'Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire' Has Too Many Debts to Pay


#1

Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire is a specialty product. After all, it’s a sequel to Pillars of Eternity, the crowdfunded throwback isometric role-playing game hearkening back to the heyday in the genre in the early 2000s. If you love those games and yearn for more of them, then you are the intended audience for this game. This might be its biggest problem. Because while I love those original Fallouts and the Baldur’s Gate games, I can’t help but feel that Deadfire is hampered because it has to bear a family resemblance to those long-ago predecessors. It is worse for it. It is a game whose many excellent high points are dragged down by slow, plodding ones, and almost all of the latter are due to what it is obligated to be.

Pillars of Eternity 2, like the original and the games it borrowed from, is a fantasy-ass video game. The lore is deep, and the connections between the factions, their leaders, their adherents, their religions, their perspectives on those religions, and their political beliefs are are shaped by the context of the world that they are in and its history. The lore is so deep that the dialogue boxes have hover-over text that will define terms for you, often handing you a tooltip that contains two paragraphs of text about the aspect of a god. It’s a complicated world that requires some buy-in from a player who is eager to learn and explore. Let me give you an example:

The Principi sen Patrena are the last remainder of noble families from the fallen empire of Grand Vailia. The world of the Pillars of Eternity franchise is chock full of empires who have shattered (or at least seen better days), and the Principi dealt with their collapse in the way that any faction might. They loaded up on ships, sailed away from their homeland, and looked to settle on the islands of the Deadfire Archipelago. And, for whatever reason, they just didn’t. Now, hundreds of years later, the Principi are a powerful faction of pirates that raid the Huana, The Royal Deadfire Company, and the Vailian Trading Company equally.

Wait, you might be asking, who the hell are all of those factions? Is the Vailian Trading Company the same as Grand Vailia? I thought it fell?!

This is what I mean by saying the game hampers itself. It’s a fantasy universe with seemingly endless complexity and depth, and that expectation of depth emerges from its lineage. Deadfire is a throwback to the Baldur’s Gate games and Planescape: Torment, well-loved isometric RPGs that were built on dozens of years of official Dungeons & Dragons worldbuilding created in hundreds of official books. Baldur’s Gate is set in the Forgotten Realms, a long-running setting for Dungeons & Dragons that is so beloved that the 5th edition of the game adopted it as the “official” setting. There are a couple dozen gods, a number of competing factions, and lots of powerful figures in a world of maximal wizardry and plane-jumping action.

Pillars of Eternity is a nostalgia romp for that exact kind of experience, and it felt like Baldur’s Gate with the serial numbers filed off. It contains a huge amount of backstory and lore to because fantasy RPGs in this subgenre took place in worlds with a lot of preexisting lore. To create a new world that feels old, the writing team on PoE had to create an equivalent world of gods and mortals that felt it was based upon, but was not, the lore and worldbuilding that had built up naturally in D&D and formed the base for Baldur’s Gate. It is a rule of the genre, like a noir’s internal monologue or a thriller’s third act twist. It’s not just the storytelling that needed to be recreated and repackaged for PoE. The game also needed that pseudo- D&D “pause and play” combat that those developers back then were using as a facsimile of the tabletop combat experience.

Deadfire is weighed down by all these historical influences. The plot is simple as far as RPGs go: A god who lived under your house has awoken, and he smashed your house while digging himself out. He immediately beelined for the Deadfire Archipelago, a set of almost-Caribbean islands with many factions competing for dominance over them. While knocked out from trauma, the player finds themselves to be chosen by the god of death to stop, or at least bargain with, this colossus-god who is kicking ass across the islands. Upon waking, the player discovers they have a ship to manage and some quests to do across a very large ocean map.

I don’t want to discount the fun and legitimate joy of playing those missions. For every “go there, kill them, come back” or fetch quest there are legitimately interesting ways of interacting with the isometric world that exists all around the player. In one instance, I unknowingly did a set of quests for the aforementioned Principi and received, to my surprise, a flag that would allow me to bluff my way into a pirate fort. Later, I killed a man with a harpsichord. There are also classic Fallout 2-ish quests where there legitimately doesn’t seem to be a “right” answer to the whole ordeal, giving many of the missions a crunchy realism that does seem to echo out into the world.

At the midpoint of the game, for example, you are sent to an island that is having some trouble. The Vailian Trading Company is looking to extract resources from the island’s native population, but their expedition went missing. Worse, the island community seems to slowly be wasting away due to storms and fishmen attacking them and their food supply. The leader of the community wants the Trading Company on the island so that he can improve the quality of life for his people, but the player knows that it would come with, well, what trading companies do to communities they pillage. Raising the stakes even more, a competing company wants you to destroy the resources so that they can come and recruit the island into their empire. It’s complicated, each conversation is a wheel within a wheel, and no matter what happens you are disappointing someone. It’s legitimately interesting, touches on the game’s extended themes of colonialism (which I cannot go into at length here because this truly is a game about colonialism), and it makes up for the inevitable dungeon crawl that exists at the conclusion of the mission.

The time between these interesting quests, though, is filled with things I have grown tired of as someone who has been playing games like this for nearly 20 years. I don’t need to walk through dungeons anymore. I don’t need to fight trash mobs that stand between me and the big fight at the end of the dungeon (or, in the case of Deadfire, often the big talk at the end of the dungeon). While I know that there are lots of people who play these games for the tactical combat, and that they enjoy these games a lot because of it, I have a hard time getting truly engaged by the fights of Deadfire when I know that I could just be playing XCOM 2. Pausing, assigning optimal actions, and watching it play out feels like a legacy system and a bid for nostalgia and not something that is inherently worthwhile. And while a “Story” mode exists to facilitate this, it does not remove all of the time you spend wandering through dungeons waiting for enemies to die so you can actually get that next bit of story.

In some ways, this mirrors my changing tastes in the actual tabletop gaming space as well. When I first began playing Dungeons & Dragons and the like, I savored the combat. I liked solving the puzzle that was an enemy and its particular skills. Similarly, I enjoyed the dungeon crawl, the slow, plodding action of moving through a place I was not supposed to be in order to defeat an evil being who was more powerful than I was. But as I have gotten older, and as I’ve discovered all the things that tabletop games can do in their wide variety, I have less patience and interest in the clunkiest, most old-school ways of playing. I want to know what happens to the kingdom if I release the Orb of Sun from its demonic cage. I don’t care about rolling to see if I can pick that cage up, and I certainly don’t care about fighting the 200 goblins between that Orb and myself.

My feelings about these throwback isometric RPGs are similar. I loved them when they were what was available to me. Baldur’s Gate and Fallout 2 allowed me to do things that no other game I had played before did. They were great at encapsulating that tabletop roleplaying that fascinated me, the storytelling of science fiction and fantasy I had been reading, and this almost-limitless free feeling of being able to do whatever I wanted within the fictional boundaries of that world.

Those things I loved (the storytelling) were stapled to things that I didn’t (clunky combat systems). And now it’s 20 years later, and I’m still playing these games and getting the same basic structure with very little difference and innovation beyond those games from all those years ago. Maybe developers who want to make particular experiences. Maybe players yearn, nostalgically, for the same way they felt all that time ago. Whatever the reason, it feels heavy. At its worst moments, Deadfire feels like I’m stuck in a time loop, looking at the same cursors and hearing the same general NPC dialogue that I grew tired of a long time ago.

Maybe it’s just because there’s not a lot of room in the isometric RPG space. Torment: Tides of Numenera, another nostalgia project, had a similar feel to it. It’s worth considering if the constraints of what this genre has to look like, how it has to be displayed, and the legacy inventory / stat sheet / combat mechanics are truly too heavy to overcome even if the narrative work truly does shine in comparison to past games.

This reliance on legacy systems sticks out to me so much because of how much I enjoy the new parts of Deadfire. I’ll go out on a limb here and say that the most compelling, gameplay-and-narrative sections of the game are almost a visual novel, and I deeply want to play that version of this experience. As I said before, it’s a game with a huge amount of lore, and figuring out how all of it fits together is part of the fun of settling yourself into the game. There are long conversations with the pantheon of gods where you can pit them against each other, endear yourself to some of them, and question the very assumptions that make up Deadfire’s world. They’re long, they’re interesting, and it’s a very small part of the game compared to how much walking through dungeons you have to do.

There’s also quite a lot of playing factions off of one another. Manipulating trade companies, doing bounties for them, and trying to weasel your way into everyone’s good graces so they won’t see you betray them is cool. The rival factions of The Royal Deadfire Company and The Vailian Trading Company are pitted against each other by the player through dialogue options with several characters across many different islands (as well as a couple of the more exciting missions), but it always felt to me like the early 2000s were always intruding on these intricate politics with clunky combat and time-wasting walks across beautiful maps. When the game is all about skill checks in a big roster of skills and dialogue options, it is running on all cylinders and feels like one of the best narrative games I’ve played in the past couple years. When it’s leaning into what it has to be, it starts feeling like I’ve been here before.

The boat combat is a great example of how good Deadfire's new ideas can be when they're free of obligation to conventions. Since you’re traveling across an archipelago, you need a boat, and that boat can encounter other boats. When that happens, a series of choices appear, and some of them are narrative-based (like, say, encountering a plague ship that appears to be abandoned). In other instances, you end up in combat, which is a short mini game that plays out in choices about how to maneuver and when to shoot at the other ship. Crucially, it does not happen on a “game board” or some kind of visual grid. Instead, there is a visual element to show the positions of the ship, there are some numbers about distance and health, and the rest is communicated in short, turn-based narrative bursts.

It’s pure brilliance, taking the power of ship to ship combat and putting it entirely in the theater of the mind. It relies on its narrative chops and a set of clear mechanics to allow you to imagine whatever you want, and in that way it’s like the best version of that tabletop-to-video game adaptation line. The ship combat leans into what made those isometric RPGs so interesting to me all those years ago but with my current understanding of what makes the tabletop space so exciting. Let me direct the action and experience the consequences of that action, don’t bog me down in interminable details that I don’t enjoy. It’s new, it’s different, and it’s where these game could go if they broke with tradition more often.

Building a game that make promises is hard. Playing into nostalgia without delivering the exact same experience or alienating players with too much new stuff is even harder. Deadfire manages to maneuver itself between those two things, and it’s impressive for that alone. But I can’t help but feel that the real core of these games could be delivered as something else, and that a different kind of format would ultimately work much better for the kinds of experiences that Deadfire delivers best.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://waypoint.vice.com/en_us/article/mbkayb/pillars-of-eternity-ii-deadfire-has-too-many-debts-to-pay

#2

I empathize with this article so much. I’ve repeatedly tried to get into the likes of Pillars, Torment, and Wasteland, and each time the arcane systems and slow pace have pushed me off what otherwise is compelling world building and writing. Give me a 10-20 hour version of this, with more intuitive systems to those of us not raised on the Infinity Engine, and I’m sold. Harebrained Schemes seemed to have figured out the middle ground with the Shadowrun Returns series, and I would love to see a version of those games set in a Baldur’s Gate sort of setting.


#3

Isn’t that stuff like the Divinity: Original Sin games? Or even The Witcher?

It seems like there are a lot of RPGs with a more modern, faster paced, 3D style being released every year.

Maybe we can have all the genres, old and new in execution. A feast for those who enjoy different pacing and mechanics (I really enjoyed the original PoE after backing it, but will maybe wait for a GotY with any expansions this time round as I’ve not got the time for something this big right now).

Edit: It feels like we get relatively few slow games that feel like they’re so loaded with lore as to be a glimpse into something even bigger than themselves. We get the occasional Mass Effect 1 or Dragon Age: Origins PC but far more often we get a Mass Effect 2, 3, Andromeda or Dragon Age console, 2, Inquisition, etc. The faster, more intuitive children of the Infinity Engine are not absent from the release schedules.


#4

I haven’t played Divinity, but aren’t those games still 40+ hours long? And while I greatly enjoy The Witcher, I’d also like something that isn’t 100+ hours and only comes out every 4-5 years.


#5

I’m just wondering if it’s the arcane systems and slow pace in these RPGs - games that hark back to previous era staples (either as actual sequels or spiritual successors built to be broadly the same mechanical systems like R-T with Pause or turn-based rather than action game combat) - which creates that length or the genre expectations (that most ‘AAA’-scope RPGs are 40-80 hour campaigns)?

When we go to fast action combat in an open world (The Witcher 3) then we don’t get a short game from it. If we throw away the Infinity Engine systems (last seen from Bioware in Dragon Age Origins PC, a modernisation but still clearly in that model) then we see Dragon Age 2 didn’t get shorter, it just recycled assets to get to the same length without slowing down the pace with slower mechanics (fully embracing the more action-oriented combat). Or Dragon Age Inquisition, that goes completely for the action style and ends up feeling like an MMO from the open 3D world and action structure (on top of a cinematic story) in a very long experience.

It seems like our “not like the old games” RPGs that go for more intuitive systems and a faster pace… aren’t shorter.

Wanting shorter games is fine but why ask it of Pillars, Torment, and Wasteland - games designed explicitly to be modern spins on those slow and sometimes esoteric old RPGs, with most of the systems ported forward and tweaked (sometimes heavily, sometime only mildly, but rarely completely swapped out for a totally different system model). If any games are going to be tied to a history of slow worlds that feel enormous but require a long time to walk through, it’s these.

Now a modern Dragon Age anthology game, or a series of Witcher side-stories, or any other modern series of RPGs that don’t make that explicit link to the Infinity Engine and similar games from ~20 years ago. That seems a much better place to look for shorter stories. Short stories that are a better match to the frenetic and accessible action that doesn’t take hours to become comfortable with.


#6

I am largely enjoying this game for all the reasons the review seems to be disliking it actually. I rather like the pace and if anything I find it doesn’t have enough combat to take advantage of the smartly designed systems at work here. I really like all the classes and the way you can mix and match them and the way it works together with the gear you can find. My biggest issue so far (aside from the colonialism aspect but I don’t feel especially qualified to talk about that at the moment beyond finding it off putting) is the lack of difficulty making the fights and all those mechanics feel a tad pointless leading to long strings of quests that have interesting enough writing behind them but all feel a bit toothless. Though I do appreciate that it’s not just a mindless murder fest so it’s not the worst trade off all told


#7

Hi, I enjoyed reading this article. As always, Cameron Kunzelman is a fantastic writer.
I’m less interested in the review of Deadfire, specifically, but more intrigued by the theme of the article.
(I’m still stuck in Battletech, I just wanna plow through the story, but I’m stuck doing filler quests)

I noticed the use of the term, nostalgia when discussing legacy systems in this game, and was wondering on why that idea was used specifically.

What do we think qualifies a nostalgic design intention vs any kept system in any genre of game?
Or is that the wrong question as maybe all of old design decisions might qualify as nostalgic?
It feels like the simple summary of the piece is that there isn’t enough newness.
It reads as though as much as Cameron enjoys some of the writing and world building, the game design feels stale. Sounds like a great experience for anyone coming to it without that infinity engine background.

How much of a shadow does those early CRPGs cast on games in 2018, compared to recent additions of the genre;
Pillars of Eternity, Tyranny, Expeditions: Vikings, Serpent in the Staglands, Wasteland 2, Shadowrun Returns, UnderRail, The Dwarves, Stasis, Age of Decadence, Masquerada, Divinity 2 etc.

Or going back further, compared to the design legacy of D&D and early rolepaying games?

As a fan of CRPGs, I’m also a bit worried if anything built within that D&D style framework will become increasingly boring to experience.
It must be especially a concern for those who graft on that fandom as a core part of their identity.
I hope they find themselves able to enjoy other things, in the event they find themselves feeling the experience goes becomes more dry as the genre becomes older.

In general, I’m interested in how many years of newer genres, Battle Royals, MOBAs, etc, have in them before folk find them increasingly old and iterative.
I suppose fans of music genres or artistic mediums underwent similar feelings across time.


#8

im really loving it. the first big dngeon i’ve come across (in Neketaka) has had a restrained number of combat encounters that focus on different monsters, and force you to change up your tactics (playing on veteran btw). the empower mechanic give you something to lean on when things get ugly, letting you continue fighting instead of reloading, and so far, when used to their synergies, the multiclass companions have been pretty different from one another in use and each have their own bite.


#9

Oh, man. That XCOM 2 mention there just made my brain synapses fire. I would play the shit out of a fantasy-based XCOM style game. Even better, the story in-between the missions could be told in a Visual Novel style, with a lot of dialogue options, to simulate the CRPG gameplay outside of the battles. Someone get on this, asap.


#10

The Banner Saga is a pretty close fit to what you describe, although the opportunities for roleplay are much more constrained and you only have a couple of opportunities to dramatically redirect the plot.


#11

I’m playing through Pillars of Eternity right now and have really gotten into it for the first time despite a couple of failed attempts a couple years ago.

I think the thing I most agree with Cameron about is that I really don’t want to fight 50 trash mobs before I get to the actually-interesting encounter at the end of the dungeon. The boss fights are almost always a joy for me, trying to figure out how to make each member of my party execute their role to its fullest in order to succeed against a difficult foe, bringing the full brunt of their abilities and spells to bear in the process. But often getting to that boss becomes a bit of a bore when I encounter the fifth exactly identical group of trash mobs just around the corner from where I fought the last one. These are the parts I push through to get to the (largely excellent) storytelling and more engaging combat. I will say that Pillars does its best to make its dungeons slightly less rote through interesting storytelling elements, like the ogre who mourns that his leader has lost her mind to the influence of a malignant force.

Overall, the good in the game has far outweighed my annoyance with the grind of it all, and I’m really looking forward to bringing my valiant Orlan Cipher to the Deadfire Archipelago to see how she fares. Thanks for the review, Cameron!


#12

I have been loving this game, but I can see where Cameron is coming from regarding the uneasy mix of systems and legacy gameplay.

I like crunchy stuff in tabletop roleplaying games, so the depth and breadth of character stuff to track didn’t bother me much. I wanna twiddle with all those skills and talents and powers and shit. The place where my own weariness starts to come in tends to be when the veneer of pirate-dark-fantasy gives way to the dungeon crawling.

I think playing Dungeon World keyed me in on the fact that its not the complex mechanics that turned me off to D&D; it’s a lot of the other stuff. The assumptions about class roles, the alignment system, the idea of professional adventurers and magic items sold on every street corner. In the pared-down version of Old School nostalgia DW offers, those annoyances came into stark relief.

Having said all that, even with the tonnage of lore and repetition of “sneak-disarm-kill-loot”, though, the narrative of PoE II has carried me a lot further than PoE I.


#13

I do feel that the adoption of legacy systems management may have a purpose in games like these. While I didn’t finish the first POE game ( no really good reason, just got sidetracked by life) what really made that game last for me was the size of it and part of the reason it felt so large was partially due to the system that governs it overall. You might not agree, and that’s fine, but part of the reason these types of games feel so large is in part to a system that forces you to slow down and take your time rather than run and gun your whole way through.

I like this part of these games bc I enjoy being able to just fire them up and do one or two things without feeling obligated to do some larger overarching quest. If I have more time I can jump into something denser in the story and move things along but I enjoy being able to wring out every side encounter and possibility from these games, its why they are so dense and slow paced.

I get that the system is archaic at this point and is merely a reflection of my own nostalgic sensibilities in playing and replaying Baldurs Gate growing up but I also really enjoy it. If you made it faster paced, then you’d have to make more for the player to do and think about, otherwise you would risk having a very different perhaps shallow feeling game that I doubt anyone would feel was substantial enough to feel satisfying.