Note: For those that have not played the The White March Part I, minor spoilers follow.
The White March Part II concludes the story of the snowy lands of the White March, which was first introduced back in August of last year. The two parts taken together, which are intended to be played about half-way through the main Pillars of Eternity adventure, offer players what amounts to a whole new campaign, complete with its own beginning middle and end, full of new quests and locations.
Here, however, we’re taking a look at Part II in its own right. The White March Part II also coincides with updates to the core game, which all players gain access to regardless of purchasing the expansion. However, for the purposes of completeness, we’ll be discussing those elements as well.
Part II leaves off where Part I ended, following the reignition of the White Forge in Durgan’s Battery. Stalwart has begun to grow after word of the White Forge reaches south and many come north seeking work or fortune. And while things are looking better for the small community, a new army from neighbouring Readceras has laid siege to Durgan’s Battery, and an even greater threat from the mountains promises devastations unless the Watcher (you) can stop it.
The build-up is promising, but unfortunately this expansion plays out in a straightforward manner, with the party steered linearly from one region to the next. Combat, like the previous expansion, is the focus here. There’s not a lot of new NPCs and no new towns to explore. Every area contains a large number of combat encounters, and while some can be avoided through careful diplomacy, even the remaining fights can begin to feel a bit tedious. I note than I did play through the game on Hard, which increases the number of enemies in each group, but the sheer number of encounters feels unnecessary. This is odd, since Obsidian has decided to rework Chapter III of the main storyline to decrease the number of encounters players faced there for similar reasons.
Most of it isn’t particularly difficult either. If you have a high-level party, the game gives you the option when beginning The White March Part II of scaling the difficulty appropriately, which I chose to do. However, even there I found many of my spells could trivialize even some of the major encounters. The level cap has been raised to 16, which means that casters get a new tier of spells and everyone else gains some new character abilities. Many of the new spells are quite powerful and the new effects look quite good on the battlefield.
A considerable number of additional soulbound items have also been added (those items that can only be used by one character and grow in strength by completing tasks), considerably increasing your party’s power. These serve as great rewards for major quests and many of them provide interesting objectives in their own right.
Only one of the new areas is particularly memorable: a temple high in the mountains, which offers both stunning background art and some interesting NPC interactions, including a haunting moral choice. It’s only here that the storytelling ability of Obsidian’s team shines through; much of the rest is underwhelming and serves only to drive the player to the next combat zone. The new party member, a barbarian name Maneha, has an interesting personality and some strong voice work, but her quest offers little more than a very brief pit-stop on the main adventure.
Some of the other side-quests are bit more interesting. One takes you into Stalwarts mines to solve a number of murders among the miners. Unfortunately, this turns out to be less detective work than simply killing the baddies that lurk in the dark. Another, more interesting quest has your claim to Caed Nua challenged by a local lord. While there’s some early political machinations in Defiance Bay, only a great battle in one of the game’s more interesting encounters can solve the dispute. This quest is available even to players that don’t buy the expansion.
For those high-level parties that took on the necromancer Concelhaut following the release of the previous expansion, a new end-game quest also becomes available precipitated by an assassin trying to kill the player character. This leads into a whole new area in the Dyrwood where a powerful wizard wants to permanently end the memory of Concelhaut by killing even the person that killed him. This battle is by far the hardest in the game so far, and will challenge even veteran players with max-level parties.
As for the White March adventure itself, it tries to build itself into epic territory by involving the designs of the gods, and a great army of eyeless giants, but ultimately, the resolution feels unsatisfying. While the story wraps up neatly, you leave the White March with little to show for saving the world and a populace that greats you largely indifferently. The final boss is also a bit of a pushover, despite its massive size and foreboding nature. The sacrifice that must be made at the end is a very curious inclusion, though I can say little without spoiling it.
A few new changes have also been made in the update patch. A new difficulty level called Story Time makes combat a breeze for those players that are interested in the game’s deep story and role-playing rather than its combat. The UI has been redesigned in some areas, such as to group per-encounter and per-rest abilities on the action bar. Petitioners to Caed Nua will now actually come with interesting issues for the player to resolve, though these tend to be rather brief encounters that result in sending one of your unused party members on a quest.
Two skills of formerly questionable value, Athletics and Survival, have been given new life in the changes as well. Survival now allows characters to choose from a number of resting bonuses when camping. Athletics now provides characters with a special ability called Second Wind, which is a powerful personal heal. Finally, an optional mechanic causes party members to suffer injuries when they’re knocked out in a fight. The injuries vary in nature, but typically come with a debuff that remains until that character rests. These are all great updates, but most players will find they do little to impact their play experience.
At this point, Pillars of Eternity The White March Part II is really only expected to do one thing: add more content for fans of the game. And on that score, it delivers. But it falters where Pillars of Eternity shines brightest: it’s narrative. While a there are a few moments where Obsidian’s ability to tell stories and write solid dialogue encounters is revealed, this is mainly an expansion about more combat power and more combat, rather than about providing interesting new role-playing options. It’ll definitely satisfy hardcore fans of Pillars of Eternity, but I hope any future expansions do a little more to put role-playing back in this RPG.