"Boasting enhancements and bold changes, players can be sure that the foundation of Pillars of Eternity is still there, and that rich narratives with highly strategic combat await us."
Pillars of Eternity is literally one of the best RPGs I have ever played. When I saw Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire raise over 4.4 million dollars in its crowdfunding campaign, I was shocked and elated. Asking only for 1.1 million, several stretch goals were reached, including more voiceovers, companion relationships, and additional ship upgrades. My experience with the preview build was simultaneously fresh and comfortably familiar.
I was placed in medias res as I docked at a small island inhabited by natives and an errant Vailian Trading Company employee. As I ventured inland and spoke to the natives, I discovered the beginnings of a potentially rich narrative regarding the complexities of imperialism. Although the dialogue and results of choices certainly require a fair bit of polish before the April release, the themes were clearly evident. Given agency over this small tribe's future, I had, presumably, meaningful choices with which to impact not only my relationship with them, but what the future holds. As I uncovered more clues across my brief adventure, I realized that what they viewed as noble intent was, of course, laced in shades of grey.
What I immediately found refreshing about the dialogue choices was the emphasis on player stats and how even a combination of stats could lead to different dialogue options. This goes far beyond the typical "Dexterity = 13" fare; Obsidian offers a variety of stats that may impact choices, such as Survival, Insight, or a combination of factors. In this way, the dialogue choices more authentically felt catered to the specific character I built.
Character customization is a combination of old and new. Fans of the first title will find the standard classes available, including cypher, druid, and paladin. As promised in the stretch goals, sub-classes are available if one chooses, which offer a relatively complex assortment of pros and cons to further design one's character around. To my surprise, old assets are re-used in Deadfire, including portraits and voices.
Upon leveling characters, players will quickly discover that the simplicity behind ability levels encountered in the first game is sometimes different here. Some classes, like wizard, will gradually move up tiers and have access to progressively stronger abilities, while other classes, like rogue, have the same idea, but may have prerequisites that link into future abilities. Thus, choosing an ability goes beyond what a player may want in the moment, as a future ability may be tantalizing enough to warrant picking a less preferred ability now. Unlike other games with skill trees, most of these trees are short and not connected to one another.
The world map functions quite differently from Pillars I in that upon leaving a location, like a town, players have a large icon that they can freely move around a larger location. The map is mostly simple, with plain environments like mountains and forests sharply distinguished from grassland. Sparkles outside of one's fog of war indicate a potential treasure or interaction on that part of the map, which turns into an icon that can be "bumped into" once discovered. Upon touching this icon, either a small item is earned (e.g. ingredients), or a short, narrative-driven interaction is uncovered in which players have to choose party members to accomplish certain feats. For example, players may encounter a well and must decide how to interact with the rope. If players choose to climb down, they will probably want to pick the character with the highest athletics stat. This can lead to future opportunities in the narrative, which may ultimately lead to a battle or collection of jewels. Upon finishing this brief aside, players are returned to the world map with the icon gone.
Combat flows quite similarly to Pillars I, with a couple enhancements. The standard combat is there and makes up the bulk of the experience as the tried-and-true CRPG real-time-with-pause format dominates how one strategizes. Per the preview document we received, Deadfire will only allow five party members in order to offer a greater sense of control in combat. In addition, the AI has been retooled to allow for greater customization. While I hesitate to comment on the AI customization because I personally dislike not being able to control everything my team does, the options seem far greater and more nuanced than in Pillars I. A small — but significant — added feature is the ability to re-target during spellcasting, which is just plain ol' common sense.
Obsidian reports enhanced graphics in this title with tweaks to things like lighting, but I personally didn't notice any stark differences. Granted, I played Pillars I a year ago. That said, I encountered a lumbering, gigantic boss that had absolutely stellar animation, replete with a satisfying death animation. Character portraits in dialogue had a tasteful tribal-esque art style to them, which I found further contributed to the feel of Deadfire.
Finally, I got to experience ship combat and navigating archipelagoes in a surface-level capacity. Docking and leaving islands is as simple as traditional JRPGs, though only specific parts of islands can be entered for some reason. Upon entering the island, players can freely roam, of course, which adds a pleasant exploration vibe, as I was eager to find hidden treasure and goodies. What I found pretty simple as of yet was ship combat. If players encounter a rogue ship on the water, they can collide with the graphic to start a combat. Players enter a separate screen with still graphics driven by numbers and narrative. Each ship's stats, such as hull health and cannonball amount, are clearly displayed, and players are encouraged to either run away from, fire at, or board the enemy. Each round of combat includes five turns, and players can only make full movement once per round. The distance from the enemy is clearly displayed, which determines if one is close enough to board or if they have a greater chance of landing cannon fire. Anyone with experience in video game naval combat understands that landing shots oftentimes requires broadside attacks. Of course, this means that the enemy may have the opportunity to get away. So, battles basically became shoot-outs for me until the enemy ship died. Due to the nature of movement in combat, I never had the opportunity to board, and I found the experience simple, long, and unfulfilling. Of course, when the game is fully released, this minigame may be enhanced — players will have the opportunity to customize the crew and upgrade ship components.
Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire is, so far, a combination of new and old, good and bad. With two months to go before its long-anticipated release, I can't wait to see what Eora has in store for me and the specific character I build. Boasting enhancements and bold changes, players can be sure that the foundation of Pillars of Eternity is still there, and that rich narratives with highly strategic combat await us. Me, though? I just want to see Edér again.