Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire knows very much that it's a D&D game. Not just a role-playing game, but a D&D game. And yet there's no D&D logo on the box.
This is weird. Because the Pillars of Eternity fits wonderfully into the D&D milieu. It emphasises the things that, at its best, D&D shines at. Telling compelling stories about gods and heroes with as many potential outcomes as your imagination can envisage.
I loved the first Pillars of Eternity game. So much that it stands as the only game I've ever given a perfect 10/10 score. And yet, there were things that could have been improved. "How do you justify the 10/10 score then?" you might ask. Well, the things that I felt could have been improved upon were not things that impaired my enjoyment of the game.
Probably my biggest gripe now, after having sunk many, many hours into both games, is the amount of wasted time. Every time you step through a door, there's a pause to load, and some of these load times can be longer than should really be justifiable. In Pillars 1, there was a lot of legwork as well, running from one side of a map to the other to visit the location you wanted.
Load times, while still a little annoying, are much better in Pillars 2, and map screens for major settlements allow you to choose exactly where you arrive in the larger settlements. This certainly does cut down on travel time...
...but wait. The only game I've ever rated 10/10, and I'm introducing it with a lengthy study of load times? Hardly seems to do it justice. Because what makes Pillars of Eternity so wonderful is that feeling of sitting down and not just reading a good novel but predicting the outcome. It's the argument nerdy gamers use when trying to justify the medium. And nowhere is it quite as apparent as in Pillars. This tradition continues in Deadfire, but it's different. The plot is less dense. Easier to follow. Quite literally, the footprints your character follows in the main plot-line are gigantic. What is actually happening is still a mystery, and the characters, factions and subplots in Deadfire are as byzantine and labyrinthine as anything in the first game.
Oh, and in place of the castle-building subgame, you now have a ship. In fact, exploration is more nuanced and detailed than it ever was in the first game, looking more like Sid Meier's Pirates! than it does a traditional Infinity Engine RPG. Naval combat is either a straightforward battle on pretty much the same map over and over for boarding actions, or a combination of a minigame and a narrative 'chose-your-own-adventure' for cannon combat. Exploration of lost islands allows you to drop out of the main quests and just have fun at your own pace for a bit in much the same way as the dungeons beneath Caed Nua did in PoE1. Managing your crew, keeping them happy and well-fed is part of this new system of sea exploration, although it's fairly simple particularly when you get a bit of money in your pocket.
Back in about 2010, singers of sea shanties were probably, I would expect, something of a niche group of jumper-wearing real ale swillers who could be found in a dwindling number of coastal pubs. Now, however, and no doubt to their own bewilderment, they've become the darlings of the videogame world. This is the third game I've reviewed with full-on sea shanty action throughout. We live in strange times, ladies and gentlemen.
Much of what worked in PoE1 is present in 2. Even simple quests have nuance and complexity, and the player is forced into a similarly nuanced position. Playing as a straightforward 'good guy' is really not all that simple as the factions at play don't really have an easily-identified 'good guy' option. Companions have their own motivations, some of which might not really fit with your own. They have complex relationships with each other, although the addition of relatively clear-to-read reputation charts boils this all down to numbers, in a way that probably would have been better served left to the broader strokes of in-character interaction. Graphically, improvements over the first game are marked. Characters look much better and the hand-drawn environments look gorgeous. The world map could probably stand to be improved upon but is in itself much better than the incongruously uninspired world map from PoE1.
I found that very quickly in PoE1, money stopped having any real value as I amassed a huge hoard very quickly. While there is still a bit of this in Deadfire (and it's a perennial problem in RPGs in general), the addition in particular of new ships and upgrades for your seagoing voyages mean there are still things to be saving up for well into the mid and late game. This definitely helped me to remain interested as clambering from the saltwater-soaked wreck victim at the start of the game to the glittering, armour-clad sea captain of the late game was a big part of what makes the game work.
But certainly not all. Locations are interesting and often more than meet the eye. Characters, even one-off NPCs that serve as single encounters in sub-plots, are often thought out and imaginative - I particularly liked one dwarven sea captain with advanced OCD. There are many more.
There were weird gaps in the voice acting that made the audio in the first game occasionally disjointed. Not so in Deadfire. In fact, the game is stuffed with voice actors who might actually be recognisable to the nerdier RPGers among you - the cast of Critical Role being extremely well represented. Once again, the Pillars of Eternity series shows how much it really, really wants to be a D&D game. With DLC called 'The Deck of Many Things' and rules system that very closely mirrors the fundamentals of D&D right down to individual spells, it's sort of a crying shame that the powers that control licensing on both sides were unable to consummate this obvious marriage. Pillars of Eternity, for me, is the best D&D series there never was.