The dragon's wings have been clipped.Edit
Divinity II: Ego Draconis, an under-the-radar action role-playing game released by cdv Software Entertainment and developed by Larian Studios, was released very early in 2010. Facing competition from the likes of Electronic Arts and Bioware's masterpiece Dragon Age: Origins, it needed to do something unique to stand out. Divinity II was tough to get going and was plagued by early unbalanced fights, but players who stuck with it were eventually rewarded by turning into a dragon and raining fireballs and extreme halitosis onto any unlucky peon to get in your way. Enter the expansion pack, coming out about eleven months later. Divinity II: Flames of Vengeance seeks to add to the fiction of the world of Rivellon, fleshing out the world in general and your character in particular for one final push against the forces of evil that plagued you in the core game. While the expansion improves on some of the flaws, it suffers from a series of baffling design decisions and omissions. What we're left with is practically a step backwards, though you can clearly see the potential to be had.
Flames opens exactly where Draconis left off: in the interest of dodging spoilers, I won't say exactly what the premise is. Suffice to say, the ending of Ego Draconis left the story open, and Flames immediately jumps into it. In fact, if you load up a save prior to the final battle of Draconis (or start an entirely new game), you will enter the expansion content immediately after concluding the core game without even a credits screen or a "To Be Continued" splash. If you are so inclined, you can roll up a new character who starts at level 35, but that would be entirely missing the point of the core game (and wouldn't give you very many skill points in the first place, thus leaving you with an ultimately weaker character).The smooth segue from the core game to the expansion is one of many nice presentation tricks that Flames uses to draw you in. The added fiction is a bit weak but acceptable for fantasy fare, and you will get to see how some of the other characters from the core game got along in the meantime, making the world just a bit more fleshed out and interesting.
Also helping matters is your own character's general attitude about his or her situation. As you advance through the main quest, your character seems to channel Deadpool more and more, breaking the fourth wall just enough to make you smile without completely destroying the suspension of disbelief. You will frequently deal with dialogue choices that all point to a cynical mindset, especially when your character starts complaining about having to do all these fetch quests for every random person that seems to be around. Sadly, your character is the only silent one in town, as everyone else has spoken dialogue that never strays too far into the cheese. Some characters, such as a trio of thespian ghosts or the quest-giving talking vegetables, speak in ridiculous accents befitting their characters, but even they seem to fit the context of the world perfectly.
Although the presentation is solid, Flames starts to fall apart once you begin the actual gameplay. Nothing is actually broken here—I never encountered a single bug or crash—but a number of problems from the core game have come back with a vengeance (no pun intended), and will leave you more frustrated or confused than genuinely intrigued.First, let's get this out of the way immediately: there is only one major area to explore in the expansion. It's the city of Aleroth, the final major location of Draconis, and its immediate surrounding areas (defined as caves and tunnels built under the city). It's small enough that you can discover every landmark in under a few hours, and there really isn't much of interest here. The city is just a bunch of packed brown buildings amongst brown roads, and the caves all look similar with dark tunnels, torches, and cobwebs. Variety in Aleroth's buildings is pretty much defined as different lighting colors. Some shops and houses even have identical layouts, which we suppose is realistic in the sense that basic shops are not going to be architectural masterpieces, but it makes for a very boring (and possibly confusing) world to interact with.
Larian has attempted to pack the city with quests to give you something to do, and in truth there is enough content here to keep you busy for a dozen hours, which sounds about right for an expansion pack. However, a lot of that time is relegated to running back and forth like a demented postal worker. Aleroth is small enough that travel won't make you rip your hair out, but at the same time, it seems Larian intentionally designed the quest givers to be in the opposite corner of the city where the quest is actually executed. This artificial inflation of game length gets annoying, but thankfully almost all the side quests are available right away. You can basically run around and collect quests for an hour while getting used to the city's layout, then, with a bit of planning, efficiently burn through them all with a minimal amount of needless traveling. Still, that's a hell of a way to run a railroad: exploration and discovery should be more organic, but Flames makes it feel about as forced as possible.The joy of exploration is further minimized when one ugly truth rears its head: Flames of Vengeance almost entirely eliminates your dragon form, and completely negates the purpose of your Battle Tower. These two factors were the very things that made Ego Draconis stand out: the latter because it served as a base of operations where you could brew potions and enchant weapons, and the former because, let's face it, getting to be a dragon is every fantasy fan's dream. Your Battle Tower does still exist and it serves as a dumping spot for your herbs, gems, and other crafting materials, but all its other services can be found in Aleroth itself. It turns the second-coolest part of Divinity II into a glorified storage unit that takes a couple loading screens to access.
Removing your dragon form from the equation is a much more impactful, painful decision. There is a storyline reason for your being crippled, but it's about on par with Superman 64 ("That mysterious green fog stops your powers and prevents you from seeing 99% of Metropolis!"), and Larian doesn't have the excuse of low-quality hardware to fall back on. To be fair, the one time you actually do get to switch into a dragon is absolutely epic. You get involved in a fight against insanely impossible odds, dodging enemy attacks from several dozen sources at once with a time limit, and with increasing difficulty the longer it lasts. Plus, Larian just automatically gives you all your dragon abilities to their maximum level, and a new uber-power on top of it to handle the chaos. The whole sequence actually feels like it would be more in place in an Ace Combat scenario, except your dragon is infinitely more responsive than an aircraft due to your ability to stop and turn on a dime. That one fight was almost worth the price of admission alone, and it showed how incredible Divinity II could be if it exploited its unique features.Despite the dragon sequence initially feeling impossible in those opening moments, one extremely striking improvement showed itself in the process. Every fight in Flames, from the first encounter to the final boss, is perfectly in balance on the standard difficulty level. In fact, at first I was afraid Larian had swung the balance too far, because I was able to cut through the fodder enemies like they were… well, like they were fodder. But then I encountered the first of about a dozen boss battles, and I realized that I was simply experiencing a fantastic balance that downplays the strength of the minions while putting more weight to the bosses. Make no mistake, there were several game over's, but in every single instance, it was either because my tactics were wrong, or I didn't get to those health potions in time. The final boss will absolutely test the extent of your character, and you'll have to whip out every ability at your disposal to finish out the game.
That said, despite the balance being fantastic, combat itself is still pretty dry. There is no way to defend yourself other than dodging, so fights pretty quickly break down to you running around like a headless chicken. The problem is even worse for any ranged attacker, be it an archer or mage, who basically will spend 90% of every battle strafing to dodge return fire. It's inelegant and chaotic for the wrong reasons, and it feels more glaring because there is no dragon combat (save that one exception) to break up the monotony. The aforementioned quests don't help either, considering almost all of them are fetch quests; your character's increasingly cynical attitude about them doesn't forgive the fact that you are a glorified postman for most of the game.
Worse still is the lack of quest markers, yet another problem carried over from the core game. Look, I'm all for exploration and discovery, but not everyone wants to go pixel-hunting in an action RPG. There is one particular main quest that tasks you with finding five buttons spread throughout the streets of Aleroth that you must press to continue the story. Never mind that the game doesn't bother to tell you that two cannot be accessed until much later—which in itself is annoying—but one button in particular is hidden behind a bush in a corner of one street that the camera has no reason to look at. You basically would only stumble on the button by exploring literally every inch of the city or having eyes like a hawk (and seeing a tiny red glow through the leaves of the bush). Good and great RPGs—Fallout: New Vegas, Fable 3, Dragon Age: Origins, and Mass Effect 2 just to name releases from the last year—reward players for exploring with special quests and unique loot, which is fine. However, forcing players to look in obscure spots with no help due to storyline quests with absolutely zero information is just overkill. (One main quest, which is divided into five parts, has the horrific description in the quest log of "I need five clues to continue, but I don't know where they are, so I guess I better just look around.") Perhaps some players like the "challenge," but many—the ones only interested in the story and not collect-aholics—have better things to do than waste time looking for glowing buttons.Ultimately, none of the quests break any rules established in Ego Draconis: the core game featured quests that could not yet be completed when you got them, as well as required objects or objectives in obscure areas with no hints to the fact. So for better or worse, if you dealt with it already in Ego Draconis or you have the patience for it in general, Flames of Vengeance doesn't do anything radically stupid in comparison. The expansion does bluntly tell you when the game is about to end, allowing you a last chance to make sure you've completed everything you want to complete, which is always appreciated.
Like the quest format and third-person human-to-monster combat, music and graphics are completely unchanged. Other than added voice acting for the new lines of dialogue, there are no new sounds to experience. There are no new powers (other than a special dragon power), and no new effects for the ones already established. However, there are a few new item sets, including three sets you get immediately in the core game to help you blitz through it, but nothing epic or particularly interesting.
Divinity II, when it works and shows off its best features, does offer a solid experience in the action RPG world. Flames of Vengeance sadly chooses to show off the best features in only a single (albeit incredible) sequence, while downplaying what made the core game work in the first place. Although the combat balance was fixed, other parts were slashed, and the total package feels like the opening half (i.e., the worse half) of the core game. Still, Divinity II isn't a bad game. If you haven't played it at all, you might want to consider picking up the package deal (called "Divinity II: The Dragon Knight Saga"), which also reworks some of the content from Ego Draconis. However, if you've already played Divinity II, remember that Flames of Vengeance will test your patience; consider that before deciding on your purchase.