See beyond the flaws
The GoodBeyond Divinity
is a sequel of sorts to Divine Divinity, a fantastic RPG that lovingly recreated the glorious days of Ultima. One could say that Beyond Divinity is to its predecessor what Serpent Isle was to Black Gate: more scripted, less open-ended, but as rich in interaction and core gameplay. The difference, however, is much more noticeable this time, since Beyond Divinity has a by far smaller world and is much more linear.
I wouldn't have placed the above sentence in the "Good" section if the game didn't play whatever cards its designers dealt it really well. In other words, I prefer the first game's design any time of the day, but as far as "restricted" RPGs go, Beyond Divinity is top of the line. What I particularly liked is how, in spite of all constraints, the developers managed to make the game world rich and even expansive. Yes, Beyond Divinity takes place in confined locations, each serving as the sole setting of an act, without an open world to tie them together. But then again, Planescape: Torment was like that too. As a matter of fact, the two games have quite a lot in common: both hardly excel in quantity, but try to squeeze every drop of quality out of every location they contain.
When I heard that the entire first act of the game would take place in a prison dungeon, I was ready to toss it away. But then I decided to give it a chance and slowly got absorbed into its world. Exploration of a hostile, closed-off prison almost reminded me of the claustrophobic wanderings in System Shock. Every room has something interesting in it, every friendly character you encounter has a tale to tell. There are plenty of optional locations and sub-quests not required to finish the game. You warm up to the cozy advancement and after a while stop noticing the restraints. This is what happens when developers seriously work with whatever material is accessible to them and try to do their best regardless of limitations.
The more scripted nature of the game makes it decidedly more "edgy" than its mild medieval predecessor. The atmosphere is darker and the characters you encounter are more eccentric. There are fewer locations, but each one is more memorable than wherever we have traveled to in the previous game. Dark castles, desolate lava mountains, an exotic imp village, a mysterious academy with crazy enemies - each location has personality and style, imbuing the game itself with a certain distinctive charisma that wasn't quite there in the first title.
The story is also more interesting, and more personal for once. Instead of assuming the role of a schematic world-saving chosen one, you are cast as a simple paladin whose initial goal has nothing to do with saving anyone and involves a prison break. Afterwards, it becomes about breaking the curse of being soul-forged to a grumpy, cynical Death Knight. This premise is quite original, building up an unorthodox intimacy between two most unlikely companions, and the interaction between the hero and his reluctant accomplice provide many amusing moments. This plot is also worth following to the very end, where a bomb of a plot twist awaits you, not only shedding a completely different light on everything you've learned so far, but also tying this game's story to that of its predecessor in a most unexpected way.
Humor is still present, but this time it is grittier, more grotesque, sometimes even bordering on the macabre. Attentive players will derive much pleasure from the game's attention to detail - there are all sorts of funny optional dialogues and descriptions everywhere. Death Knight himself can be a walking comic relief, with some priceless scenes such as procuring an item that colors him pink. In short, the game doesn't take itself too seriously, but manages to combine humor with a fairly dark setting, which is something only very few titles can pull off without deteriorating into tasteless mishmash.
Beyond Divinity retains the addictive, Diablo-influenced character building. This time you have two characters to manage, since Death Knight behaves as a fully controllable, customizable character as well. Both he and the protagonist have access to all the skills, and the sequel goes even further than the first game in providing endless variations of building up the character of your choice. There are more skills than ever before, with detailed weapon and damage proficiencies, vast survivor and magic categories, and a whole new "summoning dolls" discipline, allowing you to bring in a third party member and even customize it to a certain extent.
There is a huge variety of items in the game - again, more than before, so at least in terms of character-building opportunities Beyond Divinity certainly surpasses the previous game. There is loot everywhere - fallen enemies, containers, shops, etc., so outfitting your characters and trying to get the best randomized items will occupy you for a long time. As it should always be the case with RPGs, gradually turning your initially weak characters into powerful warriors is an exhilarating, deeply addictive process.
Since the actual world of the game is fairly small and enemies don't respawn, the developers found an original solution to the resulting lack of material for character building: they made separate open areas with huge randomized dungeons accessible at any time once you've found an appropriate key within each correspondent act of the main game. This may sound like an artificial attempt to enforce grinding, but in reality it works surprisingly well. The game invites you to take a break from heavy, scripted environments and engage in nearly mindless, but addictive and rewarding Diablo-like slaughter fest with disarming honesty. Thanks to these "battlefield" areas, as they are called in the game, you are able to clearly organize your playing sessions and take refreshing breaks from the restricted advancement of the main quest.
The battlefield areas also offer all sorts of traders and trainers, all conveniently located to sell your accumulated loot to, identify items, stock on potions, etc., only to happily venture into the next monster of a dungeon, hacking skeletons to pieces, collecting more loot, selling surplus again, leveling up, spending cozy moments with the menu screens, trying to build up the best combination out of your two characters, and then, satisfied with your progress, return to the main game and kick some serious butt you weren't even able to scratch before. Once you find a key to the respective battlefield area you'll feel like you are taking a vacation from arduous work, and you sigh in relief.
The actual combat is also more interesting than in the first game. They made it real-time rather than action-based, which means that you only need to click on an enemy to initiate automatic attack rounds, and can cast spells in real-time as well or pause the game to drink potions. Combat is therefore more tactical and also relies on cooperation between your two (or three) controllable party members, bringing it closer to Baldur's Gate games. It is also very fast, so when you are sufficiently powered up you'll be able to storm enemies with heavy blows from both characters, ending the battle in a mere second and giving you an illusion of action-oriented combat. The game is also quite challenging, with some encounters you can barely survive, though abusing the pause key with intense potion-drinking can certainly reduce the stress.
The BadBeyond Divinity is a lot like a nerdy, insecure, pimpled genius teenager on a date. Looks don't matter, they say, but fire up this game and you'll see that they do. Yes, there is personality and inspiration in the design of the world, but the actual engine is horribly outdated, and there is something poor and sad in the way the game looks. The world is not vibrant, lacking the visual warmth of its predecessor, and the game loudly screams "low budget" when you are treated to the barely animated intro and then wind up in a lackluster prison dungeon. 3D characters only irritate you because there is no camera, and the zooming is atrocious, magnifying the washed-out backgrounds and making them look like a SNES game. Also, higher resolutions make everything look unbearably small, so in the best case you'll be stuck with backgrounds that ceased to be the norm several years before the game's release.
Then you'll have to endure the ugly menus with archaic windows and gloomy fonts that further discourage you from discovering the depths this game harbors. And once you get used to all that and even accept the poor graphics, sacrificing your insatiable, sybarite lust for shiny 3D on the altar of true role-playing, the disastrous voice acting keeps ruining the pleasure. Death Knight, the game's most important character and its actual narrator, tries really hard to make you believe that soul forging invariably leads to severe constipation.
These issues aside, the game's biggest problem is the change in gameplay. Divine Divinity was an open-world action RPG, while the sequel is a more tactical real-time game with a much more linear progression. In the first game you could theoretically go anywhere right in the beginning; in this one the entire first act, a quarter or so of the game, takes place in the first location, the huge prison dungeon. Gradually exploring it is fascinating in its own way, but lack of freedom can feel particularly suffocating because, judging by your acquaintance with the previous game, you don't expect it at all. No matter how good Beyond Divinity is on its own merits, it is perplexing and even misleading as a sequel.
The Bottom LineSequels that remove or reduce key features of their predecessors are doomed to be trashed by fans for all eternity. But once the initial shock caused by low production values and dubious design decisions is gone, a dedicated follower of the role-playing cult will most certainly find a lot to love in this game. Addictive and deep role-playing isn't exactly common, and this game offers it in spades. Don't judge the book by its cover, and you might be pleasantly surprised: Beyond Divinity is a flawed gem, but a gem nevertheless.