Push Square die-hards will doubtless recall that back in 2017 we gave Pillars of Eternity: Complete Edition a glowing review, bestowing upon it a well earned 9/10 to take home for its mum to put on the fridge. It was both a love letter to old school, all-time classic role players like Baldur's Gate and Planescape Torment, and a title that refined the mechanics and genre tropes established in those games to such a degree that it could be considered their equal. We loved it.
Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire continues the tale of The Watcher - a being with the unusual ability to communicate with the recently departed as well as peer into the souls of friend and foe alike. The original game saw The Watcher foil an elaborate plot involving Gods, wayward religions, and wanton treachery, either by heroic or nefarious means depending on the decisions you made as you played. Deadfire picks up some years later, with the Watcher sat on his throne, probably glugging wine and eating handfuls of peanuts like a proper hero, pretty sure that nothing awful is about to happen.
Predictably, something awful happens. A massive, renegade God bursts forth from the ground and decides to go for a stroll around the world of Eora, leaving untold devastation in its wake. The Watcher -- caught in the initial blast -- is among the victims. Before you pop your first Trophy you're being whisked off to the afterlife, which doubles up as a chance to have a handy recap of the main story beats from the first game as well as the opportunity to assign your protagonist a face and a class that's to your liking.
A mysterious benefactor quickly restores you to life, and once you're back in reality, you're charged with hunting down the towering God that smited thee. And so you hop aboard a ship and sail the seven seas, following the path of destruction from port to port, while finding yourself embroiled in local politics as you attempt to recruit the allies you'll need for when you inevitably come to blows with the marauding titan.
The story is wonderfully told and beautifully written, and the mature, grounded (for a fantasy game) world is the perfect setting. It's not a land where the hero of light is fated to defeat the dastardly evil, but rather one where the villains have motivations that are understandable, and those who stand against them come with their own skeletons in their respective closets.
While you can play a moustache-twirling rogue or a stalwart champion of the people if you so desire, regardless of how you play you will be forced to make tough decisions that have no clear cut, ethically sound answer. You're going to get your hands dirty.
One of Deadfire's finest qualities is how customisable the whole game feels, right down to how you fight your battles. At the beginning of the game, you'll be asked whether you want the combat to be turn-based or real-time with pause. The former means that combat unfolds in turns with each allied participant being controlled by you, while in the latter your friends will attack, heal, and buff in real-time, with you having the option to pause the game whenever you'd like to assume direct control.
Combat is challenging, and you'll need to use your grey matter to survive in anything other than the easiest difficulty setting. The companions you meet throughout the game add new dimensions to battle, each having their own pros and cons. It's well balanced, the various classes all feel useful, and rarely do defeats feel cheap.
One of the new ideas in Deadfire is ship management, and it's mostly a success. The world map in the game is, essentially, the high seas. You're free to sail as you please: you can make port and recruit new sailors to your cause, you can run afoul of pirates and settle your differences in either ship combat or a more traditional battle spanning the two decks, or even sail to uninhabited islands and - in a nice touch - give them a name. Keep your sailors paid and fed and watered, and they'll sing sea shanties -- which is obviously awesome -- but leave them wanting and they could mutiny.
We could sit here and bleat on about everything that Pillars of Eternity II gets right all day, but then Robert would have a heart attack when he came to edit a 10,000 word review. Unfortunately, we must dispense with the pleasantries, and we really need to talk about the problems with the game, because oh boy, there are problems.
Cutting right to the chase, the load times in Deadfire are an absolute joke. We got our little stopwatches out at one point to start tracking them once we realised it wasn't a one-off, and on average, loading screens are up for around one minute and twenty five seconds. That's such an annoying length of time. It's not quite long enough to go and make a cup of tea, but it's long enough that you'll think to yourself, "Maybe I should go and pop the kettle on?"
The frequency of the loading screens simply exacerbates the problem. If you go into a building to talk to a guy to hand in a quest, then want to head off to a new district to do something else, you'll get a load screen as you enter the building, one as you leave the building, and then another as you travel to the new district. That's four and a half minutes loading to about thirty seconds of gameplay.
Dying in combat means you'll face another loading screen, and then all of the loading screens while you re-do the things you did before you died. As if that wasn't enough, the game crashes with alarming regularity, so there's a reload every time you get blue screened. Sometimes the cancel button will just stop working inexplicably, meaning you can't get out of a menu you're in, so that's a reload. Accidentally click on a door that you don't want to go into? Say goodbye to the next three minutes. Perhaps a patch will fix most of these issues, and honestly, we hope it does. But right now they're inexcusable.
Pillars of Eternity II is a 9/10 RPG tragically trapped inside a 7/10 game. The quality of the writing and the world-building is second to none, and the tried and tested combat mechanics are meticulously tuned, but the outrageous loading times and other technical issues are too upsetting to ignore. It's like sitting in a fine Italian restaurant, sipping a glass of wine and nibbling on breadsticks, enjoying your date, and then the waiter comes over and drops a dead dog on the table. Wrong table, mate. I ordered the carbonara. Now get that dead dog out of my sight.