Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire Review
Hoisting its mainsail and reducing your keep to ashes, Deadfire sets out to add more of everything to the original Pillars of Eternity foundations, while confidently discarding almost all of your worldly baggage from the first game. It succeeds, but at the cost of the original’s freshness.
Before Pillars of Eternity, isometric RPGs had been cruelly neglected for many years despite the likes of Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale enjoying critical success. The huge demand for the Pillars Kickstarter in 2015 demonstrated that there was still a thirst for D&D-style roleplaying on the small screen, and Deadfire’s Fig fundraiser went even further — amassing almost $4.5 million. Every cent of that can be seen in the game’s gorgeous environments, rich lore and myriad systems.
As a Watcher who can commune with the souls of the dead, your peaceful existence is shattered when a god named Eothas is resurrected in the body of a giant statue buried under your keep. After he wakes up, stomps your home to rubble and steals part of your soul before wandering off, you are tasked by the other gods to track Eothas down and find out his intentions. So far, so straightforward, but after hopping into your ship — The Defiant — and charting a course, you promptly beach on an exotic island and lose most of your crew and cargo.
What follows is an introduction to the Deadfire Archipelago, clearly inspired by Mediterranean countries (particularly Italy) in its people, locales and dialects. While playing the original is not a requirement, it would certainly help ease you into the world history of Eora. You can import your save from the first game or choose a route through a dense system to form your character, but as a direct sequel Deadfire pulls no punches about its preferred option. The same can be said about the game world too: swathes of books detail intricate poetry, localised plays, and bizarre customs that could prove overwhelming to the casual player.
Should you march on regardless, you’ll be rewarded with a vast world of islands, cities, caves and villages to explore, populated by all the RPG staples you expect. Travel to them is made on The Defiant, which becomes your mobile fortress. Here is where the biggest new mechanic of Pillars is introduced: ship-to-ship combat. Once on the high seas, you will need to keep an eye on your distance and orientation from other potentially hostile vessels, and try to either take them out with cannon fire, ram them, or board them. Should you be unable to flee an enemy or simply thirst for battle, combat is then split awkwardly over two mediums. Firstly, a turn-based menu system lets you choose how you approach an enemy ship based on its reaction to your decisions. However, it feels clumsy and slow, forcing you to painstakingly move your ship by choosing options from a menu in a Choose Your Own Adventure scenario, before actually firing or boarding. Different guns, crew and approaches add variety, but the delivery of the mechanic itself works to almost suck the enjoyment out of an encounter, and you may end up dreading any vessel that makes a beeline for you on open water.
Your crew increases in rank as they get more experience from ship-to-ship combat, and you also need to keep an eye on any injuries they suffer. Wounds can prevent them from completing their job at sea unless you refer them to the on-board surgeon for healing. Additionally, you need to ensure that their morale is kept high, that your galley is filled with good food, and that you let them share in the spoils — anything else may risk mutiny. While a good idea on paper, it turns this aspect of Deadfire into a management sim rather than an RPG, with yet another inventory to keep an eye on.
However, should you lock boarding ladders and opt to engage, normal turn-based combat takes over. It is here that Deadfire noticeably improves on the weakest aspect of the first game. Combat has been slowed down — but can be restored to a faster pace if needed — AI systems have been improved and can be modified, and far more thought is needed to become victorious than previously. Whereas spamming each of your characters’ special moves got you through most of the battles in the first game, here they feel more balanced. A new Empower feature can be used on an active ability to increase its effectiveness, or directly on a character to restore some of their used abilities. It can only be used once per fight, and requires resting or eating to recover. Furthermore, all weapons can now be used by anyone with the only disadvantage being that each weapon’s special attacks are limited to those who specialise in them.
With these changes come new issues, however. Spellcasters feel significantly nerfed and are far slower and more frequently interrupted; conversely, martial classes seem to be the primary focus in many encounters, so having a couple of tanks is almost mandatory to progress — even when playing on the middle of five difficulty levels. All playable characters now have subclasses and can also multiclass, which opens up a huge selection of roleplaying options. Sidekicks can be recruited as an intermediate playable character sitting somewhere between anonymous “adventurers” you hire at taverns and fully developed characters. They are voiced but don’t contribute to the overall party narrative threads, and given the party size has inexplicably been reduced from six to five, they are a tough sell to include in your team. Three of the characters from the original game make a return alongside four new ones, so Sidekicks feel like a means of preventing you feeling short-changed, rather than a particularly useful addition in their own right.
And in that respect, Deadfire does have a noticeable familiarity which anyone who has played the original will struggle to shake off. The inventory system, though tweaked, is still a mess of miniature icons, comprising armour, weapons and consumables that soon becomes unwieldy. Given that looting is at the forefront of any new room you enter, having dozens of different items of food affecting one or more of your stats in different ways feels like a huge effort to wade through. Spells and abilities are almost identical to the first game, with new additions feeling like minor alterations — or worse still, unashamed rip-offs of D&D spells and feats. In many respects, it feels less like a true sequel and more like an evolution of the first game, with just enough bells and whistles added to let you ring the changes.
However, familiarity shouldn’t overshadow Obsidian’s achievement entirely, since the first game contained some great concepts which Deadfire expands on wonderfully. First and foremost is the writing, the quality of which exceeds even its predecessor. Though the central quest lacks the urgency a carnage-wreaking walking stone giant really requires, the freedom to go searching around the islands opens up Eora far more than previously. Docking at an undiscovered island, exploring it and then naming it is a lovely touch, and the navigation on land feels like a series of stripped down Heroes of Might and Magic encounters, each with their own rewards and perils. The text-based choices to help you discover new areas or make crucial decisions returns, but the systems behind it are now more exposed which makes it far easier to choose the right people for any particular job, as well as understanding the impact of your choices.
This continues into the dialogue itself, which has been modified to include new Dispositions, subtle personality traits which are tracked based on the responses you give in conversation. There are ten in total, including Diplomatic, Deceptive, Clever and Cruel, all of which will affect how NPCs view you, and how each of your party interact with both you and each other. Side quests range from the standard “go here, kill this” bounty, to more involved political machinations as you play different factions off against each other. Quest difficulty — and that of some enemies — is signified by up to three skull markers next to each entry, with the number of skulls next to each entry signifying how many levels above your current character you can expect the challenge to be. Truly difficult tasks are indicated by red skulls; from experience, it’s worth paying heed to these as, unlike the first game, Deadfire can pose a significant challenge at times.
The world is populated by colourful characters, each of whom has a life to live and places to be. Events continue whether or not you intervene and deciding to delay a task in favour of another can have surprising consequences later on down the line. If you neglect the waylaying of a pirate early on, for example, the devastation he sows on innocents at a later point may be hard to bear. The culture, fictional languages and general vibe of each locale is intoxicating, pulling you into bazaars and bathhouses, underground crypts and deserts roamed by wyrms. In fact, simply engaging with the intrigue of each new town is often more enjoyable than your main quest. Your party are interesting and quirky, with arguably the three most interesting characters making the transition into Deadfire. The stories that you encounter are so well-written that you can spend hours following each individual one to conclusion. And since all main NPCs you encounter are now fully voiced, the text-heavy nature of the game may prove more bearable for those that ditched the first one halfway through.
Deadfire isn’t a standard sequel, by any means. The shift to The Defiant as its central mode of transport and the associated systems this entails could prove off-putting initially, and the much improved environments and stellar music can’t mask a certain repetition in the game’s fundamentals. Incremental improvements on a wildly successful first game are still a good thing, but the likes of Divinity have proven that other franchises can also play hard in this arena. Obsidian has some serious competition now, so any further entries in Eora will need to provide more than a swashed buckler to remain relevant.