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Wot I Think: Pillars Of Eternity

A Game With Soul

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.

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.

Pillars Of Eternity is out at 4pm today. It's £35, on (DRM-free), Paradox Plaza, and Steam.

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

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