Pillars of Eternity
Pillars of Eternity is a big game. I’ve spent recent days digging into a review build of Obsidian’s spiritual successor to Baldur’s Gate II, and if there’s one takeaway, it’s that players have a lot of content to look forward to. We’re holding off on a review until I’ve completed the game and had the chance to dig into more side quests and stronghold building options the game has to offer. In the meantime, if you are on the fence about a day-one purchase, I’m here to share my opinions so far.
There are any number of things that can go wrong in the latter acts of a role-playing game to spoil the fun. Balance can go off-kilter, story threads can get mishandled, and character upgrades can run out of steam. With those caveats, the first hours spent in Pillars of Eternity have me incredibly impressed. Obsidian’s RPG does almost everything I hoped it would do, presenting a compelling world, challenging tactical combat, and numerous opportunities for interesting role-playing interactions.
Pillars of Eternity established a firm foundation with its intuitive and comprehensive role-playing system. The Pillars digital rule system has enough detail and explanation that you could almost lift it out wholesale and run your own tabletop experience using it. Even so, smartly placed tooltips and a gradual introduction of concepts through tutorial boxes makes the game easy to get into, even for players new to party-based tactical RPGs. The system is strongly rooted in the feel of old-school Dungeons & Dragons mechanics, but with the freedom to reshape features where appropriate.
Character creation offers all the fantasy staples, from elves and dwarves to fighters and wizards. But fascinating new races like the diminutive orlan or the colorful godlike add variety to the options, while new careers like the soul-manipulating cipher freshen the class pool. Leveling each of the character classes offers difficult choices of spells and talents, each of which specialize and customize your characters in interesting ways.
The writers of Pillars of Eternity have gone wild in their imagining of an entirely new fantasy world that is rich in detail and history. Lore hounds are likely to fall in love with the depth of storytelling, which communicates itself through dialogue, books in the world, chance encounters with monsters, and the occasional transitional event cinematic. Players new to the genre may struggle under the weight of some hefty dialogue and flavor text. Like the games that inspired it, Pillars of Eternity includes a lot of reading and important story details in text; if that’s a turn-off and you prefer to skip your way through longer conversations, a great deal of the nuance will be lost.
Combat eschews the trend of allowing players to charge in controlling a single character and hope that everything works out. This is a true party-based system, in which pause-and-play control of all your individual companions is essential for success. Even on normal difficulty, any given fight can be a killer. Saving frequently is essential, and newer players should strongly consider the easy difficulty setting until getting a handle on character placement, AOE spells, and use of conditional buffs and debuffs.
The cast of companions thus far is stellar, and I haven’t even collected all of them yet. Smart twists on classic archetypes give three dimensions to your party members. Whether it’s an Inuit-inspired dwarven ranger or an elven wizard with multiple personalities, the main characters are memorable, and I’m eager to see each of their individual storylines and personal quests play out. The voice cast bringing these characters to life is uniformly excellent, which makes it all the more noticeable (some will say sad) that the main character is unvoiced.
The wilderness locations, dungeons, and towns are a testament to the value of designer-crafted locales (as opposed to procedural generation). Smart, location-based puzzles, cleverly placed enemy ambushes, and tactically challenging room layouts are great fun. Moreover, experience is earned not for monster kills, but for location discovery and quest completion, encouraging players to tackle challenges in the way they see fit. Want to talk your way past a hard fight with a high resolve attribute? Or maybe find a hidden entrance into the castle that leads to some disguises to get you past the guards? Obsidian has embraced the idea of player ingenuity, and tried to build in opportunities for smart problem solving. Old-time tabletop fans will be excited to hear about the presence of a massive optional mega-dungeon to explore, harkening back to D&D classics like Undermountain and The Temple of Elemental Evil. I’ve barely scratched its surface, and can’t wait to dig deeper into the dungeon.
A few hours into the game (depending on the order you tackle the early quests), the option opens up to rebuild and develop your own personal stronghold, complete with hired soldiers, defensive structures, shopkeepers, and a dungeon in which you can optionally house villains you defeat. Because upgrades take time, the system lends added meaning to the rests and travel times between locations, moving you closer to the completion of an anticipated addition to your stronghold.
Pillars of Eternity is decidedly old-school in its presentation. The art is beautiful, but the isometric view and distant zoom is never going to provide the character detail of a game like Skyrim or Mass Effect. Luckily, there are plenty of options in that other vein already available for RPG players. Obsidian is aiming for something different. Along with recent success stories like Divinity: Original Sin and Shadowrun Returns, Pillars of Eternity represents a return to a style of PC RPG that has been long absent. In short, I’m loving the game so far, and have every reason to believe Obsidian’s ambition and enthusiasm for the genre will make this one of the deepest and most engaging role-playing games of 2015.