Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire

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.

Berkana’s Orrery

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.

We’ll rooooooooll the old berath’s wheel along and we’ll all hang on behind!

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.

A chance to settle trade disputes… or start them

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.

More coveted than gold, Adra is the natural resource for which the factions fight

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.

Beware when you play cards with death…

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.

The triumph of the Useless Idiot!

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.

There are many fishermen’s tales of odd creatures in the Deadfire, not least amongst them tales of living trees.

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.

Score ~8/10~

Pros

  • 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

Cons

  • 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: SteamGoG.comHumble Store, Microsoft Store

Banner image is used under fair use. The images in the review are from the author’s own playthrough.

If you enjoyed reading this please consider hitting the like button or subscribing.

Pathfinder: Kingmaker Enhanced Edition (PC)

Sic transit gloria mundi

Pathfinder: Kingmaker, much as the rather unimaginative title indicates, is a game about the establishment of a kingdom. Yours. From the political machinations of a nearby Duchy that wishes to create a possible alliance against their enemies they aid in not only granting you the land but also in financing its establishment. From there in true fantasy style a new threat emerges, an old curse exists upon the lands that gathers the remains of previous empires, atoning for a mistake from the past.

Like many of the cRPGs of recent years Pathfinder: Kingmaker is the product of a crowdfunding success story that propelled the small Russian studio of Owlcat Games into the limelight. Though it’s initial release was marred by numerous bugs and balancing issues, subsequent patches largely fixed many of the issues, and the release of the Enhanced Edition incorporated a great deal of player feedback to improve the overall quality of the game.

Story

Pathfinder: Kingmaker is truly epic in scope, not only does it span multiple playing hours but in terms of the game world it explores millennia. In doing so it can elaborate on its them of civilization and barbarity, the transient nature of empire and the various ways they rise and fall. This is done most notably through the various chapters of the main campaign, each of which focus on one or more kingdoms that had once existed in the territories of the Stolen Lands. Not only is internal strife and decadence explored but also external threats, and natural disasters, whether it be plague or climate change. Accompanying these hints from the past for the discerning lore master, the actual campaign itself also expounds on these ideas, with each chapter of the campaign unfolding a new threat to the governance of yourself and your advisors (who are selected from your various companions).

Arise, Your Grace…

The choices here are unprecedented, you can recruit erstwhile enemies to assist you, (provided they have a similar ethos to governance as you), shape and change the fates of your companions due to your influence over them, and in some cases might just roleplay their influence on your character as well. And they are an interesting lot, from the grandiose delirium of Nok-Nok the goblin, to the stalwart Valerie, and erudite Jubilost, there’s a lot to uncover about each companion.

Of course, they do have accompanying side-quests to expand upon their choices and influence them, as well as the option to romance some of them. Many of the options taken in these side-quests also have additional impacts upon the fate of the kingdom later on, though they aren’t realised mechanically. The characterization of each is superlative, from the erudite, pomposity that characterizes Jubilost’s speech, and his accompanying focus on rationalism and rhetoric to the crude yet good natured banter of Amiri, each companion has their own distinct style of speech. They also might unintentionally work against you. Lindzi for instance procures some of the kingdom’s funds to assist one of her dreams. Depending on how you’ve managed your kingdoms finances this may either be an absolute disaster, or you just shake your head, and wonder why she just didn’t come and ask you in the first place since you would have happily assisted her anyway. Even with such inadvertant setbacks however the game does recompense you in some way. In the case of Lindzi, you do receive a building later that covers the cost of what you initially lost.

The kingdom itself shares a story with you, changing significantly based on the decisions you make, whether its populated with monsters, a mercantile success, or a generic tyranny there’s multiple ways to craft its story. This is realised in short excerpts from the kingdom management screen, and are known as “problems” and “opportunities”, choosing different advisors (with different traits) will have varying outcomes, not only can they fail or succeed but different individuals handle matters differently. Some of these permutations can be seen as many of the “opportunity” events are recycled (which leads to some story fatigue) but they also shape the alignment of the kingdom, having distinct outcomes for how the people are governed.

Lost time unleashed

The main story itself has a fairly generic ultimate villain, but the secondary villain is the main antagonist for most of the game, and she is rather unique, however it’s up to the player whether she will be viewed sympathetically or not. The main story is also imperative in forcing and encouraging exploration. Most of the structure turns upon a threat whose mystery must first be uncovered, then investigated and finally confronted. This pattern unfolds for each chapter. The greatest criticism I can level is that after a while this feels uninspired, but the mysteries themselves are intriguing enough and pull the player to explore the world further, which is after all one of the great joys of playing a cRPG, adventuring to uncover new dangers, treasures and above all to gain experiences (xp points too).

Gameplay

Kingmaker truly excels in its game-play. The combat mechanics are robust and adaptive to varied play styles. Characters can be built in various ways and , on harder difficulties tried and tested builds will need to be used in order to min max stats, however easier difficulties (including a story mode) allow for more experimentation in builds and are forgiving if you make a few mistakes in a build. The mechanics will be familiar to any person whose encountered a cRPG game before. From elemental to physical damage types and their relation to damage resistances, the need to create a party with multiple ability types, to work in concert together. All the normal roles apply.

Nothing is truly innovative here, wizards can work as heavy damage dealers or crowd controllers, rogues can provide debuffs and concentrated damage, fighters work as tanks, bards as buffers/debuffers. It’s all familiar and comforting terrain to veterans of the genre, but not overly complicated for newcomers to work out.

Valerie’s Confusion

General play will consist of observing the encounter beforehand, time spent buffing your party before launching into attack. Positioning of characters is important (you don’t want your wizard to land their fireball right upon your tanks head with their low reflex save) and at times controlling the flow of battle will require deftly moving your characters around. Managing debuffs upon your party is also important at higher levels, and not controlling them can result in a few rather hilarious scenarios, that leads to emergent storytelling, such as when Valerie, the noble fighter ended up slaying a unicorn, going insane from a spell inflicted upon her by the dryad who looked after the beasts, she turned upon the party… terrified by their normally steadfast and loyal companion they hid in terror waiting for her to calm down… only to witness her hit herself between drinking bouts of beer. Its moments like these that shape and make your own adventurous tale.

Ready to paint the map

Exploration occurs across a world map with isolated encounter areas (as well as random encounters when travelling between locations). At first most of the map is unavailable with higher difficulty levels being locked until you’ve expanded your power enough to access them, that is not to say that difficult encounters are not hiding tucked away in caves in earlier areas though… discretion is the better part of valour. In addition, some areas will require repeat visits, as new quests will be linked to that area. Encumbrance impedes exploration and acts as a serious hindrance, slowing travel time which affects the games overall time pressure. It’s not a huge role but is something to be aware of, if a quest timer is close to ending. The area is not free-form exploration sadly. You are confined to the paths that you find between nodes. It’s a step back from the slightly freer feel of Baldur’s Gate but not out entirely out of line with more recent cRPGS that also have limited budgets and so restrict encounter areas.

Each encounter area is filled with various side-quests or unique enemies to fight (and loot) however the major dungeons are reserved for areas associated with the main campaign. Many of these dungeons have multiple levels and distinct puzzles associated with them as well as some rather difficult combat challenges. The game also does not shy away from splitting your party on more than one occasion. The dungeons themselves are generally well-crafted experiences, with challenging encounters as well as various puzzles to solve. In some dungeons these puzzles take precedence and can be rather obtuse in their riddling, however compared to games like Pillars of Eternity and its sequel Deadfire which had very few puzzles its pleasant to encounter such riddles again. Sadly, one of the dungeons has some rather complex coding associated with its puzzle and it can be quite buggy, it’s also exceptionally late in the game so multiple saves are mandatory… of course.

The beginning of a city to rival Absalom!

The other important aspect is the Kingdom itself. The kingdom is assigned various stats, such as loyalty, espionage, military, arcane and culture that link to various domains of society. These stats are boosted by assigning the appropriate ministers to events and granting them time to complete them. In addition, you can construct villages with various buildings that provide boosts to said stats, and some buildings even decrease the difficulty for the encounters by providing bonuses. Your companions may be assigned as advisers in a vaguely nepotistic faction however there are other advisers you can assign and complete tasks to enhance their governing abilities. Who you assign is important as it shifts the alignment of your kingdom, which further determines what buildings you can include, not to mention their own allegiances, that just may result in a betrayal? The kingdom management also has certain tasks that only the player character can complete, such as annexing neighbouring lands that results in time lost for adventuring. This is where a more strategic layer of play develops, balancing the cost of assigning various advisers, (also dependent on which adviser is available), upgrading your kingdom and completing the timed quests. It’s a unique and heady blend of strategy that is utterly new for the genre. The only issue is that it can result in not being able to see some content if managed poorly, the same issue that games like Avernum 3 had as well.

Who better than dour Harrim to deal with death!

Since the success of the Kingdom also factors into the completion of the game, managing it well is a necessity. Like the keep in Neverwinter Nights 2 ruling your people (or monsters) well and looking after their safety is a necessity. Integrating the success of your kingdom to concepts such as the health of the ruler is linked to the health and prosperity of the land are born out later in the story as well. This is a refreshing change from the unimportant management aspects of games like Pillars of Eternity where Caed Nua plays an unimportant role in the games story (at least only as a cut scene as a prequel to the second game does it gain significance) and Dragon Age: Inquisition where the missions don’t really bear much impact on the overall story except perhaps to fill in a few sundry details.

To the horizon

Other things to note is that there are some keyboard shortcuts, but I didn’t find or use any party management shortcuts (e.g. for melee vs ranged members) which was frustrating. Also, the game is active time with pause so prepare for your spacebar to be abused.

Graphics

The graphics are quite phenomenal, there are some gorgeous lighting effects and there is very little issue with textures. A great amount of detail has been paid to monster designs, from the irascible mites to the gargantuan Crag Linnorn’s they are rendered with unique animations, that are particularly noticeable when it comes to combat. Combat itself is a visual feast, the array of spells and spell like effects dazzle across the screen, and make a wonderful visual counterpoint to the slowly increasing feel of power. Death and critical hit animations, have enemies (or your characters) reeling backward or stumbling, and with a well-placed heal, lifting themselves with effort to join the fray again.

Healing waters

The UI is fine on lower resolutions with lots of detail at a glance but can be slightly too small on larger screens even with the option for text scaling. Additional information such as enemy stats are not readily available with a mouse hover (such as in Deadfire) but are available using the “y” button on English keyboards, this was somewhat frustrating as I’d have preferred combat information to be available more readily.

The in game menus are pretty comfortable to view and easy to sort, however some of the icons are a little too similar, this was particularly frustrating with scrolls and some of the potions that meant you had to hover slightly over the potion to check it was the correct one, you wanted to select which slowed down combat at times, one way to overcome this is to use alphabetical sorting.

Music

I was somewhat surprised when starting to play the game and thought for a moment I was hearing Dragon Age: Origins again, because the chord structure is nearly identical. This is of course due to the soundtrack being largely composed by Inon Zur. He’s an excellent composer, however at times the similarity in music evoked memories of other games which actually detracted from the experience with Kingmaker.  What was particularly wonderful though was the kingdom having music associated with its state, a lawful good kingdom has very different ambient music to a chaotic evil kingdom, add in the music for specific areas, as well as each boss having a soundtrack designed especially for them and you’ve got hours of music to accompany your play. The music seems to draw heavy inspiration from European folk melodies and the choice of instrumentation, lends itself well to the standard medieval fantasy setting.

Additional sounds make the world come to further life, whether it’s the varying sounds of your footsteps across different terrain or the sound of magic combusting, the game is an absolute aural treat, making the animations come alive.

Silence is golden

Even the voice-acting is well done. The emotions are well conveyed, and though not all dialogue is voice-acted, most of the main campaign is. The emotions are subtly portrayed with layers of nuance, and vastly aids in making the characters more sympathetic. Sadly budget constraints meant that party resting banter is limited to only two lines of exchange which doesn’t really convey the relationship between the two companions involved, where even three lines with a second response would have done more to establish their relationships.

Conclusion

Pathfinder: Kingmaker is one of the great cRPGs, despite its rather difficult launch, the enhanced edition is generally a treat to play, despite still having a few bugs. It’s exploration of rulership and governance sets it apart from its contemporaries, and whilst it lacks philosophical depth directly in the writing, the concepts are there for the attentive player to explore. It may not have the philosophical complexity of Numenera or the verbosity of Deadfire but it is far more accessible than those games, and still incredibly entertaining to boot.

Score ~8/10~

Pros

  • Incredible and lengthy narrative that has multiple plot twists
  • Well fleshed out companions
  • Engaging combat system that offers tactical depth
  • Lush and colourful graphics

Cons

  • Rather generic in its medieval fantasy setting
  • Time management on quests creates sense of pressure and reduces willingness to explore
  • An area at the ending is rather prohibitive if you haven’t fully explored the side-quests from earlier in the game

Publisher: Deep Silver

Developer: Owlcat Games

Platforms: Windows, Mac, Linux

ESRB: – / PEGI: –

Available from: SteamGoG.comHumble Store

Banner image is used under fair use. The images in the review are from the author’s own playthrough.

If you enjoyed reading this please consider hitting the like button or subscribing.

Enderal: Forgotten Stories (PC)

What distinguishes a free man and a slave?

This is the opening question of Enderal: Forgotten Stories and informs the basis of the games narrative. Leading from Nehrim which challenged political and religious structures, Enderal continues to explore this concept further by focusing on alternative philosophies of freedom and slavery such as slavery to one’s own desires.

This is easily one of the most tightly knit narratives within an RPG, nearly every quests relates to the primary theme. Moreover each quest establishes and builds upon the world, from small domestic dramas that play out as consequences of the imposition of societies structures upon individuals in the early game, to the larger consequences of responsibility when one is in charge in the late game. Enderal does not shy away from difficult material and right from the outset exposes the player to its visceral drama.

The quests are organic and build naturally, escalating in importance as the tale unfolds. Seeing how the secondary and side quests all bear impact upon the main game at later stages, many foreshadowing future events is fascinating and a testament to the focus of the writing. Even quests that at first glance don’t seem related still expound upon the central themes of freedom. Ultimately though the game never quite resolves or comes to a conclusion despite having branching endings, including a secret one.

Instead the decision is left up to you the player.

The premise of Enderal is a struggle against the enigmatic High Ones, beings (or forces) that impose their will upon the world for a purpose -at least initially- only known to them. Their indirect manipulation of desires and the subconscious of their agents in the world gives them power to unfold their will over others, essentially turning their human tools into unwitting slaves. It is the player’s purpose to attempt to thwart this, and free themselves. Much of the scenario is a continuation of Nehrim’s tale (their previous mod) however understanding the tale of Nehrim is not essential as Enderal stands sufficiently on its own, those who have played it however are in for a few surprises and nostalgic flashbacks.

“From the forces that all creatures bind, who overcomes himself his freedom finds.” ~Goethe

First amongst such is the inclusion of notable characters from Nehrim, with Tealor Arantheal most prominent among them. His nobility here is shown as flawed and though he strives for perfection his very human failings set him up as the tragic hero. Accompanying him are a new cast of characters, including romanceable options Jespar Dal’Varek and Calia Sakaresh. Both have extensive companion quests that develop over time, and a new introduction to the Creation engine is displayed in building favour with them, whether to become friends or lovers. This mechanic bears fruit in other aspects of dialogue as well, since other characters have important arcs where befriending them is useful. Most importantly is the Rhalata side-quest were actually disagreeing with one of the characters leads to some significant character growth that would not be possible if you’d pleased them all the time. This break from the ‘Bioware’ dialogue reward system was incredibly refreshing to see, and sets up the idea that game dialogues are possible to more extensively develop interactions and change companion’s ideas (something I’d only really seen in Pillars of Eternity so far). This leads to far more satisfying relationships whether they are romantic or platonic.

Mysterious places await discovery

The story and background of the world is extensive, and revealed in various ways. Since the game does make use of Bethesda’s Creation Engine, all the hallmarks of the Elder Scrolls games are here. From books in the form of poetry and scholarly treatises, to notes that expound on behind the scenes occurrences, and through normal means such as cut scenes, scripted segments (which sadly detract from player agency at certain times) and of course the old staple of dialogue, the game is quite diverse in conveying it’s narrative. In addition there are various motifs and symbols within the world that have significant impact to the observant player this environmental storytelling plays a significant role here as well. After all this, the game still does adhere to the hallmarks of Western RPG’s with its large open world, and a plethora of dungeons and locations to adventure in, emergent storytelling through the players creativity is possible as well.

“Always act according to that maxim that you can will as a universal law of nature.” ~Immanuel Kant

Despite being a mod, Enderal significantly overhauls the character progression system. Not only are the classes and skills renamed, but many systems are significantly overworked. The challenge is significantly harder here, and in addition is actually scalable, selecting harder difficulties will spawn more enemies to fight you, and at times the mobs can become quite overwhelming. The feel of combat will still be familiar to veterans of Skyrim though.

Most obviously different is the progression system, experience is gained from enemies in order to level up, which increases the grind, since you can only progress to the next area once you are of sufficient level as the areas scale as well. Once you have leveled, you acquire various points to spend, named learning and crafting respectively. Reading books allows you to develop these further. These skill books can be obtained from vendors or found scattered about the world. In addition if you are a caster spells will need to be learned in a similar manner, making mages one of the more expensive classes to develop in the game.

Crafting is familiar though, many of the ores retain the same names, except for the high level ores, and you will be able to craft potions through alchemy. New to Forgotten Stories is the phasmalist class, an interesting riff on the games themes of freedom since the phasmalist captures and binds souls to amulets to summon them in battle. The enslavement of these souls is a lengthy process since they must be discovered within the environment of the game, and are invisible without a special detection spell.

“But to manipulate men, to propel them toward goals which you—the social reformers—see, but they may not, is to deny their human essence, to treat them as objects without wills of their own, and therefore to degrade them.”

Isaiah Berlin

Magic has been divided into different schools and at first glance is more limited than Skyrim. This is compounded by the fact that in the early game caster classes are heavily penalised by the Arcane Fever mechanic which advances every time you use powerful magic and drink potions. It is only mitigated by drinking Ambrosia, and if left unchecked will cause death and a terrible transformation. Once a certain story point is reached the Arcane Fever is less problematic but it is certainly a major hindrance in the early stages. Elementalism is the most prominent magic school, as it is your primary means to deal damage, but other magic skills such as the Thaumaturge take the place of supplementary spells allowing you to enhance damage or armour values or alternatively debuff enemies. The most interesting variants are the Sinistrope fields that deal with mind control, and are considered to be a forbidden school. These are obviously most at variance with the games theme, so make an interesting counterpart to the narrative. Many of the skills create an enhanced challenge since they drain your own health, and increase damage based on how low your health is. Using them carefully is an interesting hurdle to overcome.

The combat system in Enderal is in essence not much different from that of Skyrim, but does add some new interesting elements. The weapon types are the same however there are some notable additions such as set item bonuses. Unlike Skyrim combinations of specific specializations (like great-sword and light armor) will unlock additional bonuses. These abilities take the place of Skyrim’s shouts and can be unlocked as part of the skill trees. These abilities are gained through meditation and unlocking memories. A strange ability unique to the player character that ties into their role as the Prophetess and are hidden abilities of past lives. Without them combat can become difficult, and using them strategically is important as many have cool downs. Since the enemies are significantly harder in Enderal, playing strategically and combing abilities to gain advantages is important when developing battle tactics. This is made somewhat easier by carrying a liberal amount of health potions and pausing to drink them.

The old water-works

Using these skills take place in a variety of environments. Dungeon crawling is still a staple , and descending into narrow hallways and tombs is essential for both experience and loot. Sadly these tombs, whilst visually impressive are old fashioned in execution. Many are linear and don’t offer alternative exists, meaning you need to backtrack to the exit rather than emerge at the cleverly hidden exits that Skyrim was so famous for. It does however make these spelunking adventures more realistic. There are a few notable dungeons that do break this mould, with the Ark Crypt being one such with it’s labyrinthine corridors and multiple approaches to various rooms and some do offer platforming and jumping challenges which were notably absent from Skyrim.

The monsters that inhabit many of these areas are slightly overhauled, whilst many of their attacks are the same as Skyrim, there are special boss monsters that occur in quest encounters. These are fairly significant encounters, in one scenario you choose who becomes the boss, in another there is a scripted sequence with temporary opportunities to attack. Something not usually present in Elder Scrolls games but familiar to players of JRPGs. To see this sort of battle presented on this engine is a testament to the skilled adaptation of the coding.

Ancient ruins hide untold secrets

Getting to locations is also artificially delayed. You’re encouraged to explore the landscape. Teleport scrolls are available to various quest hubs, and the large creatures known as Myrads also offer transportation similar to Morrowind’s Silt Striders, except Myrads can fly! (They are overhauled Dragons after all). This does mean the length of the game is increased since you will need to travel and get lost when climbing mountains yet it does allow you to continually enhance your skills and level, so that by the time end game arrives you are of sufficient skill to handle it. This forced exploration does lessen the feel of the grind since you are usually in pursuit of an item or travelling to an event.

The quests are fairly standard, most being fetch quests, yet the experience never feels tedious due to the well written dialogues and advancement of the story. Encounters within the quests also help to make them feel more varied despite the fact you’re doing the same thing over and over.

“Out of the crooked timber of humanity, nothing completely straight was ever made”

Isaiah Berlin

All of this takes place in a world that is remarkable considering the age of the engine. Being a total conversion Enderal does make significant use of various graphical overhauls, that create some truly remarkable environments. Some assets used will clearly send the player into reminiscing over Skyrim, however many new objects and textures are introduced, leaving a distinctly new feel to the world of Vyn you are adventuring through. These overhauls do come at a slight cost though, as performance does suffer. I noticed significant frame drops when wandering through highly vegetated areas, whether tropical or temperate forest. It is recommended to play this on a machine that is more powerful than that required for Skyrim as the resource demands are significantly higher for Enderal.

Another notable aspect was the heavy use of visual effects. For the most part these were impressive, however at times the flashing colours and lights did create significant eyestrain and during one sequence in particular the combination of blurring and flashing brought on a headache quite quickly. There is no epilepsy warning, not that I suffer from it, but considering many games do hold such a warning it’s absence was rather notable considering the usage of these special effects.

The demesne of Vatyra

Some of the monsters are renamed and recoloured into new variants, yet there are a few new unique monsters created for the game, that showcase some of the teams creativity. It would have been nice to see a few more such creatures, like the special bosses that need specific methods to combat and defeat whilst being utterly unique to look at.

The film sequences are not used extensively in the game, and sadly do look a bit like machinima productions, which was disappointing since the opening cinematic was highly stylised and reminiscent of Bioware’s Dragon Age opening. This wasn’t used again instead transitioning to the machinima pieces, I’d have enjoyed seeing more of this type of skilled artwork,, especially since it harkens back to many classic RPG opening sequences

Accompanying the visuals is an overhauled sound system. New music has been composed for the game, and whilst it clearly draws inspiration from the works of Jeremy Soule and Inon Zur it does manage to stand on its own. There’s also some Skyrim and Dragon Age inspiration creeping in again as bards are able to play various songs that reveal more about the world and its myths. Requesting songs at taverns led to a nice counterpart when relaxing, and the instrumentation of the game was beautifully used, with even bands of musicians playing during particular scenes. Yet all of this paled when compared to the way the game introduced its leitmotifs. They blend in so well at climactic moments, and as soon as one begins to hear them, tension begins to escalate, even if the music being used is a simple lullaby. Sadly the soundtrack doesn’t quite have the large orchestral impact that other games have yet it is still superb considering the budget and constraints that a free game is made under.

Childish pursuits

The voice acting is notable as well. Having played the English version some of the voices seemed slightly poor at first, and the dialogue did not always match the written texts, but for the most part the voices matched the characters. Whether it was the strident, authoritative tones of Arantheal, the confidence of Lishari Peghast or the hidden vulnerability Calia the characters are excellently portrayed and to see this aspect blend with the characters animations at various points was incredible to witness.

Enderal is a significant accomplishment, being one of the first total conversion mods released as a standalone product on Steam, but due to the consistent quality throughout. Whilst there are many areas that show some amateur design decisions, the tightly executed narrative and new possibilities revealed in the Creation engine code make this an interesting landmark in the history of videogames. In addition to this is the fact that it released for free, in the face of Bethesda’s consistent attempts to monetize mods via their workshops. SureAI has shown incredible skill here, hopefully their passion will lead them to new success in the future.

Score ~8/10~

Pros

*Beautiful overhaul of the Creation Engine

*Tightly woven narrative

*Incredible environments to explore

*Wonderful soundtrack with some excellent vocal performances by the ‘bards’

*Different endings to sidequests as well as the main game add replayability

Cons

*Some areas can be quite linear

*A lot of visual effects that create eyestrain

*Graphics overhaul increases the system requirements, which makes for a decreased performance when compared to Skyrim on lower end systems.

*Crashes are still fairly frequent

Publisher: SureAI

Developer: SureAI

Platforms: PC, Mac

ESRB: / PEGI: Not rated (Skyrim is rated M/18+)

Available from: Steam,