Pillars of Eternity was supposed to play just like Baldur’s Gate. BioWare’s first CRPG popularized pausable real-time combat back in the 90s, successfully implementing the Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition ruleset. As the isometric CRPG genre evolved, some players have come to express a great distaste for this combat mode. Their arguments are usually that it doesn’t feel tactical enough, especially when played with the AI on. It’s often just buffing your characters up, selecting targets, and watching them hit-and-miss for a couple of minutes. We can see why Obsidian Entertainment decided to add a turn-based mode to their award-winning RPG Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire.
My personal experience with the combat in Deadfire was actually very positive, though I do generally prefer turn-based combat in CRPGs. Compared with the first Pillars, Deadfire not only felt more engaging, it also felt more fluid and less hacky. I still like the first game, but, with Deadfire, the developers realized that there’s room to evolve beyond nostalgia. Despite Deadfire’s reportedly poor commercial performance, it was a step in the right direction. This direction points to a place where classic RPGs can still thrive in the current industry. We had the chance to do a hands-on preview, hoping that it adds a new dimension to the game. You can't switch back and forth between the two modes. You also can't use an existing save in real-time. When you start a new game you'll get to choose either real-time or turn-based, then you can't go back.
The player character and the companions still move in real-time, and you can still pause. You can also inflict stealth attacks in real-time right before you go into turn-based combat mode. In that sense, it resembles my experience with Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden, where I can set up my characters in advance before the actual turn-based battle. The difference is that there are no tiles. Movement is handled in in-game meters, with every character being able to move exactly 10.2 meters. There is currently no menu option to change it. Even if you run out of meters you can still execute an action. A melee attack requires close engagement with an enemy, obviously.
You can only do one Standard or Cast action per turn, alongside your movement. Clearly, you execute Standard actions instantly. Cast actions, you guessed it, involve spellcasting, and some of them take up two turns. It's awkward to watch magic users spellcasting with flailing arms waiting for the turn to release it, though it suits the feel of a classic RPG. There are also Free actions, mostly buffs or special skills, and apparently, there's no cap on them. The general impression is that the spells and skills feel more essential in turn-based. If you can use a spell or skill to knock out an enemy, it's one less nuisance to worry about.
On the whole, there is much to like in this implementation, though it’s too early to say how it’ll play like in an entire playthrough. There is the fact that, despite all its flaws, pausable real-time at least allows you go on autopilot when you have to face swarms of feeble creatures. Turn-based requires that you are always on alert for each battle, no matter how minor. There doesn't appear to be fewer battles in this mode either. It’s also possible that, since the Pillars games meant to emulate the tradition of the Infinity Engine games, there's an unpredictable element when you put a turn-based mode on top of it. It will take time to adjust, and some balancing patches will most likely be necessary.
My main gripe so far is that, since the movement system isn’t based on tiles, character positioning can look very awkward. Sometimes when you move a character, he/she pushes other characters to the side, making them slide out of the way. It just looks like they didn't design the animation system for this, and it might need some tweaks. This also happens in real-time mode, but you don’t see it as much because in the fray of combat the characters tend to move a lot more as they tackle different enemies. Either way, it will take some getting used to, or a movement animation patch to make it look more natural.
It's hard to say how the turn-based system differs in technical terms. You would have to replay the full game in both modes, paying attention to the stats and the combat log. Then you might be able to draw a conclusion as to which is better or more balanced. Or we could accept that it depends on personal preferences and that each system has its own strengths and weaknesses. What I can say is that it doesn't feel like they just slapped it together and tacked it on top of the real-time mode.
As I fired up Deadfire to try out the turn-based mode I didn’t expect it would pull me in again, as it’s been less than a year since I played it for the review. It was surprising to find myself hankering to play one quest after another, and really enjoying it. Maybe not more than I enjoyed my first playthrough, but probably just about as much. This is the baseline to gauge how compelling and successful this mode can be in the long-term. I don’t know that it’s enough to attract a new playerbase, but it’s definitely enough to retain the current one, giving us a new combat experience.