Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire review: A strong ship in shallow waters

Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire starts strong, but an aimless middle section, lifeless world, and a multitude of bugs undercut its excellent main storyline and polished systems.

At a Glance

The groundwork was laid for Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire to be a spectacular sequel. Its predecessor, 2015’s Pillars of Eternity, did the heavy lifting. It proved Obsidian could resurrect the spirit of the old Infinity Engine RPGs for modern times, underpinned by modern technology. Flawed, sure—the original Pillars of Eternity had its problems. But with the engine developed and the underlying rules in place, the stage seemed set for a daring sequel, if not Baldur’s Gate II-sized at least one that felt that grand in scope.

And for the first 25 or 30 hours of Pillars of Eternity II ($50 on Green Man Gaming and Steam), that’s what I thought we’d got. You can see it in the video we made above. It starts strong. Poke around the seams though, and you’ll find an identity crisis—a game that’s not sure whether to scale down or scale up, and ends up caught awkwardly in between.

Yo ho ho

You arrive in the titular Deadfire Archipelago for reasons I’m loathe to spoil. Suffice it to say, your peaceful life in the fortress of Caed Nua explodes in spectacular fashion, and when the dust settles the gods need your help again. As a Watcher, someone who can see and interact with the souls of the dead, you’re uniquely positioned to aid them.

Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire IDG / Hayden Dingman

The journey will send you back and forth across the Deadfire, putting you in contact with pirates and shady “trading companies” and slavers and ancient machinery and more. Obsidian’s built out a hell of a world for Pillars of Eternity. It was the strongest part of the previous game, and it’s even better here. Obsidian’s pared back on the huge chunks of text a bit, and what’s left maintains most of the flavor without making your eyes glaze over. It’s a joy to read, even the incidental dialogue from people wandering the streets.

Problem is, most of the game feels incidental. I’ve struggled to pinpoint why. There’s certainly “a lot” in Pillars of Eternity II—a lot of dialogue, a lot of quests, a lot of areas to explore.

And early on it can feel like the game is full of potential. I was excited when I reached the first big city in Pillars of Eternity II, the stronghold of Neketaka. I spent probably 10 hours there, churning through backroom politics between the major factions—Principi (pirates), the Huana (rulers), and the two competing corporations of the Valian Trading Company and the Royal Deadfire Company.

Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire IDG / Hayden Dingman

There’s a lot of complexity up front, every faction trying to undercut its rivals, and you sort of floating in between them all. A very Obsidian setup, and also reminiscent of Baldur’s Gate II and the way it dumps you into the enormous city of Athkatla.

The rest of the Deadfire Archipelago is comparatively lifeless though. Pillars of Eternity II starts strong, and it ends strong. But the middle? It just sort of winds its way to nowhere, for hours at a time.

The Deadfire is a very different sort of environment than the placid faux-Europe high fantasy of the previous game. It’s, well, islands. Thus you’re quickly given command of a ship, your mobile base of operations for Pillars of Eternity II.

Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire IDG / Hayden Dingman

It’s a huge change. Pillars of Eternity was very much a Baldur’s Gate spiritual successor, with travel handled like the tabletop RPG Baldur’s Gate was trying to emulate. Which is to say: The journey didn’t matter much, only the destination. You traveled by waypoint, from point of interest to point of interest, with the lands in between glossed over.

In Pillars of Eternity II, travel is an active part of the adventure. You physically sail your ship around the archipelago, albeit from a top-down perspective, discovering islands and shipwrecks and strange sea creatures along the way. There’s even a lightweight management level to it, with you responsible for supplying food and drink and medicine to keep your crew happy. You’ll also encounter other ships on the Deadfire of course, at which point the game turns into sea-battle-via-text-adventure.

Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire IDG / Hayden Dingman

It's brilliant. These battles quickly became one of my favorite aspects of Pillars of Eternity II, hauling my ship to port and firing all cannons into the opposing ship, then closing in to ram their battered hull. It’s a perfect example of tech limitations generating a unique and interesting solution.

But cracks start to show the longer you sail around the archipelago. Aside from Neketaka, there are three or four “major” ports to discover. None of these towns have even a fraction the complexity of the stronghold, with most relegated to mere pit stops along the adventure. There’s usually one main quest (issued by someone in Neketaka) to convince you to visit, then maybe a second, minor quest once you’re there. When those are finished, well, you just never go back.

That applies even when huge shifts in circumstance happen. You might, for instance, liberate a fort from a group of slavers, and after doing so another faction moves in. It’s cool to see that sort of dynamic change, given the locations in these sorts of games are usually so stagnant. And yet, once you’ve liberated the fort...nothing. You’d think the fort’s new occupiers might have their own set of quests to uncover, but no. They’re just like “Cool, thanks for letting us have this fort and, uh, here’s your coins,” and you sail into the sunset.

Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire IDG / Hayden Dingman

And again, these are the major settlements. Most of the Deadfire is even less reactive. Obsidian did a smart thing here, making lots of smaller and denser maps instead of the sprawling wildernesses from the original Pillars of Eternity and the Baldur’s Gate-era games. A lot of them are just generic combat encounters though, and although these peppered the woods of its predecessors, there’s something dispiriting about sailing to an uncharted island, fighting the four monsters waiting there for you, and then leaving again.

The minor one- and two-level dungeons littered around the map are a bit better, but again are often lacking in real context and have no effect on the world at large. You usually get at least a short quest introduction saying, you know, “Go here and kill everyone.” But rarely does anything amount to more than that, and rarely do you get a follow-up afterward, or even a thank you from the person who gave you the quest in the first place.

Companion storylines are weak, too. There are eight companions to find, and around half are from the first game. Those returning companions are a bit stronger, given another game’s worth of context to help bolster their weak points. The new additions are one-note archetypes though. Worse, the pacing of their unique quests is all off. This is a 50-hour game, and yet I’d wrapped up some of my companion’s stories in the first 10 to 15 hours. They had nothing new to say to me for the rest of our time together.

Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire IDG / Hayden Dingman

I can’t help but compare that approach—a very Baldur’s Gate style approach, I might add—with last year’s Divinity: Original Sin II, where I was still uncovering new details about my companions 80 or more hours in. Pillars of Eternity II’s relationships feel flat and artificial in that light.

The one standout improvement: Pillars of Eternity II’s approach to loot. There’s tons of trash, but also a bewildering number of unique items—poisoned swords, flaming axes, spirit-reaping scythes, all with names and backstories. It’s possibly my favorite part of the game, forcing you to decide whether to use the spellbook you pilfered off that old lich or maybe the one bequeathed you by a grumpy archmage. Your items have stories, and I always prefer that to “Longsword +1” or what have you.

And speaking of combat, this is the best-playing Infinity Engine-type game I’ve run through, or at least the smoothest. The rules governing classes and leveling are smart, with a system running behind-the-scenes to make sure low-level abilities remain viable later on, by increasing how much damage they do or how many projectiles they fire or what-have-you even as you attain newer, flashier skills.

There’s also a fourth-wall breaking encounter rating, which helps prevent the random-feeling difficulty spikes the genre’s had in the past. The original Pillars of Eternity was very traditional in its approach—the first sign you’d wandered into a high-level area was usually when your party was obliterated in a single hit. Presumably due to the more freeform exploration in Pillars of Eternity II, you can now see an encounter’s recommended level, and prepare appropriately.

Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire IDG / Hayden Dingman

The game’s easy. Surprisingly easy, for an Infinity Engine vet. I played on the “Classic” difficulty, which gave me a fair amount of trouble at times in the first Pillars of Eternity, but I breezed through this one. The final boss battle was longer, but not necessarily harder than anything else.

That’s a bit disappointing to me, but probably a relief to those who don’t love micromanaging during real-time-with-pause combat. Your party AI can mostly guide itself to victory outside a few fights, as long as you’re the appropriate level, with you chiming in only to send a well-timed fireball towards your enemies.

Bugs

Apologies—this review’s long, I know. But I’d be remiss though if I didn’t spend some time talking about bugs. It’s an Obsidian game, so as you’d expect there are a lot of them. More even, perhaps, than you’d expect. Trouble is, it’s hard to tell how many of these will make it from our pre-release review version into the final shipping release.

Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire IDG / Hayden Dingman

I’ve suffered a significant number of crashes though. And anytime I played more than three hours at a go, I experienced significant slowdown, with sub-30 frames per second performance until I exited out and restarted. I’ve also had enemies I killed refuse to die, locking me into eternal combat with a foe who can’t be targeted. The only way to fix that one was to, again, exit to desktop and reboot the game.

I’ve had quest logic break, so someone ordered me to talk to someone I’d already killed. I’ve received messages from characters claiming we’d never met, even though we had. I’ve had characters disappear from the map entirely. All told, I finished the game with three broken missions—meaning I could never complete them, and thus never remove them from my log.

And most entertaining, I’ve had a drawbridge lower, then immediately raise again—but my characters could still cross the “raised” bridge.

Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire IDG / Hayden Dingman

Oops.

It’s a bit of a mess. Fair warning.

Bottom line

Pillars of Eternity felt like a solid foundation for a genre-defining sequel. Now, having finished said sequel, I feel much the same way. There are a lot of interesting ideas at play here, but mostly underutilized, and without the threads to tie it all together.

Despite all my complaints though, I generally enjoyed Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire. The central story is excellent, with a strong continuation of its predecessor’s themes—and, mercifully, it's easier to follow. The problem is there’s not much outside that central story. Pillars of Eternity II feels like a game built off the backs of four or five major “setpiece” moments, jaw-dropping story beats with the sort of spectacle I didn’t think was possible in an Infinity Engine-style game. If Pillars of Eternity II were only these moments, I think I’d enjoy it better.

But there’s this entire Deadfire Archipelago to explore, and very little of it worth exploring. As I said up top, Pillars of Eternity II feels at odds with itself, stuck between wanting to be a smaller, story-driven experience and a larger, more complex world. The end result is an awkward compromise at best.

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At a Glance
  • Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire starts strong, but an aimless middle section, lifeless world, and a multitude of bugs undercut its excellent main storyline and polished systems.

    Pros

    • Main story is suitably grandiose, with a number of jaw-dropping moments
    • Sailing around is engaging, and your crew even sings sea shanties!
    • Combat is smoother and more approachable than previous Infinity Engine-style games

    Cons

    • The archipelago feels lifeless outside of a few key missions
    • Companions are one-note, with disappointing storylines
    • Very buggy. Like, very.
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