Thursday, 08 February 2018 07:00

Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire Preview

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Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire (PoE2) is the highly-anticipated sequel to what’s considered by many to be one of the best RPGs of all time. An early April release date puts PoE2 three years after its predecessor, which definitely isn’t as long a wait as many notorious sequels (I’m looking at you, Half-Life 3. Lols just kidding; of course there will never be such a thing.), but the pressure is on and expectations are high.

Right now, PoE2 is only in closed beta, and there’s a lot of polishing to do before it shines.

There’s no reason to think the bugs won’t be worked out before release, but I would be doing a disservice if I didn’t mention them. The menus that pop up as you mouse over items often hang off the screen, leaving whole swathes unreadable. There are many other similar problems that likely arise from screen-size formatting issues. I suspect this is because I played on a laptop, but this is a choice many players will likely make, since PoE2 is less graphically intense and more portable than most of this generation’s titles.

The play can also be a bit choppy, which doesn’t seem to be related to strain on the GPU because it runs fine most of the time. The choppiness, however, can contribute to problems with the interface’s responsiveness. In the current version at least, misclicks and misunderstood commands are a common occurrence.

However, these problems aren’t all due to PoE2 being an unfinished product. Many problems arise from the interface itself. For example, you intuitive hover the mouse over characters to interact with them, but you need to move over the small circle at their feet before a speech bubble will come up or a spell can be cast; this kind of thing feels finicky and isn’t very user-friendly.

Furthermore, the controls aren’t very streamlined – or at least they won’t be familiar to a fair number of gamers. In an RTS, you left-click to drag a box and select units, and you right-click to move units or have them attack. In PoE2, you left-click to drag a box, but you can also left-click to move and attack [EN: C&C fans, rejoice]. Right-clicking lets you move as well, but you can’t attack with a right-click. Needless to say, these overlapping controls that are the opposite of what we’re used to lead to many situations in which characters move where you don’t want them to — yet precise movement is crucial.

PoE2 combines tactics and RPG elements.

PoE2 is set in a classic fantasy world populated by races with different abilities and, of course, you get to design every detail of your main character (I chose to be a female dwarf monk). In this beta, you captain a ship around an archipelago and try to figure out what’s causing the storm that’s interfering with foreign traders reaching the tribe on the main island. The seafaring setting is a fun twist on the classic fantasy RPG setting that dominates the world with all the familiar classes like wizards and fighters.

PoE2 isn’t quite a tactics game, because it isn’t turn-based, but positioning and abilities are crucial. Of course, those familiar with this series know it’s a cRPG, and it really does feel like a single-player version of a pen and paper dungeon crawler like Dungeons & Dragons. The only difference is you control all the characters in the party in realtime. This provides entertainment, because it’s easy to get bored while concentrating on a single character’s build in an RPG, but it also provides a challenge since you need to concentrate on the whole party simultaneously.

Outside of battle, there’s an overwhelming number of items to manage. Traveling by sea or on foot consumes food and supplies for your party, and you need to stay on top of equipping weapons, armor, and items for not just one but several characters. This is an experience where the most detail-obsessed players can spend endless hours familiarizing themselves with an unlimited supply of stats, buffs, debuffs, and effects.

If obsessions aren’t your cup of tea, you can set the difficulty as low as story mode and try to use the characters’ AI to plow through battles. Full autopilot might still be a challenge, however, as there are regular encounters that are overwhelmingly difficult to win without the right awareness of things like choke points and flanking.

An emphasis on gameplay over graphics is respectable these days.

PoE2 has beautiful fantasy creatures and settings, but you’ll spend most of your time zoomed out over the top-down view to see as much of the battlefield as possible. Gameplay therefore comes to the forefront, and that’s refreshing to see in a time when games are trying to push past the limits of human vision just to sell more copies.

In fact, the most entertaining part of this demo was the ship battles, which are entirely non-graphical. I mean that literally – all of your actions are executed through text, and, at most, black and white illustrations appear on the parchment background to help your imagination along. A small diagram in the center of the screen shows where the ships are oriented to help you maneuver, and this method is incredibly effective and entertaining. The fully-animated battles of your characters show that the ship battles could easily be brought to life in the same way, but the storybook aesthetic gives it an exciting piratey feel.

The story is as deep as it gets.

PoE2 is the epitome of epic fantasy. It’s supposed to continue the story from the first game, but I suspect even those very familiar with PoE’s story will have trouble following everything. It isn’t just a matter of intricate plot; the worldbuilding is overwhelmingly detailed. In dialogue, characters regularly speak in their fantasy tongues or reference places and gods from the world. You can hover over unfamiliar words to get pop-up glossary entries, and many of them could rival Britannica with their level of detail.

The Verdict

If my preview seems a little harsh, then, full disclosure: I’m not a fan of cRPGs. I much more prefer jRPGs, which can be a lot more straightforward in their storytelling and progression, and far less fiddly with their items and equipment. However, I can see the appeal of PoE2. I love the seafaring and exploration aspect even if I’m not such a fan of sword-and-sorcery style fantasy, and the tactical aspects of the encounters are really respectable. Fans of pen and paper dungeon crawlers, people who love to obsess over details, and fans of high fantasy with intense world building will all love this one.

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Nicholas Barkdull

Nic is a writer and narrative designer with a PhD in Social Research and Cultural Studies. He thinks real time strategy games are still a valid form of e-sport, that true RPGs should be turn-based (with huge casts of characters), and that AAA games have a long way to go before they earn back our trust. He is the Lead Writer for Pathea Games's My Time at Sandrock, and his work can be seen in Playboy, South China Morning Post, The Daily Beast, and many other places.