“The Deadfire is a maelstrom of competing interests and clashing powers,” one of your wisest companions will tell you at some point. “Someone needs to bring order to the chaos.” Try as you might, order or control will elude you. Factions, gods, tribes, companions… It’s like herding cats. All of them revel in the chaos, and your notion of order means little to them. As such, Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire is a unique exercise in powerlessness.
My impressions of the original Pillars were equally ambivalent. The final showdown led to a denouement that ultimately wasn’t as consequential as I expected. As the ending of Deadfire settled in a similar way, I began to see this as an unwitting feature rather than a flaw. Perhaps even as a subtle statement, not only on narrative-driven RPGs in general but also on our place in society and history.
If you haven’t yet played the game, all this must sound vague and abstract. Although it has been over a month since Deadfire was released, I will avoid specific spoilers in this review, but I will also discuss how the main quest plays out, in neutral terms. If you’re trying to avoid any and all kinds of spoilers, read no further.
Since their origins in the 1970s, whether as tabletop or computer games, RPGs have always placed the player(s) at the center of their universes, as The Chosen One, The Avatar, and so forth. Those games had their time and place and contributed much to the genre. No argument there. Pillars of Eternity, however, could not wallow in the sameness of its predecessors, the Infinity Engine games. The franchise looks to the future, not just the past.
Granted, you are still a Watcher, another variety of The Chosen One. However, at almost every point where you have a choice, there is a hint that your decision won’t change the main outcome of the game. Some players revolted at this, which is understandable. I believe it gives Deadfire a certain philosophical depth that most RPGs lack. It makes the player feel insignificant in face of the magnitude of events. Definitely an ambivalent feeling.
My first impressions of Deadfire were very positive. My general impression remains positive, though I’m now more aware of its flaws. I remain impressed with the voice acting, especially with the variety of accents and acting styles. Obsidian took the cue from Larian Studios with Divinity: Original Sin 2, and it paid off. It adds much immersion to isometric RPGs, and hopefully, it will set a trend. There is still enough reading in scripted encounters and descriptions, so it doesn’t feel like the streamlining of dialogue dumbed it down in the least. Characters feel lively and well-rounded.
The new class system with multiclassing is excellent; and so is the combat system, though the original release build was lacking in challenge for hardcore players. This has now been corrected by the first major balancing patch, which overhauled the hardest difficulty modes. It’s unlikely to be the last one either, as Obsidian released balancing patches for the original Pillars long after release.
Pillars had 11 classes, one of which was wholly original, the Cipher. Deadfire has a total of 110 multiclasses, many with original names, not just borrowed from D&D or Pathfinder. Even though the names have no direct effect on gameplay, multiclassing adds a slew of replayability to the game. It adds another layer of challenge as well, allowing a lot of experimentation to see which builds work best for each multiclass.
Even if you don’t like the story and its outcomes, you will like the combat. It’s a definite step forward from the combat in Pillars while remaining true to the principles of real-time with pause. I would still much prefer turn-based, but that’s just me. As I didn’t want to focus too much on combat on my first playthrough, I played on Classic difficulty. I figured I might as well not stress over it, knowing it wouldn't be 100% balanced at release. There were only a handful of challenging battles, mostly in the early stages, the rest was a breeze.
Another great improvement from Pillars is the character customization system. Offering more options and details, it allows players to add more texture to their characters. If you played Pillars you can import your save and rebuild or revamp your character to suit the new setting, which is what I did. My character from Pillars was a Meadow human Cipher and explorer from The White that Wends, inspired by Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen. The transition into Deadfire made perfect sense, not as a pirate, but as a sea explorer.
I kept my character as a single class Cipher, but experimented with multiclassing most of the companions. Some made perfect sense in the setting, others not so much. The new companions (Xoti, Tekēhu, Serafen, and Maia Rua) made more sense with their original classes. While the companions who came from Pillars (Edér, Aloth, and Pallegina) seemed to fit multiclassing better. It could be my imagination or headcanon imposing patterns, but this is an Obsidian game. Story matters here.
I expected that the new reputation and disposition systems would have much more reactivity than they actually did. Once you get in the good side of a faction, you can use of your reputation with impunity through easy dialogue checks. Certain comments from NPCs based on your disposition, reputation and character traits are interesting but lack a deeper sense of interactivity. There was an opportunity to make something more intricate and ambitious with these systems, but perhaps it was wiser to avoid the potential for bugs.
There is some great reactivity stemming from your choices in the original Pillars, even in the endgame stages. It hardly ever goes beyond acknowledging your choices, though, and that’s the main takeaway from the game as a whole. Your choices matter, but not as much as you’d like. Obviously the budget factors into this, and you can’t expect a different ending for every single one of your decisions. The ramifications and consequences of your decisions should feel more impactful though, and in-game reactivity could be more meaningful.
Creative problem-solving through roleplaying and skills was really good, for the most part. Most of the scripted encounters with the book background were interesting and fun to play. They could have voice acting too, though, especially when it involved your companions. If you min-maxed your companions’ skills and specialized them it gets somewhat unchallenging. That way there’s always a way around skill checks, which kind of diminishes the replayability.
I enjoyed the sea battles, as well as outfitting and crewing my ships, but I can see that some players will find it shallow. I hope Obsidian releases some DLCs and patches to add more depth and dimension to sea battles and sea exploration. At the endgame stages I hardly ever had any battles, and when I did, it was very easy.
As with Pillars, Deadfire is not greatly rewarding when it comes to loot. You will find a good amount when it comes to unique weapons and items in general, but not as much as in RPGs where loot is central. There isn’t an endless cycle of scoring better and better loot, which makes the loot you do find more meaningful. Like Pillars, Deadfire is a much more finite looting experience with clear boundaries.
The game as a whole is much more “mainstream-friendly” than Pillars ever was, from the very introduction to the ending. It remains rooted in the classic RPG tradition, but it reaches out to a broader audience, making itself more accessible. Through excellent voice acting and minimized lore dumps, it’s a classic RPG with an accessible RPG face. Whether that is detrimental will depend on whom you ask. Most will agree that it's an enjoyable and accessible experience that can still offer all the hardcore trappings to hardened veterans of the genre.
In terms of performance and technical issues, I often found the loading times a bit too long. Pillars had the very same issue, even when the levels being loaded were quite small. This is likely poor optimization, as I had the game installed on an SSD. I don’t have this issue with most games, even more technically demanding 3D games with obviously larger assets. Long loading times would make sense for large, sprawling levels, but not for small ones.
I had just a couple of crashes in about 120 hours of playtime. Overall, I maintain that this is one of Obsidian’s most technically polished games to date. I managed to complete just about all of my quests and tasks, and I didn’t identify any bugs or glitches. I expected some quest conflicts in the endgame stages with the faction quests, but nothing came up.
There were problems with how they handled quest design. This ties into the outcomes not being consequential enough as a whole, or the consequences being rather ham-handed. I was very disappointed when a particular faction, the Royal Deadfire Company, asked for my help and my only two options were to go along with their plans to kill the leader of one of the other factions or to kill them all when I refused to be their assassin. Even before they told me about the plans, my options were 1) “I’m with you no matter what,” or 2) “Not right now.” There was no way to stay neutral.
This would have been understandable in a soft RPG or an action-RPG where players are used to more linear quests. In a game such as Deadfire, it seems absurd. The budget can’t be used as an excuse in this case, as giving the player the option to stay neutral is possible with all other factions. The only way to stay neutral in this case was to leave the quest unfinished and proceed with the main quest, which is what I did.
At this point, I was already fully aware that my actions and choices only had cosmetic or superficial consequences. In most dealings with gods and higher authorities, I chose the “Say nothing” dialogue option, knowing that it made no difference. As I began to understand the motivations of the rogue god Eothas, I knew I made no difference and couldn’t stop him, even if I wanted to. I was just a Watcher; I was only there to witness. It was kind of frustrating, but at the same time, there was something different about it.
Some writers have posited that history is an inexorable process where human lives are merely cogs. Hence, we cannot change history or society, not even the most powerful and most influential among us. In Deadfire, I got to see some variation of ending slides based on some of my choices and dealings, but I was still powerless to change the course of events. It was frustrating and humbling, but in the end, it made sense.
In Fallout: New Vegas, one of Obsidian’s best games and also directed by Josh Sawyer, I had a more immediate illusion or sense of agency as a player. Ultimately, however, it has roots in the same idea that society and history will take on its own life and process, which we cannot change or influence. Chaos and entropy will always resume, the wheels of history will turn and our insignificant cog lives will turn with it.
These are not comforting thoughts, but it’s unusual that they arise from a medium often regarded as immature and mindlessly violent. As such, Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire managed to accomplish quite a bit. It’s a successful sequel with a future, appealing to both newcomers and veterans. It’s an alluring and haunting audiovisual experience offering plenty of replayability in gameplay styles. And above all it makes you think beyond the usual platitudes associated with fantasy RPGs, with a final act that lingers in your mind.
A swaggering sequel that reaches for the future as it embraces the past, Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire is a unique and ambivalent roleplaying experience.(Review Policy)
- Excellent Voice Acting
- Improved Combat
- Slew of Replayability
- Fresher Take on Fantasy RPG
- Slow Loading Times
- Consequences Lack Impact