Divinity OS2: If someone asks you if you’re an undead necromantic abomination from another era of history, you say YES

One title that’s been weighing on my backlog more than others is Divinity Original Sin 2. It’s not even that it was a gift from a generous reader (although that’s part of it), but that this looks like a meaty, story-rich RPG that I would love. I just needed to carve out 100 hours or so of my time to get through it.

Or, you know, 200 half-hour segments over the better part of a year.

In any case, over the last few weeks I have been making my way through Fort Joy and the starting island in this game. Out of the six starting characters, I went with Fane, because who wouldn’t want to be a skeleton with necromantic powers from an ancient civilization? That’s by and far more interesting than all of the other characters’ backstories, so there we go.

Readers with greater memories than mine may recall that I did try DOS2 a while back and didn’t get very far into it. I have greater hopes this time around, partially because somewhere along the way the dev team released an update for the “definitive edition” that comes with a lot of improvements and bells and whistles. It doesn’t seem that much different than before, but I’ll trust that they ironed out some of the rougher parts. I did select “explorer” for my difficulty level, which is not quite the easiest mode but it’s down there.

My reasoning for this is that DOS2’s combat just takes forever. It’s a turn-based RPG where each encounter might take five or more minutes to play through. That offers a lot of strategy and tactics, but it’s slow as crap and is not something I’ll want to repeat many times over to beat particular mobs. Another nice thing about this difficulty level is that you can raise any killed allies after combat without having to worry about stockpiling rez scrolls.

Probably my only other major quibbles with the game so far is the camera, which I keep having to rotate due to the game’s large landscape graphics (which results in me getting disoriented) and a pretty crappy map (which lacks quest markers). If a game’s going to be in a pulled-back camera mode, it might as well lock into an isometric viewpoint like Pillars of Eternity.

What does keep me going is that the characters — both in the world and in my party — are downright fascinating, the dialogue is really well written, and there are so many odd things that happen that I keep wanting to explore to see what else is out there. You don’t get much better than finding a squirrel riding a skeleton cat and acting like a knight. I have no idea what the story is around these two, but they’re following me around and that’s cool with me.

I did make sure to grab the feat that lets me talk to pets, because there are so my bizarrely wonderful conversations you can get into with animals.

Probably the most touching of these is Buddy, a dog who lost his best friend Emmie when she was taken away to be trained as a Source Hound. I was really excited to find Emmie later on and let her know that Buddy is still out there, waiting for her. Doggie love!

At least I’ve been able to get further into the game — past Fort Joy — than I did previously. There was a really creepy section where my party tore through an underground torturer’s playground, and my party’s skills are starting to shape up as each combat encounter gets easier to handle. I am picking this one feat for all of my party members that turns their allies into zombies if they die in a fight, because that is awesome. You kill me? BAM, now I’m back in zombie form. Big mistake. Big.

Final thoughts on Disco Elysium

Disco Elysium may be the first role-playing game that gave me a virtual mid-life crisis. Tossing me in the shoes (er, dirty socks) of a disgraced detective who was so disgusted with his life that he went on a three-day bender to forget everything and start over again — in the middle of a case, no less — had me rethinking of what it was to pilot a hero.

Was Harry a hero? If I wanted him to be, I guess that he was. But by handing a complete wreck of a human being to a player, we were given something far more unique to this genre — freedom to be weird. And being weird is what Disco Elysium is all about. After all, Harry is guided by a host of inner personalities who vie, bicker, advise, and lead, often in different directions to each other. It’s hard to be sane and normal after that.

I finished up this CRPG a couple of weeks ago, to my immense satisfaction. During my time pursuing a murder case in this mythological European island city, I felt the freedom to deviate from the nice/naughty paths to explore some of the true oddity that can happen when you’re piloting a broken human. I’m always choosing weird options in RPGs to see what the devs come up with, and this is exactly the kind of game where that pays off — in advancement or story or amusement — more often than not.

DE is more akin to adventure games than traditional fighting RPGs (there is precious little combat in this). Reminded me a lot of Planescape Torment in that regard, not to mention how the main setting is a very rundown and depressing city. Focusing more on skills than fighting made for a very fascinating experience, and except for reloading the game a bazillion times to beat some of those low odd checks, it was a great change of pace.

So a couple of things I didn’t like. At times, Disco Elysium delves into extremely wordy treatises on politics that almost seemed like gibberish (but probably makes more sense to Europeans used to these tricky governments). And while there are laughs, the whole game atmosphere is depressing. I often came away from the game feeling emotionally wrung rather than jazzed up.

All in all, I had a great time and lend my praise to this title as one of the more excellent and imaginative RPGs that the industry has produced lately. I don’t feel a desire to replay it, which is weird, but I am very glad that I got to go through it at least once.

Disco Elysium ate my brain

As I mentioned on Twitter recently, roughly four days into this month and I found myself rearranging all of my gaming plans. For the most part. I’d wrapped up my progression stuff on LOTRO earlier than expected and playing Witcher 3 ultimately prodded me right back into the arms of Elder Scrolls Online. But what was the most striking is that I couldn’t help but dive deep into the oddly alluring Disco Elysium.

I only became aware of this CRPG late last year, when it popped up on all sorts of “Best of 2019” gaming lists. I went from “intrigued” to “drooling over” after reading up on it even more, and I bought it for myself as a Christmas gift, thinking that I’d play it in February or March. But I couldn’t resist — don’t you love when you can’t resist getting right into that game or book you’ve found? — and now I’m deep into this demented detective tale.

If I had to describe it in comparison to other video games, Disco Elysium would be in the very rare company of Fallen London and Planescape Torment. It’s a wordy, bizarre CRPG in which your own character is an unreliable and unstable narrator and the game might take off in a very unexpected direction at a moment’s notice. There’s little like it, which makes it a welcome relief after being saturated with tons of standard fantasy tropes.

Disco Elysium does begin with one big honking trope of its own, however: It’s a film noire setting in which you, a detective, awake with amnesia. It kind of works in the context of an RPG, allowing you to mold and shape your new consciousness after apparently have gone on the mother of all self-destructive benders in order to destroy your old one.

So my unnamed (and, so far, un-faced) detective awakes without a clue where he is or what he’s doing. Where he is happens to be a pseudo-European island on a world that has some passing similarity to ours. He’s part of a police force that nominally patrols the islands, but this particular isle is in fact controlled by a labor union and its brutes. Why he’s there is that there’s a dead body hanging from a tree — for over a week — and that’s about it. Who that person is, what happened, and how it ties into everything else all around is part of the ongoing and unfolding investigation. The detective gets a temporary partner from a rival precinct, and from there just about anything can happen.

Seriously. Apart from Torment, this is one of the most out-there RPGs I’ve ever played. You CAN play the detective very straight and normal, but even then the game gets bonkers at times. It’s much more fun to go off the rails and shape the private eye the way you want — as a supercop, as a drunkard, as an insane lunatic who gets obsessed with cryptids and desperately wanting this case to be “sexy.” Me? I’ve been going all over the place with him, picking whatever options amuse me and seeing what happens.

Another similarity to Torment is that this isn’t a fighting kind of RPG. Instead, there’s a bunch of skills and the game keeps making dice rolls against them to see what happens. You can invest in a detective who has better hunches, or can lay out a crime scene very well, or is physically intimidating, or all of the above. In an interesting twist, many failed skill checks can be retried in the future if you invest another skill point in that field.

I think that the familiar-yet-alien setting is the most fascinating to me. There’s a lot about European politics and governments that kind of goes over my head, but the dev team obviously went to great lengths to give us an alternate universe version of our world where the cars were designed differently, people still wear armor, and reel-to-reel is still hot tech.

I’m only on Day Two (Tuesday), and while I’ve got a long way to go, I’ve certainly… seen… some things so far. I’ve met the Light-Bending Rich Man and the cryptozoologist, I’ve freaked out a whole bunch of union guys by being irresponsible with a gun, and I’ve solved several smaller mysteries. It’s one of those rides that you really want to slow down and enjoy because you know you’ll only ever experience it for the first time once, and you want that to last as long as possible.

Witcher 3: Apart from the bandwagon

I just want it stated for the record that I’m not playing The Witcher 3 this month because of the huge uptick in the game’s popularity thanks to the new Netflix series. I’m just a guy who is very, very behind on playing his Steam backlog.

Actually, Syl has been pushing this one hard on me for a couple of years now, and I’ve about run out of reasons not to play it. I’ve been dragging my heels because (a) I don’t have 500 spare hours to beat this reportedly huge game and (b) wasn’t that in love with The Witcher 1’s action combat style. But I’m down for playing it for a single month, to dig into it and see what’s there and if it’s worth completing in the future.

I did start it a few weeks ago but didn’t get much further than the tutorial. Then I ran into a problem with cutscenes not showing or stopping the game entirely, which was fortunately fixed by repairing all of the game’s files. In the first week, I’ve gotten through the entire first area, clearing out all of the quests and points of interest. It went from a game that I dragged my feet on to one I was honestly excited to boot back up and play.

And I don’t think it’s for the somewhat generic fantasy world or its growly, hypermasculine hero. Instead, what hooked me was the exploration of it all. The cutscenes lend a lot of weight to each quests (the lady howling on about her pot had me chuckling) and the Guild Wars 2-style of world exploration encouraged me to just roam, fill out the map, and bump into all manner of encounters. Between the combat style and the map and the quests, all of this reminded me of Elder Scrolls Online, which isn’t the worst thing in the world.

The little side-stories, as usual, have me more interested than the big main one. Helping a dwarf uncover who burned down his house or figuring out how to drive a haunting spirit away from an abandoned village was infinitely more exciting than trying to find friends who failed to leave forwarding addresses.

I’m still not that keen on the combat, but there’s an option to reduce difficulty to focus more on exploration and questing. Call me weak, but I’m going with that just to enjoy my time in the game more.

And apparently this song from the show is super-popular right now, so I’m required by nerd law to include it:

Bio Break 2019 Wrap-up: Solo gaming

Merry Christmas everyone! And since I’m posting this on the one day of the year that virtually no one is going to be reading it, I could just cut and paste entire paragraphs from Jane Austen here. I won’t, but I could.

Instead, I wanted to share the 10 solo (non-MMO) games that I genuinely enjoyed this year. Looking back at 2019, I think I played more solo titles than I have in a very long time. I’m finding a nice balance between MMOs and these, and it’s great to have a change in the gameplay type when I’m in the mood for it.

Here’s what I liked the best out of what I played:

The Outer Worlds — Easily my “game of the year” pick for 2019, if I had awards and they carried weight with anyone. I loved this Firefly-Fallout homage, from its corporatism-run-amok-in-the-stars to its black humor to its diverse ways of solving each quest. Really looking forward to any DLC or expansions Obsidian wants to make for it.

Pillars of Eternity — Speaking of Obsidian, I finished up a long playthrough of this title back in January and was generally happy with it. I was planning on doing the expansion or the sequel, but somehow that still hasn’t materialized.

Return of the Obra Dinn — This got so many awards in 2018 that I had to play it last January, and I am truly glad I did. There’s nothing quite like this detective story at sea, even if it used graphics straight out of the 1980s.

The Avowed — I got this based on some strong word of mouth and was generally happy with it. The Avowed is a retro-styled adventure game that came out not too long ago about demon hunters in NYC. There are some choices, some good tales, and a few tricky puzzles.

The Long Dark — I absolutely loved the setting for this quiet, snowy post-apocalyptic game. Its survival aspects felt a little too brutal for me, but I’ve been told that there’s an easier mode I should go check out and play.

Subnautica — Along the lines of survival games, I didn’t expect Subnautica to win me over, but win me it did. And not just me, but my kids as well. My eldest son in particular loves exploring the sea and creating different vehicles and structures. It’s so pretty and definitely a nice change of pace than the usuals in this genre.

The Last Door — A modern horror adventure game with REALLY retro graphics that manages to actually be scary? It does just that, even though I ultimately was unsatisfied with the story.

Outer Wilds — Not to be confused with The Outer Worlds, this is a very odd Groundhog Day-in-space story of a doomed solar system and an intrepid band of alien explorers. I’d love to actually finish this game if it wasn’t for the wonky controls.

A Plague Tale — Took me a while to finish, but I really did like this alternate history take on the Black Plague. I think it lost its punch about midway through and was a little more gory than I would have liked, but there’s some great imagination with this one.

Shop Titans — As bashful as it was to admit it, this freemium game grabbed me and hasn’t let go since. Its simple premise of operating a fantasy store for heroes is one that appeals strongly, and I’ve found it’s a relaxing game for a minute or two here and there.

Yes, Your Grace demo impressions

Next up on my whimsical journey through my Steam backlog was a demo for the upcoming Yes, Your Grace. I’ve been hearing interesting things about this pixel art kingship sim, and I was more than eager to try it out.

In YYG, you’re King Eryk, the monarch of a small but bird-filled kingdom that’s dealing with a lot of issues both internal and external. Every week, petitioners line up to be heard, and as king, you have to make decisions how to deal with each person. This is trickier than you might think, as you only have limited resources (such as gold or generals) to apply to situations, and you never quite know if getting involved is a smart thing.

What was far more interesting to me is that this isn’t more of a blank slate; the king, his family, and his kingdom all have personalities and backstories, which are discovered in little scenes and dialogue that Eryk encounters after he’s done with throne duties. He’s got three daughters, some of whom are fighting and some of whom are snail-obsessed. There’s a curse upon his family, alliances to be forged, and the specter of a crushing defeat by enemy armies right from the very beginning of the game.

I am not exaggerating here: I was raptly captivated by the unfolding tale of this game as I played it, as were all of my children who came in to read and laugh at the various discussions. I agonized over my choices, traded a daughter for an army, and found myself groaning when I hit a cliffhanger that marked the end of the demo.

That was cruel. I wanted to see how my choices bore out and how flexible this game’s narration would ultimately be. I suppose I’m just going to have to wait until next year, when it’s due to release.

The Outer Worlds completed! …and final thoughts

By December 2nd, one of the four major gaming goals that I set for the month had already been finished. I wrapped up The Outer Worlds after playing it for the majority of November, sitting back in a bittersweet satisfaction as the end credits told me of the fallout from my adventures.

Perfect game? Nah, but I didn’t expect it to be. Most fun new game I played this year? Definitely. The Outer Worlds was everything I hoped to gain from a Fallout/Futurama/Firefly hybrid, delivering a compact and satisfying experience in a narratively rich setting. I’ll agree with some viewpoints that I’ve heard — namely, that the runtime is short, the normal difficulty setting is rather easy (especially after the first planet or so), and some of the mechanics aren’t as explored as others.

I consider the virtues of The Outer Worlds to be much greater than their flaws, however. There was so much detail in these small areas that I enjoyed combing through every inch of the game. The crew I picked up was entertaining and extremely memorable, especially after going through their own side stories. And I felt as though I usually had enough options to roleplay and game the way I wanted to.

Sometimes I would make a save and then try out different choices to see what would happen, and more often than not, the devs had clever responses to those choices. You can be downright scandalous in this game while still being a nominal hero, but I would imagine that most players went through as I did — largely choosing the more virtuous options and trying to make everyone happy.

The final act of the game contained two huge storytelling beats that had great potential to be explored in future DLC or expansions or sequels, and I truly hope that Obsidian is hard at work on more of this game universe. I definitely want to adventure more in Halcyon and perhaps get the gang back together for one more ride.

Great game. Very satisfied with my purchase and will probably be doing another playthrough in a year or so when I’ve forgotten some of the details. I hope that this title gets its fair share of end-of-the-year awards from press outlets and fans, because I strongly feel it deserves it.

The Outer Worlds’ two glorious flaws (and why I love them)

I’m still enjoying every moment playing through Obsidian’s The Outer Worlds, although I haven’t been able to zip through this game as quickly as some due to time limitations and recent illnesses. Still, it’s been one of the best purchases I’ve made this year, and I’ve read not just a few articles discussing its world and design.

What is most interesting to me are two commonly cited “flaws” that seem to run counter to most big-budget CRPGs these days. The first is the lack of romance options with your companions, and the second is the relatively quickly playthrough time (something like 20 to 25 hours).

I, for one, am deeply glad for both of these flaws. I don’t even see them as flaws. Let me explain.

For starters, I think romancing companions was super novel and interesting back when BioWare was doing it in Baldur’s Gate 2, but these days it’s felt like this very forced system that players demand but are not satisfied with when they get it. Why? Because it’s really silly to gamify romantic relationships with computer characters. You stop interacting with those characters the way you’d actually want to and instead try to pick the one option that will push your “love meter” further. You bend your will to, let’s face it, seducing them so that you can get the satisfaction of… what, exactly? A tepid bedroom scene, a murmur of heartfelt love, and then exactly zero follow-up to that romance then after?

I’ve never seen an RPG, MMO or otherwise, really explore a romantic relationship in depth between a player and NPC. There are no spats, no marriages, no dates, nothing except this seduction mini-game. It’s unsatisfying, yet it’s become so expected that people have a snit fit when it’s not there.

So yeah, I’m glad The Outer World decided to chuck that away, because it is far more interesting to just interact with your companions the way you want to and develop friendships with them. My crew is great, each one with his, her, or its own wonky personality. I can help them with their own storylines or not, but if I do, I’m not doing it to get into the sack with them. That feels far more realistic.

The size of the game is absolutely fine with me too, because I’m far past the point in my life when a 100-hour CRPG feels manageable. You know how much people have been pushing The Witcher 3 on me? I keep nibbling at that game, but its combat system (which I’ve disliked in all the Witcher titles) and its sheer size keeps me at bay.

Let me put it this way: I don’t want to play a big game just because it’s big. I’d always, always prefer a smaller, more hand-crafted RPG world that had a density of detail and a good pace of storytelling from start to finish. Chrono Trigger is a great example of this, as it is only a 16 hour RPG (more or less) that is incredibly replayable and delightfully designed.

That’s what The Outer Worlds is. It’s not huge. Most of its areas aren’t massive. But they are well-designed and a lot of fun to explore, and I feel more relaxed without the pressure of a scandalously big world map pressuring me to visit All The Places. I have a reasonable shot at finishing this game before the end of the year, and I love that feeling in a CRPG when you do get to the end. Don’t get it that often, and never with MMOs.

So yeah, Obsidian, you make your own games and don’t let the way we’ve always done things determine the course of your design. It’s made this game better for it.

The Outer Worlds is the Firefly Futurama Fallout RPG I’ve always wanted

You know a game is good when, after about an hour into playing it, you want to slow down and savor it as much as possible so that you don’t get to the end too quickly. That’s exactly how I felt my first evening in The Outer Worlds and, a week later, that feeling hasn’t gone away. This is an amazingly fun and well-done RPG.

I should have expected as much, seeing as how this comes from Obsidian, which has made a focus on building CRPGs that people end up loving to death. Even its early delegated sequels — KOTOR II and Fallout New Vegas — were acclaimed despite being bug-festooned messes. Obsidian’s gotten better from there, and I had a great time going through Pillar of Eternity last year (although I haven’t touched the sequel yet).

So The Outer Worlds is this year’s entry, and it’s a doozy. It’s pretty much a game if the TV show Firefly, Fallout New Vegas, and maybe Futrama got together and made a very odd child. Right off the bat, I adored two key features: Its western motifs (mixed with early 1900s-style marketing) and its lack of, as someone on Twitter put it, “space magic.” Apart from a bullet time feature, everything your character does in combat is either shooting, slicing, or bashing, and I am glad for that.

For my first run-through — and I’ve already decided that I have to do more than one playthrough — I made a generally nice character who scored high on people skills and had a knack for lockpicking and hacking. The character creation process in Outer Worlds is pretty well-done, offering a lot of choice and possibilities before you get into the game proper. I wanted as many dialog options and open doors as possible, hence my priorities. You do get additional skill points per level and one perk every two levels, so growth happens at a good pace.

It also helps that this is a good-looking game. It’s colorful, exaggerated, and just slightly stylized enough to keep it from looking like other titles. Probably what drew me in so quick was Outer Worlds’ focus on dueling corporations on the frontier of space. There’s about 20 of them, although on the first planet you get to know just one — Spacer’s Choice — very well. There’s some not-so-sly commentary here about corporatization and capitalism run amok, but it’s interesting and thoughtful, and I liked having a lot of options to deal with the weirdness that has settled into the lives of the various characters.

And that art aesthetic! It’s just marvelous. There are hints of 1920s ads and art deco and old print and steampunk and what have you. Even the loading screens are great, often offering a glimpse into the game worlds’ creatures or businesses. Obsidian knocked it out of the park in building a fully realized game world with its own rules and logic that’s easy to grasp and appreciate.

That’s why I wanted to take my time and really poke into as much of this as possible. I’m sure some people blitzed though this game, but it took me over a week just to get off the starting planet because I explored everything and did all of the quests and tasks.

Sometimes I’d even double-back and talk to various characters again to see if I had unlocked any further dialogue with them. A bartender at the first town’s saloon particularly caught my interest, because she opens up enough to share that she originally had her sights set on a science-filled career of exploration before she fell into the company line and became a recluse in her own establishment.

Combat in The Outer Worlds is standard first-person shooter (or melee) stuff. I’m not the best at this without wasting a lot of ammo, but there are ways to compensate for that — the time dialation feature and weapon mods certainly help. I often would pause time to get a sense of where everyone was before making my first move. You also get companions to help out, and since they can’t permanently die (not on normal mode, at least), I have no compunction letting them be bullet sponges while I pick off the bad guys from the side.

So far, I really only have two complaints, and both are small. The first is that there is no option here to revert to a third-person perspective, as Obsidian didn’t have the budget for it. That’s really unfortunate considering how much time you can put into creating your character’s looks and finding cool-looking armor. The second complaint is that it’s far more awkward than it should be to compare stats on gear. I bet both of these will be fixed with time.

Here’s hoping that The Outer Worlds will be a smash hit and warrant some good DLC in the future, because this is definitely a world that I want to see expanded.