Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire Review

Eschalon: Book II

Publisher:Paradox Interactive
Developer:Obsidian Entertainment
Release Date:2018-05-08
Genre:
  • Role-Playing
Platforms: Theme: Perspective:
  • Third-Person
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Introduction

Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire is Obsidian Entertainment's follow-up to their 2015 role-playing game Pillars of Eternity.  It takes place five years after the events of the first game, and it continues the story of the first game's characters -- although you and all of your companions have been reset back to level 1.

After a cataclysmic event at your fortress from the first game, during which you briefly lose your soul (perhaps explaining why you have to start over at level 1), a group of gods sends you to the Deadfire Archipelago to spy on the god Eothas, who is up to something again.  This is basically just an excuse to have you explore a new part of the world, but it results in you meeting lots of people -- including pirates! -- who desperately need your help in solving tasks, quests, and bounties.

Characters

In some ways, the character system for Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire looks identical to the character system from the first game.  Deadfire uses the same six attributes (including dexterity, might and resolve), the same six races (including dwarf, orlan and human), the same eleven classes (including druid, paladin and wizard), and the same mix of backgrounds and cultures (which give characters a small bonus to their attributes and skills).  But a lot of the details have changed.

For starters, the abilities, talents, and spells from the first game -- now just called abilities -- have been modified and rearranged, and they've been grouped together and put into a hierarchical tree for each class.  This change simplifies leveling up a character, and, more importantly, makes it easier to see what is available for the character and to plan ahead since the entire tree can be seen on one page.

Also, character skills have been expanded.  In Pillars of Eternity, there were only five skills, and characters were expected to know something about each one.  But in Deadfire, there are 16 active and passive skills, and characters have to specialize in one or two so your party is well-rounded.  Active skills (like mechanics and stealth) are used when exploring and fighting.  Passive skills (like diplomacy and metaphysics) are used during conversations, where a high enough rank in a skill sometimes unlocks extra dialogue options.  Characters can share their skills in some circumstances (usually in dialogue), so your main character (who does all of the talking) isn't required to know something about everything.

Finally, while previously all characters were only allowed to have one class, in Deadfire they can multi-class.  Multi-classing allows characters to use the abilities from two class trees instead of just one, but they're limited to the first seven tiers (out of nine) for each tree.  That means multi-class characters have more "breadth" than "depth," and they're best suited to classes where the top two ability tiers aren't much if any better than the other tiers.

The character system works pretty well.  You can't learn even half of the available abilities for a character, and ditto for the skills, so you have to make choices about what you want each character to do.  For example, if you have a rogue in your party, you can't just make him responsible for mechanics (trap and lock springing), sleight of hand (pickpocketing), and stealth.  If he tries to learn all three, then he won't be good enough in any of them.  So you have to parcel out the skills, or perhaps decide which ones you don't really care about.


Deadfire comes with seven companions and four sidekicks, where sidekicks are basically the same as companions, except that they have limited dialogue and no quests (that is, they're the "we ran out of money" companions, and maybe they'll get expanded later).  Each time you recruit one of these characters, you can choose between two classes or a multi-class for them, giving you lots of options for how you want to build your party.  For example, when you reunite with Eder (who was a companion in the first game as well), you can make him a fighter, a rogue, or a fighter-rogue.  And if you don't like the companions, then you can always build your own characters and fine-tune your party however you want.  All characters are built up in exactly the same way.

When creating your character, you get to decide what happened during the first game.  The easiest way to do this is to import a saved game, but you can also go through a multiple-choice survey and select how events played out, or you can select what type of character you're playing and let the game decide what you would have done.  I was lucky and still had my saved games available, so that's the method I used.

I played a chanter-paladin (aka "herald") in Deadfire.  Between paladin auras and chanter chants, I was able to provide my party with all sorts of good buffs, and multi-classing ended up working pretty well.  I also focused on diplomacy, so I was able to talk my way past many fights, but that skill wasn't as useful as I had hoped -- because combat is surprisingly easy.  But more on that below.

Gameplay

Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire, like its predecessor, emulates the Infinity Engine games of old.  So you play the game using an isometric view, and you left-click where you want your party to go.  You can also right-click to force your party to face a particular direction, which is useful when you're approaching enemies.  Deadfire includes a "smart" camera that follows your party around, so you don't need to control it at all.  But if you want to check out a distant part of the map, then you can use the WASD keys to move the camera around.  Other useful hotkeys include tab to illuminate hotspots, the spacebar to pause the game, F5 to quicksave, and F9 to quickload.  You can also reconfigure the hotkeys, plus rearrange the layout of the interface, so you should be able to make everything work just the way you want.

The Deadfire campaign revolves around the god Eothas, who takes control of a giant statue and starts wandering around absorbing souls -- including yours.  Since Eothas tried to start a war in the past, his actions now worry the other gods, and they return part of your soul to you so you can follow him around and figure out what he's up to.  This leads you to the Deadfire Archipelago, where the entirety of the game takes place.

Unfortunately, the main questline is basically just a carrot to lead you around the archipelago.  I spent about 70 hours playing Deadfire, and the main quests only took maybe an hour of that time.  Instead, the focus of the game is on side quests for the various inhabitants of the archipelago, including several factions that oppose each other -- trading companies, wealthy families, and of course pirates.

Obsidian had a lot of fun with the pirate theme.  You get to use an upgradeable ship as your base of operations, you can wear pirate garb like eyepatches and tri-corner hats, your ship's crew sings pirate shanties while you sail, in one quest you get to search for buried treasure, and you can stalk any number of opposing ships and loot their holds for profit.  There's even a Pirates of the Caribbean themed undead ship that you have to deal with.  About the only thing Obsidian missed is parrots, which is strange since you get to have a pet in the game, and parrots would have been a great fit.  Maybe Obsidian is saving them for a Parrots and Port DLC.


If you've read many of my reviews, then you might know that side quest campaigns are my least favorite, and Deadfire doesn't do anything to change that.  The quests are competently written and constructed, as you'd expect from an Obsidian game, but most of them aren't memorable.  They're just sort of there, and too many of them (particularly the bounties) don't include much in the way of background information or world building, as if Obsidian had to skimp in a few places to get the game out.  In fact, while the world building was great in the first game, it's only a throw-in here.  The inhabitants of the archipelago just refer to the gods by different names, making it sort of confusing who they're talking about, and for some of the factions, it's tough to remember which one is which.  I mean, the only difference between the Vailian Trading Company and the Royal Deadfire Company is that they always want you to solve quests in opposing ways, which hardly makes them compelling.

The minimalist writing also infuses your companions.  They interject comments during your conversations, they have distinctive attitudes and motivations, and their worldview causes them to like or dislike the things you do, which can lead to them leaving your party or perhaps becoming a romance option.  Unfortunately, the one romance I tried was pathetic.  There was zero shared chemistry between me and the companion, and I spent most of my "dating" time trying to find food for her pet bird, which didn't add anything to anything.  The writing in Deadfire is definitely a step down from the first game, and I sort of worry that Obsidian focusing so much on spiffy 3D graphics and voiced dialogue meant that they didn't have as much time or money available for the most important part of the game.

Some games can get away with lackluster writing if the combat is fun and exciting, but I didn't enjoy that part of Deadfire, either.  Obsidian is good at removing trash fights, so all of the encounters are different and meaningful, but the combat was just so easy that it was a bore.  I played Deadfire using the "classic" difficulty, which is the middle option, but the further I got into the game, the easier the fights became -- and they got pretty easy by the time I reached level 10 (which is maybe a quarter of the way in).  I just rolled right over a couple of dragons and a kraken, without needing to micromanage my party or quaff any potions, and that definitely wasn't the case in the first game, so I don't know if Obsidian screwed up the balance or changed their philosophy.  About the only fights I had any trouble with were against "fampyrs" (aka vampires), because they could charm my OP characters and force them to fight amongst themselves.  Eventually, I started a game on the "veteran" difficulty (one notch higher than "classic"), but I couldn't muster enough enthusiasm to reach any of the boss fights to see if it makes a difference.  So perhaps it's the solution, or perhaps it isn't.

Even the ship battles are sort of odd.  In order to shoehorn ship-to-ship combat into the game, Obsidian had to make them text-based and turn-based, where on each turn you might change direction or close the distance to your opponent or shoot your cannons.  The problem is, you get the best rewards for capturing an opposing ship rather than sinking it, so there's no incentive whatsoever to damage the opposing ship, and one of the options at the start of each encounter is simply to close in for hand-to-hand combat (which is handled like every other fight, just on board a ship), so you can avoid the text-based part of the battles completely.  I ended up firing my cannons exactly one time in the game, and that was only because I was attacked by a giant shark-like creature.

Conclusion

Obviously, I wasn't thrilled with Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire, but there's good news for those of you who might be interested in the game.  The engine is solid, the voice-acting is excellent, the quests make sense and give you lots of options for solving them -- and all of the things I didn't like about the game are subjective rather than objective.  Going by the metacritic score for Deadfire, other reviewers certainly liked it more than I did.  Plus, Obsidian has shown a willingness to keep working on their games, and to get them into good shape, so the content will likely improve over time.

But for me, I was on the fence with Deadfire.  It's a competent game and provides 70 hours or content, but it didn't draw me in, and I was sort of happy when I finished it so I could move on to something else.  Ultimately, Deadfire made me think of Storm of Zehir way more than I would have liked.