Set in a new region of the world, one that evokes a feeling of sailing through a dense archipelago, Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire introduces several visual and fundamental improvements to the fore. Something that we noticed almost immediately when we got to check out a recent preview build. Visually speaking, Pillars II is almost always stunning thanks to the blend of incredible art with detailed character models.
“We've known from the beginning that we wanted to make Pillars II look as awesome as possible,” Katrina tells me. “We've introduced a lot of cool tech and we've upgraded Unity. One of my favourite things that we’ve added, is that we're now able to cast shadows from 3D objects onto our 2D environments. And they cast realistic shadows which just makes everything look incredible. There's also several little things that we've added, like birds and fish and tiny things that kind of combine with each other to make the experience that much more exciting.”
Which then extends to the bigger scope and size of Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire, a sequel that very much lives up to the expectation of more across the board. Improved visuals, a bigger story, more relevant and meaningful narrative choices. And a sea change.
As a sequel to one of the very first Kickstarter success stories, and a project that saved well-known RPG developer Obsidian from the brink of closure, it was interesting to learn that a sequel could have existed in some form without a crowdfunding campaign. But, probably not at the same level of ambition and scope.
“The fan feedback we were getting from the first game, was something we really wanted to get for the second game,” Katrina explains. “It’s very helpful in improving the overall game, because our backers and fans have really good feedback. So that's mainly why we wanted to do a crowdfunding campaign again. For the first Pillars, of course, we had that crowdfunding campaign because we did need the money. And the fans saved Obsidian, so this time, we wanted to get backer content into the game and listen to all of them.”
One of the great things about Pillars of Eternity is the detail one can find in every corner. A world so rich with history it literally comes off the screen thanks to the detailed and extensive lore. When creating an entire world and telling one story, it goes without saying that a sequel or follow-up always exists somewhere as a general idea. Which then opens the door to possibility once actual development begins. Possibility tempered by real-world factors.
“We've always asked ourselves, ‘What can we do to make Pillars II even better than the first game?’”, Katrina says. “We had a lot of really great ideas, and as part of production, we have to figure out what is doable in the time that we have and with the budget that we have. We already had a story in mind, and we wanted to implement all these ideas, and so we just kind of realised almost immediately that it was going to be way bigger than the first one. Especially because we have so many new systems, like our world map and travelling around the archipelago on your ship. You can run into pirate parties, and there's ship combat.”
The nautical island theme of Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire not only gives the game its title but informs everything from exploration to how the story progresses. Plus, being the captain of your own ship opened the door to a better version of the first game’s home base.
“Your ship is basically your stronghold from Pillars of Eternity I,” Katrina adds. “When you're sailing around, you need to be aware of many things. Like balancing your crew and their morale, food, do you have medical supplies, ammunition. During development we had to think about all the little things that were involved in travelling with a ship. And with our new world map, you can go anywhere you want to. It's essentially open world. Naturally, it gets difficult if you stray too far off the path and you're not experienced enough.”
The implementation of this new approach was made easier thanks to the crowdfunding campaign and the backer beta program. “Recently we wanted to get some feedback about how players felt about traversing the world map,” Katrina continues. “Many of them felt like going to the little islands wasn't rewarding, and they weren't getting enough food and supplies. So, we recently completed some balance changes with our world map to make travelling feel more rewarding. It's even possible to find unique items when you're going through all these little islands. We want it to be fun, engaging, and feel rewarding. And with your ship, you can completely customise it, and upgrade your sails, your cannons, and your crew placement. You can have a cook, a medic, and you can have people manning the cannons.”
Which is a testament to the new development model where veteran studios like Obsidian are finding success. Even though Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire has a publisher in the traditional sense of the term, by involving a dedicated and engaged community in the development process – it can aim high and better yet, deliver on exciting and promising new systems. Like ship to ship combat.
“That was is another completely new thing that we wanted backer feedback on,” Katrina tells me. “Because it is such a unique system, it's has a turn-based storybook presentation. It's very different from anything that we had done before. So, there's also an option to bring your ship right up to the neighbouring ship and jump onto their deck for the classic, real-time with pause combat, action.”
An engaged community is of course great for the development of a deep, complex, and rewarding RPG like Pillars of Eternity, but when you throw in critical acclaim the prospect of a sequel then looks at the broader response. Outside of the wonderful presentation, art, music, story, and mechanics, the original Pillars of Eternity was not without fault. The combat often felt overly difficult, with unreliable party AI that required micromanagement to the point where Pillars became less real-time than it did a perpetual stop and start game of chess.
“Two of the major things we've added to combat based on feedback is a combat speed slider, so you can ultimately change the speed of combat based on what your personal preference is.” Katrina explains. “Additionally, we added in AI customization that is extremely detailed. You can decide on specific things with your party members, so they become almost a self-sustaining party, and you can simply focus on your main Watcher. From getting all that feedback, we've also increased recovery times, decreased them for certain classes, and a lot of little things like decreasing the party size from six to five. But it is still very challenging, and if you haven't played an Infinity Engine game before it can get very confusing.”
Which brings us to an addition made since the release of the first Pillars and found in other Obsidian RPGs like Tyranny - Storybook mode. “If you're a new player, it makes it very easy for you to get through combat without dying, and then if you get more used to that, you can increase the difficulty while you're playing the game.” A difficulty setting that Obsidian hopes will widen the appeal of Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire and provide an avenue for those who simply want to focus on the intricate and detailed story.
Like with the original Pillars, and the excellent Tyranny, the term ‘player choice’, takes on a new meaning when it comes to an Obsidian Entertainment RPG. Branching storylines, with weighty and often unavoidable consequences that feel real and earned. Pillars II very much is a story-focused RPG, and one that will continue to push the genre and medium forward.
“If you combine some of the decision-making from Tyranny with Pillars I, that's kind of what we're going for a bit in Pillars II. You can choose if you want to be a total jerk or not. And depending on what faction you side with because each faction has rivalries with other factions, another faction could start to dislike you. The decision is completely up to you how you want to play. It's like a Choose Your Own Adventure, but still with that classic Infinity Engine style of playing.”
The companion quests and relationships from the original are making a welcome return too and depending on your actions if someone doesn’t like the general direction you’re taking the story – they’ll leave.
The RPG is a genre where story often resonates more than other types of games. Perhaps that’s due to their length, or even simply because you end up spending quite a few hours with a small cast of characters. What’s great about Obsidian Entertainment’s evolution as storytellers is that you don’t necessarily need to be overly familiar with one game to enjoy another. As recent history shows, things like interactive introductions, lore and history embedded into the world and exploration, and well written and nuanced dialogue make the studio, well, one of the Pillars of the RPG development community.
Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire releases April 3 for PC