Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire gets everything right. Classic games earn a measure of veneration over time that makes calling anything recent worthy of their legacy seem heretical, almost, but Deadfire is most certainly in the same tier as games like Baldur’s Gate, Planescape: Torment or Icewind Dale, if not even better. Pillars of Eternity 2 works well both as a sequel, and on its own. The game excels in writing, presentation and gameplay, and finding fault with it is quite the challenge.
But let’s take a look at things one by one. Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire picks up about 5 years after the end of Pillars of Eternity. The Watcher, the protagonist of the previous game, is enjoying a relatively calm and quiet life in the fortress of Caed Nua after their adventures, with most of the companions from the previous game having moved on to their own adventures and lives (provided they survived). This setup allows Deadfire to reference the events of the first game and incorporate callbacks to your decisions provided you import a save, but the fact that the two storylines are not directly related allow people who haven’t played Pillars to enjoy Deadfire (though, you really ought to play Pillars of Eternity. It’s fantastic).
Deadfire begins with the dead god Eothas reincarnating inside that massive Adra statue under your keep, clambering out of the soil and hoovering up every soul in his proximity, mortally wounding the Watcher in the process. Having served the gods in the previous game, the Watcher’s soul is given the chance by Berath, god of life and death, to return to a healthy body provided they agree to track down Eothas and find out what he’s up to. In a cute move from Obsidian, you can refuse and die.
You walk through Eora's version of the purgatory before meeting Berath
If you don’t, however, you have a vast game ahead of you. The titular Deadfire Archipelago is where the majority of the game is set, and players can explore it in a more open manner than the Dyrwood of the previous title. The first island visited by the Watcher and his motley crew is tailored to be an introduction to all the various systems and mechanics in Deadfire. When on solid ground, you see a map with abstractions of points of interest. You move around in real time, and can interact with locations or objectives that don’t load you into an area, but rather handles these encounters in text. When loaded into areas, the game is much like Pillars of Eternity was.
Something Deadfire also establishes early on is the feel and current cultural dynamics of the game’s setting. Inspirational elements are drawn from colonialism in the West Indies, India and Polynesia, with the local cultures being very clearly based on the latter, primarily Maori (something that made me especially happy). In the Deadfire Archipelago, the locals are still the superior power, with the Vailian and Aedyran settlers being fewer in number and weaker in terms of military, and the groups are largely at peace.
Neketaka is the game's largest city
As you travel across the islands, you’ll encounter areas which block off larger regions on the given landmass. These usually have their own, contained little side-stories that you need to deal with in one way or other to proceed. Based on your class, stats, party composition and items at your disposal, different options become available to you. Maybe a group of tribalistic Xaurips are presenting an offering to a dragon, allowing you to either attack or try to sneak past. Maybe there is a cliff you need to scale, and you can either try an Athletics check, or use a grappling hook. Wizards can distract attackers lying in wait with dazzling lights, Ciphers can scout ahead with mental abilities and rangers can tame wild animals that stalk you.
This is the view from which you'll traverse the world map
These little encounters could have become a nuisance or needless padding, but they’re some of the most memorable parts of the game and are definitely worth your time. I don’t want to spoil many of them, as they’re best experienced not knowing what to expect, but one of the first ones is a great example - in a forest pass, your party will encounter an old Druid, who lives in the company of 4 wild boars whom he refers to as his friends. Not too fond of outsiders, he softens a bit if you compliment his boars, something Edér also approves of.
Speaking of, another thing Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire changes over its predecessor beyond exploration is party dynamics. Firstly, the party size has been reduced from 6 to 5, which is something I thought would be a step back, but in practice works to the game’s favor in terms of combat (more on that later). Pillars also didn’t have any kind of reputation system with your followers. If you did something they didn’t approve of, they may interject some comment on the matter, but it didn’t alter your overall standing with them.
Crewmembers aren't as developed as companions, but bring their own personalities to your ship's deck
In Deadfire, you have a complex reputation mechanic that tracks how each and every decision you make aligns with the values of your companions, and even throwaway comments in discussions may increase or decrease your reputation with them. If you consistently do things that piss your party members off, they may outright quit, or even turn on you. One particularly tough egg to juggle is Edér, who has been following the Watcher for a very long time. Edér is an Eothasian believer, and since Eothas serves as an antagonist in this game, that results in some …interesting and tense situations.
Eothas and Berath aren’t the only two gods you’ll tangle with during the storyline. Since the Watcher got themselves rather thoroughly embroiled in godly matters, the entire pantheon of Eora is keen on assaulting your senses with various visions during your travels. Something that I particularly enjoy about these conversations you have with actual, literal gods, is that you can tell them repeatedly to piss off, and tell them that what they’re saying is bullshit. I played in such a way that my character was going out of his way to be flippant every time I spoke with one of the gods, and this resulted in some of the best dialogue I’ve seen in a video game since Broken Sword was released in 1996.
Kinda like how Commander Shepard signs in with the Council after every mission in Mass Effect, but with gods.
Since this is Obsidian we’re speaking about, it will surprise no one that the writing is magnificent. There is this general consensus that what counts as good writing in games would only count as passable in any other medium, and while largely correct, the writing in Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire is good. Not game good, but actual good. The notable shift in style and tone between dialogue and narration works well to strike a balance between believable speech and vivid descriptions. Since the rather rigid format of RPG conversations can often result in what feels like artificial dialogue, it’s particularly impressive just how natural all verbal exchanges feel in the game. At the same time, when the narrator is describing locations, event, visions or even feelings, the colourful vocabulary and absolutely beautiful use of words and structure make reading and listening to this game pure joy.
There is something particular cathartic about being the servant of a god hunting another god, and going through this adventure while simultaneously using this to your advantage while giving your “employer” a hard time. Depending on what kind of character you play as, you can freak out bullying dock guards with the souls of the dead, and traipse around the archipelago telling people that you’re tracking a rogue god who is inhabiting a giant Adra statue in the glibbest way possible.
As opposed to the previous game, Deadfire is also fully voice-acted. In games, we usually only make note of the quality of voice acting when it is so bad that it cannot be ignored. Deadfire is a merry exception, where the voice acting is of such a notably high quality that it struck me as praiseworthy. The fantastic script coupled with the great acting makes Deadfire a prime example of classy and polished presentation in terms of storytelling.
Combat is mostly the same, but more responsive and feels like it flows better. The real-time with pause system can be tweaked with the same measure of depth as in Pillars of Eternity, meaning you can alter an extremely wide range of variables that govern when the game auto-pauses. In terms of mechanics, combat isn’t changed in any significant way, just tweaked. There is better AI, more automatic spell usage, better balance, and so on. In practical terms, the reduction of the party size by one down to five characters helps encounters be more focused and concise. The developers stated that this configuration makes micromanagement more… well, manageable, and they were right. Combat encounters are shorter but more dynamic, even if you’re the kind of player who pauses everytime someone plans to draw a breath.
Each character also now has the ability to use “Empower” once every encounter. This can be used to either buff said character, or buff one of their abilities. This adds a tactical twist to the game when particularly difficult enemies are encountered - slap them with empowered abilities right off the bat for a strong start, or hoard the empower charges for the tail end of the fight to get you out of a tough spot should the enemy gain the upper hand?
The biggest change to combat, however, is multiclassing. Both the Watcher and their companions can now be hybrids of two classes, and all possible combinations have their own names. My character was the mix of a Rogue and Cipher called “Mindhunter” while Edér was the cross between a Fighter and Rogue called Swashbuckler. Upon recruiting new companions, the player is given the choice between two individual classes that canonically fit that character, or a third option of the multiclass mix of those two.
Multiclass characters cannot access the final tier of abilities for either classes that form theirs, and while single-class characters sometimes get 2 ability points per level, multiclass characters only get one, or one per class, somewhat restricting progression - for balance purposes. Multiclassing brings a whole new layer of replayability to the game, because so many interesting combinations are available, and once you’ve reached the higher levels, combat gets really interesting with all the combos you can pull off.
If turn-based naval battles aren't your thing, you can always just board the enemy ship
Additionally, there is a naval combat mechanic in the game. This isn’t done real-time, but rather conducted in a turn-based, abstracted manner. Ship-to-ship encounters play out as a tactical to-and-fro, giving you the options of sailing ahead at various speeds, making turns, ramming the enemy, firing cannons or boarding their ship. Marauding pirates serve as progression-limiters, forcing you to stay out of certain areas of the world map until you’ve sufficiently upgraded your ship. As for your ship, beyond buying bigger and stronger vessels, and upgrading them with better hull, more cannons and various other items, you can customize the name and colours on the fly. The ship replaces the stronghold in the role of your HQ. This is where you can recuperate, rest, store items, and this is where those companions who are not on your party spend their time while you’re out adventuring.
My ship, the Lhikan, flew red and gold colors
Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire also excels in presentation. The game looks beautiful, with a great aesthetic style and vibrant colors. The previous game didn’t look bad either, but (partially due to its setting) it was a bit muted, grayish and dull, while every location in Deadfire has a lively, vivid atmosphere. The pristine, blue waters of the Deadfire Archipelago lick sandy shores and cliffs with beautiful textures, stones jut out of the sea covered in coral, pillars of luminous Adra shine and gleam, and the characters wade through knee-deep water with unique animations.
Visually, that colonial and Polynesian influence is felt full-on. The small town of Port Maje which the player visits early on looks like it was lifted from the Caribbean when Spanish and English settlements first started springing up. On the flipside, the grand city of Neketaka shows what a huge city built by the local Aumaua looks like. Bigger than Defiance Bay, Neketaka is one of the most unique cities in an RPG, and you can spend hours exploring its various districts. Deadfire is also more memorable on the musical side. Pillars of Eternity had a fantastic and very memorable main theme, but the rest of the soundtrack was, though enjoyable, mostly standard fantasy fare. The sequel brought memorable tracks aplenty, enlivening the game’s world further.
Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire achieved something fewer and fewer games have over the years. It made me spend the part of the day I wasn’t playing it wishing I was. It sucks you in, it sticks with you. It’s one of the greatest games in its genre, and a mighty strong contender for Game of the Year.
PILLARS OF ETERNITY II: DEADFIRE VERDICT
Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire is as close to the perfect RPG as one can get. The fantastic setting, grand story, exceptional writing and voice acting, engaging combat all coalesce into an exemplar of its kind. This is the game that sets the bar. This is the game that needs to be aspired to.
TOP GAME MOMENT
Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire is filled with memorable moments, character interactions and quests, and while all of these are worthy of mention, if one particular scene stands out from all the others, it would be the one where, after discussing what to do next with a congregation of gods, the Watcher’s parting words can be “This is bullshit!” before being tossed back into the mortal realm.