Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire played and reviewed for PC. Available on Steam.
To say that we have been inundated with countless expansive and complex open world RPG games the last few years is more than an understatement. We have been spoiled by the rich, detailed worlds of The Witcher 3, Persona 5, and of course, the first Pillars of Eternity (PoE) from Obsidian Entertainment.
Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire does a great job of welcoming new players and summarizing the events of the first game. Because of that summary, I do not believe you need to play the first PoE as a primer, but based on the depth and quality of PoE 2: Deadfire, I think it is worth your time.
Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire is one of the most impressive games I have ever played. World building, narrative cohesion, and balance in combat come together in a way that I have never seen before and it is infinitely pleasing to experience. The closest comparison I can come to, in terms of story and world building, is that of CD Project Red’s The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. That game featured a living world that allowed the macro and micro levels of its story to interact and influence one another in sometime fascinating ways. Occasionally though, the micro details did not hold up to the lofty heights of the main storylines. It did not take long in the large metropolitan city of Novigrad or even in the wide-open expanses of the Northern Realms and the Island of Skellige to witness repeat dialogue from NPCs. Quite simply, the citizens of the world did not always react to how events have changed the world around them. They did not always adapt to the reveals that Geralt has uncovered for himself.
In contrast, Obsidian Entertainment has mastered the micro levels of its world and meshed it in so seamlessly to the macro level that we, the audience, is rewarded with an encapsulating narrative that succeeds in all facets.
At the start of Deadfire you can create your own character. Like any standard RPG you have a variety of races and classes to choose from. If you have played the first PoE on Steam, then you also have the option to carry over your save game file and continue the story with that character. Your choice also has the standard implications in the game world, both in combat, the style you like to play with, and in NPC interaction, how individuals think about your race and their status in the world can change with the different races and class of people that you speak to on your adventures.
Regardless of your choice, you are the champion and saviour of Caed Nua from the traitorous god, Eothas, who has now returned and has his sights set on the Deadfire, a wide-open sea with near endless islands to explore, ports to discover, and pirates to either fight or communicate with. The other gods have revived you to track Eothas once again and destroy him before he can destroy the world at large.
Deadfire’s tutorial mission is admittedly a lengthy one, but it is crucial if you are learning for the first time or relearning the combat and the context of the story. As the player though you have the choice to rush through it or discover every detail and that does not change as you progress. But, unlike other RPGs and even MMOs, the quests are not pinged on the mini map, gold exclamation marks do not live above NPC heads, you must discover the quests yourself and that requires interaction with as many people in the world as possible. The interactions that will reveal quests are guarded with detailed dialogue options. Like Mass Effect, the options you choose will affect how the person you are talking to feels about you, as well as how your party members feel about you, but it is not so black and white as the renegade/paragon system. Here there are other factors contributing to the kind of dialogue options that you have available to you. When you gain experience and level up, you do gain points to spend on new, more powerful abilities, but you also gain skill points to spend in two separate categories, active and passive skills.
Passive skills give you the greater benefits in conversations and your character and each of the members of your party gain 1 active and passive skill for each level up and you can choose to pool your skill points in one skill for stronger, more convincing dialogue options, or you can balance them out and have access to more options as you move through your adventure. I chose to balance these skills out in my playthrough, and while some dialogue options remained locked to me due to not having enough points in a given skill, they did not hinder my progression in the story and on quests, and I had enough other options to keep my interactions flowing and interesting.
The brilliance of the dialogue is that Obsidian Entertainment has created a fully reactionary world. Each race, each faction, each enterprise, each individual character all have their own views on both the return of Eothas, and of your character as the god’s chosen champion. Some worship Eothas as their god, praising him for his return and for the destruction of their sinful world. Some spite him and celebrate your quest of destroying him once and for all. Some see him as no more a threat than you and your party are, while others simply see him as a nuisance. There is immense nuance in the detail. Almost every NPC you meet has an opinion on the events that are happening. Some NPCs are simple one-line characters that provide no dialogue options, but the clear majority have something interesting to speak to you about, and quite often those people have quests to give you or hints about ones you are already on.
The other points you gain when leveling up are your traditional ability points. The twist in PoE though is that instead of spending those points on RPG trope traits like strength, agility, or stamina, you are instead given a choice of gaining a new ability to put on your action bar to attack enemies in combat with, or you can choose a passive ability that will enhance what you already have. Both the ability talent tree and the passive tree are different between each class. My main character is a wizard and needs a lot of long range spell abilities to use to be an effective contributor. As well, her passive skills are a tad underwhelming, meaning that they do not give enough of a bonus warrant a point on them, but that changes when I’m spending points for another character in my party. Take Edér, for example who is of the fighter class, a sword and shield like tank. He does not possess many powerful damage dealing attacks, the abilities on his tree rather go for a stun or knock down effect to keep the enemies he has attracted to him in control and to limit the amount of damage he takes in order to allow for the rest of the party to take them down. For that reason, his passive traits make a tad more sense as he can gain bonuses to health regeneration in and out of combat, increased defence, and higher resistances. Ultimately though, you have to choose the traits that fit your play style and to do that, you might want to play around in the combat systems for a while to see what actually sticks.
For PoE 2: Deadfire, Obsidian Entertainment wanted to further develop their real time with pause combat system. Similar to games like Baldur’s Gate, this system allows the player to pause and play the action. The game encourages you to think strategically around each enemy encounter as not many fights will be the same, meaning the term rinse and repeat does not apply. When combat is not paused, your characters will utilize the abilities you have decided for them to use on a cooldown window, like World of Warcraft. But unlike WoW, you will have to allow each of your characters the time to run through their time cycle if you ever want to adjust the ability you want to use. You won’t be able to stop “casting” if you’re a wizard or spellcaster, and you won’t be able to stop the next scheduled melee attack on a whim.
But like I mentioned above, the goal is to think about combat strategically: where are my characters placed? Are they in a position that can be flanked or will they be left alone? Are the tank and ranged characters spaced out enough to maximize their impact? These are questions that you must think about frequently and it keeps you active and focused on the action in front of you as opposed to what you may find on the other side of any battle. If you find your self distracted from your combat encounters, chances are your team has died and you will have to reload the most recent save memory file.
To help you think strategically, the game is oriented to a isometric camera view like in Diablo where you can see most of the area around your party’s peripherals. As a simple example, one side quest had me exploring the underworld of a cave to find a Dwarf Pirate leader that was restricting food resources from the poor villages because they had control of their own private port. When I found the Pirate leader, she was surrounded by scoundrels and goons alike, which for a couple of attempts made it impossible to succeed; at least until I discovered that my approach to the encounter was off. I was grouping my party up in the doorway to the Pirate’s office or room of business, which allowed her minions to flank and swarm my characters in that door thus creating a checkmate. On the fourth attempt I decided to split up my group members, some going through the doorway I had consistently failed at, and others going through a second doorway at the top end of my screen and the room I was trying to breach. That degree of separation allowed me to attract less enemies at one time and focus on the weaker henchmen. With each smaller encounter, I paused the game, and repositioned my characters one at a time around the new enemies I had aggroed to have the best line of sight for everyone. Once all my characters were in place I went through each individual’s ability bar to select the one I wanted them to use in each encounter and also picked which specific individual enemy I wanted them to focus their attacks on, unless the ability I had chosen provided area of effect bonuses. I continued to specifically place and manipulate placement for each of my heroes up to and including the encounter with the Pirate Queen. This is just one example, but the important thing to note is that every encounter and environment will be different as you move through the game. Each setting and enemy type will require a different strategy, but by having the ability to pause combat, you can take a breath, zoom out on the action, analyze the situation, and adapt to your surroundings.
After completing the tutorial island, you will have gained enough supplies and crew members to repair your pirate ship and set sail on the open water on the Deadfire. Doing so opens up the world tenfold as it becomes clear just how big the Deadfire is and how much you have available to discover and explore. There are countless islands and inhabitants to visit, and introduce yourself to. Doing so will uncover more quests that will add hints or clues to the grander narrative or perhaps will unlock a new quest chain further on in the story. The truth is, you won’t know the true impact of the quests you are completing until you progress further and the dots of the plot begin to connect more and more.
One of the big new features added for PoE 2: Deadfire is the ability to control your pirate ship on the open water to find new islands, but also to track down other pirate ships to destroy them and steal their loot. It is a novel ideal and the ship combat is relatively fluid as you control the cannons you have on deck as well as your ships movement in live time. But unlike combat on land, where you control your entire party and can move them about, you only have access to your single pirate ship. There are no combinations of abilities to discover or grander strategies to employ that will ensure victory, rather it is a shoot first and you probably win the battle type of combat, unless of course the ships you are challenging are much stronger than your ship is. It did not take long to notice that I was beginning to avoid these ship encounters so that I can just reach the next island sooner rather than later. You do have the ability to upgrade your ship and hire more experienced crew members from the different taverns you will visit, but I never felt excited to work on my ship when the combat fell so flat for me.
In all truth this is a small complaint. I am given the option to avoid the ship encounters as much as possible and I appreciate that level of control about them. Much like the narrative and party-based combat, the player is the ultimate controller of how the game will evolve for you. The real-time with pause feature allows me to think and reflect on how I approach different enemies without pressuring me to act or react immediately. The point of the gameplay is to be smart about how you play, to be methodical in your approach. This combines masterfully with the narrative as all your quests will have meaning to the main story plot on a scale of min-max importance. The connections could be subtle or overt and the more quests that you discover and complete will only make those connections clearer. Some side quests you complete may not seem like they have any relevance at first, but talking to someone on a different island of the Deadfire could reveal that one quest as being incredibly crucial.
Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire is the most immersed I have ever felt in a game world and that level of attention to detail and dedication to narrative systems is rarely seen, and rarely done so well. This game is a nearly perfect sequel, displays how Obsidian’s team are masters of their craft, and on top of it all, it is an RPG experience seasoned to taste for each individual player.