This is the RPG I’ve been craving since Planescape: Torment, the first to win my absolute love since Dragon Age: Origin. It’s a vast, deep and wonderfully written game, malleable to how you want to approach the genre, replete with companions, side-quests, an enormously involved combat system, and lasts a solid 60 hours. Here’s wot I think:
Let’s be clear about how this review’s going to go. If you want to go in completely blank, as I did, then stop reading at the end of this paragraph. Because all you need to know is in the introduction above. Let me summarise: “Should I buy Pillars Of Eternity?” Yes. There, good, job done. If you want to know why it’s good, then read on, but it’s crucial to accept that to do so, I’ll have to allude to aspects of the game that aren’t revealed in the first half hour. But trust me, I’m good at my job, and I won’t actually spoil anything. I’m barely going to mention the plot.
You can’t kill a god without consequences. That’s what I’ve learned, within the opening hour of Pillars. It wasn’t me though – it happened before I showed up.
I, it turns out, am a paladin, a female Pale Elf from The White That Wends, called Ambrée. (50 points to the first person who can figure out the path my brain took to that name). A member of the order of the Kind Wayfarers, I’m a drifter, never fixed to a location or family. That’s all decided in the character creator, before starting the game. You could be any of six races, eleven classes, many cultures, and seven backgrounds. There are more defining choices to be made once the game starts, and indeed occasionally as it continues, via an intriguing ability to decide which of a selection of memories is the one you just had.
In the opening minutes, on a journey toward Gilded Vale (a popular destination for new settlers in the Dyrwood), your party gets in a spot of trouble, and you end up stumbling on a very peculiar ritual. A ritual that has some rather profound consequences for you, and your relationship with the soul.
And with local children being born without souls, something is clearly seriously wrong in these parts, and its repercussions are playing out amongst both the religious, and the scientific.
This is, of course, in an entirely new setting. Where the AD&D universe has provided the maps and dice for BioWare’s RPGs, Obsidian’s Kickstarted endeavour meant no spending a fortune on a license. Instead, with quite extraordinary aplomb, they set about building their own game world and ruleset from the ground up. Which has worked out pretty damned well.
While the dice rolling is all hidden, I got the impression it used a lot of D100s. The structure is all familiar, and attacks are based on particular attributes and their efficacy against others, with some special attacks and skills available once per encounter, or once per rest, as D&Ders will recognise. (Of course, encounters come thick and fast here, and each mob of enemies is considered a separate encounter, so long as you come out of attack mode between them.) Levelling is an infrequent process, working exactly as you’d expect, with alternating levels providing new skills or traits – I was level 11 by the end of the game, to give you an idea of the pace. It all feels incredibly solid, and extremely well tweaked.
The world is also familiar while entirely new. Dyrwood, where all of the game’s towns and locations exist, is Obsidian’s creation, while still a fairly conventional fantasy foundation on which to build its novel and intriguing tale. Rural farming communities, faux-medieval sprawling cities, and of course a green-n-naturey town further along the way. It’s a nice, sensible tablecloth on which they lay out their delicious picnic.
In practice, Pillars is an incredibly faithful recreation of the Infinity Engine that drove games like Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale and Planescape: Torment, except this time cleverly crafted in the Unity engine. So it’s a fixed angle, isometric view of your character and his or her companions, green circles about their feet, and a cursor you’ll recognise from the Baldur’s games. It’s extremely customary in appearance, but at lovely big resolutions, with a much more appealing zoom.
In fact, technically it really doesn’t deviate from BioWare’s tradition. The tradition, I should say, of creating epic, fantastically well-written, and utterly enchanting fantasy games. You can control any of up to six party members by selecting them, clicking where you want them to head, with whom you want them to talk/trade, and of course which badduns you want them to chop/explode up. Conversations offer many choices, a lot of which will shut down other possible responses, and your personality will determine both the possibility and content of future conversations, even with future characters. Quests are assigned in enormous numbers, mostly on the side, all cunningly encouraging you along the route of the game’s core path. (Don’t worry – you can backtrack/branch off at any point – in fact, you’re encouraged to.)
Combat is in real-time, but can be paused at any moment. It also defaults to playing out in slow-motion, to offer a compromised middle-ground for those who prefer to dish out orders on the fly. However, with six characters, anything up to around twelve enemies, and dozens and dozens of spells, chants, attacks, special attacks, potions, spawnable beasts and scrolls between them, pausing still remains a sensible choice. There’s so much going on in the combat, and I think one of Pillars’ greatest achievements is in how willing it is to let you decide just how much of it you want to take on.
The difficulty levels are the most crucial thing here, and I imagine will cause all manner of bravado bullshit amongst internet heroes, who will insist that they somehow impossibly played it on the toughest level and found it too easy. They are blowhards. Ignore them. This game is tough.
It goes to some lengths to communicate this. Choosing “Normal” (as I always do for reviews) it was rather feveredly checking I was sure. Normal is, it says, for 90s RPG veterans, who’ve never let their skills slip since. I figured that’s me, because while (oh God, confession) I’ve never gotten very far with the Baldur’s Gate games (look, I missed them at the time, and haven’t had a spare 400 hours since), Planescape: Torment is in my top five games of all time, and I adored Neverwinter Nights 2. And I still ravenously consume RPGs. Ho boy, RPGs got easier, folks. My RPG muscles have grown floppy. Normal is pretty much perfect – the idea that Hard and Path Of The Damned exist above it is a touch daunting – and Easy offered me a comfortable place to breeze through more bitty scraps. And if the toughest toughness is still not enough for you, you can then tack on Expert mode, disabling lots of the in-game help, and Trial Of Iron turns it into a roguelike, with one save file that deletes on your death.
If intricate combat is the aspect that puts you off story-led RPGs, then Easy mode is there for you – but don’t expect to be quite off the hook. While it means most fights require a minimal amount of issuing commands, and the simplest fights will just play out with auto-attacks, there are some moments where even Easy proves a challenge. Certainly not an insurmountable one – like I say, it turns out my muscles have atrophied over the years, but there wasn’t anything that held me up for too long. But yes, I was grateful it was possible to switch down to Easy whenever I wanted.