Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire Review: Wonderfully Complex

It’s one thing to come up with the story to a videogame; it’s quite another to sell it to your audience. Quality writing is everything.

With a strong enough script you can immerse a player in your world; a world where dragons are real, where the dead walk and a woman wears a bikini top because she breathes through her skin. Okay, maybe it doesn’t always work, but Pillars of Eternity 2‘s script had me hooked from the word go. It didn’t matter that I’d missed out on the first game or that it was nearly devoid of cutscenes. So committed was the game to creating its world that I didn’t for one second question the folly of pursuing a vast stone god across the world. Or just how Evil Big Business (TM) had found a way to profit from mining actual souls.

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Quality and quantity

The sheer quality of Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire‘s writing is intertwined with its commitment to old-school role-playing. It has more in common with pen-and-paper RPGs than it does with the likes of Dragon Age and more action-oriented titles. It’s no slouch in the graphics department, but for close-ups and significant events it makes heavy use of flavour text and, to a lesser extent, hand-drawn art. The game relies on you to visualise events which are currently transpiring, in the manner of a human dungeon master.

And, like a dungeon master, Deadfire affords you an absurd amount of freedom; from the multitude of character and skill options through to the vast and open archipelago it takes place in. True, the story that unfolds is a wonderfully unsettling one; leaving you wondering just how you’re going to combat a god. Or, indeed, whether you should, since the deity you’re pursuing is far from malevolent. True to form, developer Obsidian has crafted a tale that takes in the consequences of your actions yet doesn’t label your decisions as right or wrong. But you’re entirely free to disregard the main storyline and roam the high seas, dispatching pirates or, should you so desire, plundering merchant vessels.

A pirate’s life for me

Far from being an afterthought, Deadfire‘s naval combat and exploration system is pleasingly robust. Its ship-to-ship combat may not have the visual flair of Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag or Sea of Thieves, but out-manoeuvring and dispatching your foes is nevertheless hugely satisfying. As is discovering an out-of-the way shipwreck and salvaging enough food to stop your crew from murdering you because you were idiotic enough to forget about supplies.

It’s suprisingly easy to get distracted by Deadfire‘s seafaring aspects, to the point where you neglect the main plot. Though, to be fair, that’s an issue that affects many an open-world game and it doesn’t damage the game’s appeal. The ancient god you’re pursuing certainly seems happy to hang around until you’ve finished piling up pirate corpses, polite and patient chap that he is.

Less well-mannered are the enemies, human and otherwise, who seek to divorce your head from your shoulders. I’m pleased to report that, on normal difficulty, the game doesn’t coddle you. It’s entirely possible to walk into a particular area and discover that you’re hopelessly outclassed. There’s none of this nonsense where NPCs and other foes are, at best, two levels above or below you, where you wander into a town and witness NPCs in titanium armour punching out a minotaur. Helpfully, Deadfire indicates which areas contains enemies that will turn you into a small, red smear. Three blazing red skulls above a location is generally not a good sign, but it’s your funeral if you want to take them on.

Deadfire‘s a sure fire

Deadfire‘s combat is a joy, even when you have decided to punch above your weight. True, you can shove your characters into a fight and rely on their (optional) AI to choose the appropriate spells or weapons to use. But knuckling down and taking a more hands-on role pays dividends. As someone who usually employs the former approach, it’s to Deadfire‘s credit that I got sucked into its minutiae; micromanaging my diverse range of characters based on which enemies they were facing, pausing the game to change positions mid-battle and so on. And though the game sports the traditional character classes, rogue, mage etc., technology has advanced enough that you have access to pistols. This, coupled with the fact you’re roaming the lawless frontier makes Deadfire feel like some sort of pirate/western mash-up.

Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire is not for everyone. It’s more accessible than many other hardcore RPGs but requires a reasonable time investment to get the most of it. And while the game’s tendency to describe rather than show events generally works in its favour, there are occasional times that that you’ll wish you were witnessing a cutscene, rather than listening to an admittedly detailed description of the event.

But give the game a few hours, and you’ll find yourself sucked into its damp, wonderful, varied world. Even if you haven’t played the first Pillars of Eternity. Carefully crafted and complex, but never offensively so, Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire will satisfy even the most demanding role-playing gamer.

Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire is available on PC.