Reviews

Pillars of Eternity Review – Yeah, It’s Pretty Good

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Platforms: PC
Reviewed On: PC (Click here for information on the system used for reviewing)
Developer: Obsidian
Publisher: Obsidian
Singleplayer: Yes
Multiplayer: No

Do you like to read? If the answer is no then you should seriously consider abandoning this review now, not because of my jumbled writings, although that would be a valid reason in itself, but because Pillars of Eternity is a lore-heavy RPG that pays homage to the classics such as Baldurs Gate, cherry picking everything great about grand adventures to craft one of the deepest role-playing experiences around.  It’s not for everyone, though: it’s not an exciting game in the traditional sense, the presentation of the game used to tell a compelling story set in an equally compelling world where reading vast amounts of text is required just for the primary story. If you want to tackle everything, be prepared to read enough combined wordage to make George R. R. Martin take a step back and seriously consider what he’s doing. If that doesn’t sound very interesting just stop reading here. Maybe fire up Call of Duty and shoot some people or something.

It’s said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. If this is true Pillars of Eternity of the sincerest thing in the universe. If you’re looking for an interesting new take on cRPG genre or innovative new mechanics bolted onto the classic Baldur’s Gate frame this isn’t it. Pillars of Eternity is an unashamed throwback to those classic games with a heavy emphasis on story which demands the player pays attention or become lost in a whirlwind of characters and information. It’s an ambitious game, for sure, but plays it extremely safe. From its visuals to its combat Pillars of Eternity is carefully designed, a masterpiece in many regards because it simply takes everything great about those classic RPGs and abandons everything else. There are flaws, though, but never enough to make this anything less than great.

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But let’s start where the game does, shall we? Character so often feels like a throw-away element of games, a brief section filled with some basic options for you to assemble a vaguely reasonable looking character with, perhaps one whose hair resembles a monster that crawled out of the sea. Pillars of Eternity doesn’t screw around here: there’s a lot to choose from.  Most of the selectable races are familiar, like dwarves and elves, but there’s also a couple of interesting new ideas like the Godlike, a race of people blessed by the Gods they worship, giving them strange, supernatural appearences. It doesn’t end there, though, because after that you can select a sub-class, background and more, all of which offer further bonuses and thought-provoking reasons to choose them. And then it’s onto picking one of the eleven playable classes, where again there’s a familiar selection of things like paladins, thieves, fighters and other stalwarts of the genre, but muddled into the mix are the Chanter and Cipher. The Chanter does as his name sort of implies, continuously chanting a serious of songs and stores that serve to awake surrounding spirits, unleashing a steady stream of powerful buffs and even the ability to summon up skeletons. The Cipher, meanwhile, has the ability to literally drain the energy from enemies and use it to power attacks. They can also confuse opponents and even make them relive the pain of previous attacks.

There’s a little shortage in certain areas of visual customisation, but for the most part it’s a sizable and detailed suite of options to begin your adventure, and demands some serious thought. Trust me on this, I muddled through and failed to really think things through, and somewhat regretted it. Still, I played as a Aumaua, a race of giant semi-aquatic humanoids. Planning on a straightforward warrior build the  Aumaua granted a bonus to might, and as a lovely addition the specific type of  Aumaua I went with looks awfully like the Navi from Avatar. Named Talis my character is a wandering Paladin of the Kind Wayfarers, a man who likes to travel and never really settle down, drifting from one place to another. As one of the Kind Wayfarers he is not rich, but is widely respected for helping fellow travellers. Your choice also affects how some people react to you within the world. Thankfully, though, the land of Dyrwood is multicultural and while racism and racial disputes exist they aren’t at the forefront of the game, so no matter what character you opt to create you’ll never find doors closed just because of your race.

The levelling systems are even more impressive, giving you a lot of lee-way to create wildly varying builds even within the same class of character. Every time you level up you get a handful of points to put into increasing base stats like perception, mechanics, stealth and more, stats that all characters have access to. Even a warrior can become a sneaky bugger, although naturally a character geared specifically toward being able to sneak up on ninjas will always be the best option. Likewise there’s nothing stopping a magic-wielding character also donning heavy army, grabbing a sword and wading into the fray if needed. Once the points out are the way there’s a large array of class talents and skills to pick from, too, granting access to new abilities that can change-up your tactics in combat. It’s a flexible and immensely satisfying system, filled with tough choices to make.

Regardless of exactly who you are or what background you set for yourself it doesn’t take long for you to be granted an unusual power: the ability to see souls, and through that glimpse people’s past lives and more. This newfound power comes after the caravan your travelling in is ambushed. Managing to escape with your life you unwittingly stumble across a strange ritual which results in this odd skill manifesting itself. Things get stranger still, though, when you finally make it to town only to discover a tree filled with hanging bodies. It turns out that children are being born without souls and the local ruler has begun taking extreme measures to solve the crisis, brutally executing women who give birth to the so-called “monsters” and either killing or exiling anyone deemed remotely suspicious. This ties in with the land of Dyrwood’s major divisive point amongst the population: animancers. These odd people are like the mad scientists of the fantasy world, attempting to unravel the very nature of souls in order to better understand them.  The animancers are adamant they can find a solution to the strange plague of souless children sweeping the land. This is all fine and dandy except the common folk aren’t very trusting of the animancers, and rightfully so given how they’ve been known to place animal souls into humans, create horrible monsters as a byproduct of their work and even use souls to power machines of war. My own first encounter with an animancer, during a major side-quest, hardly served to inspire confidence, it has to be said. Naturally with this being an RPG it falls on you to discover just what the hell is going on and stop it.

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The writing is universally great, and while the prose may come across as somewhat…er, overdone at times, showing a clear need for some substantial editing, there’s no denying that they all carefully help to craft an interesting world. It’s pretty standard fantasy guff, mind you, and as an avid lover of the fantasy genre I should know. There weren’t many surprises to be found and as I said the style of writing reminded me a little to much of the generic high-fantasy, but there’s nothing inherently wrong with sticking within such a well-defined template. If Pillars of Eternity was a book I’d be happy to read every page. It has to be good, though, because the game demands that you parse a lot of text. Whenever you come across a person to talk to or some other event the situation is described via text mostly, written word used to carefully inform you of a person’s body language, the surrounding environment, vocal inflection and so much more. It’s impressive that the writers manage to so consistently bring the game to life through the medium of written word On the other hand Pillars of Eternity loves its vast and detailed lore a little too much, the many people you come across incredibly willing to launch into daunting chunks of exposition and history that drop into conversations like boulders. In short, conversations rarely flow naturally, after all most people don’t tend to immediately launch into a very detailed and concise history of the surrounding area as soon as you’ve said hi to them. Having said that, I suppose, RPGs are generally very guilty of complete strangers entrusting you with delicate tasks after five seconds of knowing you, so it’s not a big problem.

Voice acting is included and is actually rather good, but it’s usage is somewhat sporadic. Some characters will have their opening sentence voiced, before the game then lapses back into text, for example. It’s at its most effective when it combines the two, the text accurately depicting a scene while the character’s actual speech is voiced. It’s a perfect representation of reading a book, where your imagination helpfully echoes a character’s words in your head as if they were real people. But these instances of harmony are rare. It seems that the voice acting was done this way to save money, the few spoken lines intended to give players an idea of what a given character sounds like so that their voice could echo through their mind. However, its implementation is often sporadic, with characters sometimes speaking their sentences and other times simply not with no consistency in terms of when this should and should not happen. As a prime example one character I encountered would speak one sentence before going silent for a paragraph or two, before then suddenly speaking out loud again. There didn’t seem to be any reason for a voice actor chiming in on one sentence over another. It was incredibly jarring to say the least. Furthermore there’s some discrepancies between emotions the text describes and what the actors portray, and you’ll quickly notice that characters speak not as a person would, but as a writer would, which is to say in lengthy sentences that read brilliantly but sound downright clumsy when spoken. To put it simply the game and its writers are a little too into their own writing.

Where the game perhaps trips up is by not also opting to emulate the sense of humour its forebearer’s had. This is a game chock full of doom and gloom, and after a while it frankly became too much. Everybody seemed to be hiding horrible secrets and dark pasts, everybody seemed dire and dreich (Scottish word, look it up) and depressing. And that’s perfectly fine, except for the fact that getting through Pillars of Eternity takes around 70-hours or so, and that’s quite a lot of time to spend in a world that has seemingly never even managed to invent the knock-knock joke. By half-way through my enjoyment of the deep gameplay mechanics was starting to struggle under the idea of spending yet more time trundling around a place which took everything so seriously. A few changes in tone, perhaps in the side-quests, could have done wonders.

As for the many characters you encounter on your travels and those who will join your party they also suffer from one tragic condition; being unmemorable. Given how beautifully descriptive the writing is when it comes to carefully crafting a scene or detailing the game’s almost absurd amount of lore it’s incredibly disappointing to see that the writers so clearly struggled to create meaningful, interesting people to journey with. Their backstories are often interesting and worth attempting to fully uncover, but after spending damn near 70-hours in their presence, more that one would expect to spend with the Mass Effect crew across a single play-through of the whole trilogy, I found that I didn’t really care that much about them on a personal level. Indeed, even several hours after meeting a new companion I struggled to remember their name.

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The otherwise smart writing extends into the game’s relatively large amount of player agency. Smartly the game doesn’t reward you with experience for killing everything you come across like so many games do, instead XP is granted for simply completing quests. This is to emphasis the fact that a lot of combat situations can be avoided via stealth or a huge variety of dialogue options that can be accessed depending on your skills and talents. Indeed, the game impresses with the sheer freedom you often have when approaching situations. Attempting to stop a tyrant early in the game, for example, offers up several different ways of not only gaining entry to the castle, but also of navigating it, including an area where you can disguise your self as priests. Once in you’re given the opportunity to either kill the ruling monarch and help another person gain the throne, or listen to what he has to say and perhaps, if swayed, agree to kill the opposition instead. Like almost all of the decisions with Pillars of Eternity, however, there’s no obvious right or wrong here: it’s a tough decision, provided of course you’ve allowed yourself to truly sink into the world. Both sides are hardly saints, and yet they don’t even come close to being as tough as some of the later decisions. Your choices don’t tend to have any satisfying tangible effects on the wider world, but the shades of grey do make them compelling moments nevertheless. They are further complicated by the fact that you can play around with the game’s sytems to get unexpected results. You could, for example, make promises to not only both the existing ruler and his would-be usurper, but also to two other people who can provide ways into the throne room, and then break those promises and simply kill everyone instead.

It’s during such times, though, when you decide to flex your muscles and discover just how much agency you really have, that the cracks begin to appear. Take my previous example, there; kill both the existing ruler and the other fellow and the game doesn’t really react in a realistic fashion. There’s perhaps an NPC who sort of comments on it, but other than that there’s very little reaction. Likewise opting to support the current power revolves around a person known as an Animancer who is working on a cure for the strange affliction of souless children, yet if you decide to simply kill her before you ever reach the throne room her death never comes up later on, which is strange. Thus we see the problems inherent with granting players so much freedom; the developers couldn’t account for all of it. I can’t give more examples for fear of ruining the game, but rest assured there’s a lot of areas where I discovered instances where the game couldn’t keep up with what I wanted to do, or didn’t provide as much choice as I’d hoped for.

Being an RPG, even one where you can often talk your way out of problems or sneak around them, combat plays a big part in proceedings. Everything plays out in real-time with bars slowly draining to indicate when a character can perform another action and swords slicing up monsters, but whenever you want you can pause the action and order your little troupe around into optimal twatting positions. This pause button will become your best friend as the game progresses and the battles become larger and tougher, letting you quickly asses the field of carnage and react accordingly. Other than that you simply click on a party member and then click on a foe to have the aforementioned part member try to murder him in a suitably violent fashion using whatever tool you’ve opted to give him or her. SO far, so predictable, but things quickly become interesting when other mechanics come into play. Let’s begin with the special abilities of your party which run on a per-encounter basis. What this means is that many abilities and skills are limited to X amount of uses per battle, turning them into a resource which you must carefully manage throughout the fight.

Endurance marks one of the game’s detours from normal RPG operating procedure, acting in tandem with health to create a more complex system than you’re probably used to dealing with. Every attack a character soaks up will reduce both health and endurance. Should a character’s endurance run out completely they’ll pass out during combat, and will only wake up if your side emerges victorious, at which point their endurance will quickly regenerate, ready for the next battle. Health, on the other hand, is a tad different, because if it’s reduced to zero the character becomes maimed, at which point they’ll have only a single point of health and hefty penalties to both accuracy and defense, making them practically useless in combat. If that last point of health is taken away the character dies and its game over. If a companion dies in this manner they are gone for good – they can’t be brought back using magic, potions or anything else. Furthermore while your endurance regenerates between bouts your health doesn’t. It can only be regained by resting in inns or by camping. There’s no health potions and things either, instead most potions tend to help you regenerate endurance.

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And then there’s the engagement system which encourages you to very carefully position your party. The way engagements work is easy to understand, yet adds much to the combat. To put it simply when two characters come together they are classed as being in an engagement, with arrows denoting who is attacking who. Most characters can engage a single foe at any given time, but fighters are capable of tackling up to three enemies, perfect for keeping them busy as the rest of your force sets up a flanking maneuver. The most important thing to remember is that if you move a character away from an engagement the enemy gets a free attack complete with hefty bonuses to accuracy and damage. As if that wasn’t bad enough the attack has a chance to momentarily stun your character, giving the enemy a chance to re-engage them in combat. It’s an incredibly clever system that forces you to seriously evaluate targets at the very beginning of combat, as well as having to weigh up every move. Having to shift a character or even two to new targets because you incorrectly assessed the situation means taking a potentially lethal penalty. It places far more emphasis on careful movement than is usually seen, forcing you to consider every move. Is it worth moving your barbarian out of the fight to help a swamped fighter? Can your mage make a flanking move without being locked into close-combat, because if he needs rescued by another character it means taking a hefty penalty blow.

Combat is pretty enjoyable, then. While I’d argue it doesn’t require heaps of thought you also can’t just go storming into every battle and expect to make it through without a problem. Like all things do combat does become repetitive to a degree, especially given the sheer size of the game, but overall the fighting systems are absolutely solid and there’s enough chances to avoid combat altogether to hopefully ensure that smart players won’t always be wading into battle. Twatting foes on the head and running around the world like a headless chicken looking for someone good with a sewing needle all feeds into the fatigue mechanic that governs how long you can go without resting. Just jogging around the world causes fatigue, as does failing certain skill checks and events during other moments, but it’s combat that fatigues characters the most. Heavily fatigued characters receive hefty penalties to their stats making them far less useful in a fight, and they can only regain strength by either stopping at an inn or setting up camp. Camps themselves are a finite resource, though as you can only carry so many camping supplies with you, so before delving into a dungeon or big mission its best to rest up and ensure you’ve got as much camping gear as you can carry otherwise you might find yourself in a bit of a muddle.

And boy is Pillars of Eternity happy for you to get your ass handed to you on a silver platter. There’s no restrictions on what quests you can take, so wandering into a zone brimming with monsters far above what your measly warriors can handle. It’s a touch unfair about it, mind you, because the game has some difficulty spikes which can lure you into believing that your party is perfectly suited for a situation only for the difficulty to suddenly ramp up and leave you getting beaten up  and bereft of camping supplies. Thankfully there are very few times the game doesn’t allow you to simply backtrack and return later on, preferably with better equipment and a higher level.

At any time during the game you’re free to visit a tavern and recruit a new character in order to replenish your ranks, building the new follower using the same suite of options used to create your own character at the start of the game, giving you free rein to choose class and more in order to fill in any gaps you might have in your team. It’s a smart move, if only because being able to permanently lose part members can result in less experienced players finding themselves a tad lonely later in the game.

It doesn’t take very long for you to gain access to one of the game’s more intriguing features: the stronghold, a crumbling fortress literally built atop some great evil, a fortress that you can personally take control of and slowly rebuild, should you be willing to spend the money to do so. Considering money is easy to come by, though, and there’s not much in the shops worth grabbing you’ll have plenty of spare cash to sink into renovations. A list of potential work that you can do to your private castle can be brought up at any time by hitting the button located at the bottom of the screen, letting you commence building without having to travel back and forth. With hard-earned coin funding renovation you can spruce the place up a bit to receive guests, build an inn, construct some new walls and even hire some guards to fend off the occasional attack. By increasing your Prestige rating people will come to live at your Stronghold, granting you the ability to collect taxes, although some of those taxes will be lost to bandits in the surrounding area, which in turn you can combat with better security. Furthermore party members you leave at the Stronghold can be sent out on missions of their own, earning them new items and experience.

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The Stronghold represents a nice distraction from the admittedly mundane tasks that you usually find yourself on. While they may be dressed up on good storytelling and whatnot there’s no getting around the fact that the mission structure is standard RPG stuff, sending you out into the world to kill stuff, and over such a long game that can begin to become stale. The Stronghold gives you a chance to delve into some other gameplay between missions, and while the economy needs some fixing, as you’ll probably be drowning in gold most of the time, it’s satisfying to slowly rebuild such a ruined glory. It’s not a vital mechanic, but instead its just meant to be enjoyed from time to time.

As we slowly come to the wrap up of this lengthy review up there’s a couple of issues to chat about. Scouting mode acts as both a stealth mechanic and a method for spotting traps and secret switches, but on a few occasions it failed to properly highlight hidden items. In one instance I could get a secret switch I knew existed to appear when searching a room until I went and stood beside its exact location and entered Scouting mode. Unsurprisingly this made me wonder how many other hidden things had been missed along them way. At other times the journal failed to update as progress was made, perhaps due to me introducing variables it couldn’t properly track. During combat my part sometimes wouldn’t launch into a new engagement and other times they would. There’s also a lot of instances where trying to select a target or object of interest is awkward as you need to shift the cursor around to find just the right spot. I also noted moments where dialogue would cut out, and a few other small hiccups. Nothing serious, though.

The graphics are interesting talking point because it’s perhaps within those little pixels that we see Pillar of Eternity’s old-school design meshing with newer technology. From a distance the game looks nothing short of beautiful, boasting a superb eye for detail that helps sell its virtual world as real and an art-style that while firmly rooted in fantasy tradition is nonetheless great. When you zoom in character models feature some nice detail, too, but as soon as you look around them things fall apart a little as pixely textures become apparent. Up close it just doesn’t look very good, which is fine really because there’s little reason to ever zoom in – keep the camera glaring down at your adventurers from on high and it’s fine.

Then there’s the engine which is based upon the Infinity Engine used to create the likes of Baldur’s Gate. It’s a recreation, though, powered in truth by the ever-popular Unity engine. The developers have blithely chucked in a bunch of interface elements that look suspiciously like they’ve been taken directly from Baldur’s Gate to create what can only be a nostalgic punch to the face.

And that’s really what Pillars of Eternity is, a nostalgic punch to the face, the direct result of a Kickstarter page that was unashamedly marketing itself toward people looking for a familiar yet brilliant experience. In some ways it’s disappointing to see what Kickstarter has become, a pool where new, fresh, innovative products are often over-looked in favor of games pandering to nostalgia. A potential Kickstarter project just needs to toss in a lot of guffins about drawing inspiration from a list of classic games, usually while taking about “paying homage” or some such, and people will seemingly throw money at it, as was the case here. But now we’re detouring into my personal feelings of what has gone wrong with Kickstarter in relation to videogames, and that’s not fair because while Pillars of Eternity may just be another nostalgia project it’s an astoundingly good one. The writing is great, the combat is fun, it’s packed with content and provides some great moral quandaries. And in my book that makes it easy to recommend.

Recommended games may either be truly amazing, or possess some quality or qualities which make them worth playing regardless of any other faults.

Reco

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