Games Preview: Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire: Old school RPG crunch and the deep, blue sea

One of the harder asks in this gig is playing a hundred hour RPG for a preview piece. Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire, like its predecessor and the historic Black Isle Studios RPGs that are its inspiration, is a deep and multifaceted creature which makes diving in without a tutorial a bit daunting. What I found in the few hours I sat down with Pillars of Eternity II was an RPG that isn’t content to merely dredge up your memories of Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale to great nostalgic effect. It could, easily, and you might even forgive it for doing so, but it never does. Instead, it takes multiple modern day, open world RPG tropes and finds interesting ways to fold them into a 20-year-old design philosophy.

Despite being a sequel to 2015’s Pillars of Eternity, there’s no reason for you to feel like you need to play the first one to get to grips with Deadfire. There’s more than enough to create a clear delineation between to the two titles that you could jump in on Deadfire and not feel as though you’ve missed anything. That might not be deterrent for you if you have the time to go back to the original but I’m an adult with time-devouring responsibilities. Asking me to commit to one hundred hour RPG is a big enough ask, much less two in a row.

The way Deadfire sets itself apart is by taking its cues from open-world role players like Final Fantasy XV or The Witcher 3, dumping the old design method of individual maps for each new area and cleverly replacing them with a sprawling ocean. Dubbed the Deadfire Archipelago, the area is filled with islands to explore and I was encouraged to start hopping between them right away aboard a ship of my own.

While actually getting from island to island is very straightforward, actually learning how to operate my ship proved to be a bit beyond me. I had to keep my crew happy and pulling into port to stock up on supplies so they wouldn’t mutiny was core to that. Add some extremely crunchy, old school combat mechanics into the mix and I found myself a bit out of my depth (heh).

What I did find was that I got into trouble a lot and that the trouble was always very interesting. I dungeon delved, I explored caves, I found new islands full of weird treasure, and I got into very inaccurate shoot outs with other ships that frequently saw me end up at the bottom of the ocean.

When you aren’t sailing around looking for trouble, Deadfire is a perfect replica of the RPG’s I played in high school — not as they were, but how I remember them being. The way the water laps against the shore, the well-worn and lived-in look of the buildings and the wild, barely tamed atmosphere of each island environment. … it looks and feels the way I remember those games looking when I was 14, no mean feat. While land-based combat is still very much a real-time affair, its possible to pause the action and plan your next move whenever you like. Little additions like a pop-out menu full of enemy information when you hover over them are a welcome add for tacticians looking for an edge.

Regarding the game’s dialogue and description text, I do want to give developer Obsidian a shout out for what is, even at this early stage, some of the strongest writing in an RPG this side of Bioware. Even a battle between pirate ships — essentially a static affair with text boxes displayed on screen and the odd sound effect — was electric, thanks to some stellar character and description work by Obsidian’s writers.

By the time I was done with the preview build, I felt like I’d barely begun to scratch the surface. I had a character with a build I halfway understood but I could feel the itch to try other builds already gnawing at the back of my mind. I’d more or less gotten back into the groove of combat and I was starting to get really attached to my little crew of placeholder pirates.

For those who came up in the era of Black Isle Studios and the early Bioware days, Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire will be one to watch for sure. I look forward to being able to sink my teeth into it when it releases onto the Steam store April 3, 2018.

Preview conducted on Windows PC with an early press build provided by the publisher.