This is a bit later than I wanted it to be. I could have done a rush job on this review, but the copy came later than expected and the game was denser than I could imagine. So thanks for waiting for the review, folks. If you are interested in seeing my time with new and old games, feel free to drop by and visit me on Twitch. If you read this review and think this game may be for you, consider using my Humble Partner link to support a good cause and support my content.
Where in Eora?
I tell ya, time flies when you get old. Here it’s been over three years since the original Pillars of Eternity released in March 2015 and reminded the world that single-player CRPGs were still wanted. And boy were we thirsty for them at the time. I remember my wife and I being on our honeymoon in 2014, and passing by the Pillars of Eternity booth at Gencon. I stopped and marvelled, arms possibly flailing wildly, and the lovely young woman at the booth asked if I wanted to try the game. I waved her off, saying that I didn’t need to – I knew already I was going to buy the game. She insisted, saying I should really give it a try, I shrugged and did so. I played for about 10 minutes and found that it was what I imagined it would be. She happily declared to my wife and I that because we tried the demo we were entitled to some swag. Hence my beloved Pillars of Eternity flask.
So yes. I’m a fan. Full disclosure. However, my expectations were high for this sequel, and I was very skeptical of many of the promises.
The Legacy (Not Waidwen’s)
So when I’m talking about the legacy, I speak of it in nervous whispers of a two-pronged path. Firstly, how well does it hold up to the choices – good and bad – of the previous game’s design? Secondly, I want to know how the game handles the decisions I made in the first game. You don’t just import the choices you made and how they impacted the world – you are the same Watcher from the first game. You are the Lord of Caed Nua. I played the first game through more than a few times with various goals and methods – I wanted to know how my two favourite characters would fare in the wake of Eothas.
This led me to play two save states of this game. I streamed one playthrough, and the other I played on my off days or in my downtime. Both games left the world of Eora very different when the first game ended.
Antara, the rogueish knave with a heart of gold, did his best to make everyone get along in the first Pillars game. He was kind, forgiving, worked hard to punish the wicked, and was an unrepentant liar but was loyal and true to his friends and worthy patrons.
Drogan, on the other hand, was a murderous, insane dwarf. Motivated by coin in the worst ways, he would take payment from you then split your head in two because he didn’t like the tone of your voice when you paid him. He never had friends, any comrades, and killed many of the principal companions.
When Antara awoke in the captain’s cabin of the Defiant, he was greeted by one of his oldest and dearest friends who sat worrying for him as he recovered from his injuries. As he travelled he was hailed or condemned for past deeds, other old faces appeared whom he warmly embraced like old friends, and conversation options were present (and impactful to the current story) based off his choices in the previous game.
I remember thinking “there is no way they are going to let the players ignore all this plot, exposition, and hard work.” Even though Drogan murdered the hell out of so many people, there is going to be some hand of God reason that they are all back and alive. There is even precedent for it in the setting. So I loaded up the Drogan game and prepared myself to be a bit disappointed, but had already rationalized the choices in my mind.
Drogan, however, was alone. He staggered up out of his bed in the opening sequence with only the hired help to briefly check in on him. I was struck in two regards at that moment. First – well, damn. Those crazy bastards at Obsidian did it. No Eder, no other old faces, not a single person that shouldn’t be there. The second thing that struck me? The loneliness – Drogan’s choices led to him having no one in his life. I quickly shook my head and put on my murderous dwarf pants and remembered that Drogan didn’t give a shit. And I had a boat. With cannons.
It’s worth mentioning that Drogan didn’t have the desperate money problems that plagued Antara in his run. It may not be good to be bad, but it sure is cost effective. Like that, I was sold and happy with the legacy choices from the previous game.
Anyone familiar with my reviews knows my greatest fear for some sequels is messing up a perfectly fine system just because they can. Innovation for its own sake is not only dumb, but it’s also dangerous. It can be a series murderer. However, I am happy to report that Deadfire doesn’t fall prey to that scenario. It leans hard on its old mechanics, the CRPG roots that made it great and refines qualms about the previous iteration of the game.
The UI isn’t just easy to use and the journal simple to read, they are customizable. Several settings allow some personalization of interface layout, granted some merely mirror flips of another, but the fact the options are there allow players the chance to find a set up suitable for their playstyle. When one of my viewers discovered that you could alternate the journal sorting between location and ‘classic’ mode, they got as excited as I did every time I found a new pet. (More on that later.)
Maybe it’s the old man in me. Maybe it’s the fact I liked leaning in when one popped up and reading in my ‘campfire story time voice’ during my stream. However, I love vignettes. They are perfect in CRPGS if appropriately used. They allow the player the get more use out of skills that would be a pain to code in the regular map. These little text-based moments with their lovely illustrations make for excellent times. I want more games to embrace a healthy use of this device. It feels like Deadfire doubled down on the vignettes – they are everywhere and my only complaint is that I could always use more.
Tearing Down the House
I’m a homebody. Heck, maybe even three slippery steps to a complete shut-in. That existence has a bit of a translation into the realm of the digital entertainment I enjoy, in how much I love character bases. Not just a one-click area where you rest, but a base that you can customize, live in and feel an emotional investment. In the first Pillars game, I loved and hated Caed Nua, the fortress you inherit and rebuild. The seat of your power, where you hold court and judge those in your lands. I enjoyed it, but there was a problem: It became a hassle. With so many time-sensitive issues that would pop up in your keep, you would need to scuttle back sometimes when you really didn’t want to. Look, I love living breathing worlds where time matters. I do. However, it seemed the more you invested in Caed Nua, the more you were punished for the effort. I could have solved the problems of the land easier if I had just put up a ‘No Solicitors’ sign up on the wall and ignored it.
Then Deadfire announces your new base is going to be a boat and that you are going to do boat things. Like sailing. And raiding. And you know… boat stuff. I was, to say the least, unenthused by the prospect. First, I thought, haven’t we done the pirate thing to death? Did anyone want a CRPG high seas fantasy adventure? [Editor’s Note: Yes, obviously. Sometimes Mordaith is painfully allergic to fun things.] So I crossed my grumpy old arms, pulled my captains’ hat on reluctantly, and grumped with a grouchy “Well, we will see” with a muttered “Whippersnappers” under my breath for good measure.
Well, blow me down (That is the right phrase? Right? Gods I hope that is the right phrase. I am awful at speaking pirate. It sounds right, but it also seems very wrong.) Didn’t I get proven wrong. While many aspects of the ship life could use punching up, like more varied encounters and results, the sea quickly felt like home. Moreover, it felt like home because it was always with me. The fact you were never far from your ship, that the improvements to the vessel had an actual impact on how you explored the world, and even the minor customization of colours and naming of the boat let you grip onto it. So it took less than an hour of sailing about on the Sly Fox for me to be entirely in love with this aspect of the game.
Love, however, is not blind. The game has given so much heart to this system, but also to the intense storyline of the main game that the boat events seem to have fallen by the wayside. Fish arguments, racist darts, and the occasional plague ship were the only real encounters we ever seemed to get. I hope that we see more events added as updates continue.
The ship mechanics also make food important. Food was not a significant thing for me in the first game, regardless of difficulty setting. I used potions, but barely ever touched drugs and food. This game, though? Completely different. I was regularly checking the quality and stocks of the food and drink, and in lean times balancing between a decent drink and some terrible slop to keep the morale of the crew at a steady point.
Finally – ship-based combat. All vignette style, there seems to be a great system here, but something is a little off. Scuttle your dreams of taking enemy boats, since I never saw the option once. Taking out the crew first seems to have zero effect when you eventually board, and honestly, there is little incentive to do anything but rush the enemy ship and board as quickly as possible. At first I thought this was because of my impatient squirrel brain, but eventually, I realized it just made the most sense. Allowing for things like the capture of enemy crew, deciding their fate, considering what to do with their ship afterward, allowing cannon fire to injure the crew and thus have a direct impact on boarding the vessel, these things are just a few ideas that would change ship combat from a minigame to a critical core mechanic.
Social Waves and Political Sharks
You want to see an old man get up and dance? Present him with an RPG with a sprawling set of choices and outcomes, factions that matter and have teeth, and moments of drama based on the choices your characters make. Antara, my beloved elven Watcher, had just finished going the extra mile to save the neck of an important NPC (who was in danger of being crushed in a power play). As a reward, I had a chance for a deeper relationship with the faction… But then something happened. My romantic interest, whom I always knew may get fussy about my working with this group, started raising her hackles. (Not really hackles, she wasn’t Orlan.) Antara was a smooth talking, laid back, streetsmart type. He lied, tricked, and promised his way through the Deadfire – but always for the greater good.
I felt confident I could have Antara keep this vital Faction alliance and have his relationship with the fussy friend stay alive. Antara had a great deal of diplomacy. Sure enough, the conversation happened, the NPC faction member and the love interest sniped back and forward, and I started seeing the expected conversation trees pop up. Using diplomacy and sweet talk, I tried to convince my character’s lover that she should stay with me and see how everything plays out.
Then it happened. A little icon appeared indicating that I was getting a specific line of dialogue because my character was shady, a reputation type I acquired gleefully – purposefully at times – from my lying and double-dealing. My character’s lover said flat out she couldn’t trust me. I gasped. My actions had taken me to this point, my conduct in front of my companions made sure they knew what kind of person I was. So while they liked me, they also knew I was a damned liar. I spent way too much time fleshing out the romance, so in the end, I had to walk away from the faction alliance. They were mad. I was worried. My romantic partner was legitimately stunned.
Any decision system that has this kind of teeth to it is impressive in my books. It can always use more. However, that is pure greed on my part. More faction related events, more situations where I can throw my standing in the organization around. More situations where my status in an organization gets me in trouble.
I did miss the written description of the faction opinions. Maybe I couldn’t find it, and I did look, but I loved that in the first game you were told what the faction currently felt about you. As the positive and negatives of your relationship got mixed, those descriptions became very interesting. Something for a future update, I hope.
As the other characters in your party spend time with you or with each other their opinions form, change and solidify. Banter changes, attitudes improve, and as the leader, you can guide conversations towards topics or away from issues depending on how you want to shake up the party friction levels. A fun system, but I feel it could use a bit of shoring up. However, at this point, it feels like I’m complaining that my gold bars are not all personally etched with my house insignia.
Finally, we get to pets. Oh, my stars and sea serpents, pets! So many little critters around and they are not just for show. You equip a pet, and they lurk around as a mascot, travelling with your group on the map but never directly assisting. They do provide a bonus to the player as any good equipped item should, but they also give a party-wide bonus. It can be hard to figure these party wide bonuses, but if you read the individual pet’s description it will say it pretty clearly, it just isn’t always evident at a glance. So yes, lots of pets, a place to keep them on the ship, even that creepy one that screams at everyone, he is in there… yelling… and I think Chauncey the pig is starting to get irritated.
Now is there one thing I would like to change about pets? Yes, just let me rename them. Naming the ships is fun. Giving fun names to undiscovered islands is good, so why not loosen the collar with pets? Obsidian, let me decide what to call my collection of dogs, cats, pigs, and whatnots! Dang it!
A Word from the Deadfire Archipelago Tourism Board
As usual, I’m going to go a little long in the tooth about something significant to me, and that is audio quality. I’m no professional when it comes to this aspect. I don’t pretend to understand the effort that goes into making a game sound good. However, by Ondra’s dangling angler orb, the music and audio in this game are fantastic. The music shines when you are sailing, and a Deadfire specific sea shanty starts playing. I mean, there is an option to turn them off, but anyone who hits that button has no right ever setting foot on a boat.
Graphically, the game is excellent. It stands out when you encounter a few of the less common enemies, in particular, some large constructs or winged terrors. With my horrid dwarf character, I appreciated the model pose that allowed him to be hunched over like some creeping odious gremlin continually. The maps are beautiful, critter design is excellent, and the towns all look gorgeous.
I loved the voice actors for the game. The old guard was great as usual, and the new voices blended in well. Yes, Even that one. You know whom I mean. Xoti. When I met the odd duck priestess of Gaun, I loved her. Didn’t have much use for a priest in the party, but I thought she was a great character and that I was going to do another playthrough to enjoy her interaction. However, I saw a bunch of grumbling about the voice.
The complaint is that Xoti is “immersion breaking” that her accent isn’t fitting for the setting? I disagree. When I first heard her speak, the drawl and inflection, I thought “Oh – she must be from the same region that Eder is from.” And boy howdy, wouldn’t you know the young lass was a meadow folk of Readceras stock. Considering how Eder spoke, and the voice acting of so many of the common folk in the first Pillars, I am not exactly sure what the naysayers were expecting. All this old fella knows is that if I can identify the region a character has come from by just hearing them speak a few lines of dialogue, chances are the voice acting is on point.
A Solemn Oath to the Sea
So here we go with this bit, I want to dish on price point and DLC. The price tag sits at 56.99$ CND for the standard edition. I’ll be honest about this. I was a bit concerned. I thought given what fans may have been expecting, it was a little too pricey, but once I discovered the extent of the voice acting in the game, my eyebrows started to come off their ever decreasingly populated mountain, and relaxed. Price wise, the game is worth every golden coin saved from a sinking ship.
However, then there is the issue of the DLC. Not just a hazy idea of things to come, right out the gate Deadfire tells you three paid DLC are coming out, all this year. Beast of Winter, Seeker – Slayer – Survivor, and The Forgotten Sanctum are all slated for release in July, September, and November respectively. These kinds of promises always worry me, since they lead to questions of “How much of this is sliced out content?,” “Will I need to start all over with my game, or can I continue from my already completed story?,” and “Are you sure this stuff will be released when promised? I mean, really sure?”
When you are posting dates and taking cash on these promises, companies should meet these expectations. If they meet them, that is fantastic. It should pass as an uncelebrated conclusion of a contract between product creator and a consumer. If you told me to give you some old man bucks now and in July I’ll be getting a shiny new expansion, do not expect me to dance and cheer when you live up to your end of the bargain. Conversely, if you miss the date, expect me to be mad and for you to need to do some “consumer faction relationship maintenance.” A company needs to have high confidence in the progress they’ve made to make promises like this and feel they have the time, resources, and commercial success to go forward. I am optimistic that Vs Evil and Obsidian will do right by the players and everything will be fine. However, day one announcements of specific DLC are both exciting and worrying. Consumers should always proceed with caution because computer programming is often like shaking a magic eight ball – that happens to have an option that automatically upends a Pandora’s box of bugs.
And Now We Wait
This game was a bit of an emotional rollercoaster for me, as anyone who watched me play it on Twitch knows. The writing is top notch, the interactions meaningful, the choices hard at times. Antara didn’t get a great ending. He was too naive and wanted everyone to hold hands and be friends. His unwillingness to tip the balance of power ultimately made him feel he didn’t do enough for the Deadfire. However, he felt pretty good about how he helped his friends.
The big question people keep asking is ‘Do I need to play the first one.’ Do you? No. Should you? Absolutely. Getting through Pillars one, getting invested in your character, the NPCs, and the world around you will make your playthrough of Deadfire more enriching.
Deadfire is a refinement to some of the issues of the first game. Everything is just a bit better. Fans of the first will not be disappointed, and those new to the world of Eora should find themselves right at home soon enough. While it could use a little punching up here or there, in the end, Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire is a damned triumph for Obsidian, Vs Evil, and the CRPG genre.
9/10 – Could be higher with a bit more meat on the random events and ship combat. Still, a deeply satisfying game that not only makes me want to play it again instantly but makes me wish to revisit the first game and start a new Watcher tale from scratch.
Review by: Joshua Smith (Old Man Mordaith)
Edited by: Jesse Roberts
This game was provided free for the purpose of streaming and review.