Pillars of Eternity was something of a herald for the second golden age of classic computer role-playing games. It was an inspiration, and was quickly followed by games like Torment: Tides of Numenera and Tyranny, and plenty more have filled in the gaps since then. And that's before we even get to the reboots and re-issues of some of the genre's aging classics like Baldur's Gate.
All of this is to say that the standards have shifted quite a bit since Pillars of Eternity released in 2015. It's remarkable, then, that Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire not only keeps pace with its contemporaries, but brings its own vitality and character that sets it apart from a genre that has been feeling a bit crowded of late.
Deadfire is a direct sequel to Pillars of Eternity, but you don't need to have played the first game, as you'll get solid recaps as well as the ability to make some general choices that will affect how Deadfire plays. That said, having a familiarity with the characters and world greatly adds to the game's overall appeal. These folks have aged, wizened, and grizzled a bit in the pirate-infested Deadfire Archipelago--the expansive, maritime stage on which our adventure is set. One old friend has taken to smoking a pipe, for instance, growing a bit more lax and observational, punctuating thoughts and commentary with tokes to help process his thoughts.
For the most part, character progression and the nuts and bolts of play work just as they did before. Character creation is deep and complex, designed to mimic the process of mapping out a character in a tabletop RPG. From there, you play a half real-time, half turn-based adventure, with exploration done in the former style and combat in the latter. If you’ve played just about any of the iconic CRPGs of the last 20 years, you’ll be immediately familiar with the basics in Deadfire.
On top of that, though, Deadfire blows out everything from its predecessor. There’s more of anything you can think of--more options for character setup, more classes and skills, more specialization, more items, and more levels. You can also explore open waters on a ship that you manage, from crew to cannon. In much the same way that an advanced player’s guide adds fundamental upgrades to the way a tabletop RPG works, Deadfire is bigger, but also deeper. New character sub-classes and the ability to multi-class your character will allow you to refine your options in combat or play more nuanced roles.
That said, the real value of Deadfire is how its setting tees up new stories and tales of exploration and adventure. The Archipelago has been settled throughout, but plenty of islands still contain ancient secrets and eldritch horrors. Moreover, the rough-and-tumble atmosphere demands sturdy defenses and plenty of able bodies to maintain your new ship. Life on the seas is brutal, and your first major craft will barely have the gear needed to survive even minor engagements. Kitting out your mobile base of operations becomes another major focus, and you'll always have to worry when another ship comes into view.
Your ultimate goal is track down Eothas, a god who has possessed a stone colossus. Mysteriously, your spirit and life force is tied to the god, and only by chasing him to the archipelago were your companions able to keep you alive. Now you must set out and figure out how all this happened and why, while trailing Eothas. This works particularly well as a means of pacing out the journey and developing a strong throughline of adventure.
So you set out for whatever towns and islands you can spot, and build from there. At this stage, curiosity is a virtue. Questions and probes yield small, intimate stories and clues for tracking down the big bad alike. These arcs build out the texture of the world and offer some of the most beautiful moments in the game. Plus, having extra gear and experience can only add to your proficiency in the game’s main thrust. How and when you engage with the world is up to you, but you'll be partially limited by the capabilities of your ship and the information you've gathered.
Deadfire's characters are bright and nuanced, and their descriptions weave personality into the simplest interactions.
Ship combat, perhaps the single largest mechanical addition in Deadfire, is well constructed. Bouts are turn-based and will be determined by everything from the abilities and experience of the crew you've gathered, to the tactical choices you make. These largely center on positioning, which is important to keep in mind when attacking or defending. Most vessels will have a few different types of guns, so you'll be working on closing or creating distance and repositioning so you can get the best shots off at the right times. Boarding, of course, also plays a huge role, but that works more or less the same as any other battle on land.
All of this, too, feeds into systems that impact how successful you are at general pirating. Your crew's morale will need to be kept high, for instance, or you could run the risk of a mutiny. While that could have been little more than set-dressing, Deadfire pulls those threads into the rest of the game--primarily through its art and writing.
Rich, detailed prose focuses on setting the scene and building an atmosphere. Deadfire's characters are bright and nuanced, and their descriptions weave personality into the simplest interactions. All of this makes for an enriching read--if you've got the patience for it. Like the first game, the writing is phenomenal overall, but some sections can be unnecessarily verbose, and that can occasionally strike as a weakness. But, more often than not, vivid text is a means to help you escape to this fantastical world. Thankfully, though, it's not the only trick Deadfire's got.
While the isometric view is a bit of a throwback, the art and visual detail of the world stands abreast with the writing as one of the adventure's strongest points. Not only is this a visual feast, mostly because of its imaginative settings and application of the arcane, but its direction is poignant and gripping. The seaside shacks and exotic, otherworldly creatures are a stark departure of the classical fantasy setting of the previous entry's Dyrwood. The cliched stylings of Caed Nua castle give way to Treasure Island, with all the monsters and magic of DnD. In other words, this is more a fantasy adventure in a pirate-y tone than the other way around. And that works just fine--keeping enough of the original appeal intact while folding in sharp new ideas and ambiance.
Deadfire is dense, and it isn't a small game, easily dwarfing its predecessor in terms of scale. There's a lot to do, and it's easier than ever to get lost in the little stories you find, without following the arcs that the game has specially set out for you. Still, it's worth taking your time. The richness of Deadfire takes a while to appreciate, and like the brined sailors that call it home, you'll be left with an indelible attachment to these islands when you do finally step away.