Visit our sponsors! (or click here and disable ads)
RPG Codex Review: Pillars of Eternity II - It's Pretty Alright
Review - posted by Infinitron on Sat 25 August 2018, 01:37:48Tags: Obsidian Entertainment; Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire
[Review by Darth Roxor]
Josh Sawyer's about to make you his powder monkey
Three years after their previous masterpiece, Obsidian Entertainment return to entertain us with its sequel – Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire. Similarly to the first game, Deadfire was preceded by a successful crowdfunding campaign, albeit this time not on Kickstarter but on Fig, promising Infinity Engine-style adventures and many layers of deep lore in the magical, mystical world of Eora.
Or at least that’s what I’d assume it promised because I didn’t follow the development of this game at all, convinced as I was that it would turn out to be the same kind of train wreck as its predecessor. Still, as fate would have it, one day a mysterious stranger would press the game into my hands and order me to play it anyway. And to be honest, I was somewhat curious whether Obsidian would learn from their mistakes and try to improve something in Deadfire, especially since many folks kept claiming that PoE1 was eventually made much better by its expansions, and logic would dictate that these improvements would transfer to the sequel.
Nevertheless, I’ve never bothered with said expansions, and my most recent contact with the series prior to playing Deadfire was PoE version 1.0, so keep in mind that some of the things I highlight as “new” here might actually not be that new at all.
A band on ship
A fair number of changes were introduced to the character system in Deadfire. Some for the better, some for the worse, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
The basic attributes (Might, Dexterity, etc.) remain largely unchanged, except for some tweaks like Perception now giving accuracy bonuses but no bonus deflection or Resolve shortening debuff durations. The accuracy vs defences (deflection, fortitude, reflex, will) mechanics, which determine chances to hit and damage multipliers of everything, are also more or less the same and as dumb as ever.
The only basic character building block that was given a significant rework was health. As you might remember, PoE1 had character vitality split into “Endurance” (which regenerated between all fights and resulted in character KO upon reaching zero) and “Health” (which wouldn’t replenish until rest and whose depletion led to death). Deadfire has a single “Health” stat that, for all intents and purposes, works just like Endurance. It regenerates outside combat and doesn’t kill a character when depleted. Instead, now when a party member is KO’d, he takes a “wound” – which means anything from a minor annoyance to a crippling penalty. If you get four wounds, you die.
More changes become apparent the deeper we head into the character system, starting with skills. Whereas the first game had 5 in total (and they weren’t particularly useful there), Deadfire introduces 14 skills and splits them into two categories, 7 in each. The first group, “active skills”, encompasses things that have an apparent day-to-day use, like mechanics for locks and traps, sleight of hand for pickpocketing or arcana for using spell scrolls. The other are passive skills useful only in dialogues or text adventures, like diplomacy, history or survival. At each level-up, you can increase one skill from each category. Skills and their use in Deadfire is overall a huge improvement compared to PoE1, but I’ll get to that in relevant later chapters.
Leaving numbers aside, let’s inspect how Deadfire handles character classes and the impact they have on overall gameplay, because there is much to say here. To start with the positives, you can now pick “specialisations” for your dudes, which set them apart from generic fighters or rogues. For example, a ranger can now be a Sharpshooter glass cannon, a Ghost Heart with a spirit animal instead of a living one or a Stalker bunny thumper focused on close combat in tandem with his pet. Further, you can also multiclass your character in Deadfire, picking two classes at the start and getting access to the abilities of both as you level up, but with the caveat being that you get higher-level abilities of each much later than normal, and also never get access to the top ability tiers. You can also multiclass specialisations (although obviously not within the same class), which can lead to some fun mixing and matching in getting yourself a good munchkin. The expanded class picks and mixes are a welcome addition that make character generation and party planning a bit more involved, and which make possible party compositions much more plastic and varied.
Lots of additions have been applied to character talents and spellcasting too, and here things start to get shaky. In Deadfire, each class (and each specialisation) has a unique talent tree, divided into extensive tiers that get gradually unlocked as your character improves, with relatively few “generic” options shared among multiple classes. You can pick a talent at each level-up, and at some level-ups you even get to pick two. Unfortunately, this means that given the number of talents available, and how many you can choose, the talents have gone from one extreme to another. In PoE1 they were boring and underwhelming. Meanwhile here they are a gallery of awesome buttons that turn each character into a quasi-wizard that throws not-spells left and right. It’s a stupid, modern school of MMO-inspired pseudo-RPG design that I personally loathe, and which was also present for example in Divinity: Original Sin 2. The sooner this thing finally goes away, the better, although I’m not really holding my breath for that.
Even worse, Deadfire has thrown all pretences of Vancian spellcasting and resource management out the window. For non-spellcasters, each character has a pool of “ability points” to spend on active awesome buttons in each encounter as he sees fit, with each ability having its own cost (for example, the paladin resource is “zeal”, and it costs 1 zeal to heal a guy with lay on hands or 4 to revive him in combat). The pools recharge automatically after every fight, so you can spam your bestest abilities all the time with little concern. Spellcasters are not very different – instead of ability points they are limited by how many spells of a given tier they can cast in a single fight. These of course recharge between encounters too, so feel free to nuke everything with chain lightning in every fight and try to ignore the lingering questions in the back of your head concerning the complete uselessness of over half your spellbook.
The removal of resource management also rears its ugly head when it comes to the wounds that characters take upon KO. All wounds, no matter their severity, can be removed by resting for 8 hours and using whatever food you have in your inventory, which translates into healing skull fractures and PTSD by munching on some oranges. Plus, resting is unlimited both in terms of availability (no camping supplies are necessary to rest) and scope (you can always rest anywhere), so the wound mechanic is kind of pointless in practice.
I’m not sure what to think of all this, to be honest. Ultimately, I’d say it’s a net improvement over the first game, but I still wouldn’t call it very good. On the one hand, there is much more room for customisation in Deadfire, and the characters definitely feel more distinct from each other, but on the other, it’s just so very… mindless, for the lack of a better word. For almost each improvement, there’s also a step back. Expanded talents are nice to have, but do they really have to feel so powerful and cheesy? Getting rid of dual-health and limited camping supplies is definitely good, since they used to be nothing more than an inconvenience, while the wounds on knock-out are a great idea in principle, but the ease with which they can be removed almost invalidates their existence. If a careful balance was struck and maintained between the availability of resting and the ability pools for characters, you could do something interesting with the system. But as it is now, long-term planning or temperance in ability use is neither required nor recommended, and once your Awesome stuff becomes your bread and butter, it stops being fun.
You could say it’s yet another facet of the eternal conundrum of “rest spamming” in RPGs, and Deadfire applies a rather clumsy razor to “solve” this conundrum, by essentially making every character a passive rest spammer. This makes me sad for two reasons. First is general, in that there are numerous ways in which you can contain the power of resting, and Deadfire’s nature as an open-world RPG would probably make it easier to apply them effectively. Resting can be restricted or penalised based on context, resting in the field can offer diminishing returns, quests and their objectives can have time limits – the best that this game offers in this regard are long-term buffs from food/blessings that go away after a rest, but they aren’t big enough to care about their expiring. Secondly, I feel that Deadfire’s “solution” drags the entire game down a lot, and if it were not for it, the character system and gameplay elements arising from it would be at least solid.
Moving on, let us say a few things about itemisation. Weapons come in a variety of types and sizes, from daggers to poleaxes, each of which has its own application and quirk, such as damage spread, attack speed or damage type. Armour is the same old, where higher damage reduction means slower recovery time between actions, and armour suits of the same “tier” (so like various kinds of leather that have the same base armour rating and recovery penalty) are only differentiated by lower ratings against two specific damage types (like crushing and acid), which doesn’t matter that much.
Some new things here include weapon proficiencies and armour penetration. Proficiencies are weapon specialisations that you can pick at certain levels, and which unlock special attack modes for your stuff (e.g. increasing damage at the cost of attack speed, etc.). Penetration meanwhile is an inherent weapon (or spell) stat that adjusts damage done. The way it works is that it compares your penetration to enemy armour rating – 1:1 means full damage, every penetration point below drops the damage by 25% (to a maximum of -75%), while penetration twice higher than armour gives a 30% bonus. These are ok ideas, but they don’t translate into much in practice – just that you’d be wise to carry two different weapon sets around and swap them as necessary in combat should you encounter something too highly armoured, optionally popping a special attack mode if required. Though that may change if you’re playing on the highest difficulty with additional number scaling switched on, which can make some enemy armour ratings rise very high (some argue too high, but I can’t speak from experience myself).
At least the magic/special items are a big improvement compared to the first game. Unique items now feel like actual artefacts, with their own exclusive properties, some of which can be very interesting or powerful, or upgraded even further for additional functionalities. Unfortunately, they lost a lot of their relative “oomph” and uniqueness when the autist-in-chief struck and decided to nerf everything across the board in the first major Deadfire patch. This encompassed cutting most item abilities by half (including both the chance to trigger and the power of effects), some of them even more, no matter whether they were garbage things that nobody would ever use, gear that companions start with (!!!) or stuff you get from tough endgame boss fights. It only leads me to believe that nobody had absolutely any idea what they were doing when statting those items in the first place, and given the nature of the nerfs, they have no idea what they are doing still, so instead they are applying things at random and hoping they stick.
Also speaking of magic items, I hope you like swords (and other sword-like appliances) because you’ll be getting a lot of them. I also hope you dislike most other weapon types because you’ll be getting very few of them in comparison – case in point, there are only two unique pikes in the entire game, and they’re not even very good, while a unique sabre or sword can be found around every corner. Although to the game’s defence, weapon proficiencies and limitations matter little enough that swapping Your Favourite Hammer to unique sword #39 doesn’t result in any major mechanical disadvantages.
Concerning general party structure, it’s worth mentioning that the overall party size is decreased from 6 to 5 dudes. A new kind of follower was added too. Like PoE1, Deadfire offers full-blown companions with dialogues and personal quests as well as adventurers that you can generate yourself, but what this game adds are “sidekicks” – premade companions with very basic voicing, some quips… and that’s about it. They have neither quests nor a lot in terms of dialogue (which you’ll be glad about, but more on that later).
Also, you have a bit more say in shaping the companions’ charsheets in Deadfire, since they don’t have fixed classes. Upon recruiting, you can pick 2 pre-set classes for your companions, or multiclass them within the two – for example, Eder can be a fighter, a rogue, or a swashbuckler (fighter/rogue). They are also scaled to your level upon recruitment, and you can assign their talents and skills from level 1 as you see fit. All this ties in nicely with the generally expanded character variety.
Finally, it should probably be mentioned that you can import your endgame save from PoE1 into Deadfire. This mostly results in a bunch of cameos or unique dialogue lines referencing the first game, but I never noticed anything major that would arise from this. Though it might be because my import from PoE v1.0 was terribly bugged, and I kept getting reactions regarding things I’ve never done, including events from the expansions, which I’ve never played.
Jenkins, man the batteries
The combat in PoE1 wasn’t very good. It was chaotic, unreadable, mechanically questionable, too easy and, most importantly, boring as hell. Has Deadfire done something to improve this? Yes. And no.
It still remains very frantic, primarily due to the rampant proliferation of awesome buttons. As you might have guessed, the increase in the number of active abilities for player characters is also true for enemies, so most fights devolve into everything and everyone firing off a dozen auras, area blasts, debuffs and multishots within seconds, although the in-built combat speed slider helps a great ton to contain this chaos. It could just be a bit easier to spot, but I digress.
Melee engagement has a twofold effect on combat confusion in Deadfire, although fortunately its prevalence has been toned down compared to PoE1 (which folks say is a primary thing inherited from later PoE1 patches). Only fighter-types and big scary monsters have access to it by nature, other combatants gain it through active abilities or by wielding shields. Plus, abilities to teleport away or otherwise safely break engagement are more widely available as well. On the one hand, it means that your dudes don’t get hooked to a dozen enemies and go down instantly the moment you missclick and move them a single step. Similarly, enemies aren’t glued for life to your wammos, and their AI routines allow them to break engagement much more often than in the first game. On the other hand, this means yakkety sax chases around the entire map are much more commonplace this time around, which increases the need for micromanagement, but I don’t mind it that much. Whatever makes the fights less static already constitutes a huge improvement in my book.
Meanwhile, the unreadability of Deadfire’s combat is simply off the charts. It retains all the flaws of its predecessor – mainly overlapping flashy effects that all look the same – and then ups the ante. As mentioned above, there are now generally more effects going off in all fights, and they all meld into an incomprehensible blob of colours. Second, status effect icons next to character portraits are microscopic and simply impossible to read without inspecting their pop-up tooltips. Third, effects applied to enemies that are listed in their stat tables can’t be inspected. Fourth, now every status effect applied in combat briefly shows its name on the screen, white for positive, red for negative. These names don’t remain on the screen when paused, so when everyone activates his awesome buttons, you have a split second to glean some sense from the “BUFF BUFF DEBUFF BUFF DEBUFF DEBUFF DEBUFF BUFF” that floods your screen.
Fifth, and this is a big thing, status effects have been reorganised into a system of tiered and mutually-exclusive “inspirations” (positive) and “afflictions” (negative). Each statistic has a list of three increasingly potent inspirations and afflictions assigned to it – for example, for Perception that would be insightful/aware/intuitive and distracted/disoriented/blinded. Inspirations cancel afflictions and grant immunity to them – so applying insightful to a character would also remove blinded and block any other Perception debuff for a time.
This doesn’t seem bad on paper, especially since inspirations act as secondary effects to numerous spells and abilities, removing the need for buff spells dedicated solely against one type of effect (like protection against fear). Also, many of the afflictions, especially the top tier ones, are properly dangerous, meaning that a stun is a stun, while mind control on a buffed fighter can wreck your backline within moments.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t all translate that well into practice. Mainly because there are so many status effects assigned to so many abilities and so many different enemies, trying to keep up with them is an exercise in futility, especially when combined with the general unreadability of the game. This is a big shame actually, because the way effects can counter one another introduces a lot of mechanical complexity that is wasted on the RTWP pandemonium. The entire mechanic, or at least the way it’s utilised in Deadfire, requires a ton of micro-management that I simply can’t be bothered to muster, and I say that as someone who plays RTSes in multiplayer. To make real use of the status effect system in Deadfire, you’d have to spend so much time paused, checking every combatant for his inspirations/afflictions, and then reminding yourself which of your four dozen abilities applied what, you’d die of old age. If the game were turn-based, or at least much less chaotic, this could potentially be a very cool mechanic. As it stands, however, it’s only a hassle.
Fortunately (?) the game is easy enough that you don’t have to bother too much with this hassle, and you can instead fire off random buff-like abilities and hope for the best. Usually it works just fine.
So let’s talk difficulty and general encounter design. The good news is that Deadfire handles these rather well for a while. For starters, due to the game’s very open nature, you can often run into enemies that outlevel you and places where you don’t belong. Trying to tackle them and winning or running away after your face is repeatedly bashed in is admittedly pretty fun. Especially since the fights now feel like something hand-placed and designed rather than generated randomly from monster tables, whether it’s an angry crusading construct surrounded by Magranite fanatics or a death pit full of various kinds of ghouls that keep spawning all around you.
Further, enemies have actual weaknesses and immunities going beyond numerical values. Foes like skellingtons are immune to piercing damage, dryads (sorry, pwgra) are resistant to agility afflictions (meaning they are always reduced by 1 tier) while not-Polynesian ettins (sorry, eoten) are weak to intellect afflictions (so they are increased by 1 tier). I mean, this sounds like common sense and RPG 101, but I’m willing to commend Obsidian on any improvement over the blandness of PoE1, especially since such simple, tried and tested measures translate into huge differences in gameplay quality.
Also, Deadfire keeps the first game’s idea of not giving out combat xp other than for filling up your bestiary, but due to a number of shifts in basic design principles, this time it actually works. Mostly because, and this is super-important, Deadfire has much fewer trash/unimportant fights, and those that are in can often be avoided. Not to mention that they leave either junk or no loot at all, so avoiding them is not only possible, but also encouraged. You could even say that the trash fights in this game work almost exactly as they should – they are obstacles that punish you for having skills too low to bypass them without exposing yourself to an inconvenience.
However, it’s obviously not all nice and pretty, and there are some considerable flaws that need to be addressed. I think the biggest one that stands to the disadvantage of the otherwise interesting combat encounters is the Streamlined™ character system. That is to say, winning hard fights never feels as rewarding as it should due to the post-fight HP regeneration, per encounter spells, party members being KO’d at zero health and unrestricted resting. Defeating a tough encounter, no matter where you are and what your party is, always just brings you back to square one, which is having all your stuff recharged and ready for the next slaughter. Never do you have to consider going through a series of fights with progressively dwindling resources, or sacrificing one of your assets to win, which is a great shame because, for example, the aforementioned ghoul death pit illustrates it well what Deadfire could have been. Since it’s an extended brawl where the enemies keep coming, you need to conserve your spell points and use different abilities than usual to win against the swarm, and I’ll be damned if that fight wasn’t exciting thanks to this. Not to mention that the encounter finds you in the middle of a fairly big and interesting dungeon, the exploration of which would have profited from draining your resources.
Furthermore, while the game is technically more difficult than its predecessor, it doesn’t remain challenging for too long. The level cap in Deadfire is 20, and around level 11 you reach a magical turning point where you can faceroll anything in your way, except for a handful of end-game fights, mostly against vampires (sorry, fampyrs). Whether you do that via select all -> left click or party AI settings that play the game for you is your choice, but needless to say neither is particularly exciting.
From what I’ve gathered, the level 11 cut-off for difficulty is universal no matter the difficulty setting too, and these are fairly robust. Apart from the four difficulty settings from easy to path of the damned, you can also activate level scaling either up or down (if you’re a fan of daedric brigands) and toggle various features such as area/encounter difficulty indicators. I played on veteran (hard) so I can’t personally speak for path of the damned, because I’d have to be damned stupid to try it after seeing it in action in PoE1, but various folks’ opinions seem to indicate that PotD only makes a difference for the phase when difficulty still matters, and after that the level 11 cut-off point neuters it just the same.
It’s also important to note that your experience with the game difficulty may vary a lot depending on your playstyle. I mentioned that you can often run into encounters that outlevel you, and that fighting them is fun, but if you’re the kind of guy who will stick to nothing but the path matching your level, or beeline to the first big city and clear it out of all fetch quests and riches before doing anything else, you might be in for a disappointment. It is unfortunately a “flaw” somewhat typical of open-world games, so I don’t really consider it as such, but it nevertheless needs to be mentioned. Still, I appreciate the fact that Obsidian doesn’t restrict the world behind forced level or story gates, and from the two approaches I much prefer Deadfire’s way of letting you step off the beaten path and get wrecked rather than being constantly babysat.
But finally we have the cherry on top. If you hate having to face even a modicum of challenge and the awesome buttons at your disposal are not enough to get you through the night, Obsidian are happy to supply you with the Empower function. Empower can be used once per encounter and a few times per rest by any character to either recharge half its spell and ability points or use one ability as if it were cast by someone 5 levels higher. Typically this means wiping out entire mobs with one empowered fireball.
I recommend not using the Empower function.
Oooh, I’m sailing
Pillars of Eternity II takes us from the generic fantasy countryside of Dyrwood to the somewhat less generic volcanic archipelago of Deadfire. With such a switch of setting, you’d also expect a lot of differences in world exploration and atmosphere, and Deadfire is no exception.
The most significant thing that sets the game apart from its predecessor, and possibly its biggest improvement, is the fact that the world is fully open nearly from the start. After leaving the starter island, you get your own ship and can go island hopping at your leisure around the entire archipelago, sinking landlubbers, looking for trouble and accumulating many shekels from a multitude of points of interest strewn around the overland map.
Unfortunately the whole “sailing” part might be the lamest element of the gameplay, since it’s about as tacked on as the stronghold in PoE1. This time, your ship is the stronghold, and it’s a similarly pointless money sink. You can get crewmembers for it that boost stuff like travel speed or cannon accuracy, but the entire thing pales in comparison to more dedicated naval RPGs like Sea Dogs, where the crewmen were more fleshed out and came with their own ups and downs. And though the dudes in Deadfire also come with a few descriptors, like “pious” or “cautious”, that can give them different quips in text adventures, it doesn’t amount to much.
The ship also comes with a layer of generic management that forces you to buy cannonballs, food and drink etc. to keep the whole enterprise running. Of course, places to stock up on all that are plentiful, so it’s no problem to keep going. Particularly funny here is the “morale” meter for the crew that can go up or down depending on food quality or success at sea, and which can result in mutiny if too low, but I can’t imagine how dumb/terrible at the game you’d have to be to ever get it below 50%.
The crown jewel though are the sea battles. Engaging in combat with another ship starts a text adventure with various commands, like speed adjustments, turning, firing guns, etc. If ships move into direct contact, actual combat begins. Now, the problem is that each of these naval battles plays out identically, and you’ll probably get sick of them after the first three you see. Fortunately, getting big guns and just jibing all the time to fire them in turns is usually enough to send anyone to hell quickly and move on.
Anyway, once you learn to stop paying attention to all the ship-related nonsense and focus on clearing out the fog of war, Deadfire is definitely at its best. The archipelago is huge and has a lot of varied places to check, from native villages and jungles through pirate forts to spooky isles overrun by the undead, and more. As I noted before, the freedom in this game also means you can frequently run into places that are way above your paygrade, which you’ll need to return to later once you’re tougher – this is also why disabling difficulty indicators for all places is mandatory to get the best out of Deadfire, since it lets you get in the correct mood of an explorer stepping into the unknown.
Sometimes, “the unknown” will mean some kind of dungeon. Their sizes differ a lot, from just two or three rooms with angry yokels, to bigger ones that span multiple floors or maps. I wouldn’t say they are anything outstanding design-wise, but similarly to Obsidian’s Storm of Zehir from 10 years ago, they do their job well. They are varied enough to stay fun throughout the game, some of them have multiple points of entry and a bunch of “side” setpieces and points of interest, and a few even contain the odd very light puzzle or secret area, though these are easy to find or get through. One of the best in the game is probably the “undercity” of the Deadfire capital, Neketaka. It's accessible early, which means you’ll probably stumble upon a few hard fights there, it has some quests related to it and it is also rather big.
Every place you go to is also ripe with text adventures, which are another strong part of Deadfire. Whereas in the first game they all used to work like “1. Do things; 2. Use an item to do things; 3. Leave,” this one actually gives them proper depth, freedom of choice and variety of outcomes. Your party skills will be checked very often, with full or partial successes, sometimes you’ll also get checks based on class or background, other times only specific party members can do things, and even dudes who aren’t picked for something remain useful because the skill scores of all characters are tallied as assist bonuses (provided the assisting character is close to the acting one, although the game never really splits your party in a way that would prevent this). Also, I thought the skill/class-specific choices unlocked in the text adventures were very exhaustive, and I rarely felt like there was an option missing that would be obvious to have given my party composition.
Of course one problem here is that failed skill checks usually lead to a party member becoming injured, and the relevance of that is about the same as getting injured in combat. Although in the case of text adventures failing will sometimes result in both an injury and combat start, so I guess at least it matters for a brief span. The same is true for traps placed around some areas, since traps in Deadfire also only apply injuries. If the traps are “alone”, you can just step over them, rest and move on. They can get more interesting if set up within combat encounters, but instances of that are way too rare.
Things start to get a bit less nice when you drift away from exploration and start questing. The size of the world and its settlements, particularly Neketaka, which is an Athkatla-sized main city that takes a ton of time to check out in full, means there are many side quests to tick off. The vast majority of them are unfortunately of the FedEx variety where you go from place A to place B and win, but a few are more expansive and involved. The premises of these quest chains can be interesting, and some are even interconnected, but their execution leaves a lot to be desired, for multiple reasons.
For starters, they look like they give you a bunch of important choices, but from my observations these choices never amount to anything. Fair enough, having done only one playthrough I can’t speak of it with certainty, but over the years I’ve become good at identifying fake choices, and Deadfire checks out on all the criteria. Typically, having done a quest chain you never have to interact with the quest giver or other people related to it again in any way, there’s nobody coming after your ass seeking revenge, nobody gives you any major problems related to your decisions, etc. The only tangible negative consequences I can think of are companions leaving you based on certain decisions.
Much worse though, all the quests more complex than FedEx are terribly, terribly broken. I don’t think I’ve seen a single one that wouldn’t get bugged by going off the rails pre-planned by a designer and doing things in a different order. This includes broken triggers, missing dialogue options, buggy outcomes, anything that you can probably think of except total inability to finish them – at least that didn’t happen to me at any time.
There are various other problems with quests in Deadfire that apply to both minor and major ones, though. Probably the most aggravating is how the quest designers love to waste your time by putting quest-related characters behind numerous loading screens. A typical Deadfire quest will have you go to a district of Neketaka, inside a building and upstairs to talk with a quest giver, then outside again, to another district, another building, upstairs again to read one dialogue, and then back once more to the damn quest giver through all that shit to cash in. Actually, running around to get quest rewards is so painful, it feels like you’re being actively discouraged from doing so – at one point I had so many finished quests I couldn’t be bothered to complete that when I finally did it, I think it took me over an hour and instantly catapulted me from level 15 to 18. Of course, none of them ever have time limits too, which would have worked great to address the problems of resting, but oh well. At least thanks to this, each time you get bored with all the city stuff you can hit the road and return to exploring the overland map, which works as an excellent “safety valve” against boredom.
Still, although the vast (and I mean vast) majority of quests in Deadfire don’t reach beyond moving from point A to B, there are a few examples that at least try to be more ambitious, though in the end they fall kind of flat. Two quests that you will probably hear the most about with regard to this game are Fort Deadlight and the archmage’s manor. That’s because they give you deceptively much freedom in how to tackle them – whether through infiltration or sabotage or slaughter. But my issue with these is that the options are presented to you on a silver platter, and their “freedom” boils down to picking one path from the onset and sticking with it to the end with almost no problems whatsoever.
However, the most insulting of the bunch are probably the companion quests. Each companion has a quest, and I swear they are all the same and equally half-assed. All of them more or less employ the following formula: get quest -> talk to guy 1 somewhere -> talk to guy 2 somewhere else -> kill some dudes in final place, you win. And it only gets worse when you inspect the details, like Pallegina’s quest that ends with a Facebook personality quiz (I wish I was joking). Companions are a disappointment in general, especially since you’d think many of them would have conflicting interests and agenda, but that hardly ever finds its reflection in practice. Even their “dispositions” (i.e. how they’ll react to certain kinds of your actions) aren’t particularly exclusive, so seldom you’ll do something that will simultaneously piss off and please multiple fellows.
The above is true not just of companions however. It’s also true for the main factions in Deadfire, who are in theory in the middle of a huge colonial competition, but that never actually feels like a thing. Though they are certainly better done than in PoE1, the factions here are still nothing more than glorified quest dispensers. The worst part of this is probably that you get conflicting objectives from them very rarely, and even then their reaction to betrayal is typically, “Oh, that sucks. Now, for your next mission…”. They even have reputation trackers, but I’ll be damned if these ever go down, except for minor groups that don’t matter. You can sink their ships en masse, help their enemies, and they’ll still like you enough – they’ll only finally get angry if you really botch all their quests, but then a single [speech] check is enough to get them back to your side anyway. Also, even if you go into negatives with one of those other factions, the consequences are non-existent. By angering the Neketaka underworld, all that did to me was block one street merchant who sold nothing but garbage. What a joke.
However, and this is a big positive, you don’t need to ally yourself with any of the local idiots (let’s just say none of the factions feel particularly bright). Once the Time Is Right™ to make the big choice, you can tell them all to bugger off and sail away to victory by yourself.
But what really is “victory” here? Fasten your seatbelts, for we’ll now discuss the story-related matters of Deadfire, and it’s gonna be a very bumpy ride.
Let’s start with the basic premise. The idea is that Eothas, the dead god of light, has returned to the world (again), having possessed the huge adra titan under the watcher’s stronghold. His awakening resulted in everyone within range having their souls stolen, including the watcher’s (again). Needless to say, having your soul stolen (again) doesn’t really do much in practice (again), and Berath, the god of death, decides to give you a second chance to track Eothas down and see what he’s up to (again) on behalf of the gods. She also puts a not-geas on you, more or less forcing you to go on this wild goose chase lest you be annihilated. You follow Eothas to the Deadfire archipelago, where you follow him… and then follow him… and follow him some more, until you finally have a chat with him and win. Roll credits.
To be honest, it’s pretty amazing just how non-existent the main quest is in Deadfire. You literally just follow Eothas from place to place, as he keeps stomping around stealing people’s souls, and there’s nothing else to it. It only gets dumber when you dive into the details too, because after visiting each Eothas-stomped place, you get Skype calls from the gods, where they bicker and banter like children, and somehow you are expected to care about all this nonsense and ignore the fact that Eothas is the real protagonist of the story, while you’re only there along for the ride. It wouldn’t even be so bad if you could ignore all this stuff by simply not participating in the main storyline (i.e. by sailing around and pillaging), but the game feels the need to rub “Eothas this, Eothas that” in your face terribly often given how short, stupid and non-interactive the thing is.
In fact, the entire “gods” shtick might be the most baffling part of the story when you take the Grand Reveal™ of PoE1 into consideration. PoE1 establishes that the gods are fake/artificial/whatever, meanwhile PoE2 establishes (through the Skype calls) that they are condescending idiots who don’t care about anything other than their own asses. Eothas’s agenda is roughly the same as in PoE1, namely to cut/reduce the influence of the gods on the physical world. And then at the end comes the Big Choice™ of what to do – and I can’t for the life of me imagine why anyone would choose not to side with Eothas. There is just no dilemma here, no downs that would accompany the ups.
The god-oriented main story is even more baffling within the context of the game’s themes and setting. For all intents and purposes, Deadfire is an age of sail colonial squabble, with greedy colonists, oppressed natives and scurvy pirates, but then on top of it there’s the tacked on dump of godly nonsense. What makes this even better is how many people in the game are so crazy about the gods, while you, the Watcher™ (whose chief superpower is still, uh, watching) who knows the truth about them can’t even try to capitalise on this knowledge. My favourite example of that is during an argument between two companions, where the pious Xoti tells you to stop the irreligious Pallegina from mocking her beliefs. Your responses include things like “Pallegina, you should learn to respect her opinions”. I can only laugh when looking at that through the context of the protagonist’s own knowledge. It’s like the writers of Deadfire don’t even know the basic state of their own deep lore.
Now if only that were their only problem. The far bigger one is that the writing in Deadfire is simply bad, bad, bad. Player character responses read like they’ve been written by a snarky high-schooler. Nearly every companion is a flaming homo who wants a piece of your butt. Dialogues are still pestered by completely skippable narration bits. Characters don’t talk like real people. The descriptive texts during “cutscenes” must have gone through multiple thesaurus “enhancements”. There are scenarios that don’t make even the tiniest bit of sense, like a native village that is starving because they only eat one specific kind of fruit, and their stocks of this specific fruit have run out, and they never had the bright idea to save the seeds because uh stop asking questions (and finally a dialogue option unlocked by [intelligence] impresses another native with your profound knowledge of… putting seeds into the earth to make them grow into trees). I could go on, perhaps with more specific examples, but the length of this article would explode.
The writing in Deadfire drops more balls than a juggler with Parkinson’s, and I’d say the only thing about it that is any kind of improvement over PoE1 is the fact that there’s less of it. Primarily because all the Deep Lore is now stored behind convenient wiki-links in dialogues, which means you never have to read them, and thank God for that. Also, a funny thing is that despite not reading them, I never felt like I was missing any sort of context at any time. Truly makes you think whether that crap has ever been necessary. Still, the wiki-links are a good enough “compromise”, so I welcome them.
Though that isn’t to say that there are absolutely no good writing bits whatsoever in Deadfire, but after thinking about it really hard, I think I can point to only two major ones that rise above mediocrity (though make no mistake, the default state of the texts is abysmal, not mediocre). One is a scene where the gods Magran and Ondra attempt to nuke Eothas. One thing is that it’s just cool, and another that it finally gives some “oomph” to the stupid gods, who otherwise do nothing more than shitpost on Skype.
The second one is the queen of the natives in Neketaka. She’s perhaps the only character in the game who feels like a real person, with real flaws and merits. She might be a bit stereotypical, as the kind of “reluctant leader who tries to act tough but is actually naïve and insecure”, but the stereotype is well-realised in the game itself, and finds excellent application in the player’s interactions with her. Namely, that the protagonist can turn her weaknesses against her and manipulate her in delightfully devilish ways, which stands in stark contrast to all the other faction leaders who, as mentioned before, are nothing more than quest dispensers.
Finally, I couldn’t end this chapter without mentioning all the cringe-inducing “foreign language” inserts in dialogues. Conversations in Deadfire are like those campy WW2 movies where all ZE GERMANS keep throwing around random “scheisses” and “mein gotts” each time they speak, except here it’s fake not-Italian/Spanish (Vaillian) and not-Swahili. The frequency of these inserts makes me wonder whether the writers have ever interacted with any foreigners, because you can bet your ass that nobody speaks the way the people in Deadfire do, except maybe Singaporeans. Some of those quips are pretty hilarious too, my favourite probably being the Vaillian word for “captain”, which is “casita”. Imagine my disappointment when I never got to witness a mutineer say, “I’m taking over your place, casita!”
To summarise, I honestly think there isn’t a single competent writer left at Obsidian anymore, which, considering the company’s history, is about as funny as it is tragic. Meanwhile those that remain are not just bad, which wouldn’t even be that aggravating, but also very obviously unaware of their incompetence, which results in them overreaching and producing tripe that they should have never attempted doing in the first place. How sad.
A few obligatory notes on technical stuff.
Just as its predecessor, Deadfire is a beautiful game. I think the screenshots speak for themselves, but in case they don’t – the pre-rendered 2D backgrounds are a pleasure to look at, the ambient effects like shadows or fog add a lot of character to the scenes (the game even has dynamic lighting), and the drawn artwork for the text adventures or town interfaces is evocative and slick. Now if only the interface was more readable…
Sounds are a mixed bag. The music, for starters, is not very good. It’s mostly composed of generic fantasy orchestrations, but this time they are accompanied by turbo-folky fiddles on steroids and other traditional instruments like the banjo, and the result of that is very often very grating – the two just don’t mix. And even when the folky and orchestral parts are “standalone”, they mostly sound forgettable and uninteresting. The only exception to this are the sea shanties that sometimes play on the overland map. They have a lot of good qualities going for them, mainly that they are purely a cappella, based on real shanties (like Heave Away Santy Anno), just with changed lyrics, and that they are simply well done. Sometimes I wished the entire soundtrack constituted nothing but the shanties, because they are that good, but that probably would have been overkill.
Then we have the voice acting. It seems Obsidian decided that they couldn’t fall behind Larian in the VO arms race, so as a result all dialogues in Deadfire are voiced. Needless to say, this is bad. For starters, the VO just feels unnecessary, its quality is not very good and it also has various consistency problems with regard to proper names and such. There is also a bug where VO from different consecutive text nodes will overlap, which is mind-boggling how this wasn’t spotted and fixed before release. Most importantly though, it feels like the decision to introduce full voice acting was done as a flight of fancy late into development, and it is possible that many dialogues, particularly with companions, might have undergone chopping because of it for budget reasons. It would certainly explain the idiotic companion quests.
Still, one nice part of the expanded VO are more quips outside dialogues for party members. Their selection barks will change into “annoyed” versions if your disposition with them goes down, and they will thank you for equipping them with powerful items. It gives them some more characterisation and also reminds me a bit of Wizardry 8, which is always a big plus.
Bugs are of course as true as ever for Bugsidian, many of them minor and not worth elaborating upon, but also some major, though I think I’ve already highlighted the most important ones, such as the critically broken quest chains.
Game performance was great for me, and I never had any stuttering or recurring crashes. Loading times are also dramatically improved compared to PoE1 (or most other Unity-based games), although their frequency still leaves a lot to be desired.
Rum, sodomy and the lash
As you may remember, Pillars of Eternity I didn’t make much of an impression on me. In fact, I thought it was pretty damn terrible. Meanwhile, odd as it may sound, its sequel was actually a big positive surprise for me. Maybe it was due to my low expectations, but I did enjoy the time I spent on it, and my “100%” playthrough took well over 50 hours, so that has to mean something. I’d say it only gets stale in the last 10 or so hours when you’re so overpowered you can put anything down by glaring at it, and the whole exploration angle loses its charm because you’re sailing from place to place, clearing out leftover errands.
If I had to draw a comparison, I’d say the game is like Storm of Zehir’s bigger and dumber cousin. It has the same “classic fantasy adventure” gameplay focus of romping around a big map at your leisure and seeing your riches and stats grow with some barely relevant story playing out in the background. By nature of being a standalone game, not an expansion, it’s also much, much greater in scope. But at the same time its mechanics suffer due to the misguided PoE system instead of the tried and tested D&D (as butchered as it may be for RTWP purposes), while its story is all things considered much more prominent, but without any positive qualities that would warrant said prominence.
I don’t think Deadfire is a game that I’ll ever revisit, but I definitely appreciate the effort that went into improving it compared to its predecessor, because the fixes are many and they are very real. However, it must be stressed that Deadfire is more than simply an improvement over PoE1 – it’s a pretty alright game in itself, though your appreciation of it may depend on what you like the most in an RPG. If it’s freedom of exploration you seek, I’d recommend giving it a spin, because it’s the one area in which Deadfire excels. If it’s combat, you might end up disappointed. If it’s story and related matters, stay the hell away.
Because let me stress again: to enjoy the game it’s absolutely imperative to shut down your brain and 111111 your way through every dialogue, preferably also skip companions and either make your own party or take sidekicks – at least they stay silent. Without all that garbage, you can focus on clearing out the overland map, looking for places to loot and people to kill, sometimes going into a fight that is actually challenging or accidentally stumbling upon a secret area that is available only on a certain time of the in-game year.
That’s right, I had fun with the sequel to Pillars of Eternity. What have you done to me, Sawyer?!