The game was fun overall, the new combat and leveling systems both feel like clear improvements over the first one, I liked enough of the companions that I had hard time deciding who to sit out - but yesterday I've made it to the end credits, and I came away from the game feeling quite underwhelmed. I've slept on it, and I can narrow down the reason to three things. Spoilers all over, obviously.
1. I've spend over 60 hours playing it, but nothing of consequence happened until the last two.
Almost from the very start, I've been choosing to side with Huana whenever possible. I've lend a hand to Royal Deadfire Company otherwise (but not if the choice was between the two). I didn't bother with the Principi much, after getting rid of Benweth. I also picked up every single quest Valians gave me, then did the exact opposite of what they asked where possible. I destroyed the adra pillar on Poko Kohara and told their shaman that Vailians planned on sacrificing them. After they asked me to cut a deal with the slavers, I slaughtered every last one of them and happily reported back. I've sank a handful of Vailian ships for good measure.
Until the Ukaizo revelation, no number of choices could lock me out from a faction. As soon as the endgame comes, a single choice locks me out of all factions but one. I've finished the game with Huana's help, and got to see their happy ending, where they diminish the trading companies and grow strong. Then I went back two hours, sided with RDC, and got to see their happy ending, where they steamroll over the archipelago and kick Vailians out. I go back again and pick Vailians' quests next. I didn't bother going through it, but I know it's available, and I imagine it gives them their happy ending. This doesn't feel at all organic. Why would Vailians trust me at all at this point? Why aren't the earlier quests gradually locking us out of the factions?
2. I just blew up a building full of innocents (or killed a queen) for a front row seat.
Once Eothas' plan gets revealed, there's massive pressure to get through to Ukaizo and talk to him. Not massive enough to stop the squabbling and infighting, mind, but you get told the future of the world depends on you nonetheless. You commit to getting there by any means necessary - be it regicide or mass murder. You brave the Ondra's Mortar, fight the ancient guardian, murder one of the other factions some more, antagonize over what you will do and say over and over. Then you catch up with Eothas and get to point out just one single flaw in his plan, out of many (I chose "what about all the souls that will get stuck in In-Between?" on one go and "if you really do this to help kith, how about you actually give us some handicap?" on another). One of the options is literally telling him you just came to watch, thanks. Best I can tell, there isn't one to tell him his "kindness" is no different from Woedica's plotting; an uncaring god imposing his wisdom on the kith, consequences be damned. And then he goes ahead and does exactly what he set out to do.
And that's fair enough, you can't always win. But as soon as he's done tearing the Wheel into pieces, the ending narrator kicks in and starts talking about "the enormity of what I accomplished" and plays it up as some massive success. But that rang ridiculously hollow. The only thing that I've accomplished was beating Hazanui Karu to this island by couple of hours (or some Vailian prince on the RDC path) and flipping a switch. I've stopped nothing. I just had another chat with Stay Puft, and he decided when to end that chat, just like with the other three chats we had. The only reason I was even there was thanks to someone else's watershapers or special ships. Me chasing all over the map after Ukaizo's location made no difference, either - it was revealed when it was time for the third act to start.
3. The most memorable part of the ending was my girlfriend exploding into bloody pieces
Last but not least: Maia was fun character, so I always had her around in my party. At some point she started flirting, so I flirted back. Her bird was hungry, so I chased after shark meat to feed him. She appreciated it so much we went and snogged in the broom closet. Maia was also a loyal soldier, so she always followed her RDC orders. At some point she said we need to talk, and acted offended when I asked if this is the moment where she betrays me (even though it was where she betrayed me). She disappeared for a while, then told about the nasty things she did while she were away. She felt bad about it.
Yet when it came to me choosing sides, and I didn't chose hers, she left there and then. She said I can't expect her to go against her country. I tried to plead with her, but she wasn't having any of it. She was gone. I met here again on Ukaizo, at Hazanui's side, with red circle under her feet. I used Serafen's mind control to take her out of the fight, hoping she'll calm down once her side is beaten. I took out everyone else, then waited for the mind control to run out. Nothing - not a word, not a single comment. Just back to shooting at me. I send my party to take her down, and Eder landed a crit. Just like that, she just exploded into hundred bloody bits.
I'm not actually criticising this. I genuinely felt bad about how things turned out, but I could understand why she did what she did, why I ended up staring down the barrel of her gun in the end. When that overkill animation kicked in, I felt sick there and then. Thing is, that was the only part of the final act that actually made me feel anything. Everything else rang all the more hollow because of that one organic moment; the final narration was droning on about Eothas punching a tower over and over, and I just kept thinking "I can't believe Maia's gone. There isn't even enough left to bury". When I replayed last act for the RDC path, nothing remotely close this impactful happened. The ending felt all the weaker for it.
I'm leaving this here because it felt like the right place to vent, but also because I'm hoping this doesn't come across as purely ranting, and is constructive enough to provide some feedback on what worked and what didn't. I honestly believe the game would be better if the different factions started giving up on me earlier: it would make it more replayable, it would add more impact to my actions in the earlier acts, and it would make the final act much less busy. I know there's a stigma about locking out large chunks of game out from the audience, but if there's any game that I'd expect to take the risk, it's the one that has been crowdfunded by a particular audience in the first place.
I also hope that the inevitable PoE III gives a little more reason for our Watcher to follow the events. We had as little actual choice over the ending of the first game as we did on the second: Thaos always dies, Eothas always succeeds, and we just get decide what happens to the souls after. Difference is, Thaos falls by our hand. Us being there is required for the events to happen. Us being on Ukaizo is not.