It's been nearly half a year since we devoured Pillars Of Eternity. Now Obsidian are back with another great big chunk, in the form of the first half of The White March [official site]. Does the expansion give good reason to return to the Dyrwood? Here's wot I think.
Expansion packs that take place before the end of a game always sit a little uneasily with me. Loading an old save, and then heading off on a diversion from the game I’ve already finished, feels like an invasion of the narrative – do I then continue on and finish the game again with this extra chapter in the lives of my characters? Or is it a pocket of alternative reality that I play for the sake of its existing, then quit with the party just stood there with new loot, new skills, new levels, and nowhere to go?
That awkwardness set aside, The White March does the job of diverting you with a pile-on of new quests and side-quests in the snowy climes to the North. Invited up there once you’re in or past Act 2 of the main game, the village of Stalwart is under attack by a cornucopia of threats, most pressingly some angry ogres who are presently smashing shit up. Once you’ve bopped them each on the head, the villagers stand in an orderly queue to tell you their woes, lost property concerns and musings on the abandoned forge that once produced the wonders of Durgan steel. And with an armful of things to do, you’re pulled back in once more.
Beyond that, yes, it’s a lot more Pillars Of Eternity, and how much you want that depends upon your feelings toward the main game. For me, it’s my game of the year, so another stretching jaunt in its realms could be a huge treat. But if you’re the sort who laments that it’s not as action-packed as The Witcher 3, then this new content will do little to change your mind.
Stalwart is a rather dull village, and features no interesting buildings nor characters – but for one in a barrel of fish - sadly. It’s a bland hub from which the rest of your adventures begin, and fortunately these are far more fun. With your quest list stuffed with new challenges, you can begin de-mist-ifying the local maps, battling an array of new enemy types, and stumbling upon more side-quests, loot and caves. It’s comfortingly familiar.
That fish-barrel man – that’s Zahua. A masochist, in the name of self-awareness, he’s a deeply peculiar old Savannah Folk Monk, well equipped for dual-handed combat and making deeply strange remarks about the importance of self-denial. The other new party member you can recruit is a Construct – a metal golem with the soul of a psychopath – called Devil Of Caroc. Oh gosh, could it be - an HK47? That’s just what the game needed! Well, no. Instead she’s a rather under-written, over-justified mass killer, neither entertaining sociopath nor misunderstood antihero. Both new characters appear like they should be packed with fun, but proved to be entirely unenigmatic.
The larger story itself is self-contained despite this being Part One of a two-part DLC. But having finished it, I’m perplexed as to why it was picked to feature at the centre of the first big addition six months later. While it would have proven a perfectly acceptable diversion if included in the game at launch, there’s nothing here that struck me as outstanding. I had imagined they’d want to say something, or pull the game in a surprising direction. At least have some sense of a dramatic tale to tell. But it really is as it first appears – about trying to find some old forge in a mountain. The motif of its being haunted by the spirits who once worked there is achingly unoriginal, and offers no twists or unexpected moments at all.
None of it is bad. It’s essential that this be clear. It does a perfectly fine job of adding a bit more content to Pillars, new characters to talk to, new things to kill, and potentially new weapons to craft. But, well, if you’re going to wait half a year and then charge a premium, I’d expect it to be something... more. More than ordinary.
If you found the combat in the main game to be a touch unnecessarily difficult (no, stop you – you, the person who says it was too easy on the hardest setting – first, no one believes you, second, shush), then I’m afraid you won’t be less frustrated here. I couldn’t help think that the original Pillars would have been a twenty hour RPG if it didn’t make every encounter with a group of indentikit bads into a painstaking battle. This is the case here too, and while for the most part the uninterested can switch the difficulty down to Easy to let such fights become matter-of-fact, there are some encounters that are way out of proportion.
I am not ashamed to admit I picked to let my team remained over-specced for The White March, purely because I wanted to let my emphasis fall on story and dialogue. I very much enjoy the process of stabbing at the spacebar, flinging instructions to my team, then unpausing to let it briefly play out. But only so many times an hour. Those times are ideally the tougher fights, more intricate battles, rather than the constant minion encounters. Unfortunately, in this DLC there’s a side-quest where my level 12 team were being wiped out in two turns, even when I’d switched the game difficulty down to Easy.
Although, oddly, had I high enough conversation skills, it should have been possible to talk my way out of it. God knows how. I especially focused on such skills when I played the full game, yet an incredible number of conversation options were redded out throughout the expansion. Since the zone is designed for half that level number, it’s really odd just how much couldn’t be picked. And indeed, despite seemingly having at least one set of options unlocked for that particular scene, it wouldn’t let me reach any other conclusion than an entirely impossible fight scene. Sadly I just walked away from that chain.
There are a couple of moments of sloppiness. Poor voice direction means intonation is off (the worst example being, “...on account of those dwarves having a row” pronouncing “row” as if with an oar), and the pathfinding seems worse than before. For so many encounters I had to hold characters by the hand to have them hit the open foe, rather than just spin on the spot. That could just be my noticing it more, of course.
However, AI is improved, whether you get the expansion or not. The 2.0 patch introduces the ability to give basic behavioural guides to your crew, including – thank goodness – the ability to use their per-rest abilities of their own accord. If when you heard about AI options being added in you were thinking of something like Dragon Age’s incredible system, you’ll be disappointed. This is far more crude, just letting you choose whether they’re aggressive or placid, defensive or offensive. Great additions to have, of course.
There’s a good couple of days’ play here, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with any of it. Those fearing it would just stop unfinished need not worry, as while it teases more to come, the story is self-contained. The issue is, it’s just so unremarkable. There’s no great depth, no interesting meta-narrative, no unique pull. It’s just a bit more Pillars – a section you’d not have minded in the main game, but never remembered a while after. Which makes it hard to get particularly excited about – especially at £11. Once it's over, well, yes - there I was back at the end of the game, this time with a level 13 team, and a vague feeling about whether I should just finish it again for the closure.