Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire Preview

“How would you improve upon the greatest isometric RPG ever made?”  If you are as much of a fan of Pillars of Eternity as I am, then you may find yourself pondering this question.  On April 3, Obsidian Entertainment intends to give us their answer when they release of Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire.  With the 2015 masterpiece Pillars of Eternity, Obsidian Entertainment finally delivered some excellent gameplay to augment their traditional strengths of storytelling and dialog.  It was a groundbreaking achievement for a studio that, until then, was best known for unorthodox expansion packs and sequels. 

Obsidian has provided us and its Kickstarter backers with the opportunity to experience a beta version of the game.  The beta is only a small fraction of what will be in the final product, but it still provides a decent sampling of what it is going to offer.  Since the game drops you into a location with a pre-made party and no story context, it is difficult to judge how well those aspects of the game are going to come together.  However, a couple of things are plainly obvious with Pillars of Eternity 2, almost from the moment that you step into the game.  The first thing is that Obsidian is not an outfit that rests on their laurels after success.  In the three years since releasing Deadfire’s predecessor, Obsidian has boldly and ambitiously made countless changes and additions to the Pillars of Eternity formula.   By the time that all is said and done, nobody will be able to accuse Obsidian of halfheartedly churning out a cash grab sequel.  While all of these tweaks and new features are well-intentioned, not all of them are going to be good, and that brings us to the other thing that is obvious from this beta – Pillars of Eternity 2 is shaping up to be a controversial and divisive game among its fan base.

My first impression of this game is that it will spark ages-old debates about sequels and the fine line between “making bold improvements to a formula” versus “fixing what wasn’t broken”.   Since I haven’t yet put sixty hours into the game, I will reserve judgment about on which side of that line this game will fall.  However, I can say that most fans will at least find one thing that they love about this game, and at least one thing that they hate.  This preview will list a few of the most likely candidates.

One aspect of this game that is likely to be popular is the noticeable graphics upgrade that it has received.  Pillars of Eternity got a lot of mileage out of its visuals, and early indications are that Pillars of Eternity 2 will look even better.   The backgrounds in the original game were lovely, but they were mostly static.  The backgrounds in this game, on the other hand, are active and dynamic.  After you create your character and you enter the first map, you immediately notice the changes.  The game takes place in the world’s archipelago, so you would expect it to have lots of water.  Obsidian clearly put lots of effort into making that water look lovely, and it does.  On the first island, the waves realistically build up and crash against the shore, and when you are out at sea on your boat tosses and turns on the beautiful sun or moon-lit waves.  In general, there seems to be more going on in the environments,  and the NPCs look more active (even if it means that they are just walking back and forth).  The graphical improvements may come at the cost of performance though – I had to turn down the graphical quality a little bit to get it to run well on my laptop which ran the first game flawlessly.  Then again, there is still time to optimize the game and improve performance.

Another major change in this game that I expect to be a popular one is the changes that have been made to the world map.  The first game was set up purely in the tradition of Baldurs Gate, with locations that would gradually unlock throughout the game, to which you would travel by clicking on them on the world map.  Deadfire, on the other hand, appears to have a fully open, navigable map, similar to what was in Wasteland 2, if you played that game.  If you wish, you can leave the starting area and traverse over land to the nearest point of interest.  Or, you can wander about the land, looking for hidden treasures and stumbling into interesting, one time encounters.  Better yet, you can get into your ship and set sail to discover new lands, drop anchor, and explore a new island.  As you travel, the world goes through a day/night cycle and your party and ship crew consume food and water.   What all of the survival mechanics will be and how they will work isn’t clear from the beta, but the addition is an interesting one.

Since the game takes place on a series of islands, seafaring is going to be a major theme.  At some point in the game, you will take command of a ship and populate with a crew and your NPCs.  Via ship management, you can put these folks into various roles and buy upgrades for your ship.  You will probably need those upgrades, because another new feature of the game is ship-to-ship combat.  The naval combat is one of the many areas of the game that I expect will receive mixed reviews.  I was hoping that the combat might be an action mini-game where you navigate the water and exchange broadsides with your enemies.  Instead, it is all text-based, where you take turns and choose options like “Full speed ahead!” or “Fire starboard cannons!”.   The sampling that I got of this combat was not overly impressive, but perhaps the ship upgrading and management will make it more interesting.

The new additions, whether you love them or no, at least do not change what people loved in the first game.  There are, however, some substantial changes to character development, the party, and combat that will likely keep message board moderators employed for years to come.   The most obvious change is the trimming down of the party size from six to five.  The reason for this change is not obvious from playing the demo.  Character development has changed somewhat as well.  Development in the first game had weird attributes like Might and Resolve, and what exactly those attributes represented was not obvious.  This game still has those attributes, but what they influence this time makes a little bit more sense.  What you do as you gain levels has also been modified significantly – whether it is for the better remains to be seen.  Pillars of Eternity was almost an unapologetic copying and pasting of the 3rd edition of Dungeons and Dragons, with the names changed here and there to prevent copyright infringement.  Pillars of Eternity 2 still shows its D&D roots, but the way that you access spells and abilities has been modified to resemble more recent RPGs, including Obsidian’s Tyranny.  Weapon proficiencies work differently and multi-classing is now available for those who choose it. 

Perhaps the most significant changes in Deadfire are the changes that have been made for combat.    The concept of armor penetration has been added, which significantly changes the armor/damage reduction relationship that was present in the previous game.  I was a little bit confused as to how it all works in the sequel, but I expect that when the full game comes out, it will be easier to learn after you get a brief tutorial and then slowly build up your party.  In addition, the Endurance/Health system from the first game has been consolidated into just health, like most other RPGs.  Knocked down characters receive injuries, which can be removed by food during rest.  One lasting impression that I got from this demo was that combat in this game might be hard.  Really hard.  After going through some dialog trees with the members of the first village, I headed out to pursue a quest in some nearby ruins.  Almost immediately, a swarm of enemies attacked me and slaughtered my party quickly.  The next time, I took a different route through that area and a different group of enemies killed me.  The third time through, I defeated those enemies, but just barely.  Right after that though, I met some sort of giant guardian/golem creature that squashed my party into oblivion.  There are a few caveats to this story though, the biggest of them being that the beta provides you with no explanation of its systems.  It drops you into the game with pre-developed characters and no chance to upgrade your equipment.  When the final game comes out, you will, presumably, start off at level 1 and gradually add traveling companions to the group.  This should give you a much better feel for how combat works.  With that said, you might want to brace yourself for some tough encounters. 

In the spring, Obsidian Entertainment is going to release what will, hopefully, be another terrific RPG.  In just a few hours of playing the preview, I found a few new features and tweaks that I like.  There are, on the other hand, some changes that might be taking the game in the wrong direction.  I will give them all a chance though when the game is finally done – when I have had a chance to experience them throughout the RPG epic for which they are intended.  I have high hopes that Pillars of Eternity 2 – Deadfire can be the best RPG of 2018, but it wouldn't shock me if it is, instead, the year’s most disappointing one.