Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire (PC) review: Sea of Lore

I’d be fascinated to see the design documents for Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire (and for the first game as well, while we’re at it.) For a game with such expansive, detailed lore and such a complicated web of choices and consequences, the paperwork just for planning everything out must be a work of art in its own right.

And, of course, that makes for an incredibly deep role-playing game, with as much emphasis in actual role-playing as there is on loot management and levelling up—something that often seems to be missing in modern RPGs. There are myriad ways of dealing with the problems you encounter, be it bearing arms or trying to talk your way out, and the cumulative effect of all these choices means that for once, “No two playthroughs are the same!” rings true.

Related: Read our review of the particularly impressive PS4 port of Pillars of Eternity.

At the same time, this massive commitment to worldbuilding is a double-edged sword. Like its predecessor Pillars of Eternity II front-loads a lot of information, even when you’re just creating your character, and if you’re not already well versed in this universe, it can all get a little overwhelming. From the outset, there’s an information overload, and it can take a long time to wrap your head around everything.

That’s doubly true if you haven’t played Pillars of Eternity, because Deadfire is a direct sequel, and a lot of details carry over from the first game. If you’re playing on the same platform—as I suspect most people would—there’s the option to import your save data, and you can see the impact of your decisions throughout Pillars of Eternity II. If you’re not playing on the same platform, or if you haven’t played the first game at all, then you simply get to choose one of a handful of different profiles that automate the relevant carry-over decisions—leaving you with plenty of references and callbacks to events that you may not remember. In other words, it’s well worth playing Pillars of Eternity first, if that’s an option, to avoid getting left in the dark.

Once you get past the most overwhelming parts of the lore dump and things start clicking into place, Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire becomes a game that’s difficult to turn away from. Set within the Deadfire Archipelago—a Caribbean-esque collection of islands that are home to a great many different factions and cultures—the game puts colonialism at the front and centre. Deadfire is the “New World”, at least from the perspectives of the trading companies and imperialist factions that have their sights set on the islands’ resources. It’s also an old world, home to a wealth of different indigenous peoples, with their own unique cultures but their share of conflicts.

Your role among all this is largely your of your own volition, but Pillars of Eternity II doesn’t shy away from looking at the trouble that comes with colonisation. For a native community struggling with sickness and pirate raids, it might seem like a good idea to strike a deal with the wealthy, powerful Vailian Trading Company—until said companies starts encroaching further and further, and taking over the island one unfair trade at a time.

There number of different sidequests and storyline like this is staggering, and if you want to see and do everything that Pillars of Eternity II has to offer, you’re looking at many dozens of hours. But to the credit of Obsidian’s writers in particular, it’s not often you run into a quest that feels like filler; each one tells an interesting story in its own right, and helps to build up the image of the Deadfire Archipelago as a whole.

In saying that, the main scenario is one of the weaker tales in Deadfire‘s storybook. Set some five years after Pillars of Eternity, it sees the old god Eothas return from the dead and set forth for the Deadfire Archipelago in search of adra (a high-energy form of crystal). In the process of reawakening, Eothas destroyed your home and brought you to the brink of death; however, the god of death, Berath, gives you a chance to save your soul to tracking down Eothas and figuring out what’s going on.

It’s a classic RPG call-to-action that sets up an epic adventure, but in contrast to the richness of the sidequests and the world around it, it’s just not that compelling. I found myself playing through it out of obligation, more than any particular desire to see the story through to its conclusion. If I weren’t reviewing it, I’d be quite content to never “finish” Pillars of Eternity II, and just enjoy Deadfire and all it has to offer indefinitely.

While talking your way out of a problem is generally more viable than in many games, sometimes combat is unavoidable; to that end, Pillars of Eternity II sports a pause-based battle system that’ll be familiar to anyone who’s played games like Baldur’s Gate: everything plays out in real time, but you can pause the game at any point to issue commands to your party.

It’s a system that allows for a lot of tactical depth, and that’s complemented by Deadfire‘s extensive range of character classes, spells, abilities, and weapons. If you want it to be, this can be a game where every battle is tense, and where a single mistake can result in failure. You can spend hours poring over character stats and toying around with different character builds—something you’ll really need to do if you want to get through the tougher difficulty settings.

Alternatively, you can drop the game down to “Relaxed” mode, and let it pretty much play itself. In this mode, encounters are tuned to give you a significant advantage, and enemy levels are scaled according to those of  your party. The default AI for your characters is good enough that they can take care of things on their own, so in most cases, you can simply let the battles sort themselves out. Some people will love the complexity of Deadfire‘s combat and RPG systems; others will be more interested in the story and exploration sides. It’s great to see a game that caters so well to both play styles.

The result is a game that’s easy to recommend to anyone who likes their lore rich and their fantasy dense. The isometric perspective and pause-based combat will obviously appeal to fans of the Infinity Engine games of yesteryear, but even if that’s not you, Pillars of Eternity II offers plenty of options to play on your own terms. Its lore is dense and its world complex to the point of being overwhelming, but once everything clicks into place, this is a game that’s easy to get lost in.

Recommended


Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire is developed by Obsidian Entertainment and published by Versus Evil. It’s available now for PC (reviewed), and is due out on PS4, Switch, and Xbox One in Q4 2018.

A copy of the game was supplied by the publisher for this review.

Matthew Codd

Matthew is a writer based in Wellington. He loves all things pop culture, and is fascinated by its place in history and the wider social context.