Pillars of Eternity II is back with another romping, sea-based adventure, but can it really live up to high standards of its predecessor?
Title: Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire
Developer: Obsidian Entertainment
Publisher: Versus Evil
Platforms: PC (version reviewed), Mac
Release Date: May 8, 2018
Like its predecessor, Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire demands your attention. From the start, it forces you into detailed character creation, text-based conversations and complex skill trees. Coming from God of War, the game’s slow pace and turn-based combat had me itching for something more visceral.
Fortunately, though, that itch for instant gratification quickly faded. Deadfire’s payoff is not in the revamped combat or shiny new graphics, though they definitely help things. It’s in the epic world that slowly unfolds.
It opens several years after Pillars of Eternity as your home at Caed Nua is obliterated by an old, previously dormant god. It starts strong, and as the game progresses, Deadfire’s canny writing only becomes clearer. Dialogue is great, if not a little flowery, and lore is fascinating without being overwhelming.
Obsidian regales important scenes in a story-book fashion, complete with beautiful illustrations and narration, drawing you straight into the narrative. Even its side quests, with their multiple approaches and backstories, show true care during development. Straight off the bat, it’s a fantastic world to get lost in, and I have no doubt you’ll spend many hours exploring.
Unfortunately, it also has its issues. While Pillars II has great details, it fails to tie them together in a grand sense. The archipelago setting adds an unparalleled sense of freedom, but it also fractures the narrative. You’ll be pulled away to aid in a city’s internal politics, only to realize your touch doesn’t have an impact on how the narrative evolves.
Then, once you’ve resolved the issue, the area just seems to sit there, showing barely a whisper of its changed state and offering no new challenges. The sub-plots rarely relate to the main story, making it feel like each island is completely isolated.
The same oversight extends to companion interactions, which don’t do much to evolve your relationship and often don’t change the ending. Characters approach at the end of each main story mission but don’t have much to offer besides a couple of side quests. With the intimate, forced environment of a ship, Obsidian could have done a lot more, and that can leave a sour taste in the mouth.
Despite all that, the content is worth your time. Though the grand picture of the world doesn’t mesh entirely, the act of being distracted by the region’s struggles will give you a greater appreciation for the huge decisions you have to make. If you’re the type of person who loves world-building over character-building, you’ll like this title, but it also has plenty else to offer.
Deadfire has the same six races and classes as the first game, but Obsidian has added some twists. Players can now combine two classes, creating hybrids of spellcasting and melee, rogues and paladins, or anything else in between. In exchange, they’ll progress each class more slowly, and won’t reach their higher-tier powers until late in the game.
It’s a nice twist, but it can also add a feeling of inferiority to the protagonist. Often, your companions will be spitting out giant fireballs while you’re still muddling around with basic incantations. That’s not always a bad thing. While your companions are strong and focused, your character has an unparalleled versatility.
You can throw around spells without worrying about getting one hit by a hulking giant, or poke at enemies with a rifle while firing off healing spells. It’s a bit more to manage, but it adds a good amount of variety to the game without significantly shaking up the formula.
By removing the micro-management, the game simply flows and feels better.
However, that’s not to say that formula hasn’t improved. In fact, it’s better than it’s ever been. Vastly better animations and particle effects increase battle clarity significantly while also adding more satisfaction. Heads explode in a gory mess, visual cues signal enemies’ next attack and a vastly improved AI system means micro-management is less vital.
Some will see this as a dumbing down, but there’s complexity to be had if you need it. Each companion can be programmed with a specific set of actions and reactions, allowing you to hone them to act exactly as you want. After a bit of fiddling, it lets you spend more time on your protagonist, which can an be necessary with the intricacies of class combinations and sub-classes. By removing the micro-management, the game simply flows and feels better.
It’s just a shame the game’s combat doesn’t strike a balance so well in other areas. For the most part, it feels way too easy, while at points you’ll find random difficulty spikes and get slaughtered. Adding to that is the multi-class system, which has made it difficult for Obsidian to ensure all classes are on equal footing.
In some ways, it’s all part of the pirate’s life, and is helped by the generous autosave system and knowing the areas well. On the other hand, it can start to feel unfair in the game’s Trial of Iron mode. If your party dies, your save dies with it, and that’s not uncommon in the early game. This is fortunately combatted by the addition of ‘Berath’s blessings,’ which can give you a head start in leveling, and gear, but it has the subtlety of a sledgehammer.
Combat plays out on the sea as well as land, though it’s still not perfect. Ship battles play out in a turn-based, text-only fashion, giving you options to rotate, fire cannons, close on the enemy, brace for impact, and more. It’s a breath of fresh air after the traditional battles and holds a surprising amount of tension.
Obsidian doesn’t really explain any of naval tactics to you, nor does it give a detailed breakdown of your screws stats. It’s a compelling little minigame discover, and I found myself enjoying the simple life of roaming the coast, sea shanties belting, and cannons firing.
That said, you can rush into boarding the enemy at any point if it gets tiresome. This will put you into a fight in the main combat engine, though there are some inconsistencies. Strangely, the damage you do with the with cannons doesn’t seem to affect the physical battle. Their crew will automatically replenish, leaving you wondering why you just wasted half your ammo.
It’s not clear if this is a bug or an oversight, but it gives an opportunity to segue into some other technical hitches the game has. I encountered a number of issues in my playthrough, and even an exploit or two. For example, you can win ship battles by shielding the last remaining combatant until the enemy forgot and conceded. This was something I worked it out purely by accident, and I’ve heard of plenty of similar bugs since then.
Performance-wise, the game also has weak moments, particularly during combat, where particle effects can freeze an otherwise buttery-smooth scene. At times, it will also crash randomly, setting you back to your last autosave. Usually, that’s not far away, but it can be incredibly frustrating if you just did something important.
This is about par for the course for both Obsidian and a game of this size, and I have no doubt many of these issues will be fixed post-launch. I’d say it’s worth sticking with it just to see Deadfire’s shiny new loot system, which has a wealth of unique items and weapons.
The items make sense in the context you obtained them, with bespoke leather armor from a prestigious pirate or even unequippable reminders of your deeds. There are also a multitude of different armor and weapon types to be found, notes to be discovered, spells to be obtained, and a general sense of variety.
It all helps to make the rather grindy mid-game adventure more enjoyable. During it, you’ll travel between cities trying to curry faction’s favor or make money, without any particular excitement. It seems this is a sneaky design choice to artificially extend the playtime, with the main story taking anywhere between 25 and 50 hours. That decision isn’t helped at all by the load times, which feel even longer than the first game and have the same artwork every time.
Those slow moments are worth pushing past, though, as Pillars of Eternity II sets up some truly magnificent scenes. I won’t go into detail, but the epic moments can make all the downtime worth it. It feels like your story will be regaled for years to come, your party committed to legend or fading into obscurity depending on your actions. There’s more voice acting, more explosions, more everything. Your choice at the end will shape the world, and it’s let down only by a conclusion that doesn’t match the detail of the rest of the game.
It’s exhilarating, yet conflicting, and that describes my experience as a whole. Though Deadfire contains many improvements, I definitely enjoyed it less than Eternity I. It’s a good game, perhaps even a great one, but it doesn’t build on the foundations of its predecessor like it should have. Users who were hoping for better character development and a living world won’t get it here, and that’s sad for a CRPG. Instead, they’ll find a fascinating adventure that has depth in many areas, but perhaps not where it matters most.
A copy of this game was provided to App Trigger for the purpose of this review. All scores are ranked out of 10, with .5 increments. Click here to learn more about our Review Policy.