The Pillars of Eternity expansion packs are proof of a gaming concept: that just because you love a game doesn’t mean that you will love more of it. 2015’s Pillars of Eternity was the crown jewel of the PC RPG revival – a terrific, epic adventure that enhanced the old school design of games like Baldur's Gate with lots of modern sensibility. You would think that this game could have been the foundation for a lot more great content, and perhaps it will be in the future. The two DLC expansions that Obsidian Entertainment has released over the past year, however, have been relatively underwhelming – especially The White March – Part 2. It is not a bad product by a long stretch, but it's probably not what you were originally hoping for when this expansion series was first announced. Some of what is wrong with it can be traced to some issues with the design of the original game, while other issues can be traced to the design of the expansion itself. The core mechanics of the game still work very well, but by the time that you are finished with this expansion, you will have probably had your fill.
Part 2 of The White March picks up right after the end of Part 1, when you have reactivated the great forge of Durgan’s Battery. Suddenly, you have a nightmare of a massive army coming to destroy the world, and the rest of the expansion pack involves you finding and stopping that army. An interesting side story develops as an arrogant noble shows up at Caed Nua and challenges your claim to the fortress. The main story of the expansion isn’t particularly compelling, and the reveals that you find towards the end aren’t particularly interesting. There was clearly a lot of effort that went into this story, but it is one that never makes an emotional connection. Besides the obvious motivation to save the world, there is little reason to get invested in the story or the reason why the menacing army is approaching. The side story about defending your hard-earned Caed Nua, on the other hand, is the best content in this package. Right away, you will come to hate the despicable Lord Gathbin, who will stop at nothing to steal Caed Nua from you because he has some ancient obscure claim to it. This mini storyline also ends with a terrific climax.
The expansion also offers a new traveling companion and, like its main story, it won’t be remembered as the campaign’s greatest feature. Your new friend is Maneha, an Aumaua (read: Half-orc) Barbarian who joins you on your journey because she is trying to forget her traumatic past. Her character had potential, but her atrocious voice acting almost singlehandedly wrecks it. Her voice is jovial and upbeat (and her AI barks aren’t particularly good), but her background story is dark and bloody. It is a complete mismatch. Unfortunately, she is the only new NPC who can join you in this expansion pack.
As you might expect, The White March – Part II contains a lot of the usual bells and whistles that are included in an expansion pack of this nature. The level cap has been raised and spells have been added to accommodate high level adventuring. New areas, like the beautiful Abbey of the Fallen Moon, have been added, along with new enemies to fight. One particularly fearsome set of enemies is The Eyeless --towering headless machines who deliver devastating blows with gigantic hammers. As always, the 2D pre-rendered backgrounds are beautiful and packed with details. What is new, overall, is quality stuff. The game’s problems sprout from some basic design issues.
The first of those issues is that Pillars of Eternity does not appear to have been designed with high level adventuring in mind. The loot system, in particular, is badly lacking great high level items. Since there is a hard cap on the power level of the loot that you find, the system is engineered so that almost immediately after you start this expansion, you will have the most powerful loot that you can get. Almost everything that you pull from chests and pick up from dead enemies is junk that you sell for gold. You have next to nothing to buy with this gold, which makes loot gathering and enchanting nearly nonexistent for this expansion pack. It is not a game breaker, since Pillars of Eternity isn’t a heavily loot-driven game ala Diablo, but it would be nice to go into a big dungeon and come out with more than a couple of valuable crafting components and a bag full of crap.
Another big issue with this expansion pack is that there is too much nuisance combat in it – what feels like more than the previous chapters. Either that, or it has just gotten tedious after playing the original game and the first expansion pack for 80+ hours in under a year. After all of those hours, your battle tactics aren’t evolving much anymore, and for most of the battles, you are repeating the same few tactics over and over again. The main challenges in the game come from enemies who spam you with knockdown attacks. The expansion pack was originally designed for medium level characters, to be played before the original end game. If you are playing it at level 14, then the game will scale up the difficulty for you, with inconsistent results. The difficulty curve in the game swings wildly, from cakewalk battles that were supposed to be tough, to brutal encounters that are unexpectedly hard. In retrospect, this DLC series may have been much better if it had been a new story set after the ending of the first game.
Make no mistake, if you enjoyed what you have played so far of Pillars of Eternity, then it will be worthwhile for you to finish off the saga by playing this expansion pack. It is more of what you loved in your previous experience with this game. With that said, you might be surprised by how much that disappoints you, or how just plain tired you are of it. The high level adventuring that this game provides is too repetitive and it feels too much like the low level adventuring, but with bigger numbers. Is it unfair to be criticizing a game for not enhancing or shaking up an existing formula that worked so well? Perhaps, but my heart does not lie to me. Whereas the original game was one that I couldn’t stop playing, The White March – Part 2 was a game that eventually became a grind that I had to force myself to finish. Now would be a great time for Obsidian to take a few years to reflect on the successes of Pillars of Eternity and develop a great sequel.