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Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire Review: Great swashbuckling fun

Written by  May 16, 2018

Pillars of Eternity is an ambitious and successful gamble on role-playing game nostalgia, aimed squarely at people who enjoyed Baldur’s Gate and Planescape: Torment.

The first game, released in 2015, brought in $4m in funding on Kickstarter. Its sequel, Deadfire, also raised over $4m in crowdfunding, and has just been released. Unlike its predecessor, Deadfire is arriving into a market with many similar games attempting to leverage 90s RPG nostalgia while adding their own twists to the genre. It doesn’t rock the boat too much, but a fresh theme, clever writing and improvements to the look and feel make it a very enjoyable play.

Speaking of boats, in Deadfire you are a naval explorer: you choose where you go, on land or at sea, and what route you take. Expeditions into the unknown are fun, but each day spent sailing costs resources; as you travel your stores deplete, your crew’s morale fails and you’re soon searching for the next city to resupply. It’s no carefree cruise across the high seas. You spend a lot of time maintaining your ship, exploring the seas and fighting turn-based, choice-driven naval battles – as well as chaotic on-deck battles involving your entire crew. Ship combat can be frustrating when cannons repeatedly miss; and when your ship’s cook charges headlong into a fireball, it is sometimes more of a hassle than swashbuckling fun, especially because injuries from such fights affect your ability to sail.

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Back on land, your party is comprised of up to five characters. You accept quests, talk to people and go into dungeons to kill things for money and experience-points. Fewer party members mean fights are less frenetic, but with the number of spells and abilities in play, this doesn’t reduce the game’s challenge. However, fights do feel more engaging than they did in the original Pillars of Eternity, because they are less frequent and foes use their abilities more intelligently; adversaries probe for weaknesses in your party’s formation rather than repeatedly charging into your strongest members. Players can also programme their party members’ behaviour, which allows AI teammates to handle complicated encounters. (If you don’t want to go into this much detail, more general settings allow the party to function without you having to micromanage every encounter.)

The quality of the writing is where the game shines. From listening to your companions make ironically awful bawdy jokes to being forced to negotiate with the gods, it’s what makes the world believable, and what makes your decisions (and their consequences) feel as if they matter. Deadfire’s story picks up shortly after the original, and the player retains their role as a Watcher – someone who can see the past lives of others and the souls of the dead. The storytelling in the sequel is noticeably more confident, and the introduction more grand and engaging. But even players familiar with the setting could be confused by the sheer scale of the world. There is a lot of lore to read, but it is only relevant and interesting when it becomes part of the character’s story; delving into the in-game “cyclopedia” to understand the full background is not a necessarily an appealing prospect.

The story setup is geared towards people who are already fans of this series: saves carry over from the first Pillars of Eternity, and decisions made during that game have consequences in Deadfire. You do have the option to start fresh, but without the context from the previous game a lot of the plot will be baffling.

Environments are rendered beautifully.

Deadfire does much to make the arcane systems originally derived from 20-year-old role-playing games more palatable. It is easy to see what loot and items are in the shared party stash, and class roles and party skills are clearly laid out. Enemies have cones of vision to show when they can see you. Instead of being limited by the specialisations of your main character – which can mean missing out on interesting story scenarios – your whole party contributes skills, opening up more options during fights and conversations. Graphically, it is a lot more elaborate than its 90s inspirations; its environments are rendered beautifully, without causing older PCs to struggle. Boats toss and turn on the waves, islands are vibrant, and colourful and characters have facial expressions and body language that were impossible to express with old-fashioned sprites.

Deadfire is an entertaining adventure that will keep anyone with a soft spot for this genre hooked. It has a confidently told story and the combat and character progression are as fun as the original but easier to understand. It is also a commitment to finish, taking tens (if not hundreds) of hours to complete. In 2015, a mere 6.4% people completed the original Pillars of Eternity; today that figure has only risen to 10% on the platform Steam. Many players won’t reach the end of the narrative, but with so many interesting things to do, it doesn’t matter. Sailing frees you from the need to follow a set path, and most encounters in this ridiculously gigantic world are expertly written.

  • Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire is £49.99. Playstation 4, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch versions are planned for the end of the year.

Also see: City of Brass Review (PS4)

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