Back in June, I reviewed Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire. Like most Obsidian RPGs, it was a masterclass in gripping character work and creating an imaginative setting. But its combat system, a fossil of the Baldur’s Gate era of CRPGs, was as confusing as it was antiquated.
I don’t think I was alone in that criticism, because Obsidian has taken the game back to the drawing board. On January 24th, Pillars got an update that swaps out the real-time-with-pause style with a turn-based replacement. I’ve spent a dozen or so hours with it, and I’m here to tell you that it changes everything.
There’s A LOT of information to digest in Pillars. So many abilities have buffs and debuffs that might have a unique name, but not necessarily a unique outcome. There’s not enough time to figure out what each ability does, and sort out how to layer their effects in the most effective way in the out-of-the-box combat system.
There’s also plenty of zone, line, and area of effect abilities that become hard to work into an offensive strategy when its not clear when an enemy will move out of a space and into a new one. You gave up a great amount of tactical awareness, and it discouraged dipping into some parts of your skill tree because of it.
Turn-based combat changes everything.
Combat feels so much more deliberate with the turn-based add-on. I know what every party member is doing because I tell them to do it. I can guarantee that healers are going to keep my tanks topped off. I can make damn sure that my skirmishers are gonna catch the right flanks. My mages won’t blow up their own allies with powerful spells (or do nothing out of fear of harming the party).
I also feel far more in tune with each character build, because most of it isn’t being automated. I don’t have to pause frantically to page through several ribbons of tool tips to guarantee I’m using the right thing at any given moment. Without the pressure, you can freely think ahead in battle. This translates remarkably to how you build out your characters. I’m thinking way more about level 10 at level 5 then I had during my previous playthroughs.
This beta isn’t without its flaws. Spell effects and potential outcomes are highlighted more, but turn-based doesn’t do much to declutter the HUD. All the essential numbers are not made more available. Things can also get super crowded when characters pile on to each other to get into attack range and move for flanks.
Some weird things that worked in the old system still exist and don’t in this turn-based approach. Characters have a hard time moving around each other in a consistent fashion. Sometimes, party members just get frozen behind each other, unable to navigate around them. Other times, they will literally just push an ally out of their way, strafing them around an enemy. This becomes problematic when you’re trying to thread a spell between allies, and they get bounced into the danger zone.
On less common occasions, characters won’t take the path that is show that they will take. Or their path suggests they will move farther over certain terrain then they actually do. Since you can’t take turns back, this is the sort of information you really rely on to make good choices. It’s a bummer when it can’t be.
It also seems like the beta has broken things that aren’t even connected to the combat, like ship encounters. Every one of the potential four options is replaced by “missing string” notices. Unless you already know what these potentially could be, you are literally flying blind when pirates accost you.
But it’s a work in progress, obviously. These are things that can and will most likely be fixed over time. They negatives are outweighed pretty heavily by the potential positives. I’m very happy to have been given a good reason to leap back into Deadfire, because this really was among the most remarkable RPGs of last year. It’s been pretty well supported since June 2018 as well, with multiple expansions and tons of free DLC being released since then. The turn-based experiment gives all this content fresh legs to stand on.