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 butt-cheeks 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.