Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire – Review
Spoilers for Pillars of Eternity follow due to Deadfire taking place after the first game’s events.
Pillars of Eternity is a miracle, and – more significantly – a miracle it was widely regarded highly enough to warrant a sequel in the modern landscape of broken crowdfunding dreams. Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire continues this miraculous trend, creating the most authentic tabletop-inspired RPG video game I’ve ever played.
As documented in Jason Schreier’s book, Blood, Sweat, and Pixels, Obsidian Entertainment was on its knees in 2012 following the cancellation of the Microsoft-backed RPG, Stormlands. Obsidian had already poured $2 million into the doomed project, and Microsoft severing their support of the studio resulted in mass layoffs. As a last-ditch effort, a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign was launched to raise $1.1 US million for Pillars of Eternity. Following the month-long campaign, Obsidian generated close to a massive $4 US million. Releasing in 2015, Pillars of Eternity was adored by critics and players alike, leading to the announcement of Deadfire, which generated even more money – not to mention hype and pressure – via the crowdfunding model.
Taking place five years after the original Pillars of Eternity in its world of Eora, Deadfire sees much of what the player-created Watcher worked towards destroyed in an instant. Caed Nua, the Watcher’s keep, has been destroyed by the giant physical manifestation of the god Eothas, who is on a single-minded rampage towards several large sources of the magical mineral known as Adra. The other gods are none too pleased about their rogue colleague and conscript your Watcher to hunt down Eothas to uncover his mission. Following the destruction of your keep, the remaining resources are used to purchase a ship to chase down the god across the cluster of islands referred to as the Deadfire Archipelago.
Although this summary is vaguely everything you need to know to begin your quest, Deadfire initially struggles to adequately convey the events of the first game, which made my first few hours confusing, due to my limited time with the prequel. For much of Deadfire’s introductory act, I frequently consulted my girlfriend, Laura, who played Pillars of Eternity and its expansions, to clarify details and context I may have missed. Prior to beginning Deadfire, I had the choice of importing a save from the original game to populate world-affecting decisions, or completing an in-game questionnaire for those without save data. Unfortunately, the questionnaire provided little-to-no context for those with limited knowledge of the first game, meaning picking choices was a difficult, uninformed process – especially deciphering the complex relationships between the gods and the nuanced reincarnation process. Laura regularly furrowed her brow at the questionnaire, pointing out that some decisions for characters were outright missing. While fumbling my way through each response, I was wishing for something more streamlined and informed, such as the interactive comic that played for PS3 owners of Mass Effect 2, which did a much better job at filling in the blanks for anyone unable to play the first title. Fortunately, Deadfire comes into its own beyond the opening hours, requiring less of a working knowledge of Eora’s previous events.
Deadfire excels in customisation. Beginning with the rich character creation process including background and class specialisation, through to the diverging questlines, Deadfire does a fantastic job of constantly giving players meaningful choices. Like its prequel, Deadfire features real-time combat where characters have a cooldown between each action that encourages players to regularly pause and manage the minute details of the action. New to this game is the variety of combat speeds available, which gives you agency over how you best enjoy each combat encounter. Combat can play out in slow motion to allow for more thinking time in between actions, or sped up to blitz through less-threatening fights. Cranking the speed up is a great feature for the role-playing story aficionados out there because you can set the difficulty to the lowest setting, tweak your party’s in-depth combat AI parameters to your liking, and spend more time on the meaty quests of Deadfire.
Deadfire features a huge range of side-quests in addition to the main story of pursuing Eothas. Although the overwhelming majority of these quests are completely optional thanks to Deadfire’s great pacing and independence from grinding levels, many of the side-quests are superbly written and compelling narratives in their own right. Differing in scale and complexity, some quests see you hunt bounties, while others place you in the middle of a volatile relationship between the Deadfire Archipelago’s various cutthroat factions. Decisions made during these grand stories make a tangible impact on the way characters interact with your Watcher – including your party companions. Building favour with certain communities will increase their willingness to help your cause, while neglecting others may cause unpleasant hostilities later in the game.
I thoroughly enjoyed the emphasis on player choice throughout Deadfire, often choosing peaceful solutions to problems because that was how I believe my character would handle the situation. Deadfire awards experience points equally regardless of your choices, meaning there are no “correct” ways to complete a quest, which is fantastic. Instead of funnelling players through heavy-handed obvious decisions, the way you play Deadfire is entirely up to your own in-game ethics and sense of morality. You want to play as a xenophobic dickhead who wants to fix everything by forcibly sticking a sword up it? Go right ahead. Again, the sheer spread of choice in how you spend skill points is impressive, as I focused on diplomatic skills which allowed my Watcher to smooth talk his way out of many situations without unsheathing a weapon. Depending on how you allocate your skill points, various specialised dialogue options either become available or inaccessible as your reputation in the Archipelago grows.
Obsidian placed an overwhelming amount of detail into Deadfire, and players are consistently rewarded for paying attention to minor details. For example, one side-quest tasked my Watcher with seeking a rare and expensive medicine for an impoverished community. My sleuthing uncovered a criminal shopkeeper as a potential method of obtaining the medicine. After speaking with the shady seller, I was faced with two apparent options: buying the medicine outright at face value, or killing a rival seller to earn the medicine as payment. Following our conversation, I pondered my course of action briefly, before overhearing a conversation between the shop’s guards which revealed they were very keen to get drunk at the nearby tavern that night. Sure enough, I came back to the shop that evening to see the guards abandoning their post, allowing my rogue to stealth past the depleted security, pick the lock on the storeroom and steal the medicine unnoticed. Had I not been paying attention, I would never have considered such a path. These moments throughout Deadfire helped make the world feel alive and always generated a buzz of excitement when trying to figure out creative methods of questing.
Although this should not come as a surprise, Deadfire is a text-heavy adventure requiring vast amounts of reading and listening. The voice acting is consistently strong and emotive, thanks to stellar performances from the cast of online tabletop show Critical Role, which many will know from ringleader Matthew Mercer’s antics, most notably for Overwatch’s McCree. Compounding this, Deadfire features a beautiful interface, especially during the game’s scripted interactions. Scripted interactions, as the name suggests, are moments during the story which play out like a choose-your-own-adventure novel, taking place in a book complete with static, gorgeously hand-drawn images. Players will be prompted to make choices which may require proficiency in a skill, such as an athletics check. Failing these checks can result in negative outcomes for the characters, including injuries which will impact their combat effectiveness until their next rest – letting injuries accumulate without rest may even prove fatal.
Adding to the scripted interactions is Deadfire’s biggest new feature: managing a ship. Serving as a direct replacement to the first game’s keep management system, you own a ship which can be upgraded with statistic-increasing equipment and fitted out with a hired crew of scallywags to cause caper on the high seas. Crew morale needs to be kept high, lest you run the risk of mutiny, but all this requires is buying suitable food and drink to keep them occupied – water decreases morale, doing little to eradicate the myth that pirates are a gang of raging alcoholics. This aspect of ship management just feels like unnecessary busywork, as problems can be dismissed purely by throwing money at them. There are random scripted interactions that affect crew morale, which prove to be far more interesting than feeding and watering the mangy curs. Thankfully, the other aspects of ship management are more enjoyable – especially the naval combat.
While sailing between the Deadfire Archipelago’s islands, pirates and other hostile sorts may choose to engage in a bit of ship-to-ship warfare. This prompts a special turn-based scripted interaction where you can attempt to sink the opponent with your cannons, board their ship for traditional combat, or catch the wind in your sails and flee from a high-risk battle. Initially, I found the ship combat to be confusing and poorly explained, but after some early trial-and-error, I figured out some strategies and quickly caught myself seeking more thrilling naval encounters. During these battles, you’re tasked with orienteering your vessel into advantageous positions for firing on the enemy and ordering your crew to change tactics on the fly.
Thanks to Deadfire’s impeccable sound design, the moments between firing the ship’s cannons (or being fired upon) and waiting for the resulting impact made for some incredibly tense moments. Hearing the bassy blast of igniting gunpowder immediately had me clenching all orifices until the relief of cannonballs splashing harmlessly in the water, or flinching at the devastation of splintering wood crashing all over my ship. Sinking a rival ship and plundering its contents is a great feeling, which is incredible considering the whole encounter is communicated via text and sound effects. Justin Bell and the audio team at Obsidian deserve every bit of kudos they receive – the soundtrack is also brilliant, including the orchestral swell that plays on startup which sets a powerful tone for Deadfire to follow.
As is common with large-scale RPGs, Deadfire is not without its frustrations. Inventory management is clunky, as I found myself collecting lots of useless items and clothing that could not be easily sorted into a “junk for selling” category. Instead, I spent more time than ideal selling unwanted items when I really wanted to jump straight back into the deep RPG goodness of Deadfire. I also encountered various bugs and glitches during my time in the Archipelago – nothing game-breaking, but noticeable nevertheless. On several occasions, mouse clicking was unresponsive and required two or three clicks to make selections. A game reboot usually fixed this issue, but it was annoying while the glitch was active. Other bugs included pathfinding issues where NPCs would get stuck in bizarre locations, crew members not healing correctly following a ship combat injury, and occasional frame rate slowdown. The worst of the lot would easily be the long loading times I encountered when starting up the game, but this is only because I wanted to get my fix of Deadfire quicker, damn it!
I can confidently assert that Deadfire is the closest video game representation to a physical pen-and-paper tabletop RPG I’ve ever played. Every stunning detail feels satisfyingly tactile to interact with, especially navigating the detailed maps and scripted interactions which make Deadfire feel like a genuine Dungeons & Dragons campaign. The highly customisable land and naval combat feels satisfying, but can be avoided in many instances, allowing for an authentic role-playing experience. Most importantly, the stories Deadfire deftly weaves throughout its long duration feel meaty and consequential. We are especially privileged to have Deadfire alongside brilliant current old-school RPGs, such as the Divinity: Original Sin series. Even writing this, I want to boot up Deadfire and immerse myself in its wonderfully crafted world and learn more about its fascinating characters.