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Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire & End-Game Design


Fionavar

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Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire & End-Game Design

A blog by @Hawke64

 

0header.thumb.png.9a4a00f0c71b18126ee3988e09df6665.pngPillars of Eternity II: Deadfire is a computer/classic roleplaying game (CRPG), which explores the topics of personal freedom and responsibility, religion, and colonialism. The story takes place in the (fictional, but it is obvious) Deadfire archipelago, where several local and foreign factions stand in uneasy peace, while the protagonist follows a reborn god (who destroyed their very nice castle during his rebirth) to save their soul. The game was unique in many aspects, most importantly, in supporting the player's agency and acknowledging their choices, and some admirable design decisions, such as not rewarding murdering random non-playable characters without an in-character reason (quest) and the critical path (the main story) being of reasonable length. Then, in one of the last updates, the Blackwood Hull, required for it, was moved from the shipyard at the capital, broken into 5 pieces, and these pieces scattered at random places, thus, successfully decreasing the immersion and securing another sale on GOG, which allowed to rollback the update almost painlessly (installing and uninstalling GOG Galaxy while downloading the game twice was not the most positive experience, but it worked). Keeping the 51GB around was less painless, but absolutely worth it. 

Usually in video games, the final part where the player and/or the party are proficient with the technical aspects of the gameplay systems and have completed most of the story, thus, being invested in both, consists of several hours of story-free battles, which, on one hand, allow to utilise the most powerful equipment and skills the player has. On the other, these long battle sequences are predictable, boring, and do not exactly serve the narrative.

In terms of the in-game lore, Ukaizo was the lost birthplace of the local people, the Huana, which also was the final destination of Eothas, whom the player's party was pursuing throughout the story, and the target of the factions vying for the control over the Deadfire archipelago and its resources. Therefore, it would be expected for the island to be mechanically similar to the end-game locations from other CPRGs, including the first Pillars of Eternity (fortunately, as far as I remember, Obsidian did not go overboard there either).

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The level and narrative design of Ukaizo was impressive in general and in the context of CPRGs - while it featured one avoidable (blessed be the Bounding Boots) token boss battle with a unique foe that had little to no bearing on the story (the Guardian did provide some lore), the encounter with Eothas was never meant to be combat, due to him inhabiting a giant adra (soul-sucking-rock) statue from the practical point of view (granted, a few well-shot explosives could have solved it), and because I wanted to see him taking down the creatures that were much worse than he was, which made travelling to Ukaizo in the first place rather out of character, but the quest journal pointed there and, as a player, I wanted to know the outcomes of my actions. It also was very convenient to replay, considering the number of expansions, with all of them taking place in the story before visiting Ukaizo. 

3b.thumb.jpg.ec885b9132b0acb8ac74cdb9f8aaaa00.jpgAnother boss battle at Ukaizo was against a leader (I think there were several for each option) of a non-chosen faction. For some reason, despite me not compromising my moral high ground for any of them, it usually was the Royal Deadfire Company of the Kingdom of Rauatai, with Hazanui Karū as the boss. Possibly, it was because of Atsura, who was definitely not a spy, giving me the opportunity to decrease the number of their employees without negative consequences. The point being is that the presence of this battle highlighted another essential aspect of the story - the relationships with the factions, where each of them was reasonable enough not to be killed on sight, unlike, for example, the Legion in Fallout: New Vegas or the Systems Alliance in Mass Effect (not an Obsidian game, and the damn faction was impossible to leave, while the game itself was extremely pro-military).

And, most importantly, there were dialogues with the companions on the way to Eothas, reflecting the bonds built with the party. It also was great that the romantic interest did not lessen or overshadow the friendships with the other party members, while the fact that all of the possible romances were bisexual successfully avoided cis-heteronormativity and made the story more immersive and engaging for the LGBTQ+ gamers.

Thus, Ukaizo defied the combat-first (not an unjustified approach, since providing a satisfying and  interactive combat system, while still challenging, is significantly easier than satisfying and interactive dialogues) aspect of many CPRGs where the last location is a long mind-numbing gauntlet of battles and the boss, whom you have come to kill anyway, monologuing for an hour - the dialogues with both bosses and Eothas were skippable and/or possible to minimise. I also loved how in PoE1 it was possible to kill Thaos without listening to him, since the information you needed was much more satisfying to take from his corpse.

5b.thumb.jpg.14c0534bf8daa04ad5909cb3925ad48d.jpgI see Obsidian as one of the best RPG developers whose games I have played. I think it is important to explore the conventions and subvert the expectations of the genre in order to make more unique and memorable art, while supporting it being sustainable (system requirements and development costs), accessible (fully rebindable controls and saving at will), inclusive, and DRM-free, because video games are both art and a product and it is crucial to acknowledge and support both of these aspects.  

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About Me
A Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire backer, a gamer, and a vegan with the preference for CRPGs, Souls-likes, immersive sims, and Metroidvanias, genres either supporting the player’s agency in terms of story or having strong combat systems and level design. 

 

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As someone who generally found PoE games not being great in practice despite being very good for me on paper (which somewhat disturbs me because I have an issue in articulating just what about Poe and Deadfire I dislike), I have to say that Hawke64 is absolutely right about the endgame of Deadfire. It's refreshingly short (in terms of real time spent, not in terms of content) and is less of a test of just how much players can cheese the game system (Kingmaker/WotR) or an uncharacteristically dense series of combat encounters that just does not work well with established mechanics (BG3) than it is a thematic cap of the game you've sunk at least 50+ hours into for a single playthrough. Which is quite nice, The Guardian would have been a one-off endgame boss like in some many videogames but in Deadfire it is just what you have to get through to get in the gate, the real boss is the decisions you've made along the way both in the form of your conflict with one of the factions (which I believe can be kind of weak, given the way you can theoretically not pay special attention to any given one enough to explain just why the hell they would come to stand off with you in El Dorado Ukaizo) to the last dialogue with Eothas himself. It's a very nice ending to a game I otherwise felt was unfortunately disjointed (the curse of a multi-game protagonist imo) and should be studied and tried to learn from instead of forcing us into yet another series of EPIC battles that have all the heft of a comic book superhero death.

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while the fact that all of the possible romances were bisexual successfully avoided cis-heteronormativity and made the story more immersive and engaging for the LGBTQ+ gamers.

This is the one part I disagree with strongly enough to talk about, the romances felt very much slapped on and applied with the cis-hetero eye in mind. It's better than Bioware or Owlcat (other than the throuple in Kingmaker) but that's a very low bar to cross. I may get some guff here, but largely I felt that BG3 did a much better job at romance generally and feeling less relentlessly heteronormative.

But that's all minor quibbles and the opinion of a meanie zucchini. Maybe I'll get myself together and crank out some incomprehensible nonsense about gaming and dialectics/trialectics.

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Thanks for this, @Hawke64. As we anticipate Avowed, I am wondering what you might add from this piece regarding hopes and expectation in the shift to the different platform and such?

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On 7/8/2024 at 3:59 AM, Fionavar said:

Thanks for this, @Hawke64. As we anticipate Avowed, I am wondering what you might add from this piece regarding hopes and expectation in the shift to the different platform and such?

While I am trying to avoid significant spoilers for the game, Avowed seems to be more combat-heavy and less flexible in terms of the story (e.g. all companions are mandatory). I would hope Avowed to be closer to immersive sims, considering the first-person camera perspective, with their detailed level design and multiple ways to resolve quests, and Pillars of Eternity II, which supported the player's agency in terms of narrative and consistently high-quality writing, but I am unsure at the moment how it is going to be. In terms of sustainability, the lower system requirements, the better (<20GB storage space, <4GB VRAM would be ideal), which is even less likely to happen.

Still, it is an Obsidian game and I am looking forward to it. I also hope to be able to purchase it on GOG on release (highly unlikely) to prevent any updates that can significantly worsen my experience.

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Thanks, Hawke64. I appreciate the challenge and shared hope :). Some of the Devs have referenced that Avowed will be akin to Outworlds in regard to story-style and gameplay: does that comparison help with some of your wonderings?

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Thank you. I loved that in The Outer Worlds helping an NPC or a faction was a conscious choice and not the default reaction, while ignoring them or murdering everyone was always an option and the game acknowledged it as well. Also, the companions were well-written, relatable, and sympathetic.

The itemisation and enemy encounters, on the other hand, looked like there was significantly less intent and effort put into it, with the guns with levels being a strong negative.

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