Kickstarter darling and old-school CRPG Pillars of Eternity left me feeling slightly lukewarm, but its sequel, Deadfire, is doing two of the best plays any sequel can make: amplifying what was already good, and adding pirates. Pirates make everything better; that's just science.
The gameplay demo provided to both press and crowdfunders this month lets players go through the entire character creation section, offering a taste of every race, class, and background with the full lore write-ups as well as kits, though this is supposed to be same character as the protagonist of the first game, and returning gamers will be able to import old saves/builds in the final game. After being guided through the whole process, players and their party of nameless mercenaries are dumped on an island with two problems: the local lizard people are getting violent with townspeople and more importantly the island itself has been beset by an ever-swirling storm that isolates it from greater trade networks. This is probably the result of some tampering with the magic crystal pillar on the other island, but the place full of crazy ghosts and runaway golems. The first comes down to a walk up a hill and choosing between a negotiation and genocide. The second is more involved, with a full dungeon crawl and a trip to the afterlife to mess with some vengeful ghost archeologists.
Combat has been expanded and sharpened. Players will see more options for setting AI behaviours than the last game as well a whole new action points system. Each day all characters are given two action points that can be used to either amp up the effects of a single attack or spell, or can be spent to refresh half of any expended resources. This can really shake up long combat sequences or put the player at an early advantage. While caster characters are still bound to Vance-styled casting, special abilities for the mundane combatants have been switched to a point pool that fuels special attacks and abilities, as well as adding various attack modes that offer benefits and drawbacks based around the weapon. For example, axes can be set to swing for more damage at less accuracy, while knives can be swung faster at a damage reduction. It's all about putting more genuine strategic options in front of the player. Players can also opt to play on 'here for the story' mode and lean back to enjoy the shiny colours as spells go off; it's all cool.
Then there's piracy. The player is given a fully stocked and crewed ship and asked to play a management sim with it. There's inventory to keep track of, crew-members to recruit and assign duties to, morale to manage (a cask full of grog helps the fifth day of hardtack rations go down), as well as various parts that can be upgraded. The vessel herself is for more than getting around, as the player is free to engage in high-seas piracy. The play of ship-to-ship combat is abstracted out to something similar to a text adventure game. There's a list of commands related to speed, turning, and firing. It's not quite the thrill of Sea of Thieves or Assassin's Creed Black Flag, but the text-based feedback has a little Hornblower adventure novel feel to it.
The demo itself offers ten hours of content if stretched out, a few more if the player spends a lot of time in character creation or raiding merchant schooners. The attached press release promises that this merely a tenth of the finished game set for a PC launch in May, and a winter release on home consoles. This slice does spark of curiosity and excitement for the full release. Hopefully what's new can buoy this entry to the status of the classic PC titles it's emulating.
As a postscript: those tooltips for lore that I went gaga over in Tyranny - they're here too. That's rad as heck.