"...Obsidian's writers showcase why they're the best in the industry and help lift Deadfire above its lesser qualities."
The first game followed the Hollowborn Crisis and Thaos, both conflicts worth players' attention. As the Watcher roamed the land, she witnessed the harrowing impact that children without souls had on the denizens of the Dyrwood. What's more, the mystery and treachery of Thaos was more than enough motivation to right not only the crisis, but his nefarious objective.
Pillars of Eternity II is more abstract in its conflict. The Watcher's home — Caed Nua — is destroyed as the adra statue comes alive. Eothas embodies the construct with a goal in mind. What exactly that goal entails, we can't be sure; hell, even the gods aren't sure. And so begins the tale, and while breadcrumbs of clues are left in Eothas' trail, players are primarily guided by "follow that god," and not much else. The game briefly alludes to a fractured soul and we're tenuously chained to Berath, but PoE2 lacks that tangible, easily observed beacon of conflict that PoE1 capably touted. This is risky on Obsidian's part because it likely doesn't carry the same tension that they may have hoped — honestly, I felt pretty ho-hum about the affair. However, I absolutely enjoyed the moral dilemma, existentialism, and philosophical inquiry it demanded. Although mentally and abstractly gratifying, PoE2 lacks the tangible tension that most strong tales offer.
Obsidian boasts the same powerful writing and characterization exemplified in its forebear. One small gripe I had with PoE1 was that it seemed to forget about the Watcher's companions. While I loved Eder, Aloth, and the rest of the crew, they didn't really serve much of a role besides their sidequests. That is rectified in great measure in PoE2, though still not to the extent I would like. When characters are as lovable, hilarious, and loyal as those in Deadfire, I just want more and more, but I do have to acknowledge the improvement here. Consistently, the dialogue is as good or better. Although no character emulates the gritty abrasiveness I loved in Durance, I enjoyed the companionship.
Though, one might criticize PoE2 in that respect: for me, at least, everything flowed pretty smoothly. Rarely did my allies scoff at my decisions. They made slight jabs at one another sometimes, but this only resulted in a resounding conflict once. What I found most refreshing about this confrontation was how irrationally angry one of the companions seemed. As much as I tried to reason with her and help her to see a more open-minded approach, she was so worked up and emotional that logic went out the window. I found this incredibly human and against the grain in an industry that largely prefers to cater to diplomacy in conversations.
I have so much to say about PoE2's writing and all of its nuances, but for brevity's sake, I will summarize it thus: Deadfire should be regarded in the industry as the gold standard of high fantasy writing. The degree of lore, world building, and large-scale catastrophe here is pleasantly staggering. Had I not embraced the first game and dove deep, I'm not sure I could fully appreciate the world Obsidian continues to create here. In this way, I don't know if newcomers will realize what's here.
Regarding combat, those returning to Eora will find familiar ground. Some qualities were tweaked, such as per encounter points allocated to melee-oriented classes like fighter and barbarian, but the fundamentals remain the same. The real-time with pause mechanics should be familiar to fans of CRPGs. Obsidian has acknowledged that PoE2 is lacking with regard to difficulty and have already taken measures to tweak the difficulty at the two highest settings. What bothered me is that my go-tos from the first game were still astonishingly powerful, which made battles (once again) a rinse-and-repeat affair for most situations. However, like Dragon Quest, this made combat a Zen-like experience that I still enjoyed.
Other parts of the game, such as naval combat and dialogue choices based on stats and reputation, leave me with mixed feelings. Naval combat feels tacked on, shallow, and more of a chore than inspiring. The strategic depth feels like something akin to a Flash game, and it has little bearing on the game at all, aside from errant side quests littered here and there. Dialogue choices, however, seem far more reliant on stats and reputation than any other CRPG I've played to date, and were an absolute joy to experience. I truly felt as if the way I specialized my team had a meaningful impact on how I interacted with the world.
The controls in PoE2 didn't obstruct my experience overall, but I noted more than a few instances in which AI wouldn't understand that it could walk around my allies, and I had an unusually difficult time clicking on objects or characters. These minor frustrations won't hinder the overall experience, but I wonder how they can still be issues.
Deadfire maintains the visual aesthetic I've come to love about the series — big environments with relatively tiny people running about. What's improved is the quality of those environments and character animations. Unfortunately, like the music, much of the artwork contains reused assets, and while I have no problem with using the familiar (I wanted my Watcher identical to the first), the lack of options for races, like the Orlan, is perplexing.
As is typical for the genre, the music tends to fade into the background and serve as atmospheric accentuation, which is fine. What needs to be noted is the fantastic voice acting performed by Matt Mercer and the rest of the Critical Role cast. Although Obsidian still couldn't swing fully voice acted text that other games, like Divinity: Original Sin, are somehow capable of doing, the amount of dialogue spoken is a huge improvement.
Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire is one of my favorite games of all time. In fact, it's hard not to say that it's an objective improvement over the first game in almost all respects except for the conflict. Following a god-statue just doesn't inspire me the way being hit in the face with an ever-present catastrophe that devastates families did. Yes, Deadfire has fascinating themes of imperialism, cultural preservation, and politics, but those are secondary to the godly pursuit the Watcher and friends engage in. Despite this weakness and the relatively lackluster combat, Obsidian's writers showcase why they're the best in the industry and help lift Deadfire above its lesser qualities.
This review is based on a free review copy provided to RPGFan by the developer. This relationship in no way influenced the reviewer's opinion of the game or its final score.