Pillars of Eternity 2 continues the storyline of The Watcher. In the first game (spoiler alert), you talked to dead folk and built a castle. In this game (spoiler alert), you talk to more dead folk and chase down the giant who destroyed your castle. Pretty similar, except now you have a boat. Your boat is your new castle. Having a boat is pretty great.
You start as you do with most RPGs: character customization. Do you pledge allegiance to the gods? If so, which ones? Or do you reject them altogether?
As is now the norm, you then choose your sex, race, and class selection. Do you play as a barbarian, wizard, rogue, etc. Do you summon stuff? Or do you simply wish to stab folks until they stop moving? Then you distribute a generous amount of points into a few attributes. You choose your weapon proficiency: do you want to be a druid who uses handguns exclusively? A wizard with a mace and shield? Go for it! The final step of character customization is choosing the appearance. There are a few presets to mix and match, including different faces, hairstyles, skin colors, voice inflections, and even your default pose: heroic, sassy, or sullen, etc. All of these options are welcome, if not surprising.
The backdrop of the world in which the main story takes place is a unique one to RPGs: the tropical Deadfire archipelago is being colonized. Tensions are increasing between the colonizing Vailians and the native Huana. Unfortunately, these tensions never really seem to come to a resolution – whether peaceful or bloody. Hopefully future DLCs will explore this theme more thoroughly. For now, it’s merely a titillating (or disappointing) backdrop to your quest.
From the very first dialog with a human character, your stats determine your dialog options. You have six choices for the question “How are you feeling?” and one, two, or three of them might not be available to you, depending on your stats and character build. Those who crave a robust assortment of dialogue options will not be disappointed.
All of the prominent characters in the game feature voice acting, and their lines are delivered beautifully. The dialogue itself is also top-notch. There were many times when I laughed out loud. At one point, while standing on the beach after a particularly nasty voyage, you have the option of saying “I hate boats,” to which your companion Eder replies, “Shh. It’s right behind you.”
Each character has their own unique backstory and motivations that read like online dating profiles: Eder, for example, has a special loathing toward people who are cruel toward animals. Xoti is a dedicated follower of the god Eothas, and relates best to those who do, as well. The decisions you make can affect how each character perceives you, and each other. If they hate you or each other enough, they could leave you, so be nice to them – or don’t!
Even the smallest of sidequests have visible effects on your world. At one point, you find a man badly beaten. Turns out he sorely lost a bar fight. And, although he himself may not be entirely innocent, he requests your aide in bringing his assailant to justice. Choose to turn her in, and you’ll find her in the center of town square later, shackled to a pillory and surrounded by hecklers.
Graphics, Sounds, and Music
The graphics are lovely. The water effects especially are magnificent, and the crashing waves enunciate the beautiful but precarious archipelago you are tasked with exploring. When other weather effects creep onscreen, like heavy rain, they instill a particular sense of urgency to the desire to seek dry land again.
The story sections of the game are gorgeous. Sidequests and cutscenes unfold via black and white text and illustrations on worn pages of an old tome weighted down to a table with chains and the hilt of a sword. It evokes a real sense of story, because, well, you’re reading along as the story unfolds. Some players may not enjoy the lack of rendered cutscenes, but I found these storybook sections charming. And you will do a lot of reading in this game: from the helpful tooltips to the stats and status effects of each equipable item, to the myriad of dialogue choices, there is much to read. Not that I’m complaining. Again, the writing is superb.
Critters from dogs to boars make critter noises. The sound of gulls cuts through the crashing of waves along the shoreline. When nighttime approaches, the chirping of crickets emerge. This, and the surprisingly low-key music, provides a great ambience to keep the hours of exploration engrossing.
Each of the different builds utilizes their resource pool differently. Warriors have a pool they deplete in order to execute abilities, wizards worry less about resources and simply have a finite amount of each spell that can be cast per combat. Monks build up their resources over time, becoming more powerful as the battle wages on.
It can be a daunting amount of information to juggle, especially for new players. Fortunately, the game does a great job at holding your hand. You can speed up or slow down characters’ walk speed to lazily or hurriedly traverse the maps, and an in-game journal features a notes section, where you can add notes about the things you encounter. My first note, for example, was of a treasure chest located at the very back of a cave. It was locked, so I wrote a note to remind myself to return later once my party was more experienced and better equipped.
Each time you level up, you get to choose a few new stats to boost. Do you increase your Athletics or your Diplomacy? At one point, I found a potential ally who was unable to walk. My points in Survival allowed me to dress her wound and apply a splint to her leg, which enabled her to join my group. In another example, I had to cross a sunken cave to get to the treasure on the beach just outside. An Athletics check determined whether I could swim while holding my breath long enough to get to the cave’s entrance and the treasure-filled beach beyond. Small obstacles and sidequests like these play out either in-game, or via the beautifully-drawn cutscenes that play out like flipping through pages of a choose-your-own-adventure book.
The text throughout the game is littered with keywords. Who is Gaun? What is a Dexterity Affliction? These keywords – mostly names of places, people, and items – are all highlighted. If you hover the pointer over the highlighted word, a small tooltip pops up to give you greater in-depth info. It’s a big, complex game, and touches like this really make it seem inviting, even to the uninitiated. I certainly appreciated the helpful reminders.
I relied on these reminders often as I traversed the massive overworld map. Some points of interest on the overworld map are merely locations to gather resources. Click on the burial site, for example, and poof, the site disappears from your map, but you now have +30 of a randomly-generated resource. Others locations are like mini choose-your-own-adventure storybooks, where you wander upon, say, a stranded merchant cart. Over the course of a few wonderfully-illustrated pages, you choose whether to sneak past the cart, approach the merchants and offer to help repair the cart’s broken wheel, or simply rob the merchants for all their wares.
Sailing the sea in search of natural resources to plunder is simple, but incredibly fun. You customize your ship and crew, upgrade each with new equipment, and then you maintain morale and health with food and repair supplies. Encounters with other ships can lead to lucrative trading opportunities or sea combat, which plays out via the choose-your-own-adventure storybook cutscenes. It’s an addicting minigame, and a highly satisfying way to navigate the world map.
Combat plays out in real time, but it can be paused at any time in order to issue commands to the party members. Macros can be applied to each party member so that they function automatically. This deep level of customization is similar to the Gambit system of Final Fantasy 12 or Dragon Age: Origins, and it’s a beautiful touch. With the right direction, you can free yourself to simply sit back and watch the fireworks of each combat, with only minor interference as needed. Or you can micromanage to your heart’s content – the freedom of playstyle is seemingly endless – and a lot of fun, too.
The game features many retro design choices, for better and for worse. Characters and enemies can be selected only when you click on their feet. The thinking behind this decision, I imagine, was to allow the player to select their locations relative to the ground. But this gets troublesome when the camera is zoomed out, or if the character happens to be walking around (as so many do). This problem becomes noticeable in large cities, when every denizen of the densely-populated streets is interesting-looking, but is also quickly wandering about. And the minor annoyance becomes a problem when encountering enemies that are flying, or that simply do not have feet. Being able to click on the character to select them, rather than the small spot of land beneath their feet as they move around, would make interacting with the world a much simpler task.
Similarly, not all items on the screen are interactive. If you walk into a room lined with 30 barrels, only five of them will be interactive (destructible, filled with loot, etc.). The rest are jut there for decoration. This has the unfortunate effect of turning each new area into a pixel hunt reminiscent of the frustrating point-and-click adventure games of old. There is no way to discern which items are interactive, forcing the player to sweep the pointer back and forth across the screen until an object lights up. Why tease the player so?
Lastly, the backdrop of the game never really developed. The main underlying struggle of colonialism crashing against natives struggling to maintain dominance, was only barely touched upon. The constant reminder that the world’s natural resources were being unethically plundered received the same treatment. Both issues remained prominent themes throughout the game, sure, but for such heavy subjects, most denizens of the world seemed merely annoyed that their world was changing. It left the world feeling more lighthearted, perhaps, but this also made the main struggles seem an afterthought. If the NPCs don’t care, why should I?
Pillars of Eternity 2: Deafire is a huge game, full of customization and exploration. If you pine for an RPG adventure similar to the classics of the 1990s, look no further. Minor annoyances aside, there is plenty to love here.
Many thanks to Obsidian Entertainment for providing us with a review copy in exchange for our honest review!
Pillars of Eternity 2
- Beautiful graphics
- Engrossing characters
- Deep customization
- It’s an RPG but you have a boat. You’re a pirate on a boat. That’s enough to sell this game.
- Some design choices make the game more tedious
- Not everyone will appreciate the throwbacks to retro gameplay