Pillars of Eternity II Deadfire: A pirate's life for me

This crowdfunded retro role-playing game is the best kind of nerding out.


The enemy ship is larger than mine, but through my spyglass I can tell its wooden hull is weak. Only a single cannon emerges from the port side, compared to the powerful pair I'm turning to starboard to aim at them. Despite this, my foe unfurls his pirate flag and makes right for me, full sail ahead. The distance between us closes from 500 meters to just dozens before I have a chance to order my skeleton crew to fire off more than a couple of rounds of cannonballs.

I imagine the crashing waves and salt air as our ships hurtle towards each other. I have to imagine those things, because ship-to-ship combat in the new role-playing game Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire plays out through a series of illustrated multiple choice screens, almost like a classic choose-your-own-adventure book (or perhaps like an old-school pen-and-paper nautical strategy game).

But when our ships are within boarding distance, the game returns to much more familiar territory, a classic point-and-click RPG, viewed from an overhead isometric angle. If you've played a D&D-inspired game like Baldur's Gate, Icewind Dale, or any of the many others from the late '90s and early 2000s, this will be familiar territory.


Ship-to-ship fighting becomes a tense series of menu choices. 

Screenshot by Dan Ackerman/CNET

The pirates lay planks across from their deck to mine, and my hearty band of adventurers prepares for battle, casting some spells to increase our defense and stats, and others to confuse or slow down the enemy. Things look like they're going well for about the first five seconds. After that, my entire crew is cut down by a wave of apparently better-trained fighters.

Life (and death) comes at you fast in the Deadfire archipelago, the series of islands where this metaphysical adventure plays out.

That this style of game is having something of a renaissance is great news for those of us who grew up playing actual tabletop Dungeons and Dragons or other role-playing games (even if I hung up my 20-sided dice in the eighth grade.) Most of the new generation of PC-based RPGs are crowdfunded, including the original 2015 Pillars of Eternity, 2017's Divinity: Original Sin 2 and now Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire (to the tune of $4.4 million).


Lush environments hide many dangers...


While Original Sin 2 took the classic RPG style and gave it a substantial update, with fully 3D graphics, tons of visual polish, and console-friendly gamepad controls (it's coming to consoles later in 2018), Deadfire plays it as a straight-up homage to the Baldur's Gate brigade. The backgrounds are beautifully rendered, but in 2D, with 3D characters walking over them. That means there's no way to change the camera angle to swivel around and get a better view; all you get is zoom.

But fans of the genre who prefer the classic style won't have a problem with that, although I admit I prefer the more modern-feeling Original Sin 2 interface. Deadfire adds some interesting twists, taking both naval combat, some on-land adventuring and key conversations and turning them into text-based games, where you have to choose the best (or best for you) response to move the story along. It's a nice break from the standard gameplay.


Don't be scared off by the boats. There's still plenty of fighting in dungeons. 


Much of the minutia of the game's combat, and may other parts of it, are shrouded in mystery or never clearly explained by the very thin tutorials. Also like Original Sin 2, you'll spend plenty of time in the game's Reddit channel and discussion boards on Steam and the game's official site, trading tips with fellow players as everyone figures out the mechanics together. It sounds like a hassle, but in both of these indie RPGs, I found the community problem solving to be one of the most appealing features.

Being new to this series, I turned to two of CNET's most dedicated PC RPG fans to get their take on Deadfire. First is David Katzmaier, famous in CNET circles for at one time hosting a regular Friday night D&D game in an office conference room.

This game is in my wheelhouse, and I'm loving it so far. I played the original through twice -- my object was to adventure with all of different classes in my party -- as well as the DLC, and since then I poured plenty of hours into Tides of Numenera and Divinity 2. My initial impression is that Deadfire is bigger than any of them and potentially better.

I began my play-through with a Godlike Priest of Eothas, same as I used for my second run of PoE1, but when I encountered a very similar party member early on, I scrapped him and re-started with an Aumaua Fury Druid who hails from from the Deadfire Archipelago, which has already opened up some fun dialogue choices.


Get ready to spend a lot of time in your inventory screens. 


The heart of this game, and the most satisfying part for me, is the dialogue and where it can take you. I love balancing different dialogue skills like Bluff, Intimidate and Diplomacy, and feel a little thrill when I can unlock a fun response -- and disappointment when one is unavailable because "requirement not met." There are more dialogue choices to fit different role-playing styles than any game I can remember. Another great immersive feature: lore words like Vailian and Ondra are highlighted in dialogues so you can mouse over them for definitions.

The refined gameplay is huge, too. PoE's inventory management is the best I've ever used, so I spend less time at the merchant and more time adventuring and talking to townspeople. I love "fast" mode and the new "Empower" option, which opens up even more strategic choices in combat. Combat options are well balanced, although you do have to be careful and micromanage to get peak efficiency: the AI isn't great. At this early stage the Veteran difficulty level has been my sweet spot, and I've narrowly missed full-party die-off once already. I love that feeling of pulling it out at the end.

I'm psyched to play again tonight and maybe experience my first ship-to-ship encounter. So far, so impressed.

Next up is Rich Brown, a long-time PC gaming expert who sports the advanced beard game of an actual RPG wizard:

Imagine if Baldur's Gate 2, Sid Meier's Pirates! and maybe Mass Effect 2 had a baby. That's what Deadfire wants to be. At about 16 hours in, I'm not far enough to know whether or not it lives up to such a grand legacy, but I've been having fun so far.

I've done some island hopping, some pirate killing, and some tromping around a large city. I spent my last play session wandering around the first map in the city questing, shopping and exploring. I think I'm just about to hit the first big story beat, but I might put that off in favor of heading back out to sea to try out the new pair of cannons I just bought on some unsuspecting merchant ships.

In addition to the depth of the lore and the character management, and the ship management and the gorgeous art, oh, and the banter between characters and the excellent, refreshingly nonbinary conversation system, what I'm really enjoying about Deadfire (really) is the sense of freedom to explore. I'm sure if I sail far enough I'll eventually run into something I can't beat, but right now there's a big ocean out there, and I want to see and steal what's in it.


Rich Brown calls the combat, "satisfyingly stabby." 


My reservations lie mostly with the combat. On classic mode it's barely a challenge, and all the default visual cues make it easy to lose track of your characters in the fray. The skills for my human Street-fighter Rogue feel satisfyingly stabby, and I like the fighter skills, too. But the fights so far often devolve into everyone slashing at each other in a clump. That makes it hard to let loose with the cool-sounding wizard spells, many of which damage everyone in the area of effect, not just your enemies. I might just need more time with the combat to get the hang of it.

Obsidian Entertainment, the game's developer, often gets a hard time for putting out games that are compelling in concept and buggy in execution. Deadfire bucks that trend and feels like the product of a well-considered postmortem on the first game in the series. It preserves the good stuff about Pillars of Eternity, like the depth of the character creation and the fresh new IP, and adds some needed quality of life improvements, like reduced load times and the aforementioned keyword tool-tip system. All that, and Deadfire almost effortlessly incorporates an expansive new seafaring element in a unique, hybrid Caribbean/Polynesian setting. I've put my God of War playthrough on pause to push ahead on Deadfire, and I don't see myself going back to Kratos anytime soon.

If this has you ready to pick up a sword or staff and sail off to the Deadfire archipelago, you can find the game's official website here.

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