Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire (2018) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire (2018)

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When Pillars of Eternity came out in 2015 it was like a period of darkness broke with the slightest sliver of hope that the golden days of isometric RPGs à la Baldur's Gate and Fallout might return.  I devoured PoE lustily, getting caught up in its unique take on souls and religion alongside its complicated characters such as the bigoted, sexist, altogether repugnant Durance.  Playing PoE again in preparation for PoE 2: Deadfire (just Deadfire moving forward) served as a cold shower to my early excitement.

PoE scratched an itch that had developed into a sore and any isometric ointment would do.  Revisiting PoE was a chore, the dour plot and plodding combat proving counter-intuitive to my investment in its world.  Deadfire advertised itself as a more swashbuckling adventure that serves as a direct continuation of my choices in PoE while updating the combat and class system to the more successful Tyranny (still the best of this latest glut of isometric RPGs).For the first five hours or so Deadfire provided many changes that dragged down PoE.  The combat system is more engaging with early options to replenish power pools and more active skill choices so I wasn't just blowing my more powerful abilities straight away.  This creates a number of tense battles as positioning and ability usage is more methodical and, for the very first time in all my years of playing isometric RPGs, I had use for the stealth skills.  One particularly hairy location involved my party raiding a crypt where engaging in direct combat sent swarms of higher level enemies after me.  After laying a few traps to slay one of the patrolling creatures I sneaked on by one at a time feeling the tension raise as the "you've been spotted" bar went up.

Beyond the combat improvements, Deadfire allowed me to live out the conclusion to The Pirates of Dark Water I never got to experience.  I tried assembling a crew solely of misfits and refused to align myself with any of the competing factions as they were all variations of oppressive caste systems based on religion, class, and violence.  For a while the combination of unusual companions, my favorite being the abandoned imp who came with me because I promised I wouldn't hit him, and improved combat system along with an intriguing plot involving the destruction of the soul economy made Deadfire hum right along.

After the first few hours drag set in badly.  Deadfire is a case study in a video game where both the new mechanics and quests are in desperate need of editing.  This doesn't apply to the main plot, rather the dozens of sidequests along the way and an unnecessary to the point of leaden naval combat system.  PoE benefited from a slower pace since the antagonist was part of a shadow organization that isn't going anywhere and your player character isn't in any danger of losing themselves eternally for a long time.Contrast this to the total lack of urgency in Deadfire where the situation really calls for it.  You're pursuing a literal deity who's stolen a piece of your soul with the remaining deities breathing hellfire down your neck in a race against the clock to stop the eradication of the soul cycle.  This makes the many bounties, mysterious towns, abandoned ports, and internecine conflicts questionable detours instead of adding texture.  There are tremendous stakes with an always moving opponent who moves at whatever pace is dictated by my patience for the myriad of fetch quests (be it a body part, a token, or what have you they're almost all fetch quests).  I don't think I've played a game where the main plot was presented as a matter of upmost importance while simultaneously being the least important thing in terms of progress.

The worst addition is the naval combat.  The idea seems appealing until put into practice.  I could beef up my cannons, buy larger ships, make sure my crew morale stays high but not a lick of that mattered except for some text decisions in the climax.  All the naval combat encounters ended the same way with my crew charging forward until I could board the opposing ship.  There is no reason to use the system for actual naval battles as there is no engaging visual component with the actions reduced to only text, no situation where cannon fire was necessary, and no penalty for always sailing full speed ahead to board the opposing ship.There is some fun to be had in the earliest boarding battles as I needed to control the territory between the two ships to prevent my team from being overwhelmed.  This is also where the improved combat morphed into something of a double-edged sword.  Deadfire has a terrible case of power creep and the party AI has been improved to the point where I didn't need to do anything for about 90% of the battles starting from roughly the half-way point on.  Even bumping up the difficulty and explicitly going after higher level targets produced similar results.

Deadfire is a frustrating case of a sequel taking several steps forward and, through lack of refinement, those forward steps go in a circle.  The improved combat system makes for a great early game then provides little reason to control things manually after a few level ups.  The setting is a sparkling change of pace for the same old "fetch this thing or collect this head" quests.  A promising idea for naval combat results in a text adventure with scant incentive to make full use of it.  Obsidian Entertainment tried to reinvent the wheel and ended up making a box - great if you want to stuff some time into and forget, less effective if you want something with momentum.

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Posted by Andrew

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