Anyone can make a competent high fantasy RPG, stuffed to the brim with all the elves and dragons one could possibly want. We've been drowning in these Tolkien-'em-ups since people first figured out how to make video games, and few developers have ever deviated from tradition. Luckily for us, Obsidian decided to give things a try.
Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire is still a high fantasy RPG, with all the elves and dragons you've come to expect, but instead of snowy mountains and pastoral valleys, it's set in the gorgeous Deadfire Archipelago, a massive chain of volcanic islands. A giant statue, possessed by a rogue god, blew up your castle and took part of your soul. You wake up dead until Berath, one of the world's many gods, does some magic juju to you that makes you do her bidding and sends you after him.
A Tale of Soul and Sea
As stories go, it's pretty standard fare for traditional computer RPGs: the world's at stake, and only you and your magical powers can set things right. If you've played anything like Skyrim, Dragon Age: Inquisition, or anything Obsidian's done, you should have a pretty good idea what you're in for. Thankfully, Obsidian continues the tradition of allowing the story to continue no matter how many important characters you kill, which results in some delightful moments you'll want to experience for yourself.
The writing is great, up there with the best that Obsidian, Bioware, or Bethesda has ever offered, but it skews heavily towards being either serious or funny. The quests are mostly standard RPG fare, requiring you to go find items or talk to people, with plenty of dialog choices affecting those outcomes based on your character build, but a few had clever alternate solutions. One character, Dereo, tasked me with locating an item, telling me that it was part of a set. The other half had been lost long ago, but he wanted me to acquire the half in someone else's possession. When I found the long-lost item in some ancient ruins, I presented it to Dereo instead, taking him by surprise; he allowed me to continue the quest as if I'd found the original target.
I enjoyed my 31 hours through the game's main story and most of its side quests, but it wasn't until the end of the game where my actions felt like they had any meaningful impact on the multiple factions. You can follow any faction quest chain until the end of the game, and no matter what you do, they never appear to call you out on it until it's time to make the Big Decision that sets the game's final act in motion. In this regard, Deadfire is reminiscent of Fallout 4: play the game, do all the quests for all the factions, and eventually, you'll have to decide which one you want to join.
Much like Fallout 4, Deadfire's major factions are all kind of awful. The pirates ambush you at sea, extort the poor, and murder the innocent. The Queen rules over a society with a strict caste system that benefits a select few, starving and murdering the innocent so they can live luxuriously, all while claiming to be noble and good. The Royal Deadfire Company skulks around murdering their opposition. The Vailian Trading Company takes advantage of native naivete in order to seize their lands and mine precious adra. There's no case for any one faction, but there are strong cases against them.
Despite this, the game's story is still fun. Eothas, the rogue god, takes many innocent lives in the process, but his goal is arguably the most sympathetic of anyone's in the game. His goals and execution appear to conflict at times, but his pleasant nature and sense of conviction make him one of the more interesting RPG antagonists in recent years.
There's nothing quite like sailing the oceans around Deadfire, sinking pirate ships and solving puzzles in ancient ruins. The party members are wonderful, especially Xoti, whose charming drawl and endearing fangirly responses to Eothas make her one of my favorite party members in any RPG, though "that was about as useful as a bump on a pickle" is an odd battle cry, and it can get old quickly.
Like most Obsidian games, Deadfire is eager to overshare, drenching you in lore at every opportunity. Deadfire is a lore nerd's fantasy, and it relies on its unique setting to carry that lore further than more traditional games. It can get annoying at times; half the characters abuse the word "ekera," which is basically just an emphatic "yes." Despite this, Deadfire never stops being interesting. There's great stuff here, especially if you're willing to go digging.
I ran into a few unfortunate quest bugs throughout the game; one mission giver simply disappeared, making it impossible for me to complete their quest line. After I cleared out a fort and rescued its prisoners, I found their bodies in the courtyard, all dead, even though there was no one left alive to hurt them. I'm hoping these bugs were simply limited to the press build of the game and will be fixed on the game's release.
Despite the bugs, the polish in Deadfire's presentation is wonderful. Justin E. Bell's score might be his best work for Obsidian; this is a soundtrack befitting an adventure on the high seas. Enemies explode with satisfying thuds and pops, and the voice acting in this game is some of the best I've heard in an RPG. Thankfully, your lines are not voiced, leaving Obsidian free to give the player a host of responses that Bioware and Bethesda aren't able to. It gives me a greater sense of control over my character, reminding me of Bioware's last classic, Dragon Age: Origins.
Like Playing a Classic
On land, Deadfire plays a lot like its predecessor, as an isometric, real-time-with-pause RPG. You control a party of up to five characters, with everything playing out in real time. By default, the game will pause when entering combat, allowing you to get your bearings and prepare. When you hit the spacebar, the game resumes real-time play, but you can pause at any moment to catch a breather, keep tabs on enemy and player status, or do anything else you might need.
When Kickstarter ushered in the era of retro RPGs, most of the throwbacks came back as turn-based affairs. It was a disappointment when Torment: Tides of Numenera went turn-based because real-time lost by a mere 1 percent of the vote, disenfranchising nearly half the game's backers. Turn-based games aren't bad, but there's something special about old school real-time-with-pause mechanics. Great games like Baldur's Gate and Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura used these mechanics to great effect, and it's awesome to see that Obsidian is still holding the torch for a gameplay style that hasn't seen a major release since Dragon Age: Origins.
One of my favorite features is the tactics menu, which allows you to fine-tune your party's AI responses to combat, allowing you to tweak when and how characters use certain abilities and items. Equally awesome is the inventory system; like most RPG fans, I have a habit of picking up everything that isn't nailed down. Thankfully, it appears that the party stash is unlimited; I never had to waste time sorting or optimizing my inventory. Like many classic RPGs, holding down tab allows you to see everything in the environment that you can interact with, which is always a welcome feature.
There are a few wrinkles in the gameplay; stealth never feels particularly good or deep, and none of the maps appear to have been built with it in mind. Character pathfinding occasionally breaks, or characters simply forget to go where you told them to. I'm not wild about the new camera system, which can make it hard to click on things in the environment while you're walking around.
Deadfire's biggest flaw is that the combat is frequently unreadable. While it's awesome to watch an enemy explode in a massive gout of blood, it can sometimes be difficult, even when paused, to understand what's going on or who can be targeted. Games like Origins get around this by allowing you to move your camera as you see fit; Deadfire's fixed camera offers no such relief. Clicking on an enemy does nothing-you have to click on the circle at their feet to make sure you've selected them properly. While these moments can be irritating, they rarely get in the way. It's still exhilarating to run into a room full of slavers and tear them to shreds, laughing as enemies explode all around you.
Things get more interesting on the sea. Once you've repaired your boat, you're able to sail anywhere in the Deadfire Archipelago, taking bounties and sinking ships. The world map is up to you to discover; you can name previously uncharted islands, take on bounties before they've been given, and even discover new party members You can upgrade your boat if you visit the shipwright in Queen's Berth, one of the districts in Deadfire's largest city, buying a new hull and finding new crew. By the end of the game, I was slaughtering any pirate who dared oppose me. Boarding an enemy ship and defeating their crew never gets old.
Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire is a strange game; it wants to be everything you loved about old-school RPGs while being something new, and I think it succeeds at that. One day, I played for about 15 hours straight because I was having so much fun. The next day, I played for 12 more. Deadfire relies on tradition when it's suitable and tries to do something new everywhere else. The end result is one of the best RPGs I've played in recent years.
It's always refreshing to see an RPG try something new. Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire deftly blends classic RPG fundamentals with more intriguing pirate-themed gameplay. If you enjoy RPGs, you'll almost certainly want to give Deadfire a shot.