This review contains some mild spoilers
The high seas beckon, as the Watcher of Caed Nua finds them-self adrift at sea… yet the Watcher is not unwatched. For the god of death, Berath, seeks to use The Watcher towards her own ends.
The first Pillars of Eternity was an immense disappointment when I played it. The world building and overall story were interesting, yet the companions felt stilted and the narrative was continuously interrupted by kickstarter self inserts. As much as it was a nice idea in theory to have so many diverse voices appearing in the game, in practice it distilled and weakened the overall world and frayed the themes of the game.
Being the desperate crpg player chasing after a Planescape: Torment high, I did however purchase Deadfire, despite not being particularly interested in pirates, nautical adventures and only after a vague sense of “treasuring” the ambition of the first game more than truly enjoying it.
Deadfire was thus an incredibly welcome surprise. The graphics are slightly overhauled with additional lighting and spell effects. This is noticeable in the very first area where a rainbow dances over a waterfall concealing a cavern. And was further validated by the delicate animations that bring each character to vivid life, whether it be flexing their water shaping skills, or scratching an itch in an… unmentionable area. The landscapes themselves evoke the Carribean, but with just enough innovation to still feel exotic, with Adra taking the place of coral to form reefs and shoals. Whilst exotic fruits and berries form the basis of various local cuisines. These little hints of the fantastical were present in the first game as well, but with the unusual setting they are even more apparent in Deadfire, and create an environment of discovery that was previously captured in games like The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind.
As tropical as the environments are, the game doesn’t shy away from more graphical effects in combat as well. Spells are the most gorgeous to see, with bright neon colours dancing about the screen, whilst insidious cloud effects partially obscure the combatants. Even the fighters are well realised as they steady themselves before a dash attack, and launch themselves on their enemies. Critical hits even have a kill cam feature where the game momentarily slows down time, before zooming in on the action further. The slow down however was rather frustrating as the combat wouldn’t flow as smoothly after, and the loss of framerates at such times was immensely frustrating. Some of the more demanding areas, had some noticeable drops in framerate, particularly where there was advanced wind or water effects that caused shifts in light, or sand particles to obscure the camera.
At times when the action on screen was particularly frenetic, the UI certainly came to the fore. Most information is readily available and many of the pop up menus are contextual which is helpful. The game does highlight figures if you linger over them with the mouse and an information screen will also pop up giving general details such as resistances, current effects and a generalised statement of health.
And the narrative whilst still based in its pirate theme, thankfully expanded far beyond that.
Narratively the game attempts to wear many hats, it wants to be a postcolonial deconstruction of colonial economics, a rollicking marine adventure ala Robert Louis Stevenson, by way of Pirates of Penzance and a high fantasy RPG that delves into existentialism, the nature of the divine and at times even ecological terrorism. This kaleidoscope of influences collide into a mess of genres and tropes. A cohesive theme is lost in favour of attempting to straddle various genres and their requisite themes. Whilst this slew of influences lends the game it’s diversity of choice it also lessons the impact of any particular message or thought the game might have, even if it does have some fantastic shanties.
Foremost of all of these narratives is the factional alliances you can make. The Huana are the natives of the isles. Initially they may seem the most sympathetic to modern audiences, however the strict rigidity of their caste system and propensity to suppress social mobility in their own population is part of what causes their lack of ability to develop and is a large cause behind their social and economic stagnation which is what places them at the feet of foreign powers and even those powers that are only emerging as a result of the regional conflicts.
The Principi are as such a lawless faction governed by their own piratical code, that swings along the lines of “might makes right”. They are the most piratelike of the factions and at times it felt as if the game was most sympathetic to them. They have their own internal conflict, involving the seizing of slaves and selling them on for profit that causes an internal schism and power struggle. As buccaneers and freebooters they stick, lamprey like, to the various economic thoroughfares of the Deadfire archipelago seeking to exploit weaknesses and undermine inefficient bureaucracies. Their penchant for chaos does have a few redeeming features, as they actively subvert corrupt social structures as Neketaka (the primary city of the regions) lower markets. But they do this not from any compassion for misfortune but for the sake of individualism that results in anarchy.
Opposing this anarchy yet seeking to use it for their own ends are the economic policies of the Valian’s trading company. Seeking to expropriate valuable resources at the most efficient price possible they seek to reduce the cost of their scientific funding of animancy. The very same animancy from the first game that lead to some of the kiths greatest achievements as well as being incredibly harmful to the ecological state of the world, not to mentioning engendering the metaphysical crises that drives the primary narrative of the game. As expropriators they bring economic prosperity and to a limited extent social upliftment due to the benefits of their knowledge, and sciences, but sadly the game never truly explores the sustainability of their practice.
The Royal Deadfire company on the other hand is largely concerned with long term viability. They are colonisers in the most general sense. They seek to dominate whether it’s via military prowess, new engineering feats or through remolding the defects of Huana society to gain political advantage. The game skirts away from racism and eugenics here to establish that the Huana are considered close to the Rauatai and so deserve the imperialistic improvements that they can bring. Superficially the Rauatai are there as benevolent arbiters of the indigenous Huana culture.
These conflicting factions form the backbone to the God’s secular question, of whether humanity itself is able to overcome its differences and act in unison to confront a global crisis. Eothas, in the aspect of Gaun, is simply the progenitor of this crisis and Woedica who is the most antagonistic and cynical about the nature of the kith, seems to be the most vindicated by the results of your actions at the end of the game. This is largely due to the fact that the game offers no true resolution to the factions. There is no armistice, in fact it fails rather dismally, sometimes as a direct result of the players intervention, such as two factions storylines that result in you destroying the powder house of the Royal Deadfire company. The failure to create solidarity is justification of Woedica’s views. Even the party itself is split once certain factions are chosen with even the Watcher’s closest companions abandoning them at the penultimate moment.
Whilst the faction endings are at once rather underdeveloped (after all two factions resulting in the same scenario as a penultimate quest speaks to lack of resources to develop more broad scenarios), it doesn’t assuage the results of the player causing the unity of the individual faction they choose: whether it is deposing a pirate lord, or maintaining his power, allowing for a queen to continue to rule over a caste system that creates systemic inequality, or allowing a merchant to continue to hold his corrupt bureaucracy or fall in favour of his more ruthless and exploitative underling. In these smaller triumphs the narrative does hint towards Eothas’s idealistic view of human nature.
But these moments fall short of the absolute failure to actually bring about a more amicable and stable political situation to the Deadfire. The political tensions are done away with in acts of braggadocio and the jingoistic triumph of the faction you choose. The consequences for choices here are clear, and the central importance of your character is never in doubt as the traditional fantasy protagonist that sways the fate of nations. Yet in its larger narrative solidified in the titanic Eothas the game reverts all of this, clearly playing upon the more passive nature of being a “watcher” rather than an active participant.
Gods, even the artificial gods of Eora, are clearly considered too much for the protagonist to handle. The game steers directly away from the power inherit within a protagonist to indicate, despite being a Watcher, that your abilities are mundane. This is done repeatedly; from tête-à-têtes with the ‘Prevailing Powers That Be’ to encounters with archmagi that reveal their superiority over the player character. Even the trials against gods take place as gauntlets to be overcome rather than climactic confrontations, which is all the more obvious in the DLC content. It’s a realism that is surprising in such a game, and has been the source of many complaints, not least amongst them the inability to duel Eothas at the finale, which many felt robbed players of a final boss fight. This lack of pandering to a power fantasy is a break with the more conservative tradition in cRPGs that gives the player godlike potentiality. In the case of Eora, this lack of status given to the Watcher makes some sense, after all the Gods are created by animancy and a mechanical apotheosis would require some similar circumstance to be undergone, but with Eothas’ intentions for the wheel it seems such pursuits might be permanently unattainable. Instead the game reconfirms in its finale your ultimate status as kith – mortal and mundane. In this the games ultimately cynical outlook on kithkind (humanity) is revealed.
From the very beginning Berath informs you of the inevitability of your journey’s end. That in pursuing Eothas you will ultimately fail to prevent his mission. This is reconfirmed throughout the game. Narrative tension is lost from the outset as failure is inevitable, and even exploration of the unknown and the mysteries it holds does not lend any motivation, after all the trajectory of a titanic Adra statue is not difficult to determine. Instead the game relies on the factional tensions and the alliances you build with them to create interest and conflict. The burden of the storytelling lies firmly upon the ability of the roleplaying, roleplaying that is hindered by a mechanical system that can never compare to the freeform play of tabletop or the statistical methods that optimize the play of powerful builds that can overcome the most difficult strategic challenges.
For all that is a major criticism, the combat in Deadfire is immense fun. Breaking from the DnD ruleset and it’s min-maxing elements, leaves room for experimentation with builds. Many things are still the same, a dexterous wizard is still a primary but might (physical strength) is a positive boon as well, because it directly translates to the damage output of spells. Likewise unconventional melee builds are possible as well, with fighters being able to include intelligence as a stat for Defensive fighters due to its bonuses to AoE. As much as the game does allow for such unconventionality though on harder difficulties it still favours more traditional builds.
Those harder difficulties are more difficult than the first game. There is still some issue with level scaling, as per the first game, were later game encounters became to easy for large parties, requiring the game to upscale the difficulty. It is nowhere near as noticeable here though, and the overall development is well handled. The quests themselves don’t necessarily increase in importance however. Some of the later stage quests are incidental encounters, that neither add to the overall story, though one might consider an imp uprising to be possible in future titles (if they ever come to be). Companion Quests however tie in directly to the main plot, whilst adding characterisation. The game hints at which characters to use for which quests by including their portraits alongside the quest description in the journal. Special dialogue is usually available adding to the players understanding of events, as well as causing party alliances or disputes. Deadfire has a robust character system that encourages the party members to actively like or dislike each other. Aloth will constantly roll his eyes, in his best imitation of a petulant teenage girl at anything Serafen says, whilst Tekehu’s amorous adventures and nymphomaniac tendencies are laughed at by the selfsame Serafen. This causes more links and interconnections than just simple party based banter familiar in more normal RPGs that is purely based on character and not how well the characters are getting on. It’s a lovely feature though one that is questionably included considering how much extra work it must have required. Work that the game desperately needs elsewhere such as in ship exploration and combat.
Since Deadfire has a nautical theme, it’s unsurprising that the player is given a ship to steer about the sea. This is where factional alliances come into play. Depending on the colours you fly (your own unaffiliated, or factional) various ships will either ignore or attack you. Managing and outfitting your ship takes the place of usual keep management that was introduced from games like Neverwinter Nights 2. In addition Deadfire also has you manage the crew for your ship. The larger the ships and the more crew you have, the more food and water they will require. The game also introduces morale, keeping the crew happy and preventing them from mutinying will require either victories at sea or more expensive rations, usually of an alcoholic nature. Yet it never really feels like it amounts to that much. The travel distances of the Deadfire Archipelago are so small as to make most of the rationing and strategical planning to be redundant, and by the late stages of the game, the ships are easy money sinks, since the loot has improved immeasurably so that it’s easy enough to simply purchase up the rations required.
Ship to ship combat is also relatively unrewarding. The combat is rather clunky and not visually realised but rather as descriptions of combat. The nautical terminology is easy to grasp and glosses for terms are provided, whether through icons or descriptions. Most of the time combat is usually simply advancing close enough whilst receiving as little damage as possible in order to board the ship, which then moves to normal ingame combat, which of course is the games strength. You can even simply attack directly as an option when engaging vessels bypassing the ship combat completely.
The other important aspects to ships is of course exploration. The ships crew gains experience in an additional levelling system, as they encounter new regions, sights and survive encounters. The islands themselves are marked on the map for you and a subquest encourages you to “colonise” the lands, naming them after your whim. However main quest locations are marked and can be sailed to directly without exploration. Since the islands are discrete landmasses, they don’t offer a feeling of scale when adventuring. They inevitably end up feeling more like once off encounters rather than integrated parts of a world. A place to tick off then continue adventuring. As such the wonder of discovery is inevitably lost to a list of check marks, something that the game tries to prevent with its detailed and inventive locales but never quite achieves. This is especially apparent when massive wonders are only reverted to textbox descriptions that can’t quite translate across the dual medium of the game as both text adventure and visual isometric world.
Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire is overall an incredible game, with sound combat, an incredible interfactional storyline, but is let down by some very serious issues, such as the lack of intriguing exploration, feature creep that led to some interesting elements but that will only be for new games to explore meant that areas that required more development did not receive the budget or development time they should have. It is however still one of the finest RPGs ever made, despite the passive role it wishes the protagonist to adopt, that leads to weaknesses in the narrative. It is kept aloft by its fantasy and inventiveness that promise future developments for the genre, and continues to carry the standard of its predecessors Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale.
- Incredibly well written with lots of nuance
- Companion dialogues and stat system is intriguing
- Lots of complexity and customisability of companion builds
- Detailed graphics that bring the world to life
- The narrative is somewhat weak as it de-emphasises the role of the player character and shifts them to a passive role as “Watcher”
- Naval combat is underdeveloped and lacks impact
Publisher: Versus Evil/Obsidian Entertainment
Developer: Obsidian Entertainment
Platforms: Windows, Mac, Linux
ESRB: M / PEGI: 16
Available from: Steam, GoG.com, Humble Store, Microsoft Store
Banner image is used under fair use. The images in the review are from the author’s own playthrough.
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