My sword really likes being stabbed into people. I know this because she (he? it?) told me so. Her name is Modwyr, and she only stops insulting me when the conversation turns toward potential violence. It’s making me uncomfortable, but the bonus stats I get for keeping Modwyr around are too juicy to pass up. I’ve got a god to kill, after all. At least I think I do.
There is no shortage of choices to make in Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire. The pirate-centric sequel to developer Obsidian’s throwback RPG doesn’t skimp on that facet of the pen-and-paper role-playing game it replicates. Some of my choices from the previous game have already come back to haunt me, thanks to an imported save, though newcomers have the option to write their own history near the beginning of Deadfire.
The god of entropy is pissed. He’s not the one I’m hunting as part of Deadfire’s main story, but I lied to him in the first PoE. Now he’s promising a showdown.
I’ll get to that eventually. For the time being, though, I’ve got pirates to hunt, my own crew to manage, several imperialist governments to support or betray, and a talking sword to placate. It’s a lot of intrigue to disentangle—with consequences rearing their ugly heads immediately after doing so. But my player-character is the perfect psychic, soul-reading, pirate lord for the job.
There is an enormous amount of lore and activities to absorb. Luckily, Deadfire does a much better job of presenting it all than the first PoE. Its top-down perspective is complemented with bigger, more detailed 3D models for party members. Now I know just what my chain-smoking tank of a farm hand (who then became mayor) is meant to look like. Every line of dialogue (besides your player-character’s) is fully voiced and with pretty good acting most of the time. So that same tank’s attempts to communicate with a bird land with firm comedic timing.
Maybe the voice acting is why Deadfire’s writing seems sharper than the original’s. Maybe it’s just because the plot is less dour. The previous game centered on a plague of children born without souls in the wake of a bloody crusade. Deadfire has me sailing for buried treasure so I can pay to track down a god possessing a hundred-foot statue.
There are still serious, even grisly moments along the way. I didn’t relish learning about a disease that drowns its victims in their own fluids or how the impoverished and diseased are killed rather than cured in one of the game’s major cities. But there’s a distinct sense of adventure this time around, compared to PoE’s grim journey.
That energy even applies to Deadfire’s revamped combat, even though it’s not especially different from the first game. You command wizards and rogues in real time from an isometric perspective. Naturally different classes have different abilities, but the restrictions on those skills are spread evenly across characters. Priests can only cast a couple of spells of the same level per battle, for instance, but they get those casts back at the end of every encounter (instead of only when the party rests, as in the original). Roles centered less around spells are less restricted but typically offer less variety.
Chanters and Ciphers are bigger outliers than ever. The former class (your basic bard stand-in) generates the equivalent of mana by belting out passive buffs and debuffs. These useful actions reward Chanters with effectively unlimited spell casts that can paralyze foes or summon baby dragons to fight. It’s powerful stuff. Similarly, Ciphers (PoE’s word for psychics) do bonus damage with every basic attack. When they do, they generate MP for abilities that disorient, dominate, and explode enemies.
The trade-off is that both classes take time to warm up, although that doesn’t feel like much of a detriment most of the time. As massive as it is, Deadfire progresses at a pretty steady clip. I unlocked game-changing skills (like greater base MP at the start of every fight for my own custom-made Cipher) within the first few hours. Leveling up also offers points to spend on out-of-combat skills, like diplomacy. And points from every party member typically count toward checks for such skills. So I felt indomitably charismatic, stealthy, intimidating, athletic, and erudite almost as soon as I felt invincible.
Tropical pirate morals
You can set Deadfire’s difficulty to scale with you, which is good for generating that role-playing drama that comes out of rolling with your failures. I usually found the writing rich enough even without that added risk, though.
The setting would be a fascinating place even without Pillars of Eternity’s background story of gods and politics. There simply aren’t enough pirate games for my money (though that drought is slowly ending). But the tropical setting provides a good backdrop for the cultural intrigue. The Deadfire archipelago’s disparate tribes have begun selling the land piecemeal to foreign colonizers—including a branch of their own culture.
That offshoot nation traded farmland for huge amounts of saltpeter. Now, naturally, the people with the gunpowder want “their” home back. That moral backstory made it ever-so-slightly harder for me to select dialogue options; I couldn’t fall back on quite the same ethical arguments as if I was dealing with unrelated, invading imperialists.
Deadfire doesn’t have a black-and-white morality meter for these decisions. Instead, it has reputation scales for different characters and groups. Your player character gets to be known as kind or ruthless—a friend to the pirate nation here or a foe to that cult there.
Rep can come back to haunt you at unexpected times. It further fills the need for surprise tension. I winced more than once at losing favor with the sharpshooting spy in my party I wanted to court. I’ve also gotten compliments on my ruthlessness, though. So that’s nice.
Looting for fun and profit
In-game choice only feels seriously under-cooked during ship-to-ship combat—another new addition to Deadfire. The battles play out entirely in turns, on a mostly featureless menu. Unlike in standard combat, there’s nothing to indicate your odds of a successful hit, so it’s tough to gauge which of your few options is best. After wildly sailing circles around a couple sloops, I gave up on the sea battles altogether, boarding weaker hostiles and fleeing from the rest.
That was a profitable decision. Deadfire has mostly solved its predecessor’s problem of too much junk loot by leaning fully into it. Now, all the mid-grade gear you collect from captured ships is just plunder to sell at the next port. It’s a much more active, satisfying system than passively accruing cash at a keep (i.e., what happened in the first game). Still, I’d appreciate a “sell all junk below a certain rarity” button.
The cash you accrue from selling useless sabers and chain mail can go towards equipment with unique traits, better ship parts, and hiring people to teach you skills. It’s a nice little loop to complement your party’s ever-growing strength. Taking this power fantasy from island to island and checking off side quests might be monotonous in another game. But Pillars of Eternity 2 justifies it with endless charm to chuckle at and machinations to unravel.
I don’t just want to explore a zombie-infested undercity. I want to know what my obsessively clean wizard friend has to say about its stink. I want to know what’s killing the prisoners sent there to be executed. I want to use it to sneak into the black market, where I can buy food for a slum’s starving labor class.
Every inch of Deadfire is filled with those kinds of surprises—stitched together by more balanced combat than its predecessor. Sometimes you battle gods. Sometimes you find a talking sword with a possible murder fetish. You won’t know which until you sail to that next point on the map.
- More balanced real-time combat than Pillars of Eternity
- Fascinating depth and detail to the world
- Reputation and dice rolls add unexpected drama
- Incredible amount of well-constructed side content
- Full voice acting (usually) adds charm
- Ship-to-ship combat is a letdown
- Less-macabre main plot isn’t quite as memorable
- There’s a lot of back story to take in if you didn’t play the first game.
The Verdict: Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire is a broad, deep, and excellent RPG in the tradition of Baldur’s Gate. And it has pirates. Buy it.
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