Pillars of Eternity was a very good RPG. It was also brazenly molded after Baldur’s Gate and Planescape: Torment in such a way that imitation often seemed more apish than faithful. In order to cater to a nostalgic audience, it suffered from a rather literal reinterpretation of the old-school CRPG. The combat often felt heavy-handed, repetitive and tedious. The UI looked stiff and antiquated. The dialogues were often verbose, florid, and lacking the simpler charm of those classic Infinity Engine games.
Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire is an altogether different beast. Pillars overwhelmed the player with an elaborate fantasy cosmology and metaphysics in massive lore dumps from the get-go. Deadfire delivers a far simpler, punchier premise. A dead god is reborn as a titan made of adra (basically a dark-green stone) and rises from the ground, destroying the keep you owned. After the initial introduction with the character creation or save import prelude, the game begins in medias res. You deal with a pirate attack on the ship commandeered by former Pillars companion Edér and the sentient statue that acted as the keep's housekeeper on your behalf. The aftermath leads you to an island where the premise develops further.
Right off the bat, the most striking feature is the voice acting. Only a few select lines had voice acting in Pillars, all by main characters and companions. In Deadfire, all proper dialogues have top-notch voice acting. This definitely contributes to diminishing the number of lore dumps. It would break immersion if every character you spoke to started lecturing about all the nuances and distinctions of Eora and its lands. Instead, the HUD has popup windows for certain keywords, leaving it up to players to seek out the information. It’s a much more effective and sensible design decision that makes the game fluid and pleasant to play.
Deadfire definitely looks more graphically stunning than Pillars, with colorful, nuanced levels. The animation and the AI pathfinding definitely improved, and combat feels fluid and organic. While I’m still getting my head around the updated RPG system, it does look like an improvement so far. Some CRPG fanatics will say Obsidian streamlined it to death, but they're a minority. Streamlining isn’t always negative, and it isn’t always positive. Deadfire looks better, feels better, and plays better. What matters is that it does remain virtually the same game in terms of unique worldbuilding and quality writing.
Particularly excellent so far is the stat and skill check system, much more developed and flavorful than it was in Pillars. Apart from the typical skill checks in dialogue that make it so that character builds matter beyond combat, there is also a new reputation system. It offers a variety of personality stances to choose from in most dialogues. This makes the roleplaying experience much more absorbing and thorough. In Pillars, reputation pertained to the factions the player interacted with. In Deadfire, it also works for characters, villages, cities, and so on.
I hope to see much more in the way of reactivity with all these systems interacting with each other. Seeing how the companions would react to my interactions and choices was one of the best elements in Fallout: New Vegas. It built upon the foundation of the companion design in Fallout 2. In the same way, I hope that Deadfire builds upon the companions of Pillars, experimenting more deeply with this kind of reactivity.
On top of the improved and organic combat, there are also the sea battles. While some have found the turn-based battles shallow and superfluous, I’m enjoying them quite a bit. It’s definitely a novelty to the CRPG genre. Seafaring as a whole makes for some enjoyable crew-and-resources management gameplay that gives the Deadfire Archipelago setting an extra layer of texture. Just don’t expect something out of Sea of Thieves where you’ll feel like you’re actually sailing. This is still technically very much an isometric-perspective CRPG.
As a studio, Obsidian is primed for sequels and spin-offs from the very beginning. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II, Neverwinter Nights 2, and Fallout: New Vegas are some of their best games prior to Pillars. It’s not surprising that they managed to channel all that experience into a truly great sequel with Deadfire. This just might be their best game in terms of technical polish and creative direction. I look forward to exploring Deadfire for many hours and finding out whether my first impressions will hold up.
Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire is being reviewed on PC via GOG.