Obsidian Entertainment’s loving tribute to the Infinity Engine games, Pillars of Eternity, was something of an oddity – an epic, large scale RPG by and large focussed around one area, the keep of Caed Nua. Having this static base of operations as the heart of the adventure made the game feel grounded and strangely personal. Although the action in Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire is once again centred on a base of operations, the feel of the sequel is very, very different. This time the base moves.
Deadfire takes place directly after the events of the first game, when an incidental detail, originally intended simply to make the Kickstarter campaign for Pillars of Eternity more appealing, becomes a global threat. If you are unfamiliar with Pillars of Eternity and the Kickstarter, one of the enduring stretch goals in the campaign was an excavation under the keep of Caed Nua, with each goal uncovering a new level of a mysterious dungeon under the keep. Woven through the levels of this ever-expanding dungeon was a giant statue over 15 stories tall. “Rob Nesler who was doing a lot of our early artwork - he's the art director of Obsidian - he was doing a lot of early concepting and Kickstarter work. He was drawing and doodling the layers of Endless Paths of Od Nua”, says Josh Sawyer, the Design Director at Obsidian Entertainment and Game Director of Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire. “He started putting this crazy statue in it, and I was like, "Rob what is this?" And he said, "I don’t know, just some guy." He said that as we add more levels we'll show other parts of his body, and I’m like, "Okay, that looks pretty cool." It's certainly a way where we can get neat visual interest as we continue to add levels”.
At the time the team had no idea that this art was going to have such a significant impact on the trajectory of the Pillars of Eternity story. Deadfire begins with tragedy, as most RPG stories seem to do. The presumed dead god, Eothus, occupies the statue of Od Nua and smashes his way out of the keep. Eothus’ emergence steals the souls from every living creature in the surrounding area before striding into the sea and out of sight. The massive trauma of soul loss kills everyone bar a single, sturdier individual – the player character. After a brief sojourn in an afterlife during which the player is tasked with hunting down Eothas and discovers that all of the gods appear to be quite dickish, the player wakes to find themselves on a boat in pursuit of Eothas. This boat isn’t with you long – there’s a shipwreck soon after, stranding the player and their retinue on one of the islands of the Deadfire Archipelago – but after some initial adventuring, it’s back to the open seas, allowing players to explore the islands, chase a rogue god and partake in some ship to ship combat.
From what we’ve played, the change from a static base to a mobile one makes the sequel feel very different from the original. From the outset, Deadfire feels epic in scale. The first game was about discovery, but the sequel is about pursuit and justice, and exploration ties intrinsically with those two themes. The change of pace is a very deliberate move – while the original game was a critical darling and popular with players as well, according to Josh Sawyer, some players couldn’t get a handle on the story, in part because of the villain. “The villain that you were dealing with was from a secret organization that no one knew about and everything he did was very covert. No one in the world really knows that this guy is doing what he's doing. Instead of being intrigued a lot of players were just confused. They were like, "What? Who is this guy? What's happening? Why doesn't anyone know who this guy is?" For Deadfire, I said, "Let's be much clearer about what the stakes are very early on." Hopefully, a 700-foot tall statue man running around in the ocean is a clear enough signal”. It’s not what you would call a subtle start to the game but it’s definitely very effective in delivering the overall themes of the game as well as making the villain easy to identify.
Chasing down Eothas requires a great deal of exploration and travel, and this is achieved in two different ways. At sea, players sail their ship from island to island, mooring at identified inlets on the map. Sea travel isn’t simply a joyride - players have to think about rations and crew morale, pirates and sea monsters. Ship combat is more of a boarding action than ship-to-ship combat. Defeating an enemy crew allows players to loot cargo and gives the crew a morale boost. Once the ship makes land, the party moves around on the world map from one area of interest to another, with new potential places of interest appearing on the map if the party gets in range. Some of these areas can be entered and explored in isometric fashion, while others present players with a choose your own adventure style event that offers players a few choices and a skill or attribute challenge to complete for some kind of reward. Just how many of these events there are and whether or not they are randomised is unknown at this moment.
Obsidian Entertainment had enough money left over from the development of Pillars of Eternity to develop a sequel along the same lines, but the developer managed to catch lightning in a bottle for a second time, raking in even more crowdfunding the second time around through Fig. Just how this money has been spent remains to be seen, but we’re looking forward to finding out when Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire releases April 3rd.