Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire review

This is a world that remembers.

I wish more traditional RPGs made an effort to incorporate aspects of the gamebook format.

It's not just nostalgia for the simplicity of childhood pleasures driving this desire; I was grappling with the vastly more intricate systems of 2nd Edition AD&D and wandering the chaotic open worlds of Ultima and Might & Magic long before I had chance to ponder my options at the end of a Fighting Fantasy paragraph. I think the main reason why I felt a jolt of excitement every time the main window in Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire would transform into the pages of a monochrome old tome – strikingly inked image to capture the essence of the scene on one page, a compact piece of text suffixed by a handful of choices brimming with potential consequence on the other – has to do with the fact that the antiquated genre's defining quality is a brutally observed, rationed economy of words and images.

This is both to say that Obsidian's eagerly anticipated sequel made me happy quite frequently, by adopting the convention enthusiastically, and that its verbosity would have benefitted from a similar sense of restraint elsewhere, not least in some of the longer stretches of expository prose disguised as dialogue. My painfully protracted first encounter with a runaway deity, rather than coming across as momentous, had me drifting off to worry about lunch and unpaid phone bills, its generic fantasy platitudes complemented by an unconvincingly pompous (not to mention interminably slow) voice delivery. The story is competently constructed and the line-by-line writing is fine, especially some of the companions' characterization, but, lacking the arresting premise of Serpent in the Staglands or the playful breeziness of Larian's Original Sin series, its long-windedness occasionally grates.

Typical sword and sorcery fare, admittedly, but there's enough detail and depth to enrich the story.

The plot of Pillars of Eternity 2 revolves around the pursuit of a rogue god along the troubled titular archipelago and the various wonders and perils to be discovered in the multitude of its contested islands. Eothas, formerly lord of light and currently an unstoppable mass of living marble infused with the souls of the dead, has emerged from his slumber, destroying our protagonist's castle in the process. Now Eothas is marching across the world of Eora with a plan that, as we soon find out, could bear more dramatic repercussions for its inhabitants than a broken roof. Typical sword and sorcery fare, admittedly, but there's enough detail and depth to enrich the story started in its predecessor by highlighting the powers scrambling to exploit the resource-rich continent, diving deeper into the setting's ancient history, and elaborating on the struggle for domination among scheming deities.

This narrative backbone also provides the opportunity for a certain group of friends and uneasy collaborators, including some familiar faces from the original game, to hop on a rickety sloop and engage in the delightful business of naval exploration. Just like with its choose-your-own-adventure interludes, Pillars of Eternity 2 is at its best when enhancing its traditional RPG framework with elements plundered from neighboring genres. Obsidian has previously incorporated aspects of strategy but, here, the peculiarities of the setting have invited an unlikely inspiration, Failbetter Games’ Sunless Sea.

Similarly to Sunless Sea, your ability to survive Deadfire's more treacherous waters rests on upgrading your vessel, while traveling there is accompanied by the threat of mutiny over mismanaged resources. More importantly, both games are defined by the irresistible allure generated by obscured areas in the world map patiently waiting to divulge their secrets to the brave souls daring to voyage there. With combat still a frustratingly confusing blur of color where it's easy to lose track of allies and enemies even in a paused screen and dialogue often devolving into tedium, there is nothing as exciting in Pillars of Eternity 2 as unmooring yourself from the main quest and steering your ship toward a foggy expanse at the edges of the archipelago. 

There's more to reward intrepid seafarers for disembarking on these untouched shores than the promise of additional sidequests and legendary loot. Namely, the rare beauty of Deadfire's environments. The isometric perspective is such a singular form of presentation, one that has never been organically assimilated into our visual vocabulary, that the style itself tends to dominate our appreciation rather than its specific iteration within a particular game. All the more impressive, then, that Obsidian has managed to create such a memorably gorgeous world. There's a certain lived-in quality in the environments that differentiates Pillars of Eternity 2 from its peers: the splotches of rust on the disused cannons of Port Maje, the thin layers of ash resting on the hexagonal stone slabs of a bridge erected inside an active volcano, the paint peeling from the wooden walls inside a remote coastal shrine.

All of these details add up to a wonderfully laid back swashbuckling adventure – at least when everything works as intended.

Bugs and RPGs go together like nasal hair and ogre nostrils, but the troubles in Pillars of Eternity 2 border on infestation, turning an otherwise enjoyable experience into an exhausting marathon of second-guessing the game. Is the character I'm trying to strike a conversation with really giving me the silent treatment, or is the dialogue simply not popping? Has pressing the Tab revealed every interactive icon in the immediate area, or should I go around the room once more just to be sure? Should I consider a motionless companion's paralysis a side-effect of some unseen trap meant to be cured by a spell, or a programming hiccup leaving them perpetually frozen until a reload does the trick? For the duration of my playthrough I was under a constant anxiety that whatever coding alchemy held the game together was going to fall apart at any minute.

The web of urban intrigue dominating the game's third act becomes almost a moral vacuum.

It never did. Instead, I was mercifully allowed to deal with the existential threat presented by Eothas and see the main quest through to its end, not without a degree of anticipation. I had developed a connection to the fate of Eora, a world crafted with obvious care to respond to and, within limits, become shaped by players' choices. NPCs offer replies depending on cues like class, geographical origins, and available abilities. Should you import a save file, your status is partly determined by your behavior in the original game. Companions will greet old acquaintances and demonstrate anger or approval at your actions. This is a world that remembers.

As a result, however, it’s rather disappointing when Pillars of Eternity 2 chooses to sacrifice all of its accumulated complexity for equivocation. The web of urban intrigue dominating the game's third act becomes almost a moral vacuum, a sense of uncertainty about who works for whom, what their ends are, and who stands to benefit. The problem is that while in (say) Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, the reader’s disorientation can be interpreted as a bleak commentary on the human condition, here it's little more than a prop to legitimize the player’s freedom of choice, ensuring a congratulatory pat on the back whatever your ultimate, world-shaping decision. In this sense, Obsidian, rather than handing you a series of difficult moral dilemmas, drains them of ethical implications. It obscures the trick with some murky philosophizing to conclude a game that deserved better.

Fortunately, for Pillars of Eternity 2, freedom also means that nobody forces you to pursue this muted finale before exhausting all the marvelous distractions the Deadfire archipelago has to offer. The best parts of Obsidian's sequel lie outside an ambitious but unsatisfying central narrative.

So let both gods and mortals simmer on their petty squabbles and set sail for the fringes of the map. Here be dragons. And they have infinitely more fascinating stories to tell.