Full voice acting and heavy cut scenes are considered by many to be essential ingredients in any modern game, most of all an RPG.
Yet what Obsidian have achieved with Pillars of Eternity is nothing short of bold and remarkable. Despite competition from Divinity and Torment, PoE 2: Deadfire stays true to its vintage roots of limiting both and is all the better for it.
Deadfire forces you to read every word in order to truly appreciate the impact of every scene, a twitching hand, a gaze of steel, even an outward grimace. Even more so than the original, lines of dialogue can take on completely different meanings in each exchange and your attributes and abilities influence them more than ever before.
Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire offers so many possibilities in each conversation. There are always your standard responses to move the narrative along, but depending on whether you have maxed out your strength, or you’re a bit of a historian, or you’re very self-assured and streetwise, you can change the course of the conversation to make some bold decisions. Bully a guard into giving you a key or kill them where they stand if they disobey you. Carefully manipulate the conversation to convince them into giving it to you. Or improve your agility to tap into your stealthy attributes. In most cases, there is more than one way to complete a quest.
Your character’s talents mean so much more than just how your fighter is built, they influence every dialogue choice, every decision you make, and even how your party respond to you. As Obsidian like to put it, there are ‘no bad builds – you can’t go wrong’.
But on the subject of combat, Pillars 2 has also had some upgrades. The big one is that party sizes have been reduced from six to five to make it easier to keep track of the action, and that you can now retarget spells, even after they’ve been cast. The Party AI system is also improved, allowing you to customise preset behaviour to the most minute detail, even defining specific behaviour in one-off scenarios. The possibilities are endless!
Fight fire with Deadfire
Deadfire uses RTwP, meaning you can pause the action at any point to change up your attacks or move with an enemy. You can even set it so that if a character is near death, the game will pause automatically for you to rethink strategy. As before, characters can be ordered to fight individually or as part of a team, but with so many fighter choices available to you, it’s important to recognise the strengths and weaknesses of every one in your team, and don’t have them charge headfirst at once, even on the easiest difficulty settings. This is an RPG that will punish you for mindlessly stabbing the mouse button and directing your priest to the frontlines to face down a barbarian.
By hovering your mouse over an enemy, you can see what their strengths and weaknesses are, with the game keeping an account of everyone and everything you’ve faced. Permadeath can happen, of course, but you can also hire adventurers to join your party, even building them from the ground up yourself so that they do exactly what you want them to.
Even old habits in an RPG like grinding have been rethought, with Obsidian rewarding players for the way they play rather than encouraging them to fight the same mobs and travel to the same places again and again. Use your attributes wisely, and you’ll earn just as much experience in your conversations as you will killing scar-faced goblin in the old abandoned mine seventeen times in a row.
And that brings us to the graphics, the gorgeous, sometimes jaw-dropping, regularly stunning graphics. This isn’t just an upgrade from PoE, it’s an evolution.
If it’s not the gentle, sweeping movement of the water or the tide coming in that gets you, it’s the look, feel, and modelling of the character you’re putting together. The detail in the face is startling, and the customisation options – like hair, eyes, nose – are at least double the amount from PoE, possibly treble. On my Gigabyte 17W-CF1, I had PoE 2: Deadfire completely maxed out and even at this early stage (it’s not due out until April 3) I was blown away. Everything just looks sharper, crisper and more fluid; less stunted and static. This isn’t any normal top-down RPG, Pillars 2 is one of the most aesthetically pleasing I’ve ever seen in the genre.
Of course, the big story in Pillars 2 is that you captain your own ship and crew. To be honest, this aspect of the game is still a bit of a work in progress and it seems there’ll be a lot of tweaks between now and launch as Obsidian try to get it right. Put it this way, in the current preview build it’s by no means finalised.
And, honestly, it’s the only part I’m a bit on the fence about. On the one hand, naturally navigating the map by clicking around the map, venturing to different islands, picking up treasure and discovering landmarks is light years better than the existing system in PoE 1. It’s more natural, free-roam, encourages exploration and it places a lot of added responsibility on your shoulders. Now you have to think about crew wages, morale, starvation, and even the possibility of mutiny while you sail around. Do you head back to land to pick up supplies or go after further glory?
On the ship you can assign your crew to different roles depending on their skill set. For instance, if you’ve got a journeyman navigator it’s probably best you don’t waste them on manning the cannons. The interface is similar to FTL in that you drag and drop crew mates into open slots to do your bidding. That part works wonderfully, and during combat they can even level up and improve in certain areas.
You can also jump out on deck to walk around, customise the look of your ship, as well as buy new sails and cannons, and even find new equipment as you journey through the game.
The combat, however, does leave a bit to be desired. Unlike hand to hand combat, ship battles are a text focused, turn-based affair where you have three turns to perform different manoeuvres as you try to outsmart the enemy ship. Like a dialogue tree, you have several commands you can use, like turn port or starboard, fire cannons from either direction, or do a full 180.
I guess I’d hoped for real-time, turn-based, ship to ship battles, adapted from Pillars combat, or even something like Sid Meier’s Pirates battles. When you consider the RTwP throughout the rest of the game, to be honest, it does affect the pacing slightly.
You can grapple and board an enemy ship if you’ve levelled up enough, though, and have hand to hand combat as normal. With that, you can then choose to fight from the deck of your own ship or leap across to get right in a pirate’s face. And once you win a battle, you can plunder the wreck and be on your way.
Again, I have to stress that this part is still a work in progress and will probably be significantly changed before launch. If this sounds negative it’s just not what I was expecting. Not terrible to say the least, but certainly a surprising design choice.
That’s still the only main concern I have coming away from Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire and it is still being worked on extensively. PoE2 is shaping up to be absolutely incredible. And big. VERY big. Like, I spent around 8 hours wandering around all the available areas, trialling out different things, and according to Obsidian that barely covers 5% of the games’ content. It’s ridiculous!
Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire is an evolution of the original in almost every conceivable way and we’ve only just been able to scratch the surface. Obsidian have me completely hooked already and I cannot wait to see what comes next.
(This is based on a Preview Build supplied by Obsidian and is not representative of the final game. A full review to follow.)