A non-trivial amount of my time as a teenager was spent playing Black Isle Studios RPGs. The entry point for many into the Forgotten Realms campaign setting that is the focus of Fifth Edition Dungeons & Dragons, games like Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale remain important industry touchstones. The foundations they laid for creating complex narratives and engaging characters in gaming are part of the industry’s bedrock today. The Enhanced Editions released by Beamdog Software have been wonderful for a touch of nostalgia, but I’ve played them all before. I wanted more, something new. That’s where developer Obsidian came in, building a spiritual successor to those classic titles in Pillars of Eternity. A great success in its own right, a faithful recapturing of what made the Black Isle-era titles great, Obsidian now looks to take the series in a direction that is almost entirely their own in Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire.
Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire sees your character, a Watcher, awaken half-dead in the spirit world, faced with mercurial gods who are trying to rope in one of their own. Eothas, the god of light and rebirth, long thought dead, has resurfaced directly beneath the player’s stronghold of Caed Nua. The stronghold destroyed and almost all within it killed, Eothas begins an arduous march across the world of Eora. The gods charge your with discovering what has awakened Eothas and why he’s on a destruction pilgrimage in exchange for saving your life. Your character tracks the lumbering god to the Deadfire Archipelago and begins their investigation.
Those of you who’ve been playing the most recent Dungeons & Dragons adventure book, Tomb of Annihilation, will likely find quite a bit that feels familiar about Pillars of Eternity II. The Deadfire Archipelago, comprised as it is of many jungle-covered islands full of islander inhabitants and treacherous pirates, forcibly reminded me of Chult. This makes sense. Obsidian are no strangers to Dungeons & Dragons, having built Neverwinter Nights 2 for Atari following Bioware’s decision to focus on their own original IP rather than further tie-ins to known brands.
While the game plays very much in the style of Black Isle RPG’s in an isometric POV, the genre has never felt smoother or more refined. Some of the old traditions still hold true — you still have to click on character’s feet to talk to them which is far more annoying in practice than it sounds, and interactable NPC’s often get crowded out by your large five-person party — but these long-time niggles are a small price to pay for a package as good as this.
Combat can be paused by hitting the spacebar, allowing you micromanage your party’s movements and attacks without worrying about ongoing damage while you make up your mind. Level ups are conducted in the style of games based on 3e and 3.5e D&D: two upgrade points, one for increasing a single base stat and one for increasing a particular skill, and then another point to be spent in the active or passive combat ability trees. Between the many members of your party, clever leveling should allow you to cover just about every skill tree. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can even multiclass your own character or any member of your party to better cover any skill gaps you might be finding in your lineup — it’s not recommended for inexperienced players but if you’ve ever played a tabletop RPG for any length of time then you’re likely well versed in multiclassing.
Character skills come into play while you’re exploring the many islands in the Deadfire — lock picking chests, sneaking past guards at night — but also during conversations and scripted sequences. Having a high perception might alert you to nearby traps while a high mechanics stat will allow you to disarm them. A high enough insight will allow you to get an automatic read on a person you’re talking to and open up new dialogue options. Further dialogue and action choices are tied to things like your character’s background — where they grew up, what career they took on prior to becoming an adventure, meaning they can speak on things with which they’d be familiar with authority. From time to time, the game will run its version of a cutscene, a storybook read-aloud that paints a picture of the scene before asking you what you’d like to do. Say your options are to make an athletics check to climb aboard a ship wrecked upon a shore line, the game will (much in the manner of a real dungeon master) roll the dice behind the scenes to see if you succeed or fail and then read you the result before sending you on your way.
One of the game’s other new mechanical facets is your ship. At the beginning of the game, your party roams the high seas aboard a ship called The Defiant and you can outfit your ship with cannons, a crew, supplies and even new sails if you thinks she’s in need of fresh duds. Sailing the Deadfire consumes resources, some of which keep your crew happy and some of which make them miserable. Let crew morale fall too low and you may wind up with a mutiny on your hands.
Hiring a crew presents its own hurdles. Experienced sailors charge far more for their services than inexperienced ones, but they may have a worse temperament than someone who is less stellar at their job. You’ll also need to pay your crew their daily allotment of gold so you’ll have to make sure you always have funds to spare in addition to resources if you plan to make a particularly long voyage. Run out of either, find yourself in ship-to-ship combat and you might find yourself getting overrun with little help from the crew.
Having worked with Bioware on NWN 2 and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II, Obsidian are no strangers to crafting complex, character-driven narratives. With Deadfire, Obsidian have built a campaign that operates both on a grand scale and at actual size, all while taking wide-ranging player choices and motives into consideration. Deadfire hauls you in from the jump, keeping your interest at a boil with solid story hooks and extremely sharp character work. The story and characters are further enhanced by wonderful performances from numerous high profile voice actors thanks to a partnership with the cast of wildly popular D&D live stream Critical Role.
Ashley Johnson (The Last of Us, Blindspot) is equal parts narrator and dungeon master, softly intoning much of the game’s flavour text in the style of an audio book. Matthew Mercer (Overwatch), Laura Bailey (Uncharted: The Lost Legacy), Liam O’Brien (World of Warcraft), Taliesin Jaffe (Injustice 2), Marisha Ray (Metal Gear Survive), Travis Willingham (Middle-earth: Shadow of War) and Sam Riegel (Ratchet & Clank) all bring their considerable collective VO pedigree to the game playing central party characters, in-world NPC’s and even their own D&D characters from Critical Role.
I keep harping on presentation but there’s so much good work being done here. Visually, the game is a feast. Deadfire looks exactly the way I remember Baldur’s Gate II looking in my memories — a tiny, top down window on somewhere that felt lived in. The sea is a gorgeous tropical blue, the islands are lush green, heavily overgrown landscapes, the dungeons are suitably grimy and dank and the game does some really lovely things with baked-in lighting. Character models are detailed enough that you can tell them apart when the party is moving as a pack, and your character creation options are reasonably wide-ranging. In keeping with grand Black Isle RPG tradition, I couldn’t find a portrait that was a match for my character. Like, not even close. Your choices are either Way Off or Literally A Different Species. I can’t hold this against the game though, it wouldn’t be an RPG of this kind if my portrait wasn’t tantamount to a fake ID.
Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire is the kind of RPG that doesn’t come around very often any more, and not because its a throwback to games from 20 years ago. It spins a vast, complex, character-driven yarn and updates its aged foundations in ways that are both modern and extremely smart. It is an act of RPG plate spinning usually only achieved by Bioware at their best. Obsidian have a lot to be proud of here. I can’t wait to play it again. I can’t wait for the DLC expansions. Happy thank you more please.
Score: 9.5 out of 10
Highlights: Sprawling, engaging story; Cleverly updates an aged genre; Wonderful presentation
Lowlights: Mild annoyances like clicking on NPC feet to talk to them persist from the old days
Developer: Obsidian Entertainment
Publisher: Versus Evil
Platforms: Windows PC, Mac OS X, Linux