Before we get started, let's make one thing clear: this is not a sequel. Beyond Divinity may pick up where the first game left off, but it's no sequel. Nor can it safely be called an upgrade, given that the same game engine is in use. If you really insist on pigeonholing it you could call it a stand-alone semi-sequel, offering a full new storyline, but with the kind of changes in game mechanics you might expect from a sequel. Confused yet? You should be.
Basically, Beyond Divinity is one for the fans. It's for all those who played the immense first game and remarkably enough, were left wanting more. As it happens, I can be counted among that number, so when playable preview code for Beyond Divinity turned up in the office I leapt on it like a hungry orc on a manburger. Or something. In any case, let's take a close look at what Larian has been working on since the release of the original game.
The first thing to leap out at you when the game loads up is the fact that you're not alone. BD uses a party-based system, though for the most part your group consists of just two people: you, and a Death Knight to whom you've somehow been magically soul-forged. Since neither of you are happy with this turn of events, the rest of the game is spent trying to remove the curse and escape from the Death Knight's universe back to your own.
It's immediately apparent that the addition of another party member not only makes combat easier, but allows for a much more tactical approach to battles. Right from the first dungeon you're plunged headfirst into battle, where the Death Knight proves to be more than a little handy, seeing off multiple enemies while you faff about with the new game controls.
Pausing the action with the space key quickly becomes essential, as with two characters to control rather than one, your tactical options are broadened. As such, Beyond Divinity appears to offer greater depth in combat than its predecessor.
The ante in battle is upped further with the introduction of extensive skill choices. Whereas the first title offered various classes to choose from, BD goes much further and gives you skill choices within each individual class. Choosing a warrior skill, for example, will open up further choices, like specialising in dealing extra damage or increasing the probability of critical hits; whereas dress-wearing wizard types will discover their own skill trees and various spell specialisations.
If you wish, you can pause the game and explore all the skill trees at your leisure, or you can do what we did and browse through all the skills while the Death Knight runs about twatting everything he comes across.
As you may have guessed, the Death Knight seems a little over-powered in this early version, but there's every possibility the beta was intended to make us feel good about ourselves, so allowed for a large degree of incompetence on the part of the player. Whatever the case, he's quite a formidable companion, and the best way to set him up appears to be as a warrior/tank type who stays up front and takes all the damage while you hide at the back casting spells or shooting arrows.
Holier Than Thou
On the basis of what we've seen so far, Beyond Divinity has every chance of improving on what was already a very solid game. The graphics may be a source of disappointment to some people, as they're pretty much the same as the original. There are (allegedly) graphical improvements, but even squinting hard and staring at the screen for ages didn't reveal any evidence of this.
As it stands the new character development options should go a long way towards retaining your interest in your characters till the end of the game, and the storyline, while somewhat cheesy, allows for a fairly comic relationship between the two main characters and never takes itself too seriously (good on ya, Rhianna). Keep your eyes peeled and look out for a full review in the next month or two.
Hey Look, A Game Within A Game
Brand new to the Divinity experience is Battlefields, a random quest generator that gives you an opportunity to try things you wouldn't dare try in the real' game. You can also use this feature to strengthen your characters if they're having a hard time at any particular point. Drop them into the fray, run through a few quests, kill a few hundred undesirables then pop back into the main scenario with your newly beefed-up hero and suddenly it's a walk in the park. This is cheating, of course, and if you do this you should be thoroughly ashamed of yourself - but don't worry, we won't tell anyone.
Download Beyond Divinity
- PC compatible
- Operating systems: Windows 10/Windows 8/Windows 7/2000/Vista/WinXP
Blizzard and BioWare: towering colossi that breathlessly support the mighty weight of the fantasy genre. So immovable are they that no fantasy RPG developer dare try to surpass them. Instead, young pretenders tend to borrow and imitate, marrying the action-oriented gameplay of Blizzard with the sprawling depth of BioWare, hoping some of the magic will rub off.
In the case of Belgian developer Larian and its 2002 effort Divine Divinity, it actually worked. With its sprawling, detailed gameworld and spectacular real-time combat, Div Div rose above its inane moniker to become one of the most playable RPGs of the year. And in a genre that's increasingly fleeing to the massively multiplayer dreamland, it was a hugely welcome surprise.
With a small but vocal cult following keenly baying for more, it was only a matter of time before we saw a follow-up. Beyond Divinity is that game, but Larian is keen to stress that it's neither sequel nor expansion pack, but simply a continuation of the saga. There's a new setting and fresh characters, but otherwise it's the same heady fusion of deep background detail, dynamic character advancement and frantic mouse-clicking.
The story carries on from the original, with you once more taking charge of the Chosen One in his continuing battle against the Lord Of Chaos. This time, however, you don't start off battered and bruised in a quaint village, but emaciated and imprisoned in another dimension, your soul bound to the fortunes of an evil Templar. He's fallen foul of the same demon that's taken a dislike to you, a situation neither you nor your Death Knight chum are particularly chuffed about. Basically, if one of you cops a fatal blow, the other buys it too.
This state of affairs is perhaps the most interesting feature of Beyond Divinity, and the one that distinguishes it most clearly from its predecessor. Previously, your only playable character was a sickeningly righteous teacher's pet type, and the addition of a malevolent warrior makes for a much more interesting story. In fact, it's essentially a fantasy take on the Hollywood buddy movie, as both characters bond through shared danger, earn the grudging respect of the other and end up slapping each other's buttcheeks in a steamy changing room. Of course, since the game takes considerably longer to plough through than the entire Lethal Weapon series, the premise is dragged out far longer than is necessary; but it makes a nice change from your usual party of drab off-the-shelf adventurers.
Aside from the new story and the eventual ability to dally between various dimensions as you strive to master the 'lost art of riftrunning', the gameplay remains fundamentally unchanged. The most obvious difference is that with two characters to control, there's more scope to explore the bewildering number of skills, both old and new. The Death Knight is a natural 'tank' character and an obvious candidate to take the warrior role, leaving your divine other free to follow the way of the Wizard or thief-like Survivor. But this being Divinity, the dynamics of the skill system make your choice of class largely irrelevant, as any class can pursue pretty much any skill path. Together with the (albeit expensive) option to unlearn skills, this lends the game unrivalled scope to experiment.
In some ways, this open character system actually hindered the replayability of the first title, but here the developer has made amends with the new Battlefields system. Basically, this allows you to take your avatars away from the main campaign into a series of random dungeons. Here, you can gain experience and equipment to bring back to the main quest. It's a great way to release tension when you're struggling to locate some elusive key or other, and because the whole game is based around alternative dimensions, it doesn't feel like a cheat's way out either.
As with its predecessor, Beyond Divinity stands above its peers in offering an excellent level of optional detail, both in terms of background material and interactivity. You can read the various texts found lying about on bookshelves, or make use of innocuous items like pots, rotten food and plant life.
Moreover, there's a subtle yet powerful system whereby you can unintentionally upset the various NPCs just by ending a conversion prematurely, the result being that their aid is offered at a higher price. If you shut them up a number of times, they may even blank you from then on. It's a nice touch that adds some degree of believability to the game world.
The fact is that of all the fantasy games out there, there are none that are as accessible as this series, while still offering such huge scope to explore the environment, the story and the characters themselves. The graphics are decidedly old-skool and the combat isn't nearly as tactical or as spectacular as the developer claims (I feel Larian should drop the Diablo-style combat entirely). However, with BioWare moving ever more mainstream, the Divinity series could well take over from where Baldur's Gate left off.
There's still some way to go until that happens, but Beyond Divinity definitely shows Larian Studios progressing (very) slowly in the right direction. Bring on Divinity 2.
Graphical Enhancements Have Only Muddied The Issue
Despite a small graphical makeover, Beyond Divinity retains a few hangover issues from the first game. The skewed isometric view makes a return of course, which is not something that bothers us particularly. What we do take issue with is the battles, which are perhaps even more messy than before. As swarms of enemy creatures heap themselves upon you, the only way to make out what's going on is often to look at the health bars. Of course, the various spell effects have been beefed up and the characters are now built from 3D models rather than 2D sprites, but in combat the animations are just as repetitive as before. And even though the new option of being able to zoom in on the action is welcome, what you get is a big ugly mess filling up the screen instead of a little one in the corner.