It’s funny how, in recreating the feel of RPGs from twenty years back, Pillars Of Eternity also faithfully repeats an oddity so familiar in the genre. When you create your character, you choose their background, their origins, you give them a history that goes back far farther than the moment you clicked “Play”. But enter the world and your avatar is somehow ignorant of the most cataclysmic events, surprised and surprising in being unfamiliar with circumstances that have changed everyone else’s lives. Planescape played the easiest card as well as it has ever been played: memory loss. But Pillars – like so many other classic RPGs – doesn’t excuse it, rather just leaves it hanging like a big odd flap.
So it is that the plot is as much about encountering the new as learning the old – old that apparently everyone else in the game’s world already knows. Some characters express surprise at the ravines in your knowledge, but none thinks to sit you down and give you a cup of coffee and comprehensive outline of events. It really doesn’t matter, but it does rather stick out.
However, the wealth of plot is such a joy. I’ve alluded to the missing souls business, the “Hollowborn”, but it’s crucial to know that this is just a sliver of what’s going on here. There are miniscule local matters affecting individual settlements and towns; history-stretching arcs that spread across generations; crucial personal issues for companions and many NPCs you meet on your way; and the nature of your own circumstances. How the game weaves them all together, allows nothing to feel like chaff, is perhaps the most astounding aspect of a frequently astounding game.
There are specific quests I want to celebrate in more detail, for the choice they offer, the tone they set, the sense that how you approached it significantly changed the outcome. But it’s impossible to do without revealing details, and I want you to have the excitement of encountering them without expectation, as I did. I’m quite certain I’ll report some anecdotes in an addendum to this review once people have started playing.
Your companions all have specific side-quests attached, as you’d expect. Some are relatively simple, conversation-based, others stretch out across the whole game. All of them involve getting to know them well, and the impact of these relationships is superb. I was concerned this wasn’t the case, I should say, for a good length of time. Maybe until halfway through, so possibly 30 hours into the game, I was having a completely wonderful time, but frustrated that I didn’t really care about any of the people with me. That really significantly changed, and it became apparent that a lot of this time had been laying foundations for more complicated understanding. But still, it would have been nice to have started caring sooner. (It didn’t help that characters who show up later in the game were far more interesting to me.)
By the end, I gave so many damns about their opinions, about how they interpreted events, and what my actions would make them – each of them individually – think of me. When one in particular disagreed with my gut feeling on a huge matter, I questioned myself at great length.
Issues? There really aren’t many. One small detail I’d have liked to have seen would be a more useful map. As you explore you remove fog from new locations, revealed on the maps that pop up with an ‘M’. But they contain very limited information, sometimes only marking districts within towns, and only occasionally labelling particular buildings. This is a larger problem when you’ve got to return to a specific person as part of a quest, and the quest log fails to mention exactly where it is they’re found. By the time you’ve got 15 side quests, 10 tasks, and two main quest threads on the go, remembering where absolutely everybody is becomes quite a challenge (especially when so many people have similar sounding M-names). Having to read through quest logs to remember mostly does the job, but it would have been nice if they could just be marked on the map, even if it’s just an MMO-style ‘!’, to remind you there’s something to be done there. (And if that makes you SO MAD, it could be switch-off-able like every other aspect of the UI.)
The other bothersome aspect is the intermittently voiced dialogue. Almost all the voice acting is great, and always welcome, but when it appears is very odd. For main story moments, it’s usually there, but sometimes temporarily vanishes mid-speech. For less important conversations, it can come and go seemingly at random. A character can deliver three out of four lines of a speech out loud, with a middle part completely missing. Or none at all, then suddenly blurt out a sentence. I’m sure a lot of it is to do with which lines they’re saying based on choices I’ve made, which has to be a fantastically complicated spreadsheet behind-the-scenes. And even though $4m sounds like a lot, it’s a droplet for a game of this scale, and recording more would have been prohibitively expensive. Still, it’s not the lack, but the intermittence that’s the issue. Having to switch back and forth between listening and reading so frequently in the same conversation is a strange experience. By a mile it’s not a deal-breaker, and bursts of spoken words gives you a flavour for their voice that your head performs when reading the text. But I do wonder if a fan-led initiative might occur to mod in voices for the rest – especially for the dozens upon dozens of short stories that appear for reasons I shall not divulge.
Oh gosh, I’ve written so much, and I’ve not discussed the Stronghold. Well, perhaps that’s good, as I knew nothing about it beyond what popped up in the loading hints. So, suffice it to say that you get a modifiable Stronghold at a certain point, which gives you a nice home base. And underneath it is an enormous descending dungeon, entirely optional, but packed with story and quests and monsters and puzzles.
I’ve not gone into nearly enough detail about just how much choice you have. Relationships are dramatically changed by how you behave, your reputation in different towns affecting how people treat you there, and what those in other towns have heard about you. Allegiances with particular groups affects tensions with others, and in turn which quests are available at certain points. And how you react to the core quest, what you say to those involved, not only changes and reflects your opinions on some weighty matters, but how you go about approaching certain scenes. And of course there are different endings available.
I’ve not explained about how much meta-game information you can switch on or off. If you don’t want to see that a conversation option would have been available to you if you’d only had more Intellect or Lore or Survival etc, then kill it. (You’d never see what that option would have been, of course, just that there would have been one.) Don’t want to know what impact a certain approach will have on your reputation? Nix that then. Don’t want your inventory stash to be magically available wherever you are? Fine. Want companions to die, rather than be maimed first, in battles? Do it. And so many other aspects, letting you have this play exactly as you prefer RPGs.
I haven’t mentioned that there’s rudimentary crafting for potions, food and scrolls, created with the vast array of knickknacks you gather as you loot. Nor that you can enchant weapons and armour, aRPG-style, again using gathered resources. I haven’t talked about the day/night cycles, and how time of day can affect some characters’ actions. How throughout hundreds of thousands of words, I only spotted one typo. I’ve not quoted some of the magnificent lines that pop up, like, “Trouble with having all these gods is you’ve got support no matter how dumb your ideas are. Maybe we had the right idea blowing some of ’em up. Less of them to hide behind.” I haven’t raved about Raedric’s Hold, and the vast array of ways just that one side-quest can be approached…
But I have to stop, as I don’t want the words to hit the bottom of the internet.
By the time I’d completed Pillars Of Eternity, which I estimate took me 60 hours (possibly more), I’d completed over 50 side-quests, and a secret (but high) number of main quests (you’d be able to figure out if you were getting near the end if I told you!), made great new imaginary friends, interfered in deeply complex politics, become entangled in my own confused opinions about the mystic science of Animancy, struggled with many moral quandaries, existed in the game’s world for a lot of in-game months, killed over a thousand enemies, and influenced and been influenced by so, so much, and so, so many.
It’s a triumph. A wonderful, enormous and spellbinding RPG, gloriously created in the image of BioWare’s Infinity classics, but distinctly its own. A classic in every sense.
Oh, and yes, I backed the Kickstarter. $20 level. Then entirely forgot I had, and haven’t read a thing about it since.