Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire Review

The first Pillars of Eternity is one of only three games to which I have given the maximum of five stars. I think that it's an excellent game, but before I delve into the review for its sequel, I think that I should say why it was an excellent. The answer, in short, is that it was the product of both talented developers and brilliant design decisions. Pillars of Eternity effectively plucked everything that we love about an old Baldurs Gate game without being slavishly devoted to nostalgia. It made improvements where they were welcome, and incorporated modern design sensibilities (like a great interface) into the formula without sacrificing the good parts. It was a game that demonstrated that Obsidian had a degree of insight into the hearts and minds of PC RPG fans which is practically unheard of in modern gaming. The design philosophy broke away from the publisher-driven idiocy that had plagued gaming for the previous decade. Did the game have flaws? Absolutely. The role-playing system didn’t make a lot of sense. The NPC’s suffered from some boring personalities and lackluster voice acting. The unnecessarily long-winded descriptions of objects, people, and events became tedious to read. These flaws, however, could easily be overlooked in an ambitious game like Pillars of Eternity that was profoundly successful in so many ways.

I went into Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire hoping to be as delighted as I was playing Pillars of Eternity I. I hoped that the flaws of the first game would be addressed in an epic new adventure with exciting new features. I hoped that everything that I loved about the first game would be left intact.

And I didn’t get what I wanted.

I'm going to level a lot of criticisms at this game, some of which will be quite harsh. Before that, however, I should put these issues in context. I would rather play a flawed but ambitious game that takes a few chances than a game that follows the boring EA/Ubisoft annual franchise approach. Pillars of Eternity II is a game that falls firmly into the former category. It overhauls much of the first game while offering up a bevy of new features in an attempt to match the new setting or enhance the role-playing gameplay. Making these types of changes necessarily involves making a lot of choices on what to keep from the first game and what to change. It's here that Obsidian, unfortunately, failed in some major ways. It's for that reason that I can’t shake a sense of disappointment with the game, even though it does have a lot going for it.

This review could list many examples – some of them minor – of the design decisions that went wrong with Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire. There's one great example, however, that illustrates the problem as well as any other – the inexplicable shrinking of the party size from six members down to five. This change reduces your viable tactical options in combat without offering anything of value in return. Perhaps even worse, it reduces the number of party interactions and companion dialog lines that are available to you while you are adventuring.  For a game that invests so heavily into story and dialog, that is one costly sin indeed. The decision to squeeze the party size down is puzzling. What was the purpose of it? All of the old Infinity Engine games that inspired Pillars of Eternity had six-member parties. The first Pillars of Eternity and all of its DLC had a six-member party. What in God’s name would indicate to the design team for Pillars of Eternity II that the six-member party in the first game was a “problem” to be fixed? There are also a few other problems that I will mention later on.

The story in Deadfire picks up where you left off at the end of Pillars of Eternity, but through a quick opening cutscene you're reset back to level one, travelling in a new part of the world with your old home destroyed. Like in so many open-ended RPGs, the story suffers from your ability to ignore it for weeks at a time. I also didn’t find the story and characters to be up to the strengths of the first game, so it's slightly disappointing that Deadfire is a direct sequel. A couple of the duller NPCs from the first game re-appear in the sequel, along with one fan favorite and a handful of new travelling companions. In addition, there are a few “sidekicks” – NPCs who can join you but don’t interject any commentary or offer any side quests. Your travelling companions and their side quests are somewhat of a mixed bag, both in terms of how interesting they are and the quality of their voice acting (one of them, in particular, is a cheery priest with a horribly out of place hillbilly accent). There are only four new full-fledged travelling companions, which is a little disappointing since they aren’t necessarily better than the characters that were in the first game.

Pillars of Eternity II delivers in spades, at least, when it comes to providing an epic new adventure. The game doesn't reuse the world of its predecessor, and instead takes place in the titular Deadfire Archipelago. The world is huge, the game is long, and there are more islands to explore, quests to fulfill, monsters to kill, and hidden goodies to find than can be counted here. You're free to follow the game’s storyline directly, but if you wish, you can stop off at almost any island that you see and find what adventures await you there. They sometimes take the form of an unremarkable cave with some easy enemies. Sometimes, they take the form of a powerful monster that stomps your under-leveled party into a bloody goo. Regardless of what you find, it never feels like an encounter that has been copied and pasted from somewhere else. In between islands are dangerous reefs, storms, sunken vessels, shipwrecks – absolutely everything that should be in a maritime fantasy game. Pillars of Eternity II provides variety, quality, and quantity in a manner that is practically unheard of, except for perhaps in the first game. The whole soundtrack is all new too and it's a great combination of soothing, peaceful melodies and heated battle music. If you're looking for a gigantic world in which to lose yourself, then you need look no further.

One criticism that cannot be leveled at this game is that it plays it safe. Pillars of Eternity II takes chances in many areas, one of which is the new setting. There's a strong colonial era Caribbean vibe to the game, which is a stark departure from the more traditional fantasy setting of most RPGs. The combination of Imperialism and Capitalism that defined that historical period is a major underlying theme of your side activities. Two huge colonial empires, the Rauatai and the Vailians, are competing for the precious resources that the islands offer. In a typical modern day RPG fashion, these two empires are factions within the game that you can choose to side with or pit against one another. A third faction is the Huana – the Deadfire natives who have decidedly mixed opinions about their colonial “guests”. Some of the natives adamantly oppose the presence of the Rauatai and the Vailians, whom they see either as threats to their social order or greedy plunderers. Others welcome them for their resources and for the economic prosperity that they offer. These clashes are presented intelligently and with sufficient nuance, which is a refreshing departure from the usual simplistic portrayals of these themes. No faction truly has their hands clean and you're allowed to decide for yourself what you feel is right or wrong. The main story quest exists to follow, but the faction storylines offer the more interesting interactions.

The game is also very heavily pirate-themed, and how much you enjoy it will depend largely on how much charm you find in pirates. If you've been pining for another pirate game since Assassins Creed IV came out, then you're in luck, because Pillars of Eternity II checks off all of the boxes when it comes to trap the genre. There are bottles of rum, caskets of grog, sea shanties that your crew sings in between islands, tricorn hats, stone forts on craggy islands, naval battles with cannons, and seedy characters who speak romantically of the fun adventures of the pirate life. A major portion of what is new was added to support the pirate theme. The most significant gameplay addition to Pillars of Eternity II is your own ship – a floating base of sorts similar to the Ebon Hawk in the Knights of the Old Republic series. You can outfit your ship with sails, cannons, and a crew of ne’er-do-wells to guide it around the world and fight off enemies in lengthy naval battles. It's new and highly ambitious, but it's also in this area that the game’s major flaws start to appear.

The first problem with the game’s “Yarrrrr! Pirates!” theme is that it feels gimmicky, as if it were tacked onto the game in an effort to differentiate it from the predecessor. The first game certainly didn’t need this so-called improvement. The gimmick, unfortunately, creates a lot of tonal inconsistency. One moment, you're in a romantic fantasy recreation of Pirates of the Caribbean, but in the next you're in the typical Obsidian, morally gray and complex world where happy endings are hard to come by and perfect solutions are nonexistent. These changes go all the way down to the music that plays during combat. The constant flip-flop in tone almost makes it feel as if you're playing in two different worlds, or that old and cancelled content was grafted onto a new game.

There's another and bigger problem with the new theme though. The naval combat – it brings me no pleasure to say this – is terrible. It takes place entirely in a turn and text-based format, where you and your opponent take turns, either turning your ship in various directions and delivering broadsides with cannons, trying to flee, or closing in to ram or board the other ship. Many of the bounties involve killing a pirate at sea, and other ships will often attack you without provocation, so you won't be able to avoid the combat. It's horribly repetitive, boring, and light on meaningful tactics and strategy. If you wish to sink your opponent’s ship, it will involve whittling down its health slowly with cannons that frequently miss (even when you have expert cannoneers on your ship). If you wish, you can simply charge at the other ship, board it, and then enter into regular melee combat. If you're like me, you will find yourself doing this in every encounter after you quickly get tired of the naval combat’s monotony. Ship management is a major part of the game, but since almost all of it involves optimizing your crew for naval combat, it goes to waste if you avoid that portion. As a result, a lot of design efforts were wasted.

Quite a few of the new features fail to add value. I'm fine with these failures though, because they're the inevitable downside of game developers taking risks. A bigger problem is that too much of what wasn’t broken in the original game was unnecessarily fixed, and not enough of what didn’t work in the original game was addressed. I have already mentioned the shrinking of the party size from six to five, but there are at least a handful of other bad design changes that frustrate me as I compare the sequel to its predecessor.

The character development, which was already a weakness of the first game, is now actually worse. Special abilities such as spells and feats in Pillars of Eternity were largely modeled after third Edition of Dungeons and Dragons. These systems have received some unwelcome overhauls in Pillars of Eternity II. Level ups now consist us picking just one (or sometimes two) abilities from a combined tree that includes both generic feats and class-specific activities. As a result, your spell casters and ciphers (i.e. the game’s psionics characters) will rarely have access to more than just a few spells to endlessly spam over and over, instead of the wider variety that was available to them in the first game. The excellent grimoire system for wizards has been replaced by a terrible new system where grimoires are now objects that you find and have only two spells per level. Since you can’t control or change what is in a grimoire, anything that you find which overlaps with spells that you already know is essentially worthless. Class differences are de-emphasized, now that everyone has access to largely the same feats at each level. For instance, everyone, from your wizard to your fighter, gains weapon proficiencies at the same rate. Your characters who should hardly ever be using weapons will pile up worthless weapon proficiencies. 

In this series, Obsidian seems to have been going for a role-playing system that would support unorthodox, nontraditional character builds. They have succeeded there, but in the process, they have built a system that supports the building of interchangeable, generic characters with shallow identities. The best example of this is the “Might” statistic. It determines how much damage everybody does – wizards and barbarians alike. The statistic that dictates whether you can bend steel with your bare hands also determines how much damage you can do with a fireball. Intelligence only affects area of effect, which means that the same statistic that determines the blast radius of your wizard’s fireball determines the effect radius of your barbarian’s yell. Your characters' core stats have absolutely no effect whatsoever on skills such as sneaking, diplomacy, mechanics (i.e. the usual thief stuff), and history. You can have a drooling idiot of a barbarian who is a master lock picker or the world’s most accomplished historian. 

Armor doesn’t affect your skills either. A paladin with plate mail and a low dexterity can have the same sneaking capability as a rogue with leather armor and a high dexterity. I can’t sugar coat this part of the criticism – the role playing system is atrocious. There's plenty of role-playing to be had when it comes to story decisions and dialog, but when it comes to building your character, it's sorely lacking. I was perfectly willing to let it slide in the first game because I accepted all of those flaws as a minor inconvenience in what I thought was otherwise a masterpiece. This time around, on the second iteration, I can't be so forgiving. Character building in Pillars of Eternity II just isn’t fun. Multi-classing was added, but it isn’t fun either.  Why bother multi-classing a character when there's so little difference between classes to begin with?

There's one major change that is a positive one, though, for which the game deserves a lot of credit. It's a substantial visual upgrade from the first game, which is saying a lot since it was already quite lovely. The beauty in the first Pillars of Eternity, however, was largely static and it came in the form of immaculately crafted 2D backgrounds. They still exist in the sequel but they have now been augmented by some impressive motion and spectacular lighting effects.  Your travelling companions, for instance, now show off a variety of charming idle behaviors that give them extra personality, like one guy who occasionally strikes flint to tinder and lights his pipe. The ever-present water is now much more active than it has ever been in any game of this type. Waves build up and crash on the shores of islands, water levels on beaches rise and fall, and your ship gently rocks back and forth on the ocean. The lighting and shadows, however, really steal the show. Dungeons now have an extra layer of atmosphere, thanks to the flickering lights of torches and lamps. The effects are subtle, but you may eventually notice little details, like how your weapons cast dancing shadows on the walls.

Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire does have a lot of positive aspects that it brings to the table. It carries over the tactical combat and the interface from the first game, and many of the other features that made so many RPG fans fall in love with the series. The Deadfire Archipelago is loaded with adventure – tense encounters with enemies, dungeons to explore, and a multitude of treasures to discover. Despite its flaws, it's a very easy game to like, or maybe even to love.

Nevertheless, it's difficult for me to shake the sense of disappointment that I feel. The game could have been another masterpiece like its predecessor, but most of the new directions Obsidian took are steps backwards. The series kicked off with all of the right design decisions, but the sequel doesn't prosper in this regard. Perhaps it's unfair to focus so much on the negative aspects of a game that is still very much worth playing, but it really is good in spite of what is new, and not because of it. It's for this reason that although I can still wholeheartedly recommend the game for fans of Pillars of Eternity, I have come away from it with feelings that are decidedly mixed.