SAN FRANCISCO — I would argue that in the long and storied history of gaming, there are perhaps a dozen good titles that let you play as a pirate. Not the historical pirate, of course, who was malnourished, brutish and decidedly unglamorous, but the suave, free-spirited, gentlemanly fantasy pirate, who seeks fortune and glory on the high seas. Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire aims to be one of those rare games that lets you set sail for adventure, all while delivering a narrative-rich high-fantasy role-playing game.
The developers of Pillars of Eternity II showed me a guided demo at GDC 2018, and it looks like it should be a real treat for fans who were reared on the BioWare and Black Isle Infinity Engine games. If you’ve played Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale, Planescape: Torment and the like, you already know a lot of what Deadfire has in store: controlling a party of adventurers, viewing the action from an isometric perspective, employing both combat and diplomacy to achieve your goals and exploring a big, unpredictable world — where the enemies might be too strong for you to handle at present.
MORE: Best Gaming Mice
Picking up where the first game (and its expansions) left off, Pillars of Eternity II lets you create a hero (warrior, rogue, or mage, with plenty of customization options for sub-classes), then recruit a party of up to four other members. (You can also create a whole party from scratch, although you won’t get specialized dialogue from them as the game progresses.) There’s a prologue chapter that sets up the game’s main conflict, but after that, you get your very own ship, and set off to explore the world.
Whereas the first Pillars of Eternity game was pretty clear about directing you toward your next goal, Pillars of Eternity II’s world map opens up almost completely as soon as you get the ship. There’s a lot of optional content to tackle at lower levels, and a lot that requires a very powerful party — but the only way to find out which is which, is to explore. Along the way, you can encounter other ships and either aid or attack them. (Naturally, there’s a ship combat system, although I didn’t get to see it firsthand.)
If following the game’s story is more your thing, however, I did get to see some of it firsthand. The hero’s party set sail for a pirate fort, where they needed to eliminate an enemy captain. A storybook-style loading screen presented them with three options: hoist a neutral flag and dock up, slip in under cover of night or launch a full-frontal assault. The developers explained that the last option probably wouldn’t work, but high-level or especially reckless players were welcome to try.
Selecting the second option, the party explored the fort, conversing with various guards and neutral characters, trying to tease out information about the enemy captain’s whereabouts. They eventually discovered that he was moored on the far side of the fort, but that his ship was heavily guarded. As before, players at this point could fight their way through the front door, try to pursue a diplomatic option or try something sneakier, which is what the developers ultimately went with.
Slinking through a dungeon underneath the fort, they freed a number of prisoners, which helped them evade the guards’ notice. They proceeded to fight through the enemy captain’s shipmates before ringing a bell to summon the shipmaster himself. Stripped of bodyguards, he offered to split the profits from his piratical activities in order to save his own life, but the party refused, dispatching him with a dagger to the back. However, it’s worth pointing out that letting him live was a viable option as well; it’s possible to resolve most situations in Deadfire without shedding blood.
With its old-school mix of combat, stealth and exploration, Pillars of Eternity II looks like a solid bet for anyone who wants a retro RPG adventure with a touch of modern open-world design. The game will be out on May 8, 2018 for $50 on PC, with ports to other consoles coming later.