Posted by Eric Schwarz at 9:22 pm on 08.16.2012 (9 months ago)
Setting & Story
Pirates of the Flying Fortress is a stand-alone story completely disconnected from the main Two Worlds II plot, and takes place during the first chapter of the game. The nameless hero is intercepted on the road to Hatmandor by a pirate, who tells him of a great opportunity for adventure and riches, and is quickly threatened into joining an eclectic and ragtag band of pirates in search of a legendary treasure - one which provides what its finder most desires.
Throughout the expansion, you'll be spending time in a brand new environment - a chain of islands and the mysterious flying fortress that floats above them. These islands feature a new, evergreen forest look, and breathe a lot of life into the game with their rich foliage and clear atmosphere. Each of them is fairly varied as far as the set-piece locations go, and there's some lore that comes out during the story that explains quite a bit about them. The fortress itself is... well, not quite what the name implies, but it's also got a unique twist to it that makes it stand out from the original game's environments as well.
What starts out as a simple and predictable treasure hunt plot quickly transforms into a much more complicated story, with a surprisingly large cast of characters and convoluted backstory. This only becomes more engaging as the expansion goes on, and unlike the original game's story, Pirates rarely meanders, instead using its new quests to add more and more layers. The pirate theme and the central characters actually end up dwarfed by larger things very quickly, and I was impressed to find that it was more than just a gimmick in the end.
Where Pirates also shines is in its choice & consequence. While not as extensive as other games, there are a few big choices to be made during the story that can lead to fairly different story outcomes, and certain quests will be made available or cut off based on the things you do and say. There are even a few opportunities to lie, misdirect or backstab different characters; in the hands of some developers these could have come off as simple good/evil choices, but Pirates has quite its share of morally ambiguous situations and characters to make these decisions interesting.
For better or worse, Pirates of the Flying Fortress plays more or less the same as the original game, albeit with a few tweaks and some substantially improved scenarios that make it a more enjoyable experience all around. The improvements are less about the details and features and more about the content itself.
To start with the good, Pirates splits its rather large land mass into five distinct islands, with a few smaller ones, and gives you a boat to sail between them. Each of these islands has a mini-narrative and place in the story, so not only is the game better paced overall, but each island tends to have distinct enemies and locations. They're all just the right size to be manageable, which is a welcome change from the sprawling, oversized and rather empty world in the original campaign. Unlike the original campaign, there's also more reason to explore, with more optional dungeons to delve into and more unique loot and random side-quests to find (though many areas remain inexplicably locked until you advance the plot sufficiently).
The quests and scenarios in Pirates are also quite a bit more fun. While the original campaign had its share of entertaining adventures, Pirates is much more consistent about tone - it keeps the main story serious, and has its sillier moments relegated to optional content. From a quest to don Santa Claus' garb and deliver gifts around an island to content some lost spirits, to a pantry-raiding mimic disguised as a treasure chest, it's nice to see Reality Pump's sense of humour come into the game without it getting in the way of the main plot or pacing.
Unfortunately, not all is good. Combat is a major downside of Two Worlds II, and it's not much better in the expansion. The high point is that there are more boss fights and more varied enemies in general, like mages who summon minions. However, the combat balance is quite poor; most enemies are easy to defeat, but you'll occasionally stumble into a dozen archers who stun-lock your character from afar, or a stray fireball that kills you in one hit. The higher-level enemies also mean that certain character builds are also even weaker, though it's still possible to respec. And, just like the main story's final hours, Pirates features an overly long ending segment which is packed with obvious and unnecessary filler, both in combat (enemies spawning every 20 feet) and quests (like spending 30 minutes doing chores for a whiny boy).
Pirates of the Flying Fortress represents a pretty big jump over Two Worlds II. Its new islands are lush and vibrant, with dense vegetation and surprising variety considering the expansion uses the same visual palette most of the way through. Water and sunlight, both attractive in the original game, are given more room to show off here, and the results are some very impressive vistas. Like the main game, it also features a great soundtrack, with a pretty fair number of entirely new songs, both orchestral and acoustic (thankfully, there's no cheesy sea shanties or stereotypical tavern music).
Unfortunately, Pirates, at least the English version, suffers from a major flaw - the voice acting. Although a few characters are handled decently, the acting is decidedly worse than the main game's; it's hard to tell if this is poor direction on Reality Pump's part, their lack of experience with the English language, or simply poor actors, but it's bad enough that it can make some of the more plot-critical scenes fall somewhat flat. What's more, the protagonist's voice actor has changed from the original campaign - on its own this would be jarring, but the new actor seems to sleepwalk his way through most of the lines as well. I won't fault Reality Pump that much for this, as I'm sure they would have used the original actor if possible, but the new one neither has the acting ability or personality to make up for it.
Overall, Pirates of the Flying Fortress is a very solid addition to Two Worlds II. I can say that I enjoyed it significantly more than the original game, both due to its more focused, interesting story, as well as its improved gameplay; at 10-15 hours, there's more than enough content to justify the asking price (especially as it's now included with the game's Velvet Edition, and can be purchased separately for a pretty low price). While a lot of those old problems with Two Worlds II remain, overall, Pirates of the Flying Fortress is a great example of a developer improving on their original formula to make a new game that isn't just more of the same, but surpasses its source by leaps and bounds.
If this is what Reality Pump are capable of now that they've got more experience under their belts and time to create a more polished and consistent product, then I am very eager to see what awaits the Two Worlds franchise in the future. As more and more developers turn to making action games first, RPGs second, this rising Polish team could well become one of the genre's better studios.