Pillars of Eternity shocked many a fan with its release back in 2015, garnering quite a bit of praise, citing its story writing and strategic combat, something all RPGs strive for. Attempting to continue its success into the series, Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire seeks to hit the stage in a blaze of glory, dazzling us with improved writing, gameplay and new mechanics. Releasing a closed beta for its fig.co backers, which gained over 4.4 million dollars, Deadfire has finally reached the hands of its most devoted fans and press.
Shifting focus somewhat, Deadfire takes place almost entirely amongst islands and small continents, the Deadfire Archipelago, far to the east. The beta itself has players dropped in, seemingly part-way, to a quest to sort out some of the local troubles. The first village you stumble across is having troubles with food, weather and aquatic beasts. Like a normal RPG, it is up to you to solve their problems, but you can steal their valuables along the way if you so choose.
Beyond this small village, you will be able to explore the nearby seas, islands and dungeons, with some containing straight up battles to full-on bosses. The story, as well as some encounters, is told through moving images as if drawn on tea-stained paper. These wonderfully illustrated graphics depict scenes rather than using in-game animations, accompanied by text descriptions and narration.
Deadfire plays like a combination of Torchlight and Divinity: Original Sin, Diablo-esque if you will. You have an isometric view of the map, with up to 5 characters to control, you select them as you would an RTS, either singularly or doing a drag and select, then click on the levels terrain to tell them to move or interact. If the party members are close enough to one another, it will pick them intelligently based on the situation, allowing you to use your best persuader or the one with the lockpicks to open a door.
As you travel around, looting containers, you will want to talk with NPCs, at least the ones with unique names. Through speaking with people you will gain hints on your current quest, new tasks or even allow you to trade goods. If they are important enough to warrant such, you can also engage in skill challenges or specific discussions linked to your class and feats, allowing you to gain more info, discounts or change the outcome of conversations and quests.
Moving away from villages, which takes a certain amount of time depending on distance, you will move onto the world map where your party becomes 1 big marker. You can move to any reasonable spot on the map, taking time and resources like water to do so. Moving over sparkling parts of the map will reward you with resources or unlock new locations to explore. Locations themselves are split between novel-style encounters and dungeons.
Encounters of the novel style come up on a tea-stained parchment, with images to depict what is going on and text to describe in more detail. These come in the forms of skill challenges, mostly to find loot, secure areas or talk with other people. Thankfully, you will be able to select the best person in your team for these, using repair, diplomacy, nature skills and more to overcome the challenges. These reminded me heavily of the recent game Regalia: Of Men and Monarchs with their novel-style encounters.
Dungeons are bigger maps, containing traps, loot and monsters, novel-style encounters can also lead into these. Dungeons act like the normal village maps, select your team and click the level to move around. If you spot an enemy you can take the first attack with your ranged units, or stealth to get closer. The combat in Deadfire is very fast-paced for both the camera angle and gameplay. Taking on a real-time-with-pause (RTwP) combat system, Deadfire is fast paced with its battles. Thankfully you can pause with the space bar to get a better look at the battle, input skills and commands to your team and line up attacks easier. It might be a good idea to abuse this pause function, as from my experience and that of some other beta testers, the AI for your teammates isn’t polished enough to be fully functional.
As you complete encounters and quests you will gain EXP to level up your team, with levels granting you new abilities and/or spells, skill points as well as new weapon proficiency. You gain 1 point to spend in the ability tree, unlocking higher defence or health values, skills or spells and buffs depending on the class you chose on character creation. Rangers gain new abilities to improve their archer or pet, whereas mages gain new spells to cast. You can invest a single skill point per level into your skills also, improving your diplomacy skills or that of your trap disarming.
Since Deadfire is set within several small islands it would be prudent to have a form of travel, it’s a good thing you brought your own ship along for just such an occasion. Ships can be outfitted with crew and arms, alongside needing resources to keep your crew fed and watered. As you travel the seas themselves you will also spot other ships, which you can avoid or interact with. Yo-ho-ho, I see me some booty. Make your way to any ship and decide to attack them if you want, this will bring you into another text-based encounter, similar to the novel ones, where you can choose several actions.
Ship combat is rather straightforward, you have a certain distance between the 2 ships with the option of moving forward each turn. Besides moving forward you can turn to port or starboard, fire the cannons on the enemy facing side or tell the troops to get into formations. If you take damage this can destroy guns or even kill the crew, so investing in better ships and weaponry would be advisable before you become a pirate or privateer. Sadly, ship combat feels underutilised with this text-based system, it does not feel engaging and often becomes a slog between turns as you run out of actions or choices before the next turn begins. Or you can just close the gap enough to board them, engaging in normal combat. The devs have stated the ship combat will change a lot over time, hopefully improving its enjoyment factor.
Overall Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire’s backer beta showed off quite a bit of the game mechanics, lore and intentions. It looks rather fleshed out with characters, backstories and factions that should be fun to dig deeper into on final release. Though the gameplay is vast and enjoyable for the most part, though some aspects can feel a bit slow and un-immersive at times, with combat feeling too fast and unforgiving to newer players. The in-depth character creator is refreshing and plays to my love of Dungeons and Dragons, alongside the ability to hire mercenaries that level up with you, allowing for a highly customisable crew. However, at the end of my time with Deadfire, I felt it is currently within a storm of beta issues and complaints that just rack up too quickly. I do hope it can fix some of the issues I have with it as it obtains new updates as it comes out of beta in April.