In many ways, leveling praise or complaints onto Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire is doing so to the subgenre itself. The bottom line is that POE2DF is a rich and rewarding title. Along with Divinity Original Sin, POE is shaping up to be one of the new royal lineages of the genre. And much like a worthy generation of past nobility, it’s a champion of old guard values with some inherited inbreeding deformities.
POE2DF is an isometric RPG which will make you feel right at home if you’re familiar with the genre. You play as “The Watcher”, a special guy or gal who can talk with souls of the deceased. This is a loose continuation of the last installment, but sadly you are robbed of all your skills, belongings and memory of your appearance by an enormous god statue who has mysteriously translocated to the entirely new locale of the Deadfire Isles. You have a boat and before you know it, you’re sailing around looking for trouble.
The World’s A Stage
The Isles are a detailed and nuanced place with enough people, factions and gods bickering that you’ll need to clear some mental space to keep track of them all. This can make the game a bit of a task for those looking for a more casual experience. But, I think most of those inclined to try this game came for that level of commitment. Players willing to stick with it will find that there’s plenty to take in. You have to marvel at the sheer amount of content lovingly packed into each corner and woven seamlessly together.
The setting breathes fresh air into the rather stagnant locales that typify the genre. I always felt like I was in a believable place, with people and organizations that have to make difficult choices to survive and thrive. This is exemplified in the main hub port of Neketaka. Each district distinctly showcases the stratification of classes within the island society. In the absence of flashy graphics, a lot of credit also has to go to the writing team. Verbal dungeon master world building does a lot of lifting. The art assets are familiar in style, but boast some impressive custom elements.
And We Are Merely Players
Beaches and cities are nice, but the delicate dance between the mercantile, native, imperial, pirate and heavenly factions create some real life nuances and conflicts. There are compelling narratives to be found wherever you go. The central story revolves around you sailing about in search of magical telephone stones. From them, you can call up the giant god that stole your soul and have a brief, enigmatic conversation. I really like how the other gods task you with figuring out what he’s up to. They are just as confused and bicker about what to do with him like a dysfunctional family.
There are plenty of mortal distractions as well. Colonial and mercantile forces struggle with the native islanders. Both sides present good arguments so deciding can take some deliberation. Choices in all of these quests seem carefully balanced. Both sides tend to have reasonable motives. It’s great to see a game the really understands the rarity of true good and evil, the balance they create for each other and lets you be any shade between. It all influences how people react to you and what opportunities you can access.
I like how you have a specific role in this place and the freedom to really define how you play it. Your decisions have tangible consequences for you and the world. Whether it’s leveraging a discount from a merchant to lending a voice to the downtrodden lower classes, things you do matter. Each character and area has a story to tell and each story is another block that builds the world.
Despite the size, there aren’t really any filler quests, bullshit collectable hunts or other useless time sinks. There’s plenty to discover if you look hard as I discovered more and more in each of my playthroughs. Almost every moment is well crafted and adds something substantive without ever feeling like you are wasting your time. Considering the sheer amount of content you can devour, that’s quite an achievement. With so much intertwined story, there are a metric ton of different interactions, linked events and special prompts so props to whoever had to manage all of that.
Purpose …. Meaning
It’s easy to get fooled into thinking you’re a godlike figure as the hero of the story; the only one who matters or can do anything. I too was lulled into this false security until I encountered a god who was more than willing to erase me. Being a big strong hero man, I refused to beg for my life and unceremoniously wiped out in an instant. POE2DF pulls no punches in carving out your place, as a powerful, but ultimately mortal player in a bigger game.
Despite losing about 15 hours (hardcore characters only die once) I found myself strangely alright with it. Being in fear of what can happen, or what may happen because of you, is how it should be and really immerses you as a mere piece in a larger game.
The extensive skill trees also let you define the kind of warrior you want to be. Each role, whether it be traditional fireballing wizard or beefy tank feels balanced enough. Hybrid classes and class specializations further extend your creativity. If your dream is to be an evil paladin-druid or a tiny skeleton summoner you can go for it. On harder difficulties, you’re going to need a plan though. My first mage fighter was confused about his identity and died early.
I really have a sense that how I want my character to play can be expressed and have only scratched the surface. However, it has to be said that some classes are much more interesting than others. Wizards have a whole textbook worth of spells to access. The poor barbarian can really only jump around and yell. It works, but unless you’re the type of hero who just wants to use two moves to beat encounters, some classes could use some more love.
The Main Point Is This Game Is Excellent
Before I get nasty, I must say that POE2DF is definitely one of the best games I’ve played in awhile. It’s a polished, mature and seamless title and deserves applause for it’s execution and scope. Like my parents, all the shitty things I’m about to say are out of love. I say them only because I think this series has great potential to be even more. It’s also important to note that many of these critiques extend to the genre as a whole and I think it’s high time we do better on them. So don’t forget this game is awesome and if you’re willing to put a little mental elbow grease into understanding what’s going on, it will reward you with an immense and exquisite time.
The Sea’s No Life For Me
For a game ostensibly about and spent largely at sea, I found the oceanic portion of the game to be by far the weakest element. At it’s best, it provides a decent framework to explore the islands. However, everything involving the ocean underwhelms me. The game does a poor job of capturing a life spent at sea in a place where so much is happening. There isn’t much in the way of mystery, not much when it comes to encountering things on the water and nobody on your boat ever has much to say or do.
Other ships are abundant but offer little in the way of interesting interaction (I’ll get to that). Perhaps it would be more interesting if there was more adversity, but I never found myself tested in a meaningful way. Everything is serviceable, but the sea is the most sorely missed opportunity. I just never felt excited to step on board.
Ship combat is big contributing factor to this.Your options are having a land battle with a ship background, running away (since I’ve never had a boat catch me if I wanted out) or a boring, text-based ship “battle”. It works, and it allows for some interesting tactical maneuvering if you were so inclined, but that’s really not necessary. When you boil it down, nobody wants to be the best captain as told by the same text based actions and responses.
Boarding fights are no bargain either. Most of your crew usually can’t be bothered to show up. This means you have your small party fight the entire opposing crew and their extended family. I like that recruits can come from weird places, like the the imp called Worthless Idiot who dreamed of the sea. I just wish they were more than ornamental after they come aboard.
Who’s Line Is It Anyways?
Speaking of companions, while I do like them, I found them somewhat underwritten considering how much written content there is. Each main character has a defined and quirky personality. Take Eder, who loves animals because he is a bit of a dumb animal himself. They have unique perspective and it shows through well. However, much more could have been done with each one. They just don’t have much to say. After the initial recruitment questions are over it takes a long time for them to want to say anything again.
The long pauses could be because of the amount of side quests I was doing, but it would be nice to hear more than the odd line. The way they say the same lines to each other, the same lines in battles and the same dialogue lines time after time makes them feel glued to you as opposed to existing and interacting with the world.
This highlights one of the stupid conventions of RPG’s as a whole, the companion quest. In them, we have one plotline to become someone’s best friend forever. At this point, it just feels so unnatural to have them, as you expect each companion to have some problem which only you can miraculously resolve. That event forever defines your relationship. POE2DF has some interesting ideas and does a better job than most at making these worthwhile. But considering the monumental amount of material there is, it all feels a little phoned in. They could have collapsed some of the more boring quests and allowed for some more breathing room to build a character beyond personality quirks and a dramatic questline.
There are also some “sub-main” characters you can recruit with some interesting backstories. Sadly, you can’t even have a conversation with them so it’s a bit confusing to me as to why this is. The roster of characters is not all that large and having essentially an inert mercenary tagging along with almost no chance of meaningful interaction disincentivizes even bringing them. It’s another adequate inclusion, as the class combinations they offer are unique. But to me, not developing these characters is a big miss.
Old Habits Die Hard
Another gross inherited disease is the deluge of items you end up collecting. Every enemy has stuff. Most have a whole set of gear to heroically strip off and pawn for cash. Items are sorted by when they were collected by default. So if you want to try and find something, it’s basically a crapshoot where it might be located. 80% of items you’ll never use, but you have no idea which are useless. You end up with sprawling hoarder pages of assorted garbage.
Unique items are well designed. However, you won’t have enough really good gear for everyone. Even less that synergize with the fighting styles you want to build. This means that either you have to switch out everyone’s gear everytime you switch parties, change how two or more fighters approach combat, or roll out with suboptimal gear. I had a hard time getting everyone some action on hardcore. Using anybody but my core party was a gamble that didn’t make sense. It’s a tough problem to be sure and I don’t think many games have solved it well. But a common problem is still a problem.
The final major problem is the adherence to established concepts. The setting and main plotline are the only substantive deviation from the trusted isometric RPG formula. While it does provide occasional refreshment, nothing stands out as really interesting. Mechanically and philosophically speaking, the game treads on tried and tested ground.
Combat works well but feels a little dated. There are some cool features to help replayability like perk unlocks for multiple playthroughs (nice for hardcore). But, the beginning sections are long and start to drag a bit after the third time around. Interfaces are serviable but not the most intuitive or slick. I often fumbled around and had some weird menu interactions.
So what we’re left with is a smart, well made game which does little to really bring any worthwhile new ideas to the table. The very best games find ways to provide a new experience, a mechanic, style or theorem that pushes the genre as a whole forward and is emulated by others to come. For POE2DF, I’m just not seeing it.
Should You Buy?
Honestly though, that’s all I can really say in terms of negatives, and I’ll be the first to admit that I’m reaching. Many of these are difficult, systemic problems and many have tried and failed to provide solid solutions. Most of them are really not too bad at all.The sea life and companion interactions could have been a lot stronger but these are minor blemishes on a near spotless title. Developer support is forthcoming as free content patches and DLC are on the way. For anyone not afraid to get into the weeds a little bit, POE2DF is a fantastic entry. It’s a complete, well thought out experience, excellently made: a poster child for games of it’s type.