Hands-On: Pillars Of Eternity

After publishing my thorough conversation with Pillars of Eternity lead designer Josh Sawyer, I realised that I hadn’t actually expressed an opinion about the game. I was curious and hopeful but hadn’t had a chance to play it, and see how well all of the elements came together. The backer beta, which launched yesterday, is a huge relief. Pillars is shaping up to be worthy of its inspirations, and intelligent and bold enough not to be bound to them.

The backer beta (I’m not a backer but have press access) doesn’t contain spoilers for the main plotline, which is a thoughtful approach. It means that I can happily spend five hours playing – as I did last night – knowing that I won’t have to retrace my steps when the game is released. The playable area is a village, with quests that take players to spider-strewn caves and nearby wilderness areas. Party members are intentionally generic types rather than scripted characters and the player can immediately raise their level to five, allowing customisation of skills and stats.

Character creation is in place as well, with the full range of options that will be in the finished game. For my first playthrough, I rolled an actual physical die and obeyed its pips, selecting gender, race, background and class at random. I ended up inhabiting the body and mind of the little chap below and was disappointed that my inventory didn’t contain a magnificent comb to maintain the elegance of my face-fuzz.

No matter. There’s an ogre to kill and a lost noble to find. The setting and quests are fairly typical – there’s even a bard strumming by a fireside and regaling the party with local history – but we always knew that would be the case. Lead designer Josh Sawyer used the term ‘nostalgia-driven’ to describe the game when I spoke to him last month and within minutes of loading the game, the warm comforting embrace of Baldur’s Gate is evident.

Pillars does an excellent job of making the player feel as if they’re in safe hands. It’s like sliding your feet into an old pair of slippers and settling down with a freshly brewed cup of tea while somebody spins a good yarn. There’s a sedate spectacle in the creaking revolution of a watermill’s wheel and while the wilderness areas aren’t as pretty as the settlements and interiors, the world is a fine place to spend time, even as a tourist.

Dialogue is plentiful and engaging, and the whole package makes it’s very easy to feel like you’re safely cocooned in the nineties. Remember the nineties? When CRPGs contained lands of wonder and Shaun Ryder doing a swear on TFI Friday actually shocked people, who must spend half of their lives in the recovery position now that BBC newsreaders with regional accents are actively encouraged to refer to ‘breaking news’ as ‘incoming shitstorms’.

If Pillars of Eternity were nothing more than an attempt to recreate the past with a new paintjob, I’d be happy enough to play but might not be quite as curious about the end result. The Infinity engine template forms the outline for Pillars and the broad strokes are D&D-ish, but the deviation is in the details. Rather than pulling apart every alteration to the expected systems, I’m going to focus on camping, resting and healing.

It’s an integral part of the game and an aspect of adventuring that has traditionally been an afterthought or means to access a ‘quick heal’ button. Obsidian have made it part of each player’s personal narrative, by adding flavour and building a set of healing and buff mechanics around the need for rest. Checking into the beta village’s inn provides a choice of rooms, each named and some with implied backstory.

One of the rooms looks out onto a stinky workshop, which means that you’ll do little more than recover while you rest there. Other rooms, pricier rooms, provide buffs to stats, which last until the next time the party rests. That provides an incentive to utilise inns whenever the chance arises and to spend as much time between bouts of snoozing as possible. This seemingly slight change creates a tension – venturing out into the wild unknown leaves the party reliant on their limited supplies and requires intelligent management of short-term and long-term damage, as well as any abilities that are reliant on resting.

On higher difficulty levels, the limit on camping supplies is stricter and with party member permadeath enabled, Pillars is the rare RPG in which combat has consequences and mortality makes itself known.

The classes are immediately recognisable but skillsets and playstyles are very different from one to the next, which provides a variety of tactics to master, and raises the potential value of a second or third playthrough. Sawyer says the game has been designed to provide paths for any character build and reckons each should be as interesting as the next, or thereabouts. A high Might stat is as likely to open up dialogue/interactions options as a soaring Intelligence, and a clumsy wizard should be as viable a character choice as a muscular rogue.

The proof of all that will be in the pudding, of course, and the beta is little more than a spoonful of sugar. Mechanically, Pillars is close enough to an Infinity engine game to be mistaken for one, but it’s shot through with novel ideas and tweaks to the formula. The same is true of the setting, which is packed with all the usual fantasy bits and bobs, but appears to be at least aspiring to thematic coherence and interesting inventions.

As with the rest, the deviation is in the details. There may be an ogre stomping around the place but don’t presume to know exactly what ‘ogre’ means in this new world. There’s a lovely sense of rediscovery while uncovering lore and filling in the bestiary. New thoughts and histories attached to traditional types and tropes. The first time I saw the beta content, Obsidian were playing through it themselves, and a combination of overconfidence and haste left them with two maimed party members as the presentation drew to a close. Outwitted by spiders and limping toward the end of a quest, they answered my questions about permadeath and injuries while keeping some of their attention on the screen.

“What happens if the player character gets maimed? Is that a permanent injury?”

“Here, we can show you.” They instructed the party’s warrior to attack the leader. Evidently the spiderbites had taken their toll because the blow didn’t knock her out or maim her, it killed her outright. Death of the party. I’ve fared somewhat better but I’m picking each class apart as I go, learning the tricks of the trade. The possibilities in battle can be slightly overwhelming at first but that’s at least partly due to plunging in with a full set of characters at level 5. Less time to learn each ability as it is gained.

Nostalgia may be the initial draw, for some of the audience at least, but Pillars doesn’t map directly onto any of the Infinity engine games. The layers of interaction and intricacy of class roles are evidence of a developer comfortable with the familiar, and able and willing to flex the creative muscles where appropriate. It may be partly an exercise in nostalgia and looking backwards but, along with Original Sin and a few other potential bright spots, Pillars is making me super excited about the future of CRPGs for the first time in years.

Pillars of Eternity’s backer beta is available now. It contains horrible spiders but don’t hold that against it.


  1. Stellar Duck says:

    Patience, Duck, patience! All good things come to he who waits. It must be so.

    Oh, woe is me. I want to play this!

    You’re not helping here, Smith!

    • RARARA says:

      You are doing a stellar job at being forbearing.

    • Lars Westergren says:

      Joooooiiiinn ussss…..

      • Stellar Duck says:

        I would, had I not backed a lower tier.

        And I just saw you loading it up on Steam as well, you mean person! :)

        Edit: I completely recant the mean person part! You’re in fact the best person!

        • skittles says:

          You could just upgrade your pledge on the game website.

          joooooiiiiiinnnnn ttthhhheeemmmmm.

          • Lars Westergren says:

            He has been assimilated, the elder brain is satiated. All is well.

  2. jonfitt says:

    Oh I didn’t know that the beta is not part of the main game. I’m going to play that asap!
    I avoided the Wasteland beta since I didn’t want to spoil the finished product for myself.

    • Sakkura says:

      Hey man, you’ll spoil the memorable and totally unique side quest about saving the girl from the ogre.

    • Premium User Badge

      Adam Smith says:

      It is part of the main game, just not the main narrative. It’s an isolated section cut off from the main quest. So a couple of sidequests that you might play with a totally different character at a later date.

    • Polifemo says:

      Same here. Im strongly agaisnt playing unfinished games but I really want to experiment with the character creation and classes before playing the full game so as to not go wiki-diving or having to experiment in the starting area several times.

      Is there a way for a non-backer to become a backer or access the backer beta in some other way?

      • Lars Westergren says:

        link to eternity.obsidian.net

        Hurry, it closes soon. Like, within days I think. Previous backers can add $25 to gain access to the beta I’ve heard, I presume the same works if you back now.

        • Polifemo says:

          Yeah I just found that after digging around. It closes In 2 days (August 22).

          The 35 dollars from “Pledge now” presumably gives you access to the beta right away I hope.

          • Lars Westergren says:

            Sorry, I think not. $35 for digital copy of game, + $25 for access to beta.

          • Polifemo says:

            Ah I see. I dont think Im ready to play $50 for it but maybe Ill change my mind in the next few days as I dont know for how much the final game will sell.

        • Fry says:

          I’m fairly sure the Aug 22 add-on end date is for physical items only.

          • Supernaiivi says:

            In a recent update, they said, “First, we will be ending the crowdfunding period for Eternity. This means that as of August 22nd, you will only be able to preorder the game and will be unable to back the game at reduced prices.”

          • Fry says:

            I though Brandon Adler said it was physical only, but that does seem definitive.

            Never mind, then.

  3. Lars Westergren says:

    There are some annoying known bugs in this first beta – broken pathfinding (they said even before Gamescom they were reworking it), disappearing inventory items and quest entries. The UI is small and fiddly. But DAMN it looks good, and what little I’ve seen of the writing and lore is great. Attributes and skills frequently open up new dialogue choices. They might not be the best responses, it’s not instawin like in F:NV. You also have “tone” choices somewhat like Planescape:Torment – lying, compassionate, clever, agressive, etc. The labels are hidden in expert mode if you want to think about how a response might be recieved yourself.

    Freaking hard though. Two teamwipes now for me in the first encounter. You really have to be active with positioning, spells, healing. I can’t even imagine how it would be playing through the whole game on “path of the damned” difficulty + expert mode + Path of Iron (a single save, deleted on death, like XCom’s Ironman or classic roguelikes).

    • DrMcCoy says:

      Well, wonky pathfinding is a feature of all BioWare engine games, so that might be part of the nostalgia bundle. ;)

      • Stellar Duck says:


        And then you realise that Jan is stuck in a bush on the other side of the map.

        • WildcardUK says:

          Now THAT takes me back. Good times :)

          • WiggumEsquilax says:

            Imoen wandering away from the group, provoking an enemy horde solo is just part of the difficulty; a core mechanic.

  4. Frank says:

    Heh, I keep forgetting that this is the game I backed on KS. All the update emails are for “Project Eternity”.

    That’s got to be one of the worst titles I’ve seen for a game not developed by amateurs. It would be hard to sound more generic.

    Anyway, the game still looks great. I look forward to trying it myself once us lesser backers are allowed in. (It’s only available at a cost of +$25 or an initial donation/pledge of $110 or more.)

    • Supernaiivi says:

      Are you saying that they’re going to open up the beta for all the backers before release? Or were you talking about the actual release?

      I’m a “lesser” backer myself so this is just a genuine question. I was under the impression that we don’t get to play it until it’s properly released.

    • alright says:

      It’s also a song by Down link to youtube.com

  5. nindustrial says:

    Luckily I am finally playing Planescape: Torment for the first time (despite having owned it since it came out, good lord), so I can withstand the temptation to play before this one releases (and Wasteland 2 very soon). Very excited about it though! And I 100% agree with you about the CRPG optimism Mr. Smith. It’s looking to be a good period.

    • Sakkura says:

      For a second I thought you were talking about the new Torment game.

    • MellowKrogoth says:

      Enjoy! Planescape Torment is such a mind-blowing game if you enjoy unusual stories.

    • KillahMate says:

      As ever, the obligatory Planescape: Torment patching/modding guide that I obsessively link to in every RPS discussion concerning PST:
      link to thunderpeel2001.blogspot.com

      This will help you easily and cleanly drag Torment into the modern era, including arbitrary resolutions, widescreen, UI mods, ZERO bugs, dialogue corrections, optional restored quest content (not fanfics, but original quests lost due to bugs and budget cuts), optional playability tweaks… This is highly recommended, Planescape was a lot more buggy than people remember. Plus the artwork looks amazing in 720p. There is no reason you should ever play the game without this!

      • WildcardUK says:

        Thanks for this. I have Planescape Torment but haven’t really given it any serious time yet. I shall use your link to buff it to a high shine and give it a proper go as this article has got me hankering for some old school isometric RPG action.

  6. nrvsNRG says:

    I just need to know 1 thing. Is it as good as Divinity OS?

    • Lars Westergren says:

      Is vanilla icecream better than chocolate? DISCUSS!

      Both good, hopefully. They both look gorgeous. In their current state, I’d say Eternity has better writing, and Divinity more enjoyable combat. Both games are still being continually developed though.

      • caff says:

        I’m agreed, the presence of Divinity can only mean good things for PoE and vice versa with expansions.

        • cpmartins says:

          POE, Wasteland 2 and D:OS, as three big projects, were almost symbiotic in their media relationship. If you followed them like I did, having backed them, you’d see how deeply intertwined these projects were in terms of marketing awareness. They all raised awareness to each other constantly, being at blog entries, KS updates or interviews with the devs, and I think that will be a big part on how successful they will all be in the end.

  7. Anthile says:

    How come all the best things in life contain horrible spiders?

  8. aliksy says:

    How big of a random factor is there in the game? I always hated in the icewind dale and the like dying to a random goblin’s 3x crit.

    • Lars Westergren says:

      There is random damage and crits, just like in the old Infinity Engine games, and most recent RPGs like Divinity, Shadowrun, Dragon Age etc etc.

      You always make a minimum amount of damage if you score a hit though, even against heavily armored enemies.

      • Gessen says:

        Shadowrun and Divinity scratch so many gaming itches I didn’t know I had. Can’t wait for PoE and Wasteland 2 to come out. So great that CRPGs are making a comeback with a lot of creative freedom. Next big one for me as well is Satellite Reign. It looks like it’s shaping up great!

      • aliksy says:

        That partly answers my question. I expect there to be randomness, but my question is how much. Like, D&D 2e as implemented in icewind dale/baldur’s gate has a lot of “miss, miss, miss, miss, miss, miss, CRIT you died,” and I don’t think that’s fun.

        I don’t mind much if hits are like 2-7 damage. I don’t like when they’re usually 1-4 but sometimes 16, if that makes sense.

  9. remon says:

    The Numenera link points to Numenera the pen and paper RPG, not the video game.

    • Premium User Badge

      Adam Smith says:

      Ta! Fixed.

      • Mordaedil says:

        You might want to include a warning of the rough state the beta is in. It’s fine for some of us veterans, but generally the beta is in a state where it might leave a pretty negative impression on someone who isn’t used to betas and seeing bugs everywhere.

  10. DrManhatten says:

    Somehow I noticed the obvious question was largely avoided. So I ask it myself how does it compare to Divinity Original Sin?

    • Hidden_7 says:

      It compares pretty favourably to D:OS but it’s let down somewhat when put next to Tetris, and indeed can’t even hold a candle to MS-DOS.

    • Big Murray says:

      Considering I’m expecting this to be the story-driven classic RPG I’ve been waiting for, I’d hope it doesn’t compare in any way shape or form to the writing crapfest which is Divinity: Original Sin.

      • Gessen says:

        Yeah I love DIvinity OS to DEATH. I’m definitely approaching 100 hours. But I don’t love it for the writing or even the world building really. That game just has hugely enjoyable combat and mechanics. So fun to master. If the story is that crappy in PoE, it would be a huge dissapointment.

        • teije says:

          Totally agree on that. The plot & writing in Divinity is hokey, but the combat is just so great. A quirky ball of fun. Guess I’m expecting a little more gravitas from Eternity. And way more from Torment.

  11. Det. Bullock says:

    Can’t wait for it to come out (my god, these screenshots and videos are just GORGEOUS), but fortunately I have Icewind Dale I & II to keep me occupied (had them in the backlog for quite some time, but I always kept replaying Planescape and BG I & II and started IWD I witha few mods only a week ago).
    I’m actually quite surprised that for so many years the old 2D backdrops have been put to rest, I’ve started Neverwinter Nights 2 for the third time a month ago and sincerely that 3D camera is just plain painful to the point I lose all will to continue most of the time and the combat is even more awful than I remembered from the last time I’ve played and not finished it, I’m just making a point of not to uninstall it again and keep the game installed until I finished it and it looks like it might take a while…

    • Gilead says:

      NWN was a weird series for me. I was annoyed when Bioware dropped full tactical party control from the original, and then when Obsidian attempted it for the sequel I suddenly understood why, because it really didn’t work very well. Even when Bioware put it back in Dragon Age it still never felt as quick or responsive as it had in the Infinity Engine games. I’m also surprised more games haven’t just had a 3D engine but locked the viewing angle, as I think that would solve most of the issues.

      • Det. Bullock says:

        I never got past the tutorial of the first NWN.
        I always play a mage (or any wizard class type) with enphasis on diplomacy and lore (so also high Wisdom and Charisma beside Intelligence) and playing with only one warrior that mostly does whatever he wishes unless commanded through a painfully clunky menu is just not my cup of tea, especially with the fact that I like to have at least a coupe of tanks between my low level wizard and the enemy.

        • Fry says:

          Are you using a resolution mod for IWD? On a modern monitor, the default res puts me off to the point I just can’t get through it.

          • Det. Bullock says:

            Yes, plus the fixpack and unfinished business and a the bag of holdings and containers from the tweak pack, you still have to buy them of course (and the bag of holding proper doesn’t come cheap at all) but it’s better than having all of the inventory occupied by arrows, potions and gems.
            I usually play the infinity engine games and old 2D RPGs in general on my old laptop rather than on my gaming PC, I find the native resolution of my laptop (1280×768) is the right compromise between having good visual and actually being able to click on things in most rpgs, with the exception of the first Fallout which became unplayable (and for some reason the scaling built in the resmod didn’t work).

  12. Wulfram says:

    That inn mechanic sounds annoying. More walking about, just what RPGs need.

    • Sakkura says:

      Actually significantly less walking around because of the stamina system.

    • Big Murray says:

      I’m trying to play The Witcher 1, and the first town in the game is making me want to beat my own brains out because all I seem to be doing is walking, walking, walking between fetch-quest locations which are miles apart.

    • Zekiel says:

      I think it sounds really clever. It always irked me that from a role-playing perspective in BG1 I wanted to rest in inns, but there was never any incentive to rest in anything other than the cheapest room (more expensive rooms healed slightly more hp per night, but the amount was trivial in comparison to the magical healing you’d have).

      To give an incentive to do this AND tie it into an attempted solution for the 15-minute adventuring day sounds rather splendid to me.

  13. XhomeB says:

    The game is incredibly atmospheric and flat-out gorgeous visually (imagine an even-better looking Temple of Elemental Evil, seriously, PoE proves that dropping 2D backgrounds in favour of full 3D in cRPGs back in the day was a huge mistake).
    My only major complaint: the XP system. In theory, it’s a good idea that the game does not grant you experience points for every foe slain, in practice, this system doesn’t work as well as it should. You can spend literally hours exploring an area, battling some really tough, tiring enemies and get absolutely nothing in return. Zilch. Zero. If anything, defeating A GROUP of monsters roaming a specific part of the map should grant you a small XP reward, right now, the game simply punishes you for exploration and makes it very obvious you should focus on questing instead, because this is what you get the XP for.

    • Sakkura says:

      I thought that was just a backer beta oddity. Now I’m sad. No more farming hobgoblins for 32 XP each. =(

      • XhomeB says:

        Like I said, the “objective/quest-based” XP reward system would make sense, if it was applied to map exploration. The fact you can accidentally stumble upon, say, a hidden cave full of very tough enemies, spend a lot of time trying to defeat them and get NO experience in return makes absolutely no sense. These monsters should be considered “an optional objective”, resulting in a proper XP reward.
        Right now, the only reasonable way to play is to just focus on quest solving and following the game’s plot, because you actually get SOMETHING for it. As a player, I can’t help but feel that I accomplish absolutely nothing by exploring an area, that by placing random monsters impeding map exploration the designers are deliberately wasting my time.

      • laggerific says:

        Well, what’s the DC of the encounter? Shouldn’t XP scale? At least in encounters? Or does that not balance well with quest based EXP.

        That was one of the issues with ToEE…quests were a waste of time…they rarely provided enough XP to be worth the effort. Though, I think the Co8 attempted to alleviate that to some extent.

    • laggerific says:

      No doubt, it has the gorgeous factor of ToEE…but the combat? It’s like a mad blur…how do I focus with so much chaos…and I’m just fighting one baddy.

      • Det. Bullock says:

        From the videos it didn’t look anything different from a normal infinity engine brawl.

        • Emeraude says:

          From comments of people whose opinion I respect who couldn’t resist the lure of the beta, it seems like the cues to the various possible combat events/actions (whether visual or auditory) aren’t all there yet, making the reading of what happens confuse at best. Add to that some bugs, new rules to get acquainted to, and it makes the readings of the battlefield their own game within the game. “Did I strike ? Did my special kill go ? How come my HP is that low ? What do you mean I got hit twice ?”

      • XhomeB says:

        Yep, I kind of wish PoE was turn based. Real time with pause is simply a mess, which is the case here as well, never was a huge fan of that system for that reason.
        ToEE was pure perfection in that regard.

    • Emeraude says:

      Don’t you get loot (items for crafting if anything) ? Wouldn’t that be enough ? Shouldn’t it ?

      I mean, personally, I like what you’re describing. But then I’ve always hated the concept of XP for killing things (and more and more the very idea of XP point/progression) ever since the fist day I was introduced to table top AD&D.

      • XhomeB says:

        I liked the IDEA behind it, as well – until I played the game. It just doesn’t work in practice. You can explore the map for hours and never get a feeling that you’re accomplishing anything. There’s a lot of encounters, certain enemies are a real pain in the neck and the loot they drop isn’t awesome ™ enough to justify the effort and time required to get rid of them. Every time I encounter a group of enemies, I feel like the designers are artificially prolonging the experience. If you don’t intend to reward players for combat, at least don’t throw enemies at them at every corner, OK?
        For that reason, I can’t shake the feeling PoE tells me: don’t bother with exploring the map, it’s not worth it. You’ll waste lots of time and resources, just focus on the storyline and quests. What that means is the sense of LINEARITY, that there’s only ONE “correct” way to play the game if you want your characters to ever level up.

        • Mordaedil says:

          It’s noteworthy that the beta is completely bugged and rewards exactly zero experience points for completing quests and certain places that exploration is supposed to provide. I wouldn’t worry too much right now, just bring your concern directly to JE Sawyer.

        • Emeraude says:

          Another reason to just suppress the leveling up by XP points altogether, if you ask me.

          The alternative is having people just got out of their way to kill everything even when it makes no sense for them, which isn’t any better.

          Human Revoluton had reached that comical place where you put everyone on the map to sleep, then backtrack to to get all the possible paths to get the the exploration XP for each of them, and then hack every computer, even those for which you have the password, even yours, just get more hacking XP.

          I’m not convinced XP for killing things is the solution.

  14. Emeraude says:

    Other rooms, pricier rooms, provide buffs to stats, which last until the next time the party rests.

    One is reminded of Goemon the Mystical Ninja.

  15. ResonanceCascade says:

    I definitely haven’t been as instantly enamored with what I’ve played of Eternity as I was with Divinity: Original Sin, but I wasn’t instantly a fan of Baldur’s Gate, either, so I’m willing to give the game a lot more time. That said, they have certainly delivered on the promise of evoking the Infinity Engine. It’s glorious to see the hand painted backgrounds in all their high-res glory (though I do wish for even a little more definition in them for future-proofing).

    I also love how the game is packed full of spells that are *wink wink* totally not the same thing as the old D&D based games like Minoletta’s Minor Missiles. Actually, they even just flat out kept the names the same for some of the spells, like Armor of Faith and Fireball.

    Overall I’m not too worried about where the game is headed. Seems like they’re doing it right.

    • aliksy says:

      How much is the magic like D&D magic? Because I hate D&D magic.

      • WiggumEsquilax says:

        Which d&d?
        Most d&d iterations have so-called Vancian Magic, wherein you have to memorize spells beforehand. Or in the case of a few classes, each level of magic has it’s own MP pool.
        D&D 4.0 just has cooldowns.

      • Zekiel says:

        From the official Kickstarter updates:

        “Together with priests, wizards and druids are the “traditional” spellcasting classes that can cast a certain number of spells of each level per rest. As they gain levels in their classes, they can access more powerful spells. Over time, their weakest per-rest spells become per-encounter spells. At very high levels, the weakest spells eventually become at-will abilities, capable of being cast indefinitely.”

        • bill says:

          Gahh! I hate that system.

          So for the first 3 levels my spellcaster will be able to cast ONE attack per day. That always leads to fun early level gameplay.
          I think for fairness that early level warriors should be allowed one swing of each weapon per day.

  16. racccoon says:

    Very Nice! :)

  17. KenTWOu says:

    The article doesn’t explain me the reason why Pillars of Eternity demo was better than the Witcher 3.

  18. bill says:

    Please tell me it doesn’t have the dumb magic system from D&D where wizards have to sleep to recharge their spells, and so your party has to keep sleeping every 200m in order to have any magic (especially at lower levels).

    • Booker says:

      Yes it works differently there. Resting too. It’s a resource now, so you can’t do it all the time like you could or even had to in the classic infinity games. They modernized a lot of things. They evolved everything in the game based upon their almost 20 year experience of making such games.