Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire review (PC)

Obsidian returns to the Pillars of Eternity 2 universe roughly three years after they released the first game. We’ve had the two part White March expansion and the somewhat experimental Tyranny since then, but it’s this new sequel that is raising the bar once more.

It was never much of a surprise when Obsidian announced they were returning to Pillars of Eternity. After all, it’s a legendary example of a Kickstarter project gone well, and the original game was extremely well-received by fans and critics alike. While I enjoyed Tyranny, it never quite reached the heights of Pillars for me – so it felt like a bit of a sign when Pillars 2 was announced just a day after I had completed Tyranny. The wait’s been long, but it’s been worth it.

While Pillars of Eternity was more of a spiritual successor to Obsidian’s classic RPG titles, Deadfire is definitely a true sequel in every sense of the word. It’s instantly recognizable, builds on the foundations of the first game and picks up right where Pillars left off. The White March expansions formed a side campaign rather than post-story content, so don’t worry if you never played White March.

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In fact, you don’t even have to worry if you never played the original game at all. Although Deadfire allows you to continue with a saved game and carry over your previous choices, there’s a system in place that sets up the necessary parameters for you without ever have played Pillars of Eternity. Of course you can also use this system if you’d prefer to not use an old save and modify your experience somewhat – just in case you didn’t do that during a second playthrough of the original game. Regardless of your background, Deadfire does a great job of easing you into the game by gradually adding more complexity as the game goes on. This goes for mission difficulty, party dynamics and the storyline itself – everything feels balanced and well-designed.

As before, you assume the role of the Watcher of Caed Nua as an ancient evil, the god Eothas, returns to the land with a bang and heads towards a chain of islands called the Deadfire. The people and tribes who live here and the cultures they have been have been separated by water for generations, which causes the individual islands to look distinct and diverse – which makes for a more original look and feel than the original Pillars of Eternity had as well.

The fact that you’re traveling across water also means that your base of operations is constantly on the move – you’ll be piloting a seaworthy ship that can be upgraded and traded in, which makes for a more dynamic hub than your old stronghold ever did. Your crew can also change, as you lose crew members and recruit new ones. Using your ship effectively also means more than just getting from A to B, as water-based battles feature regularly and you can trick other citizens of Deadfire by hoisting a different flag than your own to pass through their defenses as well.

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Your ship is an obvious change to the Pillars of Eternity experience, but there are plenty of subtle quality of life enhancements over the original game as well. One of these is the ability to ‘program’ your party members to a certain degree, so that you’re not micromanaging their in-combat behavior all the time. With Pillars II, you can select when assist in combat or when to step back and use a healing ability – which saves you a lot of clicking down the line. On the other hand, an extra click will now allow you to change your target mid-combat as well, as long as you do it before the charged attack starts or spell is cast.

You also have to ability to make your mark on the world by naming ships and islands, there have been subtle improvements to the camera system (which now follows the selected player better) and conversation choices matter more in your interpersonal relationships – something that carried over from Tyranny. Giving even more life to these relationships is the fact that all the dialogue in the game is fully voiced this time, which is impressive considering how story-intensive Obsidian’s games can be. Deadfire isn’t any less story-driven, but the writing in the game does feel like it’s more direct and to the point – possibly a consequence of wanting everything voiced.

There’s been a visual upgrade as well, though that one too is mostly subtle in nature. Lighting and reflection effects have been improved a ton, which is impressive considering that Deadfire is still very much a game with 2D backgrounds in the familiar Obsidian style. These backgrounds also feel more dynamic, and make good use of the island setting of the new game with vegetation that gently sways in the wind rather than spend an eternity frozen. It’s all subtle and Pillars of Eternity isn’t the type of game you’ll be showing off for its graphical prowess, but the upgrade is still there. The extra visual fidelity doesn’t seem to impact the game’s performance or load times either – though I still found myself twiddling my thumbs waiting for a new game section to load.

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Despite the option to streamline combat by programming behaviors, you can still pause and/or slow down the action to issue commands. This is very similar to the first game, as is the ability to upgrade your skills and customize your characters. Sadly, the pathfinding issues I would sometimes encounter in Pillars of Eternity also crop up in the sequel from time to time – it must have something to do with the core engine as I don’t remember this issue being any better in White March either.

Nevertheless, the issues I did encounter during Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire are most definitely minor in nature. The game takes everything that was good about Pillars of Eternity and incorporates several mostly subtle improvements as well, making for a strong sequel to a great game. The additional voiceover work, the dynamics surrounding your ship and the integration of a Tyranny-like system where choices matter all work out for the better, and that’s on top of Obsidian’s usual strong writing and classic RPG gameplay.

Score: 8.9/10

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