The much-anticipated sequel to Obsidian Entertainment’s Pillars of Eternity, Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire will be coming out this April. Some of us just can’t wait that long so Obsidian was kind enough to give us access to the closed beta for people who backed the crowdfunding campaign on Fig.

The beta is a just a taste of the game. There’s only a few hours worth of content but it’s enough to see that plenty of improvements have already been made to Pillars of Eternity‘s classic RPG formula.

Let’s start off with the obvious stuff first. Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire is a much prettier looking game than the original. The real-time lighting effects have been improved as well as particle effects to give spells, explosions and the like a bit more life. Environments are rendered at a higher resolution meaning you still get a clear image when you zoom all the way in, and you’ll want to because the art team have gone all out. The Deadfire archipelago is full of lush tropical terrain and the Engwithan ruins, dilapidated and past their prime as they are, still make for a pleasant treat to the eyes with their beautifully designed interiors.

There are also some smaller touches that augment the game’s visual presentation. The world as a whole is a lot more animated than before. Trees blow in the wind, the waves lap over rafts on the beach and even your character’s animation changes as they walk through difficult terrain like big puddles of mud.

Speaking of things that take ages to get through, character creation is more in-depth this time round but thanks to various quality of life and accessibility improvements, it’s much less overwhelming. You start as always by selecting your character’s race. You’re given a little bit of lore about each race and there are multiple sub races to pick from, each conferring their own bonuses to your starting stats. Then you get to choose a background for your character. Giving them the “aristocrat” background will boost their skills of diplomacy, for example.

Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire Preview Screenshot

The biggest part of character creation is class selection and this is where we see the biggest change in Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire. The developers have put a big emphasis on multi classing, which was completely absent from the first Pillars of Eternity. When creating a character you now have the option of picking two classes, rather than one. There are no limits to which two can be combined, giving you a hell of a lot of choice in how you play the game. Multi-classing allows a character to use skills from two different classes, however they will level up more slowly and won’t be able to access top-tier skills of either class.

Essentially you’re sacrificing the strongest abilities for a wider selection. Of course, this is nothing new to the CRPG genre but it is a welcome addition to Pillars of Eternity, opening up the possibilities for role-playing even further. Character creation is more than just stats and skills though. There are dialogue choices a plenty in Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire and there are several times when you’ll get a unique dialogue option that stems from your class, your background or your race. While it may not drastically change the outcome of whatever’s happening, it does make you feel more like you’re in the world when characters actually react based on how you’ve built your own character.

Now I did mention that there are a lot of dialogue choices and that means there’s a lot of dialogue. In true CRPG fashion, all conversations take place in dialogue boxes with written descriptions of what’s happening. The first Pillars of Eternity got some flak for being a little too verbose. It seemed like the writers didn’t know when to stop writing and sometimes you’d have 6 or 7 lines of dialogue sprung on you at once. No doubt it was well written but it could really ruin the pace of a good quest. Thankfully that feedback has been taken into account. You’ll still be doing your fair share of reading in Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire but walls of text have been shortened into shorter, more easily digestible paragraphs. Now conversations play out with a much quicker pace and it’s not quite so exhausting. Even as someone who loves to read, this is certainly a welcome change.

Pillars of Eternity: Deadfire Preview Screenshot
Text is well written but a lot less wordy this time round.

The writing, of course, is only one major aspect of Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire. The other is the combat. The core mechanics of combat have not been altered much. It’s still the same stop/start gameplay that the original had. You pause a lot in battle to issue commands and re-position your party but thanks to the addition of multi classing you are afforded significantly much more choice in how you tackle combat encounters. As before, strategy plays a huge part in every fight. Unless you’re playing on the easiest setting you won’t get anywhere by just running in and hitting things. You need to take things into account like enemy weaknesses and resistances, buffing your party with spells and strategic position so your tanks are drawing enemies’ attention away from the squishy wizards in the back.

There were at least two fights I had in the Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire beta where I got absolutely thrashed on my first go but then took a different approach and came out with barely a scratch. It’s that kind of tactical combat that I really love. Every decision counts, whether it’s what spell to use or which enemy you take down first. It grants the player a sense of satisfaction because you know that you won because you played well, not just because your party had higher stats than the monsters trying to kill them.

Somewhat less satisfying is the ship combat. In this game you play the captain of a ship with its own crew, both of which can be upgraded throughout the game. The backer beta doesn’t let you do much with it. You start with a full crew and somewhat upgraded ship. During my play time I only got into one ship battle and I wasn’t that impressed. Unlike traditional combat, it does not take place in real-time. Once you enter combat with another vessel you’re taken to a battle menu screen, with icons on the bottom showing the position of your ship relative to the opponent ship. You then take it in turns to move but choices are limited. You can set the sails to close the gap or try to flee, you can rotate the ship left or right or swing it round the other side of the enemy ship.

Apart from that your only two options are to fire the cannons or hop on and engage in traditional melee combat.  Fighting on the waves isn’t all that exciting really because your options are so limited, however the fights generally are brief and can often be avoided so I can’t complain too much. That said, your ship isn’t just for fighting but also for sailing.

When you set sail you’re given free rein on where you want to go. Unlike other CRPGs, you aren’t just presented with a map and a few key points that your part automatically travels to. Rather you can just go where you want. You do have a map and you can click somewhere to auto sail if you don’t feel like holding down the mouse button but that sense of freedom is something you don’t see an awful lot in this kind of game. This also applied when travelling around the various islands of the Deadfire archipelago.

Your party is represented by an icon on the world map instead of walking around like you normally would in an area. However, when you come across a point of interest you may be taken down to ground level to explore or be presented with a choice in text, accompanied by beautiful scrawled artwork. I enjoy these sections not only because they offer choices allowing for some good role-playing but because your character stats actually matter.

Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire Preview Screenshot
Quick access to character stats means you’ll always be able to make the best choice.

Not all of your stats are for combat or dialogue. When presented with choices your party members’ Athletics skill or knowledge of Religion can affect the outcome of an event. The spells and abilities they know also come in handy here. For example, at one point your party may come across a group of boars that have been wounded. With a high enough Stealth stat one of your party may be able to sneak up to the boars without being noticed. From there you’re able to choose whether to kill them or try to heal them. Choosing to mend their wounds means you have to pick a spell or ability you think is appropriate. I love this kind of thing. It makes you feel like you’re a part of the world. All those stats and abilities you picked aren’t just for fighting but they open up so many options for role-playing.

That’s what made Pillars of Eternity so enjoyable and it seems Deadfire will have it in spades. One other thing that vastly improves the experience is that amount of quality of life and accessibility changes. For example, there are a lot of words and phrases that aren’t immediately understandable to everyone. References to the lore of the world or even just the various stats are highlighted on-screen and a short description of what it means will appear when you mouse over them. Not only does this eliminate the feeling of being overwhelmed by a bunch of unfamiliar jargon but it also helps jog your memory when you can’t remember which character was part of which faction.

Moreover, there’s a lot of that kind of thing in character creation. Each class comes with a description as usual but it also tells you what kind of play that class is best suited for, whether it be support, defence or aggressive combat. Since it’s hard to know how each class plays without actually playing them all, this is massively helpful when trying to pick which one you want. You also get to see every skill tree from the start so you know what spells and abilities you’ll be able to unlock at each level. Having all this information readily accessible really makes it easy to pick the play style you want.

And that about wraps up everything I wanted to talk about here. While the closed beta only gives access to a small portion of the game it’s clear as day that improvements have been made to all aspects of the game. If it’s even as good as the first one was, this could easily be a contender for the best game of the year.

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Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire will release on April 3 on Steam and GOG. It is now available for pre-order here. If you’ve made it this far you’re probably somewhat interested in the CRPG genre. However, if you aren’t that into it and looking for a good place to start, have a look at our Beginner’s Guide to CRPGs. It’ll tell you all you need to know to have a good time with what can be a fairly daunting genre of games.

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