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Nelson Schneider's Video Game Reviews (381)

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Star Trek: Bridge Crew 3.5/5
King's Quest: The Compl... 3/5
Strange Brigade 4/5
Metro Exodus 3.5/5
Evoland Legendary Editi... 4.5/5
Evoland 2 4.5/5
Burokku Girls 2/5
Finding Paradise 4.5/5
To the Moon 4/5
Marvel: Ultimate Allian... 2.5/5
Valley 4/5
Satellite Reign 3/5
The Fall of Gods 3.5/5
Even the Ocean 3.5/5
Asterix & Obelix XXL 2:... 3/5
Valkyria Chronicles 4 5/5
Ninja Gaiden ( Shadow W... 1/5
Super Mario Land 2.5/5
The Messenger 3.5/5
Super Mario Land 2: 6 G... 2/5
Super Mario Maker 2 3/5
Pillars of Eternity II:... 4/5
Sundered 3/5
Iconoclasts 3/5
Divinity: Original Sin 2 4.5/5

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Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire   PC (Steam) 

Roll the Old Chariot Along    4/5 stars

I was not, actually, expecting to see a direct sequel to “Pillars of Eternity” after it helped to bring the Role-Playing genre back from the brink of extinction in 2015. However, that game proved enough of a success for Obsidian Entertainment – the formerly Single-“A” developer forged from the remains of Black Isle Studios after Interplay’s collapse back in the day, currently subsidiary of Microsoft’s Xbox Division – to revisit the concept of crowdfunding yet again. This time, Obsidian went with a videogames-first crowdfunding outfit known as Fig (likely because Obsidian’s own Feargus Urquhart sits on the advisory board, alongside inXile’s Brian Fargo and Double-Fine’s Justin Bailey, to name a few). “Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire” (“Deadfire”), like its predecessor, brought in bucketsful of crowdfunding dollars, meeting the funding goal in less than a day and ultimately bringing in over 4 times the initial goal by the end of the fundraising period, for a total near $4.5 million.

Presentation
Like its predecessor, “Deadfire” is vehemently old-school in its visual presentation. Environments are fully pre-rendered and presented from a fixed isometric viewpoint, with no freedom to rotate the camera. Zooming in and out is possible, but ultimately highly restricted as well. Unlike the original “Pillars of Eternity,” “Deadfire” features significantly improved character models that are loaded with detail and tend to be far more faithful to the hand-painted character portraits that represent these individuals in the user interface. “Deadfire” also features a new mapping system that presents the game’s overworld – an archipelago of small islands – much like a zoomed-out navigation map, while cities are represented by similar hand-drawn maps (complete with population statistics) with a number of distinct regions that can be visited by the player’s party.

The user interface in “Deadfire” feels slightly less awful than in the original “Pillars of Eternity,” but still suffers from a seeming lack of inspiration with regard to what to do with so much on-screen real estate. Thankfully the subscreen menus are almost all full-screen in this sequel, but the main user interface and its clickable buttons still feel very small and unnecessarily cramped at 1080p.

With regard to audio, “Deadfire” has its only significant presentation upgrade. While the first game featured a beautifully orchestrated soundtrack that was far too willing to fade into the background, “Deadfire” features… more of the same… but thanks to its maritime setting, “Deadfire” presented the opportunity for the audio designers to add sea chanties – the barbershop quartet of the open ocean – to fantastic effect. I often found myself just sitting idle on the world map so I could listen to these custom performances (with setting-specific lyric changes). Voiceacting is still largely unchanged from the first “Pillars of Eternity” with no effort spent on hiring (expensive) voiceactors and far too much overlap, with one actor portraying a multitude of characters.

Unfortunately, while Obsidian chose not to evolve “Deadfire’s” visual or audio presentation in any meaningful, significant way, they did manage to take the technical presentation entirely in the opposite direction. While the original “Pillars of Eternity” struck me as a solid piece of software with good quality control, “Deadfire” is a wreck. It crashes. It causes Blue Screens of Death in Windows 10. Even when it’s not failing catastrophically, “Deadfire” doesn’t particularly get along with Nvidia GPUs, causing mine to blow its fans at high speed constantly, leading to chugging, jerky performance in-game. I managed to adjust the performance to a reasonable level by turning of v-sync (I never saw a single instance of screen tearing in the game’s mostly-pre-rendered visuals, so I don’t even see the point of v-sync in a game like “Deadfire”) and a couple of other options like ambient occlusion, but seriously, a game that looks like it could have been made in the late ‘90s and runs on the canned Unity Engine should NOT have performance issues of any sort, let alone catastrophic failures that predominantly affect the most popular GPU brand. Thankfully, “Deadfire” auto-saves during every scene transition, so its bugginess does not lead to a significant amount of lost progress, nor does it have any particularly noteworthy bugs within its quest structure. Lastly, I need to point out that, in spite of the fact that the original “Pillars of Eternity” was ported to consoles and “Deadfire” has console ports in the works at the time of writing, the game does NOT support any kind of controller natively. Without Xinput, I needed to rely on my Steam controller to play, and even though the Steam controller is a fantastic work-around for games without native Xinput support, having played both ‘Divinity: Original Sin’ titles in the intervening years between “Pillars of Eternity” and “Deadfire” just hammered home how clunky the almost-entirely-mouse-driven interface is.

Story
“Deadfire” is a direct continuation of the events in “Pillars of Eternity.” Our hero/heroine is the Watcher of Caed Nua, a special person born with the ability to see and communicate with the souls of the dead. Through the events of the first game, our hero learns the stunning truth that the gods are fake. Not “fake” like Yahweh, Krishna, Zeus, and every made-up god in the real world, but “fake” as in manufactured. These artificial gods were once the rulers of an ancient civilization who elevated themselves to omnipotence through the science of animancy and took on the personas of the world of Eora’s own mytical/fictional deities in order to more properly guide the evolution of mortal beings – a plethora of Fantasy races collectively known as ‘kith.’

As “Deadfire” opens, we learn that one of these artificial gods, Eothas (essentially the Prometheus of Eora who loves kith far more than any of the other gods and wishes to see them succeed on their own) has a plan, and in enacting this plan, he possesses a titanic statue buried beneath the castle of Caed Nua, which proceeds to crawl out of the ground, collapsing the castle and siphoning the souls from the bodies of all nearby (leaving them ashen husks), before setting off to the Deadfire Archipelago on unknown business. The Watcher barely survives this incident thanks to Berath, the goddess of death, but still loses half their soul to Eothas, and must remain close to him in order to survive. Berath takes advantage of the Watcher’s situation and dubs them the Herald of Berath and sets them to the task of following Eothas as he rampages across the Deadfire, since they need to do so anyway.

Intertwined with this divine intervention and godly misbehavior is a fairly generic tale of colonialism. The Deadfire islands are not appreciably different from the “New World” in real-world history, as they are inhabited by a primitive and somewhat naïve tribe called the Huana who are being taken advantage of by two colonial empires: The Valian Trading Company and the Royal Deadfire Company. To top off this smorgasbord of political distress, there are pirates… because of course there are pirates in a game about sailing.

Compared to the first “Pillars of Eternity,” I feel like the writing in “Deadfire” is significantly weaker. My takeaway from the first game was that the gods were a non-entity and that nobody should care what they have to say, yet they play a greatly inflated role in the sequel. The political intrigues are not particularly interesting or well nuanced, with a simplistic “Colonialism/Imperialism Bad” bent to them. Indeed, “Deadfire” feels a lot pushier with its ‘progressive’ (a.k.a., SJW) pandering than its predecessor, especially with regard to character romances. While there is one very bisexual pirate who can join the party, the rest of the cast seem to be more or less locked into a single sexual preference… yet they will throw themselves at the Watcher regardless of their gender and/or preference. Considering that the (correct) progressive view of sex and romance is that people don’t have a choice in what turns them on, the fact that these characters can flip-flop so easily in their preferences feels very disingenuous. Perhaps worst of all, even the core premise of the plot gets a bit confused toward the end, and I was left wondering exactly what was going on.

Unlike the original “Pillars of Eternity,” “Deadfire” does not feature a sizeable post-game Expansion Pack. Instead, it features a more modern-styled Season Pass, which contains three DLC stories. One of these, “Seeker, Slayer, Survivor,” is a tiresome set of arena battles, while the other two are fairly short, but interesting, side-stories that are woven into the base game in such a way that they can take place at any point prior to the ending. Both of these DLC stories involve fleshing out the details of one of the gods of Eora, with “The Beast of Winter” DLC fleshing out Rhymrgand, the god of entropy, and “The Forgotten Sanctum” DLC fleshing out Wael, the god of secrets (and tentacles).

All told, I spent about 110 hours with “Deadfire,” and, sadly, I was quite tired of it by the time I reached the conclusion. None of the factions and none of the gods really spoke to me in any way, and the two aspects I enjoyed the most about the world of Eora – animancy and the Vithracks (a bald-faced knock-off of D&D’s Illithids, only mashed-up with spiders) – were barely touched upon. Instead of presenting a unique, strange Fantasy world which just so happens to share relatable problems with the real world, “Deadfire” presents heavy-handed anti-Imperialism and anti-Capitalism that just so happens to take place in a world with Elves and short, furry, bi-sexual pirates.

Gameplay
Real-Time with Pause has always been something of a compromise when it comes to Role-Playing gameplay. The concept evolved out of the ‘90s’ obsession with ‘MOAR AKSHUN,’ which lead new subgenres like the ‘Diablo’-inspire Hack ‘n Slash to steal much of the RPG genre’s thunder. The ‘Pause’ part of Real-Time with Pause was added in order to give some semblance of order and control to the smaller-scale battles that concern RPGs as opposed to the large-scale battles that concern Strategy games. However, compromises are never ideal for any party involved, so as one of their stretch goals, Obsidian pledged to make a wholly turn-based mode for “Deadfire,” which I jumped into without a moment’s hesitation.

Even in turn-based mode, “Deadfire” is still largely the same as its predecessor. It is not a D&D-based game, but is instead a type of homebrew tabletop gaming system cobbled together from the bits and pieces of D&D 4th Edition that couldn’t be copyrighted or trademarked. Thus we’ve got a similar spread of character stats, only with different names. We’ve got a stable of mostly-recognizable character classes, plus a few weird ones. We’ve got a 100-sided die for randomness instead of a 20-sided one. We’ve got four defenses (Deflection, Fortitude, Reflex, and Will) and an Accuracy stat that aims to hit them. Furthermore, in turn-based mode, we’ve got movement, action, and free action, with characters allowed to move around 5 meters per turn, perform a single action, and perform as many free actions as they want.

However, “Deadfire” is NOT 100% identical to the original “Pillars of Eternity” anymore than D&D 3rd Edition is identical to D&D 4th Edition. Instead of a mix of per-encounter and per-rest special skills, each character class is entirely per-encounter, though with fewer uses for their skills. In place of per-rest skills there’s a new Empowerment ability. Three times per rest, a character can either use their Empowerment to perform one skill as though their character level were higher than it actually is OR use their Empowerment to refill half of their per-encounter skill uses. I hardly ever used Empowerment as the former, but nearly always used it in long, drawn-out battles where characters were guaranteed to run out of skill uses before all the enemies were dead.

“Deadfire” keeps all of the quality of life features from its predecessor. Characters no longer need to carry junk around in their limited personal inventories, but are free to just dump everything the party loots into ‘the stash,’ which is accessible at anytime outside of combat. The stash is, honestly, so useful, I never even bothered to have my characters carry stuff on their persons outside of their quickslots for potions. Likewise, character death is not immediately permanent, though the situation is handled a bit differently from the first game. When a character’s health reaches 0, they are knocked-out instead of killed. Any character that is knocked-out in battle (or triggers a trap, or fails a skill check during a scripted cutscene) gains a permanent injury. These injuries add fairly significant stat penalties, but a character won’t actually die until they accumulate four such injuries at once. Injuries can be healed by resting at an inn or camping and eating a hearty snack. Camping no longer requires an expensive/scarce consumable item, making it far less burdensome to manage the party’s injuries and get everyone back in fighting form.

No nautical-themed game worth its salt would be without ship battles, and “Deadfire’s” got ‘em… in kind of a bare-bones, half-assed form. The player starts with a ship and is free to replace it with bigger and better models. However, these new ships are expensive, and require more crew… and crew members are an omnipresent drain on resources, demanding food, drink, and payment for every day spent on the high seas. And while it is possible to chase and harry other ships, cannons ablaze, there’s very little reason to do so instead of simply pulling alongside, boarding, and killing the entire opposing crew. Perhaps the biggest oversight with regard to ship battles is the inability to commandeer enemy ships. Why should I spend 100,000 moneys to buy a galleon when I just boarded and slaughtered the crew of one? With the number of enemy ships and bounties offered by NPCs, the player should be able to capture and sell/keep every last vessel, but that simply isn’t an option.

I criticized the first “Pillars of Eternity” for being unintuitive, and I must, again, lay that badge of shame on the sequel. “Deadfire” suffers nearly all of the same flaws in its homebrew game systems as its predecessor. Nearly every character class comes with a bloated skill tree with no real indication of which skills are useful. The user interface for character skills is far worse than even a pencil & paper RPG character sheet, with numerous right-clicks necessary to expand descriptions, which themselves all contain large amounts of jargon that must be moused-over in order to see a tool-tip that deciphers the jargon into actual English. The new ability to create dual-class characters only exacerbates this problem. In general, “Deadfire’s” mechanics all feel like they want the player to take an evening to sit and pore over a player’s handbook before actually playing… yet the game doesn’t provide said handbook.

Thankfully, at least, “Deadfire” doesn’t revolve nearly as much around debuffing enemy defenses with a plethora of obscure spells. Indeed, the overall balance in “Deadfire” feels much better than in the first game, with none of the egregious difficulty spikes that made me grind my teeth. It’s possible (and even likely) that this smoother difficulty comes from the fact that I played in turn-based mode, however, it does feel like Obsidian really tried to make “Deadfire” feel fair instead of pandering to H.A.R.D.-heads. Heck, even the impossible Steam Achievements are gone, in favor of a much more reasonable set of tasks to “reach 100% completion,” for whatever that’s worth. That isn’t to say that the self-abusive challenges are gone completely, though… no, they’re just hidden in a place most players wouldn’t look, and the reward for completing the game in its most impossible form is an actual cloth merit badge from Obsidian… yeah, sure.

Overall
While “Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire” is a solid RPG by any measure, after experiencing the pinnacle of what the genre has to offer in the modern era with the two ‘Divinity: Original Sin’ titles, Obsidian’s latest Role-Playing effort feels less traditional than it does archaic. Between the uninspired presentation, the poor technical performance, the less-than-engaging narrative, and the half-baked ship battles, there’s a lot of room for improvement here. However, the addition of a true turn-based mode almost makes up for the game’s other shortcomings. Almost.

Presentation: 2/5
Story: 3.5/5
Gameplay: 4/5
Overall (not an average): 4/5

 

 


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