Picking up after the events of Pillars of Eternity, the first thing that Obsidian do is tear everything down around you, destroying everything that you’d built up until that point. Eothas, the god of light and rebirth awakens right underneath your stronghold Caed Nua, steals a bit of your soul and then disappears off to the other side of the world.
“With Deadfire, we’re really trying to refine all the stuff that we felt worked well but could have been better in the first game,” explained Director Josh Sawyer. “So the exploration aspect is a bigger focus, our companions are much more in depth than they were in the first game, you have bouncy ships that bounce on the water here – that’s a very bouncy ship, possible too bouncy? I’d also say in terms of combat, we’re trying to both make it more intense for players who want the great tactical challenge, but also being much more sensitive to players on the lower levels of difficulty, for people who don’t have infinite time to play this game or don’t care about the combat and just want the story.”
While this naturally drags you into a new epic adventure, as you set off to the Deadfire archipelago chase after Eothas, Obsidian are using this premise as a means to shake up some aspects of how you play. Exploration will be a much bigger part of the game, as you encounter new cultures that draw upon specific styles from the real world, but also as you travel from one island to the next in your ship.
One of the aspects from the original that many fans were relatively lukewarm to was the stronghold itself – yes, that very thing that gets completely obliterated at the start of Deadfire. It just felt a little aimless, and so Obsidian are trying to give this notion of having a home base a new purpose by making your base be the ship that you’re exploring the islands from. As well as your adventuring party, you have a ship of various sizes, man it with a crew of variously talented people, and it’s this crew that comes into play for the ship to ship battles and encounters you can find on the high seas.
Josh said, “We started out with the idea that you have a ship to travel around and you have a stronghold, but we were like, do we really need a stronghold? You’re travelling all over this place, from island to island over hundreds of miles, so why not make the ship the stronghold?
“You have to use the ships to get around – no, you can’t swim – and because the majority of the world map is water, it is the primary means of exploring. It has a lot of depth to it, but we do want to allow people who are not that interested in micromanaging everything to stick to the smaller ship so they don’t have to micro everything, have a small crew and avoid bigger fights.”
Exploring the world map has a distinct flavour of Sid Meier’s Pirates! to it, as you control your little ship on the water and espy others going back and forth, doing their various things. Some might spot you and see an easy target, others might have faction-based grudges to bear depending on your actions, and yet more might flee if you fly false flags and masquerade as a pirate.
Time only passes when you’re moving here, so you can carefully consider where you want to sail, and could potentially avoid a battle or dodge around a blockade – Obsidian are keen that, if you really don’t want to engage with this system much, you still don’t have to. The sea is filled with ships that each have unique captains, such as Well-Weathered Carmio, a novice pirate captain, or Kuaro, a seasoned captain for one of the game’s factions.
Just as enemy captains can be better or worse opponents, you can go a long way to customising your ship and crew to make yours the most intimidating thing afloat. Starting off with a relatively small ship, you can eventually earn a large warship that has dozens of cannons, needs dozens of people crewing it, and can reward you for your time and effort. Each crew member has a personality trait, so they can be a drunk, be religious, rowdy, and so on, and that can lead to crew conflicts that you have to resolve. You’ll want to try and keep them happy or they might mutiny on you, so having a high level cook can go a long way to making use of your food more efficiently and keeping them all happy and fed.
Mutinies are something to be wary of. If faced with one, you can try to talk yourself out of it a few times, but what happens if you’re unsuccessful or had to talk your way out of it a few too many times? “At a certain point it becomes inevitable […] and they’ll attack you!” Josh explained. It’s a good reason to spend your money on good food to keep your crew happy, though the bigger the crew, the bigger a money pit it can become. Josh continued, “One of the things people complained about in Pillars was that you could amass small to large fortunes and not really have much to spend it on, but through the ship system, I think we’ve really given them at least one really good outlet for spending a lot of their money.”
Of course, you can find yourself engaging in ship duels, but if you’re expecting epic battles rendered in 3D with cannons blowing chunks out of each other’s hulls, you’ll be disappointed. Instead, there’s an element that’s loosely like the text adventure elements that were seen in the first Pillars of Eternity, and a book-like interface appears here for the turn-based battles. It’s an interesting system though, as a Captain’s Intitiative comes into play, giving you a certain number of turns to take per round. You might want to cautiously keep your distance, turn to open up a broadside and then fire your cannons, or get close enough to board the enemy ship, but if you have a higher initiative, you can potentially steal a march on them by having consecutive actions or being able to go first. Certain actions have cooldowns, so a cannon might take three turns to load, and then you have different types of cannons that you can equip your ship with.
“We rewrote the entire AI system,” Josh explained, “we rewrote a lot of the renderer, we rewrote our entire effects system, and because we’re putting a lot of effort into that, that’s the majority of the game development. We do want to have this cool ship combat system, but if we put all the effort into making it very pretty on the sea, which is not really the focus of our game, then what are we doing with the rest of the game? I’d rather risk that some people are like, ‘Ah, I wish this weren’t presented this way,” and I’m OK with that because I think the rest of the game is so strong. People that do like this, I think are going to have a lot of fun with it.”
Get close enough to board, and it’s Pillars’ familiar real-time with pause battles, albeit honed and refined for the sequel. Again, having recognised that players would simply rest up between each fight in the first game, Obsidian have adapted, so that all spells and abilities are now dealt with per encounter, as opposed to having rest abilities that were all too easy to spam by players.
Josh said, “We would explain to players, ‘Hey, the purpose of [per rest abilities] is that we want you to conserve your resources,’ and they would say, ‘Yeah, I don’t want to do that,’ dump everything, go back to town and complain we were forcing them to go back. So we decided to change the focus to be per encounter for everything. Every character has a thing called Empower, and you can empower an ability or your character once per fight and a certain number of times per rest.
“If you empower an ability it makes it much more powerful, but you can only do that once per fight, or you can use Empower yourself if you run low on your class resources. For example, my Rogue only has two points left, so she can’t do Strike the Bell. I can use empower on herself to get her Rogue pool [of ability points] back.”
There’s plenty of other quality of life changes here, such as being able to move a spell’s target before it’s been cast, broadening the combat’s reach to allow for both less and more advanced players than before, and so on. Just as a cook can keep your crew happy, there’s a rather neat sounding cooking system in the game as well, letting you combine various ingredients and their positive party boosting properties together – fish, for example, gives +5 health – but these effects only last between times that you rest, encouraging you to keep pushing forward. Obsidian have also overhauled the game’s engine, giving big flashy fireball spells a lot more oomph, but also bringing a dynamic weather system, which is always important to replicate the potentially tempestuous seas.
Speaking about the community built around the game, Josh said, “Thankfully when we launched the Backer Beta, people immediately said, ‘Hey! This feels a lot better than the Pillars beta,’ but they also gave a lot of feedback early on about what was wrong. They didn’t like the way the penetration system scaled in our armour system, so we adjusted that, they felt the pace of combat and movement was still too fast, so we brought those down, they felt that some spells didn’t have enough impact compared to their cast time, so we adjusted that. We’re doing tons of tuning and using a lot of quantitative feedback that we get from our telemetrics, which is a new thing in Pillars II to see how people are playing and make changes based off that.”
Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire looks to be shaping up rather well, building on what the original did so well with its storytelling and its role in the revival of the computer RPG. What’s great is to see that they’re not merely resting on their laurels, but actively going back and looking at what worked and what didn’t, taking feedback from the community that’s helped to crowdfund this game as they reshape those ideas into something even more compelling.
For those on console, looking to continue their journey from the first game, it might be a long wait, if it happens at all. The first game’s port was created by a team at Paradox Interactive, but Obsidian have partnered with a different publisher for the sequel. Even so, Josh said, “I think there’s the possibility for it, but what I’ve said, and this is honest, is that everything we focus on for this game is about PC, Mac and Linux. Clearly Paradox Arctic showed you can port this style of game to console, and to their credit it seems like the people that bought it on console really seemed to enjoy it. Whether or not the audience is there, I don’t know because I don’t have the sales figures, so I would say nothing would prohibit the game being on console, but the main platforms are PC, Mac and Linux.