Regular readers of BigBossBattle may recall that I waxed lyrical about my love for the original Pillars of Eternity when it appeared on console, and it’s certainly true that I’ve been waiting for Pillars of Eternity II: Complete Edition with bated breath. Sadly though, whilst hugely expansive and incredibly ambitious in scale, Obsidian’s sequel left me a little less engaged than the original.
Pillars of Eternity II begins with the player being introduced to the idea that they have been killed, again. This time, whilst lording it over the estate they worked so hard to establish at Caed Nua. It turns out that your chosen hero will be squashed by the God Eothas, who has chosen to animate a colossal statue made from the living soul-rock known as Adra.
Fast forward through a few hours of what is essentially a long-winded (and not especially helpful) tutorial, and you’ll be starting to get to grips with what is essentially a hugely detailed game filled with minutiae for you to manage. As a very classic CRPG, Pillars of Eternity II expects players to manage the inventories, builds and load-outs of numerous characters, of which up to five might be in your active party at any given time.
Since we’re talking about fine details, I should mention at this point that I’ve spent about a hundred hours playing Pillars of Eternity II in real-time mode, which is the way the game was originally presented. The console edition includes the PC’s full turn-based mode as well, and whilst I’ve spent a fair bit of time with this and will mention it later, I’ve spent much less time with it — maybe five hours or so.
Normal party management and combat aside, it also adds a ship management mode to the game which was not present in the original game. The players ship, The Defiant, becomes available a few hours into the game and the player will need to manage the crew, the wage and the food and drink rations. It’s also possible to upgrade your ship with better sails, hull, cannons and so on, and even to change the flag to help avoid or encourage certain encounters.
Ship combat is very different to the traditional strategic or turn-based experience of the core game, and when the battle is joined, the player will need to make choices via a text-based interface that, whilst not perfect, I did enjoy. These exchanges indicate how well your ship is faring in the blow by blow sea combat and allows choices such as fleeing or even closing in to board depending on how things are going.
In the event that the two ships do close on each other at sea, then the game will switch to the traditional combat style, in which the player party must defeat the enemy force by essentially defeating their crew members and captain. Of course, to the victor the spoils, which means that ship battles can be a good way of accessing treasure and items, especially if you choose to go on the offensive and do a bit of privateering.
The actual battles are worth a fair bit of study because there’s a huge amount of difference between Pillars of Eternity II and the original game, some of which is better and some of which is notably worse.
Firstly, there’s the issue of overall difficulty and some of the levers that surround it. Players can choose from several basic difficulty levels, ranging from too easy to far too hard, with the middle two options being the best for most players depending on whether they want their experience to be just slightly skewed one way or the other. Enemies can also be set to level scale automatically, and then there is a hardcore save mode and the choice between real-time and turn-based modes.
There’s a ton of subtleties here that will be lost on new players whilst setting up their first game. The turn-based mode, for example, is fundamentally different to the real-time game, for example, with effects that now last rounds rather than a set number of seconds, which can make some weapons, spells or items much more or less powerful than they are in the real-time mode. This isn’t better or worse as such, it’s just completely different, and that’s why I felt the need to mention it earlier since it’s not possible to switch between these modes once the game begins.
Level scaling is another interesting issue. Pillars of Eternity II presents an incredibly huge and frankly ridiculously open world. Players may jump on board their ship and go wherever they like — and it’s great that the game uses a system of skulls (one white skull is too much, three is much too much, and one red skull is certain doom) to indicate how hard a location will be for your current crew.
This is good, and I love that I am made aware of how likely I am to die (when I play without level scaling) but whilst these locations can be avoided whilst out on the world map, it’s much harder go get through such places when you encounter them under the local bathhouse in a city, for example. With level scaling off, it’s far too easy to stumble into a very, very hard fight which you’ll need to work at several times to succeed, if it’s even possible.
In any case, it is possible to set yourself up with a difficulty level that you should be able to manage, although it will likely be through tinkering. The real-time battles can be overwhelmingly hard, to begin with, and I’d advise that any player (even returning ones) should setup several auto-pause situations to help them.
The new combat system includes more situations where a player might unknowingly find themselves incapable of winning a fight. For example, weapons and armour now deal with concepts of both base damage/defence and penetration (which essentially cuts through armour.) Many enemies have very high armour and simply cannot be damaged, and without auto pausing, it can be hard to spot this.
There’s a lot of other change in combat too, with one major change relating to resting, injuries and combat resources. Characters now heal automatically (and fully) after combat ends, but if they are knocked out, they will accrue an injury that grants a debuff, and after three injuries, they will die.
This isn’t such a major problem if you have plenty of food and drink, since resting (outside combat) will heal injuries whenever a consumable is assigned to a character that was previously injured. What’s more, each kind of consumable will offer some kind of effect on the party for a set period of time, so you might consume meat to make a player strong, whilst also healing them, for example.
As I mentioned, resources in combat are also handled in a different way, with each class using a specific kind of resource that is gained and spent in certain ways. Barbarians use rage, Wizards use focus and Priests use Faith, for example. Spellcasters will usually also have access to a set number of spells per level, as dictated by their Grimoire.
As characters use their resources in battle, they will obviously drain them and this can lead to a character essentially being “worn out” and being left with access to just their basic attack long before the battle ends. This is a state that will often get the player killed, since in my own case, in particular, I’d say I fought about 75% of my battles in Pillars of Eternity II with enemies showing at least one skull (and often one red skull) which meant that my party was bound to use up its resources at least almost entirely every time.
Like health though, these resources immediately recharge after a battle, so where both resources and health are concerned, your only real concern should be on getting through this battle in one piece. My strategy adapted to that end very early in the game, and yet if you play with level scaling or at a lower difficulty level — or even turn-based — your experience absolutely will be different.
All that about combat said, Pillars of Eternity II is as much about roaming around and talking to people as it is about chopping them to pieces and immolating their friends. In a slightly contrived setup, the player is resurrected by the Gods (once again), in order to face Eothas, and will need to go through one of the most detailed and complex stories that I’ve ever encountered.
Each and every island in the Deadfire Archipelago has something of interest on it — from a grove of fresh fruit or a shipwreck through to a teeming, expansive city. Where the larger islands come into play and the cities, villages or other story hubs come into play, the player may find themselves investing five, ten or twenty hours in investigating just the side quests, missions, bounties and hidden dungeons there alone.
The first time I visited the city of Neketaka, I became embroiled in several power struggles, a war on poverty, picked up no less than about five bounties, visited an undercity, found a secret black market enclave, raided someone’s home through a crack in the basement of the neighbouring bathhouse and goodness knows what else. In support of all that was reams and reams of written text in books and countless hours of recorded voice acting which, for the most part, is very good.
I say that because — and I am digressing here — there are several notable occasions where the accent or style of a character changes completely, unexpectedly and bizarrely. Returning elven mage Aloth, for example, is usually a clear and well-spoken gentleman who occasionally switches into a singsong Irish accent in keeping with his kin. Whilst the game nods to this particular example as his ability to empathise with the brothers and sisters of his homeland, it happens to many other characters for no such specific reason, and even where Aloth is concerned, it’s an alarming change and clearly a different voice actor.
The story itself though, and the majority of the side missions both large and small, are fairly interesting but often too convoluted to get too involved in. The main quest — chasing down Eothas — is strange because Eothas himself can’t really explain what he’s up to, and neither can any of the other Gods. The dialogue that surrounds this central arc might be deliberately confusing because it centres on the mortal inability to fathom immortal plans and concepts, but nonetheless, I found myself skipping rapidly through some of these sections towards the end of the game.
Several specific side quests hold more promise, however, largely because they deal with more familiar personalities and issues. The Deadfire itself is an interesting setting that clearly nods towards the colonial Carribean of the 15th to 18th century, and whilst the setting is blatant, the characters, politics and issues of the Deadfire differ strongly from those of our reality for the better, delivering interesting situations for the player to resolve.
One of the main detractors from Pillars of Eternity II’s suspension of disbelief is the unbelievable frequency and longevity of the loading times, which I’d suggest (optimistically) make up for about twenty percent of the hundred-plus hour running time. It feels a very long time since I had to wait for ten or twenty seconds for a tavern to load, only to then have the same wait when I walked up the stairs. I might sympathise if this were a limitation of the console hardware, but my understanding is that the PC version is no better.
Aside from everything else, the graphics and sound for Pillars of Eternity II on console are very good, with the exception, of course, being those glitches in the voice acting. There are only a handful of musical tracks, but each one is haunting and beautiful in its own way. I simply wish there were more of them. Visually, the graphics are detailed and attractive, but the same challenges carry over from the first game when it comes to the fine selection of characters and objects in battle, due largely to the way that things can become extremely crowded and the difficulty in selecting things with a controller.
There’s possibly more that I would like to say about Pillars of Eternity II, given the chance, but with this review stretching to the equivalent of four pages of A4 already, I need to draw the line somewhere. As I mentioned right at the top, I’m not as warm on this sequel as I was the original game, which is mostly due to the slightly convoluted story and the slightly overwhelming (or over difficult) combat system, but it is still a good game at heart.
I could complain about lots of little things, or praise lots of other little things, and maybe it’s because not a long really stands out in this game that makes me feel the way I do, but nonetheless, I did feel compelled to see it right the way through, including to the end of each of the three pieces of DLC that come bundled. That has to be worth something, and I’d still say that Pillars of Eternity II remains a must-buy for fans of the CRPG genre, it’s just sad to say that it is not quite as good as the original.
Pillars of Eternity II is out now on Xbox One and PS4, coming soon to Nintendo Switch.