity: Original Sin 2 do certainly look familiar. You take control of a party of four rogue magic users — known as "sourcerers" in the world of Divinity, where magic is referred to as "the source." The party begins the game in jail for using magic, but they quickly escape.
Vincke begins the demo at a point that he identifies as around five hours into the game. The party has crashed on an island that just so happens to be home to the main character.
Or, home to Vincke's current main character, at least. The first major change between Original Sin 2 and its predecessor is that players will have a lot more control and options over the protagonist during character creation. They'll be able to choose from four different races and a multitude of backgrounds, each of which can have a major impact on how other characters in the world react to you, how the story unfolds and even your primary goals.
In our demo, Vincke is playing as a human with the noble background. She grew up well-off as part of a family helping to bankroll the mining colony on this island. Over the course of her time in jail, the protagonist has teamed up with a wood elf magician, a dwarven warrior and a human thief.
Vincke quickly demonstrates for us just how granular the distinctions and differences in your party can be. At the entrance to town is the statue of Harrald the Mighty, a legendary human hero. Each character can interact with the statue, and each provides unique thoughts that begin to paint a picture of their attitude and place in the world.
Divinity: Original Sin 2 is not a traditional single-player RPG
Having grown up in this town, the main character has memories tied directly to the statue. The human thief is familiar with the legends revering Harrald. The elf calls the man "impressive ... for a human." And the dwarf? He notes that Harrald murdered hundreds of dwarves and was a monster at best, not a hero worthy of praise.
This early encounter allows the politics and differences of opinion in your party to take shape, but it's not much more than a few steps later, at the entrance to town, where those issues come much more strongly into play.
Upon entering town, the main character discovers that the mayor has been poisoned and the protagonist's mother has been arrested as one of the primary suspects. Again, this plot thread could completely cease to exist if you had a character with a different background.
Given the situation with the mayor, the town has been locked down while guards investigate. At this point, the main character can choose to ask the guard to allow her whole party passage into town. Vincke decides not to, though, going on without them.
Here's where things get very interesting. You see, Divinity: Original Sin 2 is not a traditional single-player RPG. You can play it solo, but, as with the first game, you can also play it co-op. This time the co-op has been bumped from two players to four. And what those four players can do is incredible.
"Original Sin 2 can be played both cooperatively and competitively," Vincke tells us. "That's going to require a bit of explanation, because you haven't played competitively like this before."
He's not wrong. Once the main character has gone into town, the other three characters are left to attempt to figure out a way in on their own. The human thief is able to sweet-talk the guard into letting him in on account of him being a fellow human who's unlikely to stir up trouble. The elf suggests that her magic could be of use in solving the crime and healing the mayor.
And the dwarf? Well, the dwarf is out of luck. As it turns out, the only other suspect for the poisoning besides the protagonist's mom is a local dwarf, which has put the rest of the dwarf population up in arms. If your dwarven ally wants in, he needs to find his own way.
At this point, with the party broken up and heading in different directions, Vincke begins hopping between characters with abandon, simulating what four individual players might get up to at the same time. The dwarf sneaks around the town, fights off some poisonous enemies and discovers a hidden entrance into the slums beneath the city. The protagonist heads toward the jail and witnesses an angry dwarven citizen firebombing a marketplace in protest.
While the rest of the party continues along different paths, the elf sneaks into the mayor's house. She has a foolproof plan for solving this mystery.
After interrogating the healer who's tasked with watching over the mayor, the elf begins casting spells and quickly kills both the healer and the mayor herself. As they die, two ghostly apparitions appear in front of the elf.
"The characters in Original Sin 2 are spirit whisperers," Vincke says. "One of their unique talents is that they can talk and interact with spirits. There's a lot of reasons that we might want to do that, and since this elf doesn't really care whether these humans live or die, she's killed them and can talk to their spirits."
The elf is able to ask the mayor's ghost who poisoned her. She discovers that it was neither the protagonist's mother nor the dwarf who's been locked up, but a mysterious third party. But the elf is under no obligation to share that information with her party members, who are quickly finding themselves on opposite sides of a political power struggle in the town.
"All characters and the players who control them have their own personal motivations," says Vincke. "And the party has an overall motivation as well. Players might compromise, but they don't necessarily have to compromise. At the end of the game, they might decide they're going to compete with one another over what they have to do. They might have a falling out. You never know which player you can trust, because they all have their own motivations depending on which origin story they're bringing into the game."
"You never know which player you can trust"
In this case, the human protagonist has clearly been set against the dwarf. Fearing that the dwarven party member might cause trouble, the human heads to a market, purchasing a bottle of red dye and a vial of poison. Using Divinity: Original Sin 2's crafting system, the human combines those two items and creates something that looks like a healing potion but will actually poison whoever uses it. She's then able to slip it into the dwarf's inventory silently, creating a situation that's sure to cause problems for him later on.
The game is full of situations like this, where co-op players who find themselves at odds can hinder each other. In another example, Vincke steals some contraband as the human thief. He slips the contraband into the inventory of the elf, and then talks to a town guard, telling them they should search this person. Moments later, the elf finds herself in jail.
If stuff breaks down altogether, the party can even end up fighting. At one point, Vincke playing as the human main character stumbles across the dwarf and human thief in combat against a group of enemies. Rather than helping, Vincke chooses to attack, force his party members to defend themselves on two fronts.
The purpose of these interactions is to have fun messing around with party members who may have opposing goals but never to prevent anyone from actually playing the game. The elf will have methods of escaping from jail. The dwarf will be able to resurrect and jump back into the action even if he swallows a flask full of poison. Vincke says there will be some punishment for deaths, but the studio is still figuring out how to balance weakening characters who have died while making sure they can still function in the game.
Despite launching a second Kickstarter campaign, Vincke is aware that Larian Studios is in a much different place than it was with the first Divinity: Original Sin. For example, despite turning to crowdfunding, the studio already has the money they need to make this sequel.
"The game is funded because of the original's success," Vincke says. "We can already do a lot of things. But we'd like to expand from here. We'd like to create more origin stories. Each origin story means basically hiring an extra writer because of how far they go in affecting the game. We also want to expand the skills and spell systems. An extra race would be cool."
In other words, this will be a crowdfunding game based almost entirely around raising money for stretch goals. The sequel is happening. The pre-alpha build is already running. The game will come out, regardless of whether it reaches its Kickstarter goal. But Larian Studios wants the opportunity to make it bigger and even more ambitious, which is something that the extra funding can make room for.
"We're very nervous about the Kickstarter"
Still, the developer is not sure how players will react.
"We're very nervous about the Kickstarter," Vincke admits. "We don't know what will happen. But we think it should do well with the RPG crowd, because there's nothing else like this out there."
After our first look, we don't disagree. Even more so than its forebear, Divinity: Original Sin 2 looks singular in its ambitions compared to other RPGs.
Larian Studios' new Kickstarter for Divinity: Original Sin 2 goes live later today. The team is currently aiming to release the sequel in late 2016, but Vincke notes with a laugh that the studio has "never hit a deadline in our life."
The actual final release date is likely to depend on how much money it brings in and how many of those stretch goals get funded. As with the characters in the game, much of the fate of Divinity: Original Sin 2 will be left in the hands of the fans themselves.