Wot I Think: Pillars Of Eternity

Oh thank goodness. After 77,000 backers, $4 million raised and nearly three years in development, Obsidian’s Pillars Of Eternity [official site] is here, and it’s just stunning.

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.

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177 Comments

  1. OmNomNom says:

    Being one of these internet bravado types, I started my game on the hardest setting.

    I’m very pleased to say things didn’t go well for my badly specced rogue. It’s a tough start for a non-tanking / pet class. Rerolling on Hard i found the challenge just right; challenging without being annoying. This means I have the ‘damned’ mode to look forward to on a second playthrough at some point.

    For those interested it was stated at one point by the devs that the game is designed for Hard as it has all the mobs intact, on normal and below they are less numerous, missing altogether or have stat deficiencies. It’s something equivalent to BG core ruleset setting.

  2. khomotso says:

    I’m a backer, and the game’s target demo, but I have to say I bounced right off the beta my backer-status granted me access to. The combat seemed atrociously clumsy and un-physical to me, the graphics almost gleefully shoddy to my eyes (as if that were part of the charm), and the character customization options uninteresting.

    John talks about how his RPG skills have atrophied with the latter generation of product. I think that may also be true of me, but the flip side is that I think I’ve come, with age, to appreciate good production design, art direction, sound and camera angles. When I was a younger man I would have said that was all superficial stuff. Now that I’m older and wiser I can admit that it matters. And the PoE of the beta seemed to have none of it.

    But I’ll give it a second go for the story.

  3. deathonredbull says:

    I dunno – I’m confused. ‘Hives been gettin’ prickly on me arse’.

    I loved Baldur’s Gate, the original Fallouts, the recent Wasteland 2, and even Dragon Age: Origins. To my shame, I tried Planescape on several occasions, but something aboout it just didn’t grab me. Anyway, having played Baldur’s Gate once when it came out, I replayed it again shortIy after with my nephew, who was about 11 at the time. A year ago, I was overjoyed to be able to introduce my (then) 12 year old daughter to Baldur’s Gate when it was re-released as the special edition, and we co-op’d through it it happily. She loved it.

    I think a lot of BG’s appeal to all ages (apart from its production, writing, pace, and overall look and feel) was it’s balance, in all areas. After the first couple of hours (which were a learning curve), it levelled off to a place that was both challenging and entertaining, and kept you wanting to know what would happen next. It didn’t grind you down (unless you forgot to save), and the setting, and story, were comprehensible to anyone.

    I’ve played Pillars of Eternity for about 15 hours now, on ‘normal’. It’s a very, very great achievment. The scope of what Obsidian have attempted is immense, and I think in many ways, they’ve achieved what they set out to, with some innovation in there, to boot. The writing is good (if not a bit…verbose), and as I understand it, some steps have been made to redress holes in play style, meaning you can, finally, be sneaker, without missing out on XP.

    But, somehow…gah – despite everything, it keeps doing my head in. I’m not sure if it’s the overly descriptive swathes of entirely incidental text, the arbitrary and repetitive powerfulness of the enemies, or the general sense that the original idea was for the game to be better than Baldur’s Gate. Somewhere along the way, I can’t help feeling that what made Baldur’s Gate so good was misidentified by this game’s makers.

    Perhaps it’s me, and it probably is. I love spending hours immersing myself in a game world. But one part of me feels that many might not have time for what’s on offer here. A four hour session playing this game, with the care and attention it requires leaves me feeling worn out, and frustrated. Not unusual, but more than usual. Why can I kill a drake (minor dragon), and its attendant lackeys (kobolds >ahem<) on my second attempt, but be forced to give up on a team of particularly tenacious dung beatles, and head home? Why do I feel like I'm hitting a wildebeest with a pipe cleaner, while my deluded friends make convincing, but pointless magical hand gestures? Nothing does very much damage. And I can still sleep in what is clearly a malevolently occupied dungeon (who would actually do that?), and wake up the next day to find that the nasties in the next room hadn't thought to check if the postman had been, and that I, and my idiot friends, are now fresh as daisies.

    In conclusion, this game looks, smells, and feels very nearly like those classic old games, but the spirit of them (if you'll pardon the allusion) is somehow, intangibly, not there. The accessibility apears to have diminished, and the appeal now seems to lie more with hardcore challenge seekers, and masochists.

    Is the game a bit unbalanced, or am I a jaded old sh*gsack?

    Probably the latter.

    PS Will anyone ever make an isometric RPG where the tank/support formula isn't the only way to play without going grey in the process?

    Let the flaming commence!

    • eggy toast says:

      Who would sleep in a hostile dungeon? Literally anyone who was in a hostile dungeon for long enough.

      Skip sleep for a while and you start fumbling with things, and in a combat situation, dying. It has always been an important part of being a soldier that you would need to sleep in dangerous horrible circumstances, to be rested and survive the next day.

      And the enemies don’t patrol so of course they didn’t find you. If you want verisimilitude clear a floor then sleep before you go to the next one.

  4. Uninteresting Curse File Implement says:

    Another stronghold? What joy.
    I love interrupting my epic adventures to do some chores in my base! Oh the constant anxiety over whether I’m doing a good enough job or screwing myself over for the final battle…

  5. eggy toast says:

    Oh, and yes, I backed the Kickstarter. $20 level. Then entirely forgot I had, and haven’t read a thing about it since.

    Haha same here. I’m 40 hours in and I don’t have the “finished act 2” achievement so I don’t know how close I am to finished but I do know I am emptying out the dungeon under my home tonight even if it kills me.

  6. shuttlevvorth says:

    I’m 5 hours in so far and REALLY enjoying it. The recent double-click bug really sucks though. Otherwise definitely a great game so far.

  7. toshiro says:

    I’m surprised that after playing like 50 hours I suddenly lost interest, mostly due to the excessive loading screens and necessity to go back and forth all the time.