Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire Review (PC)

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Don’t go in to Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire expecting a carefree 20-hour romp. It will devour you entirely. Every new locale is an invitation to spend another 3 hours exploring. Every time you level up, you’ll agonize over which abilities are best for your newly developing play-style and battle tactics. Every death forces you re-evaluate those tactics to make sure you’ve mastered the game’s intricate fighting mechanics. And these are all good things. VERY good things. From the off, Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire seems like a towering edifice of menus, stats sheets and character customization. Which it is, a little bit. Especially if you’re not familiar with the tropes of isometric RPGs. But somehow, Deadfire manages to offer a deeply engaging experience for veterans while also being very accommodating to newbies, and at the same time building upon and honing what made Pillars 1 so great. While it isn’t drastically different from the experience offered in Pillars 1, Deadfire is most certainly a blast. But it’s not without a few drawbacks.

Anyway, before we get into that, let me tell you the story of Matt Daemon. He was my trusty sidekick during my journey across the islands of the Deadfire archipelago. Oh, and he’s a lion that can help you out in battle and even during some quests. No I haven’t gone insane – Matt’s companionship throughout the game began at the character creation screen. A perk of choosing the “Ranger” class. It was this perk that put an end to my hour-long deliberation over what class to actually go for. (So why the name Matt Daemon? 1. Because funny. 2. Because the animal relationship reminded me of this). Developers Obsidian Entertainment have really stuffed Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire to the brim with ways to build your character, and indecisive types will find themselves stuck at the creation screen for approximately one trillion hours. Which is fantastic, in my opinion. Because what you choose here actually MEANS something during the game, unlike more mainstream RPGs (such as Skyrim) where your race and class don’t really have a great deal of impact. You interact with the world completely differently depending on these choices – in and out of battle.

Matt Daemon always behaves.

And while you can carry over your save from the first Pillars of Eternity game, this only relates to the choices you made and not your stats. If you don’t have a save, you can choose from a variety of scenarios, which detail what you would have liked to have happened. In all cases, you start the game as you were in Pillars 1: someone known as a Watcher, who has the ability to commune with a person’s soul, whether they’re alive or dead. However, at the start of Deadfire, you yourself are dead. This comes courtesy of god of light Eothas, who decides to inhabit a colossal stone titan buried beneath the castle you’re currently living in, and stomp you to death as he emerges from the earth. On top of that, he’s even stolen a piece of your soul. So your allies pack up what they can (including your lifeless body) and chase the giant across the sea to a chain of islands known as the Deadfire archipelago. Then, after speaking to the herald of death in a purgatory-like realm known as the In-between, your soul is sent back to the land of the living with one task: find out what Eothas is up to. It’s an interesting introduction to say the least.

This type of high fantasy, mad-as-a-bag-of-badgers narrative is commonplace in Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire. And it’s not just limited to the main storyline. The world is drenched in lore, and it doesn’t feel artificial – as if it’s there just for the sake of it. Deadfire is a living, breathing land with a complex history filled with interesting people and feuding factions. So of course, you can expect your quest log to fast become a to-do list for the whole of the Deadfire archipelagoWhile some quests are standard fare (go here, kill this, come back), they’re in the minority. Most will have you seeking the gratification of overcoming the obstacles, rather than simply doing it for exp and money. They’re interesting, involving, and you’ll meet a variety of fascinating faces along the way. There’s still a little too much boring walking about between objectives for my liking, which is alleviated slightly by being able to speed up your movements with the “F” key. However, one of my favorite quests was to steal a stone tablet from a wizard for one of two women (both belonging to the Huana race). The tablet is supposed to hold information of vast historical significance to the Huana, but the wizard is being stubborn and won’t give it up. To avoid giving away the solution entirely, you eventually end up wearing the wizard’s robes to fool the robot guardians of his mansion in to letting you access a heavily guarded room in which the combination to the wizard’s vault is kept. And in the vault, the tablet! Believe me, there were a LOT of stages in getting that far, and it felt like a true victory when I’d completed the quest.

Avalor D’rell: ranger of the White that Wends

And although I could have very easily smashed down the wizard’s front door, murdered all of his faithful robots, and simply barged into his vault … that wouldn’t have been very nice, would it? What’s more, it wouldn’t have gone unnoticed. Everything you say or do changes how NPCs in the world react to you. If you continually choose aggressive conversational options, then guess what: people are going to be more wary of you. But this might also garner more respect from the Deadfire’s shadier underbelly.

This effect also extends to the companions in your party, who feel a lot more involved in the goings on of your adventures than in Pillars 1. They react during conversations, talk to each other when you’re going from place to place, and genuinely feel like they have their own opinion of things. For example, Xoti is a devout follower of a god called Gaun. She holds the pantheon of gods in the highest esteem. Then eventually Pallegina joins your party, who likes nothing more than to diss the gods at every opportunity. After a lot of god-bashing, Xoti will eventually erupt at Pallegina and it’s up to the Watcher to calm things down.

The result of all these interactions are tracked for you to view, and can be found under a “Relationships” tab in the character sheet. Character relationships are displayed as colors: blue is good, red is bad. Plus there’s a number to show just how good or bad the relationship is. You can also view your current standings with the major factions in Deadfire, as well as your disposition within the world; it’s a very handy way to see how people are getting on at a glance. What’s more, charm any of your companions enough and you’ll have the chance to get down and dirty with them. Thankfully, these situations develop quite naturally over the course of the game, rather than simply needing to talk to them nicely on a handful of occasions to get in their pants (I’m looking at you, Mass Effect).

The realm of the In-between

Partake in quests and conversations that don’t please a certain member of your party, and they’ll start to have negative feelings towards you. Take Pallegina again. There’s a point at which you can take on a job from a pirate to steal a highly valuable resource, “luminous adra”, from a faction of merchants known as The Vailian Trading Company in one of Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire‘s biggest cities, Nekataka. Pallegina is aligned to that particular company, so after the conversation with the pirate she pipes up with her objection, and you can basically tell her to button up, or assure her that you never intended to actually go through with the heist. Obviously, do the quest and she’ll take issue, but you’ll be paid handsomely by the pirates and they may aid your more benevolent goals. My point to all this is to emphasize just how differently situations can play out based on your character’s actions and their stats, rather than choices simply boiling down to “good” and “bad”. After doing this favor for the pirates, they may then agree to smuggle in food for the more unfortunate inhabitants of Nekataka.

But more importantly than this, Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire allows for choices that lead to mistakes. For example, sometimes you can access special responses in conversations based on your stats. Like if your ‘Intimidation’ is high enough, you can force someone to do something they may not otherwise have done. Being intimidating may even enable you to circumvent violence. But just because you’ve unlocked these responses doesn’t necessarily mean they prove advantageous in the long run. They may even have negative consequences. It’s a massive breath of fresh air when we seem nowadays to be surrounded by mainstream titles where choices don’t really ever turn out for the worse.

Oh and while I’m on the topic of conversations … if I was feeling particularly unprofessional I would absolutely give Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire 1/10 for what I consider to be the WORST cardinal sin you can commit in gaming. Namely, writing a character’s heavy accent in to the subtitles. Which means not only can you barely understand what they’re saying, the subtitles are also written in that accent. Wait until you get to the Bathhouse in Nekataka, and you’ll see what I mean.

Anyway, non-professional moment aside, if you go awry in your dialogue choices, you’ll probably up in combat. I found it funny that Obsidian clearly put a huge amount of time and energy in to creating a highly detailed and intricate combat system, but sometimes it feels like the game’s focus isn’t really on fighting. There are so many mechanics that allow you to skip out on violence altogether. However, rather than making it feel like you’re missing out on a massive portion of the game, you are instead allowed to experience altogether different approaches to progression. Again, it’s a very welcome divergence from the norm. But sometimes fighting is unavoidable, and this is where players who aren’t familiar with the genre will have the most difficulty. There’s a lot to get to grips with. Each character has access to their own pool of abilities and spells, and success in battle depends on you making each character’s skillset work in harmony with everyone else’s. You’ll be here for days if I explained the advantages of pitfalls of everything, but there are three major changes that Obsidian have made in Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire that make the battles much more approachable.

A not-so dead fire …

Firstly and most obviously, the tutorials do a better job of explaining the role of each mechanic. Defense, for instance, caused me a great deal of confusion. There is no single overarching defense stat. Instead, defense has four faces: reflex, fortitude, will and deflection. Some enemies may have one of these stats in abundance, and you’ll need to attack with a spell that breaches that stat in order to counteract that type of defense. I didn’t have the faintest idea what any of these stats did upon setting out, but what started out being incomprehensible became steadily more manageable. Even the simplest alteration to your tactics can massively improve your success. Like a massive idiot, I took for granted the formation of my party in the first 5 hours. Something fundamental like keeping healers and wizards at the back and tanks at the front. Yes, I know I’m coming across really badly here, but only so that Deadfire looks better by comparison. Every now and again (but not too frequently) a new tutorial will pop up explaining some facet of combat in basic English, so that eventually you build layers of understanding that result in you becoming far more effective in combat.

The second change is being able to set the AI of your companions so that you can let them get on with the fight without having to pause the game and micromanage every little thing they do. Example: automatically getting your priest to heal people who are below 30% health. This means that you can concentrate on the bigger decisions (like making sure Matt Daemon’s health is topped up) while your party hammers away at the enemies. Obviously for bigger boss battles you’ll want to take control. Luckily, turning off the AI is a simple as one click. Relying on AI probably wouldn’t get you very far on the higher difficulties, but it makes the less significant battles on the middling difficulties much quicker.

The final change is what some people may find the most controversial. Even sacrilegious. The party size is now 5 rather than 6. Shock! Horror! Baldur’s Gate would be spinning in its grave. To be honest though, this makes things more manageable. Something that bugged about Pillars 1 was that your party would get stuck on each other, on scenery, on anything really. But while this still happens occasionally (because Matt Daemon is a massive flippin’ lion after all), the problem is lessened. To balance this change, it seems that the maximum number of enemies you will encounter during any one fight has also decreased. That isn’t to say you won’t be swarmed by skeletons from time to time, but Deadfire just seems to be that little bit less overwhelming to those who aren’t long-time players of this genre.

And then there’s another type of battle mechanic altogether: boat-to-boat skirmishes. Another major addition to Deadfire, one that fits in nicely with the whole pistols and pirates theme, is that you’ll get to most places on the world map by sailing upon the seas of the Deadfire archipelago. Stay adrift for long enough and eventually you’ll look at another captain’s prow the wrong way and incur their wrath. There’s a whole host of upgrades and swanky weaponry you can outfit your rig with. And of course you’ll need the crew to man the various posts: canonneers, navigators, even chefs. They each have their role to play in battle and will gain experience as you gain more victories. I feel like Obsidian were going for something akin to FTL with the addition of ships. Sail around, experience the odd random encounter, fight, win, upgrade, repeat. But I don’t really think they’ve pulled it off in the same way. It feels like a huge missed opportunity in a game I was already totally in love with.

The first big city awaits …

My main problem was that the whole thing plays out in text-form. You’re presented with a page of options like “turn to starboard”, “fire cannons”, “full speed ahead”. There’s nothing wrong with this approach per se, especially since this is how the game presents its narrative in other situations, but in this instance the delivery is a touch sterile. Just a little bit of animation would have elevated the experience massively. There isn’t even any cool music to accompany these battles, just the sad ‘sploosh’ when your cannon misses for the 4th time in a row.

While I’m on a negative, I may as well list my other gripes and get them out the way all at once. Music was another area I felt could do with some improvement. What’s there is alright, but there’s not much variation. After hearing the battle theme for the 1,000th time, it starts to grate. It doesn’t really rouse the senses in the way a musical score is supposed to in the more interesting moments of the game, like battles and big narrative moments. It’s simply there, filling a space so that it’s not just silent.

So. Many. SKILLS!

Inventory management is a chore too. A common complaint of Pillars 1 was that there’s wasn’t enough unique equipment, but they’ve gone a bit too far in Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire. There are a tonne of potions you can craft as well, which means there’s the requisite gaggle of ingredients to be farmed from the environment and the corpses of fallen enemies. Soon enough, the two pages of your party’s shared stash will be filled to bursting with all sorts of stuff, meaning a trip to the shop is a must.

Anyway, enough of that. Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire is simply amazing. An improvement over Pillars 1 to be sure. Not a massive improvement, but you can tell they’ve worked hard to address the concerns of the fans. I don’t think I’ve even mentioned that the world and multitude of locations look gorgeous. A LOT better than in the first game. The world is brought to life by a whole new array of 3D effects, like bullets hitting rocks, trees swaying in the wind, and rain drenching the landscape. It still has that old-school feel, but with a fresh lick of paint.

If you’re thinking about getting in to Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire, don’t just think about it … do it! It’s a triumph of gaming, only held back a few minor flaws. This is a MUST PLAY for fans of RPGs – no, fans of ANY game!