You can take the stealth approach or you can go in guns blazing. At least, that is the way player choice has traditionally been expressed by developers in pre-release demos at trade shows. This is why it strikes me as odd to hear “guns blazing” in the context of a swords and sorcery game made by Obsidian - a studio with a reputation for presenting a bigger breadth of choice than most in their RPGs.
But this is Pillars of Eternity II: a fantasy world of privateers and pistoliers. The guns in question are the cannons mounted on our party’s ship, which lead producer Justin Britch is suggesting we bring to bear against a fort belonging to the Principi sen Patrena - a loose faction of pirates operating in the Deadfire Archipelago.
“Mmm,” Steven King says. “It’s probably not the best idea.”
King is our man at the keyboard and, more pertinently, Pillars of Eternity II’s QA lead. Nobody knows better than him what is and is not a good idea inside its world. And so Britch opts for a “sneaky-deaky” way of infiltrating the fort instead. Rather than clamber in through a window, though that is an option, he raises the flag of the Principi, acquired earlier in the game from an ally, and sails into port unchallenged.
This is just one way in which Pillars’ systems interplay across its seas. Your ship is as customisable as any companion in your party, upgrading from sloop to galleon, picking up crew, swapping out cannons and, yes, flying a changeable flag that influences how the various factions floating around the Archipelago respond to you.
Quest solutions like these are written for the moment as you should expect from Obsidian. Although the Deadfire is a true open world, free to explore once you leave the first island, nothing on its map is randomly generated.
“Everything in our game is actually hand-crafted,” Britch tells us. “Every single piece of content, area, fight, every interaction, that’s hand-placed and hand-scripted.”
Once inside the fort, one of our companions, the furry and diminutive orlan Serafen, pipes up. He is a member of the Principi, and there is somebody he would like to hash things out with while here.
“Our companions have had a ton more work put into them in Pillars II, and they are much more part of the story and the world that you’re living in,” Britch says. “They’ll actually react to the quests you’re going on and help you out in a lot of circumstances. They’ll have much more of an opinion and voice in the game.”
That new voice has led to significantly deeper intra-party relationships. Your companions will rub up against each other, depending on the views they hear each other espousing, and potentially develop rifts. Serafen, for instance, has no patience for racism. What he does enjoy are acts of passion and worldliness - and if you show your companions enough of what they enjoy, your own relationships can lead to romance.
“It’s not gonna be a bunch of Mass Effect sex scenes,” Britch clarifies. “It should be a pretty natural mechanic. If you do things that the companions like, then relationship options will open up. There’s a lot more feeling that this is a party of people, and not just that you are the god hero conquering all that you see.”
In this instance, no love is in the air - King simply tells Serafen to pipe down again. There is more immediate business to take care of. We are here to confront Benwith, a pirate we have had an earlier altercation with, and who has taken over the fort - much to the discontent of those pirates who are not part of his crew.
Our party decides to creep through the dungeon below the fort rather than face an entire faction’s best at relatively low level. While Pillars of Eternity II provides plenty of direction for those wanting a balanced combat experience, it is perfectly happy to let you stumble across enemies far beefier than you are equipped to handle. Britch calls it an “old-school philosophy.”
“If you want to go and explore what’s gonna happen,” he says, “you can find that out for yourself.”
“Too many bad memories,” King mutters.
Well aware that the dungeon represents a potential weak point, the Principi have filled its corridors with guards. In past demos, the party has come face-to-face with patrols and fallen into open combat. This time, King decides to take advantage of Pillars of Eternity II’s improved stealth system, which now tracks the vision cones and hearing radius of your opponents. The noise simulation in particular offers new opportunities - like distracting guards with firecrackers.
Passing by without commotion, the party reaches the cells, discovering what Britch calls the “dirty naked men.” These are not, in fact, a new faction, but a pirate crew that have fallen foul of Benwith’s leadership. Their knowledge of the fort’s layout will be invaluable - but before they will open their mouths, we will have to open their cells.
Pickpocketing is a risky manoeuvre, but made more palatable by another new feature - companions in Pillars of Eternity II can now pool their resources when testing skills. Your second-best thief is no longer a useless tag-along, then, but an effective boost to your party’s overall ability. King manages to procure a key from a nearby guard, and the Dirty Naked Men let us know the whereabouts of Benwith’s ship - a personal weakness that, if threatened, should lure him out from behind his entourage.
To reach the ship, however, the party must face its crew. King begins the battle by targeting nearby barrels of gunpowder, blowing a chunk off the pirates’ health. Fighting in Pillars of Eternity II is much as it was in the first game - a real-time battle system that encourages regular pausing to issue orders. But environmental hazards are new, and so are the deeply customisable AI scripts that govern companions when left them to their own devices.
The crew dispatched, King rings the ship’s bell. Sure enough, Benwith emerges to investigate. There are dialogue options available - like any good pirate, Benwith is willing to barter for his life - but the party opts to instagib him instead.
“We love gibs,” Britch says with satisfaction.
The decision will impact the party’s standing with the Principi. And that matters, since you will need the assistance of one of these factions later in the game’s critical path. This is what distinguishes Pillars of Eternity II from other games that offer sneaky-deaky stealth or blazing guns. Actions make noise, not only in the echoey dungeons of pirate forts, but throughout the Deadfire Archipelago where reputation and consequence carries across the waves with an unmistakable Obsidian timbre.