Pillars of Eternity II is aptly named. Fifty hours in, I feel like I’ve only just gotten started.
The pirate-themed sequel to Obsidian’s 2015 fantasy RPG (which was itself a spiritual successor to Baldur’s Gate) doesn’t have the biggest world map ever or anything like that, but its islands teem with adventures both large and small.
Over the past week, I’ve lost myself in the game, getting embroiled in countless factional squabbles, chatting up all sorts of colourful NPCs, and trying desperately to win the heart of a giant woman by feeding sharks to her bird.
Also, I guess I’ve technically been hunting down a fun-size Galactus hell-bent on slurping up every soul he comes across en route to an apocalyptic ending, but he can wait. I’ve got pirate things to do.
Here are some thoughts on the pirate things I’ve already done (I’ll discuss some bits of the story, but nothing that would constitute a major plot spoiler).
- I love the setting. The Deadfire Archipelago is a lovingly crafted, impressively lively place that blends inviting tropical scenes with cutthroat politics, a snarling sense of humour, and the occasional dose of psychedelic surrealism. Some highlights:
- 1) I sought vengeance against a pirate who left me for dead by infiltrating his lair, throwing a drunken rager of a party to draw him out, and then wiring his harpsichord to explode when he sat down to play what ended up being his own funeral dirge.
- 2) I swiped the cure for a plague-in-the-making off a crooked merchant by agreeing to maybe kill a rival of his, then letting that rival – who happened to be a man-bodied, spider-faced mind-reading monstrosity – delve into my mind and uncover the entire plot. Turns out, the horrifying monster from worlds beyond appreciated my honesty and, as a show of solidarity, told me how to steal the cure.
- 3) I slapped a different merchant’s deadbeat boyfriend for being unappreciative after I saved his arse from organised criminals. That felt good. All the while, my party members cheered and smirked approvingly.
The companions are a big step up from the first game’s. Companions in the first Pillars of Eternity had some good moments, but weren’t quite as fleshed out as some players were hoping they’d be. POE II lets you befriend seven companions, each of whom are tied in to the game’s reputation system.
They each like and dislike different factions and have different takes on each other – and of course, you, their captain. They react to your decisions and chit-chat while you’re wandering through major port cities, but not so much that it becomes annoying. These conversations evolve their relationships, which can grow into fascinating friendships, budding romances, and even bitter rivalries.
For example, priest Xoti is a devout follower of Gaun, an aspect of the giant god your party happens to be trying to stop. Eder is a fighter and an old friend of your main character from the first game, in which you basically learned that the gods are jerks (and former humans, besides). They have, let’s say, differing views on religion, which in my playthrough have become all the more complicated in that it sure seems like Xoti has a crush on Eder, so much so that Eder brought it up to me in private. Strong writing and frequent events make POE II‘s party members feel alive, and I’ve grown really attached to them.
- Sailing the high seas is cool, mostly. As somebody who sometimes tests the waters of conversation by suggesting that, actually, the 2004 version of Sid Meier’s Pirates is the greatest game of all time, I’m very into the idea of sprawling, open seas and boats. POE II‘s oceans are fun to roam, and the need to field and feed a crew lends a fresh feel to PC fantasy RPG exploration. That said, POE II leans heavily on interactive fiction-style passages to convey everything from searching old battlegrounds for items to duking it out with other ships, so your mileage may vary. Ship-vs.-ship combat, especially, feels unintuitive and lacking in impact at first. Even now, I generally prefer to smash into other ships and switch over to more traditional RPG combat against their crews.
The game expects you to be familiar with the first Pillars of Eternity, but it can stand on its own if you’re willing to do some reading. Guilty admission time: I never finished the first Pillars of Eternity. I put 30 or so hours into it, but I came into POE II foggy as a ghost-ship-infested sea when it came to what actually happened in the previous game. It didn’t help that the sequel immediately barraged me with questions about what sorts of decisions my main character made in the first game.
The first party member I met, too, treated me like we’d plundered death’s treasure stash together and come away thick as thieves. I proceeded to spend an hour reading wikis to catch up. That was, in hindsight, probably overkill, since POE II has its own in-game wiki-like system that lets you mouse over important keywords in dialogue for context about people, places, histories, and everything else under the sun.
It can be a little too much sometimes, especially because it’s hard to tell what really matters and what’s just there for flavour. On the upside, though, many of POE II‘s best quests and stories don’t rely that heavily on what’s come before, and if you need a primer, well, it’s (mostly) in the game.
- It makes you talk in pirate similes all the time, to an annoying degree. See above.
- The inventory system feels like a throwback to 1998. Who here fondly remembers the good old days when inventories were voluminous nightmare piles in need of constant, obsessive pruning? That’s a trick question, you see, because if you said yes, you’re currently trapped at the bottom of a mine shaft made of old issues of Mad magazine that you couldn’t bear to part with, being interviewed for a new season of Hoarders through your ever-shrinking air hole. Which is all to say: Pillars of Eternity II does not have a great inventory system.
Combat is alright. POE II‘s battle system is, once again, reminiscent of the Infinity Engine RPGs of old. It’s real-time, but you can pause the action whenever you want to issue commands to any of your party members. You can also create custom AI scripts for your party members to follow.
Or example, you can tell a party member that if an enemy is about to cast a certain type of spell, immediately use an interrupt ability on them. I recommend digging into that system as soon as you can, both because it can be really satisfying to watch your party work like a well-oiled machine, and because your party members will regularly make astoundingly dumb decisions if you don’t.
Speaking more broadly, there are heaps of fun abilities to unlock and interesting enemies to fight, but I’d be lying if I said I haven’t spent multiple real-life hours imagining what it would be like if this game had Divinity: Original Sin 2‘s ingenious, significantly more versatile combat system. You can throw rocks at me now, Baldur’s Gate fans.
- Money solves a few too many problems. This is a weird thing that’s stood out to me in my time with POE II, especially given that Divinity: Original Sin 2, which offers players a mind-boggling degree of choice, has in recent times become one of my favourite games ever. Choice is yet another way in which POE II trails behind Divinity, with many quests offering just a few possible solutions that are often heavily dependent on whether or not particular conversation stats are up to snuff.
- If you don’t talk good, though, a lot of quests just let you pay people off. And like, I get it: these people are pirates, and they want money. But sometimes it feels a little too easy. Some scruffy ship captain so-and-so will explain their complicated and fascinating reasons for being an arsehole to you, and then you’ll be like, “Oh, huh. Well anyway, here’s 2,000 copper, which is basically nothing to me because I’ve done a lot of other side quests. I guess we’re done here.”
- There are factions galore, and choosing which ones to befriend and which ones to piss off is really hard (in a good way). I mean, this is an Obsidian game, after all.
- It’s buggy, but mostly in ways that briefly break immersion – slowdown, occasional graphical errors, and glitchy dialogue – as opposed to breaking the game. I mean, this is an Obsidian game, after all.
There’s a lot. POE II is chock-full of stuff. Quests, side quests, bounties, tasks, islands, dungeons, factions, dialogue options, lore (and more lore). Some of it is really good and substantial. Other things feel like they’re there just to be there, and they make the game cluttered and messy.
It’s hard, for example, to remember what some factions want and why which ones oppose which, and don’t even get me started on the quest tracker, which just isn’t up to the task of helping you navigate political machinations or multi-tiered cities.
The resulting confusion also makes it tough to get emotionally attached to some factions and characters. It can all be a little overwhelming. I’ve yet to determine, however, if “a lot” in this case means “too much.” Guess I’ll just have to keep playing to find out.