Based on the 1989 book by Ken Follett, Pillars of the Earth is a retelling of the story as an interactive game. What makes it more exciting is that players can now make choices that divert from the book and change the fates of its characters. Admittedly, I had never heard of the book series when I learned of Pillars of the Earth on Xbox One. I went in completely blind and was impressed with both the storytelling and how quickly I grew to care about our three main characters. Publisher Daedalic opted to release the game episodically, in the form of three chunks (referred to as “books”). This review will cover book one, “From the Ashes”, and one book was all I needed to become fully invested in the world of Kingsbridge.
Anyone familiar with the book will be right at home playing the game version of Pillars of the Earth. Taking place in 12th century England, our story sees us playing mostly as three main characters: Jack the outsider, Aliena the noblewoman and Philip the monk. From the beginning of the story there is little time for introductions. Playing as Tom Builder (one of the rare moments you aren’t one of the three characters mentioned earlier), your family is stuck in the snow in need of food and shelter. Your pregnant wife is not feeling so good and without warning feels the need to push. What happens next you will have to see for yourself! In time, all characters will have their lives intertwined along with plenty of drama, betrayal, death and conspiracy. Pillars of the Earth deals with a lot of heavy and serious subject matter. Much of which revolves around: religion, politics, greed and morality.
Playing Pillars of the Earth is most similar to Telltale games such as: The Walking Dead or Game of Thrones. You character moves along a 2D plane and can interact with both people and objects. Icons such as “look at that” or “interact with that” make discovering the world simple. As you progress, you sometimes pick up items or notes that are then put in your inventory. These items can be equipped and used on people and the environment. For example, your mother tells you to deliver herbs to a monk outside of the village. With the herbs in your inventory you can equip it, find the munk, press the Y button to “use” them on the monk. If I ever got stuck, a simple press of the left trigger revealed all interactibles in that scene. An on-screen reminder tells you of your current objective, which is sometimes very specific or very broad. Delivering herbs is pretty easy but when your task is “Help Tom find work”, that takes a bit more thought. No matter the situation I never got stuck or couldnt figure out what to do. Things just flow in Pillars of the Earth, some things may take some trial and error, but gamers of all types should find it easy enough to navigate.
There is a lot of dialogue on Pillars of the Earth, and much of which comes with choices the player can make. This is where the similarities to Telltale games also appear. Some choices are pretty minor, and you feel like either way didn’t make much difference. Other choices seemed to steer the story in very drastic directions. Should you tell on a novice monk who is stealing? Who will you show your allegiance to when the kingdom must be divvied up? Choices like these made me really think hard about how I wanted to see the story unfold. This makes for legitimate replayability because I am dying to steer things in a completely different direction the second time I play. Broken up into 7 chapters, some ranging from 10-45 minutes, you are always told of your imporant choices during the chapter end summary. Although the gameplay is mostly traversing the map finding objects and interacting in dialog, it is incredible engaging and unexpectedly fun.
Pillars of the Earth has some incredible production values across the board; from graphics, to music to voice acting. As I mentioned earlier, it’s a 2D game that more often than not reminds me of a painting. There are occasional cutscenes that look even more impressive. The graphical style is a bit hard to describe, almost like watercolor but very detailed and beautiful. Even more impressive is the voice acting of every single character. Everyone sounds so good and authentic that it may be the best thing about Pillars of the Earth. There’s no annoying load times once you get going and my progress was always automatically saved.
Before playing Pillars of the Earth, I had no knowledge of the series whatsoever. After experiencing 1/3 of this story, I simply cannot get enough. I feel compelled to replay book one and someday hopefully read the 1989 publishing. The two remaining books in this series will arrive at no additional cost in the near future for those who buy the game. Yes, you are paying $39.99 up front for 1/3 of the story, but it is more than worth the investment. As book one ended, I was left on the edge of my seat wondering how the events would transpire in book two. Ken Follett and Daedalic managed to make a game revolving politics and religion incredibly compelling and fun. Fans of the book and fans of a good story should seriously consider entering the world of Knightsbridge on home consoles.