In many ways Obsidian Entertainment’s Pillars of Eternity changed the face of computer RPGs this decade, in addition to saving the veteran studio from the brink of closure. One of the first, high profile Kickstarter crowdfunding success stories, Pillars of Eternity promised a return to the isometric, story-driven, and deeply strategic combat of the types of CRPGs that featured words like Baldur, Planescape, Icewind, and Torment in their titles. Classic games that it turns out a lot of people wanted to see more of.
Now, once again a successful RPG developer Obsidian Entertainment are attempting to outdo the size and scope of the original with Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire - due for release in April. Rebuilt using a new engine, players will once again venture into the world of Eora, but this time with vastly improved character detail and animation. Including some truly breathtaking locations to explore. And, of course, loot.
But underneath all that the combat has been revamped to address some of the issues players had when it came to the first game. Which also found their way into the also excellent Tyranny. Freedom, exploration, and player choice have also been emphasised with Pillars of Eternity II presenting a new island-hopping and nautical-themed chunk of the world to explore.
And it’s this simple idea, landing on one island, getting to understand the plight of the locals, and then sailing to another mysterious island filled with danger (in the form of giant rock monsters and trap-filled dungeons) that our hands-on time with Pillars of Eternity II focused on. Based on Obsidian’s recent track record our expectations were high, and we certainly weren’t disappointed. Even though for the most part the progression and succession of events felt a little familiar.
But then again there’s an old saying which originated on Naboo that goes something like “if it ain’t broke then whysa yousa wanta fixa”. Ahem. Which is merely to say that after firing up Pillars of Eternity II there was that definite feeling of returning home to catch up with an old friend. Where friend in this case is the classic isometric RPG formula where the focus is placed on story, lore, character development, and involved combat. Taking a page from the Tyranny playbook, and a welcome addition, is the ability to play-though with lowered combat difficulty so you can focus on the branching choice-filled story.
Which is what we did, because well, being thrown into an RPG with a full party you barely know is like jumping into the deep end. Right off the bat it’s great to see that Pillars of Eternity II doubles down on class traits as means to engage with both the world and NPCs. From being able to use your character’s background and history to get favoured treatment from a local chieftain through to using a party member’s mechanical skills to try and pick a lock.
The biggest takeaway though has to be with the new ship as a home base mechanic where you can upgrade and deck out living quarters through to dynamic naval combat that feels in-line with the real-time by the way of turn-based combat. Ship-to-ship battles are more turn-based, and a little confusing at first, but having the ability to also board and enemy vessel to loot it via hand-to-magic hand combat is very cool. Being able to set sail and then direct your ship to explore uncharted and dangerous waters feels new, and thanks to the improved visuals looks great too. With wonderful music and effects.
The demo section we played through featured all of the above, including a very cool dungeon to explore that hinted at the underlying story full of ancient magic and corruption. Even though we turned down the difficulty the combat felt more fluid this time around, with abilities and spells that were more pronounced – both visually and terms of the buffs and status effects they triggered. Those wondering if the complexity has been toned down have no need to worry, because Pillars of Eternity II is RPG stat heaven – with several different builds and skill paths to go down.
In the end though it was the story and setting that captured our attention, with Pillars of Eternity II feeling more alive and intricate than ever before. We got the impression that choice-wise things will go down the Tyranny path of morally grey and meaningful decisions to be made, which is exciting.