Well, they’ve only gone and got Sid Meier’s Pirates! all over my Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire. And that makes me very happy indeed, as I sit watching the seafaring exploration taking place. Who doesn’t want more piratical action in their fantasy life? A scurvy dog, that’s who.
Deadfire is the crowdfunded ($4.4m/£3.2m on Fig) sequel to the crowdfunded ($4m/£3m on Kickstarter) original; a second, profitable passion project for the team at Obsidian that just a few years ago was on the brink of closing down. I wouldn’t say miracles do happen... maybe it's more that ‘doubling down on what you’re good at and making sure you release bloody good games’ does.
The game itself is a tactical, isometric CRPG (Computer RPG, indicating it has strong pen-and-paper roots) with the kind of depth that gets some of us aroused while others go cross-eyed. There’s the usual sequel chat about streamlining elements and making it more accessible, but Obsidian is under no illusions about who this game is for: the hardcore. I hate the word, but sometimes it just fits.
At the same time, the setting of Deadfire has moved away from the traditional European-themed fantasy retreats often seen in the genre. I’m not sure if I’d call it daring so much as interesting, but we’re now located in a Pacific Island-style region, with all the landmass-hopping you would expect that to entail.
Doing so requires use of a ship, of course, and it’s here where Deadfire starts to show the obvious changes. Where in the original players had a stronghold as their base of operations, in Deadfire we see a selection of ships to choose from and otherwise acquire: upgradeable, customisable and with a full complement of crew, with stats and characteristics and stories of its own.
The customisation of the ship is just one area that shows how much thought Obsidian is putting into Deadfire. It can be purely cosmetic, as it will be when I make my Bastard Galleon (official name) as purple as it possibly can be – but it can also be tactical. One takes this step by intentionally changing the colours – the flag – they fly, meaning they could operate undercover in hostile waters, or fly the pirates’ colours if spoiling for a barney.
If spoiling for said barney, you may end up relying on your crew in a couple of different ways. Ship-to-ship combat is carried out in a text-based, turn-based format with a selection of moves and tactics you’d associate with water-tanks and their payload of (cannon)balls. Move forward with the wind, make your ship a thinner target, turn to broadside the opposition – all of it takes into account your crew and their skills at different things, like firing the cannons. And the crew comes into play even more so should you choose to engage ramming speed.
Of course there’s close up melee ship combat where you can leap excitingly from one deck to another. Of course there is. Because stuff like that is bloody brilliant. It’s at these points you engage in the more traditional Pillars style of tactical combat, with your party joined by your crew (on paper just a bunch of NPCs you recruit) getting stuck in to rid the other ship of its aggro git infestation.
Oh, and if your crew dies in assaults like this, they’re dead. You’ll have to hire a new chef.
All of this and I’ve not even chatted much on the landlubbing aspects of Deadfire. While the islands around the world can’t be docked at as and where you choose – set points for set disembarking – there’s still a huge amount of solid ground to explore. And explore you shall, rather than just click on text on a map and wait for an area to load.
As you make your way around these tropical islands and islets, areas of interest will reveal themselves – it might be as straightforward as a tomb, like the three-level dungeon we didn’t go in during the demo because it would have taken way too long, or something like a mysterious stone circle that nobody – not even our drunken religious chap – can figure out.
There’s a real air of discovery in Deadfire, and while initially a mite confused about the move from dark and stony to bright and palm-y, the setting ends up being a breath of fresh – salty – air for the series, maybe even for the genre.
The major change of jolly rodgering everything in sight sits alongside a host of tweaks under the hood – combat has been refined to be a bit slower and more clear as to what’s going on, while abilities have been tweaked so, for example, rogues are far more roguish in their behaviour. Which strikes me as showing a game that, while it's showing a certain spirit of adventure, isn't looking to get lost at sea.
Instead you’re looking at a CRPG made by a bunch of people who know exactly what they’re doing, who have the confidence of thousands of players, who are refining and tweaking, changing and improving as they go. And adding pirates. This will probably be a very good game indeed and, if it’s the right side of accessible, Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire may even draw non-CRPG fans in with the bright and jolly setting. But even if it doesn’t, we’re still likely to end up with something to treasure.