It wasn't without a great sense of anticipation that we jumped into what we hoped would be one of this year's biggest role-playing experiences, Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire. The game begins in the exact same way - understandable as it's a direct sequel - as quite literally you're thrown overboard and directly into the action.
There's an extremely short version of the first game's story serving as an introduction, but otherwise the sequel continues where you left off from the first game. There seems to be an expectancy that you've played the first one, though, even if there's technically nothing stopping you from starting your travels without any idea of what Caed Nua or Edér is, or why a gigantic green statue is trudging around and stealing people's souls. Of course, doing so leaves a giant hole when it comes to having a deeper understanding of the new story being told, which is a shame as Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire is better than its predecessor in almost every conceivable way and pulling yourself through the first one could be more of a chore than a pleasure. We'll try our best not to spoil too much, as a lot of the strength of the Pillars of Eternity formula is in the story, which not only includes the main plot, but also the trials and tribulations that await in Eora.
Nevertheless, Deadfire manages to tell a story with a lot more finesse than the first entry in the series, because the game isn't forced to introduce an entirely new universe. From the get-go we felt on the cusp of epic battles and big world-altering events. The objective of your journey is to hunt down a gigantic statue possessed by a god that, before Deadfire, awakens and kills you. Resurrected and deployed by the remaining concerned faculty of gods, you represent Berath, the goddess of death and reincarnation, and hunt the statue that vacuums up all souls in the vicinity, Eothas. This cat-and-mouse hunt not only forms the basis for a meeting with the widespread and somewhat unscrupulous Vallain Trading Company but also the birth of a republic on the Deadfire archipelago.
Similarly, the mechanics set the two games quite far apart, despite the core principles remaining. The inventory system is more open, more accessible, and better structured, for example, whereas in the predecessor you had to go through several menus to access the shared stockpile. Here everything can be accessed by a single click of the mouse, and even the way you use and acquire abilities, spells, and scrolls has become a lot more transparent. When a character gains a level, you get access to a branch-like chart showing which abilities are interconnected, and which abilities you must upgrade to gain whichever power you want. The active and passive skills have received a makeover too, once again for the sake of accessibility, and a host of new skills have arrived, like history, religion, and knowledge of magic, which opens the possibility for further personalisation of not only the main character but the rest of your ragtag group as well. Reputation mechanics have also had their own overhaul for the better, as you can see precisely who likes you (and who doesn't), with the same being true for your traveling companions and their mutual relationships, which can either have dire consequences or serve up surprising results the deeper you get into the story.
The combat system has expanded and become more transparent as well, since lifepoints are now displayed as big colored boxes instead of tiny dots, and the countdown timer for abilities is indicated with a big icon. Likewise combat in general has had a visual lift although it's still played out in real-time with the ability to pause every now and then. With the addition of Power Levels, the spells and abilities you often use when your character's low-level no longer become obsolete later in the game.
We had hoped that the big negative from the first game - the artificial intelligence - had gotten a much-needed lift too, but alas, all is not peaches and cream. Or should we say sunshine and beaches? The deep cast of unique characters still manage to get stuck in corners, between an ally and the wall, and still want to marathon the entire map to flank an opponent instead of just moving to the left. After having meticulously and manually navigated all five party members into position and micromanaged their attack orders to claim victory, we can at least enjoy long and exciting character-building conversations with every one of them. It's a great reward to look forward to.