There was once a time when people declared the PC to be just about dead. Gaming consoles were becoming more sophisticated, more people were picking up gaming because of them, and formerly PC-friendly publishers and developers had turned their backs on their fanbase towards a more financially lucrative demographic. It seemed that old-school hardcore gamers were doomed to watch gaming devolve into dumbed down, mass marketed crap for an ADD generation.
Thankfully, it turns out that such predictions were dead, dead wrong, as the advent of crowdfunding and a deeply passionate community of both developers and players has resurrected genres long thought dead, such as the space simulator Star Citizen and, in Pillars of Eternity’s case, the old school top-down RPG.
Obsidian Entertainment’s Pillars of Eternity is the latest of several Kickstarter projects from revered gaming veterans to finally see a full release, such as Harebrained Schemes’s Shadowrun Returns and inXile’s Wasteland 2, and it is by far the best of the bunch. You play as the Watcher, a foreigner traveling to the land of Dyrwood in hopes of a better life who suddenly gains the ability to see into people’s souls. Troubled by this mysterious ability, you, the Watcher, must venture through Dyrwood in hopes of uncovering the truth behind what happened to you.
Within the first ten minutes of the game, it is immediately apparent that this is a game made with a lot of love and respect for old school RPGs and the people that play them. The character creation screen, in a nice change, allows you to tailor your avatar’s personal history, such as race, culture, nationality and vocation. Throughout the game these elements will affect how certain characters react to you, and in turn your character feels more like an actual person with personal history and distinct motivations, rather than a mysterious anomaly that decides to exist right as the events of the game begin.
Visually, Pillars’ pre-rendered environments are absolutely stunning to look at and blend seamlessly with the 3D characters and objects. Despite its lack of fancy HD lighting, parallax mapping and ambient occlusion, the world of Dyrwood has a striking quality to it, with bold colors, large, imposing structures and a distinct renaissance-era atmosphere. The game is filled with a number of impressive landmarks that are sure to stick in your memory, such as an enormous tree with dozens of corpses dangling from its branches, an amphitheater where actors rehearse their lines all day, and the massive fortress of Caed Nua that you can eventually claim for yourself and improve with numerous upgrades. What Pillars lacks in sophisticated graphical technology, it more than makes up with first rate artistry.
Combat in Pillars is frequent and often quite satisfying. At first, it will seem as though you are stumbling your way to victory, but with enough practice, your tactical options become more apparent. Unlike many top down RPGs, Pillars takes place in real-time both in and out of combat, and as a result battles are quick and over within seconds. I particularly appreciate that it allows you to customize your party’s formation; for example, I positioned both of my fighters at the front on both flanks, by rogue further back in the center, and my cipher and priest at the rear. The manner in which combatants engaged with each other cannot break away without suffering serious penalties allows for better use of ranged characters, unlike the typical RPG occurrence in which one’s mages and archers can’t do anything because they’re too busy fleeing from a melee opponent.
There’s also a level of strategic management outside your party, as once you gain access to Caed Nua keep, you will be responsible for assigning construction projects to restore its defenses and collect revenue from travelers and merchants. Bandits and other unsavory types will sometimes try and assault your fortress while you are out adventuring, so you’ll need to hire security guards to watch the premises. This feature of the game isn’t particularly involving, as everything can be handled through an interface no matter where you are in Dyrwood, but it’s a nice to have a headquarters that improves alongside your character, much like the Normany from Mass Effect.
Aside from the excellent swordplay and sorcery, it’s important to note that Obsidian really put their heart and soul into making Pillars of Eternity a modern day, uh, pillar for fans of narrative-intense RPGs like Planescape Torment and Baldur’s Gate to flock to, and as such the game is likely to be an acquired taste to gamers with more contemporary expectations. Despite being the first entry in a new fantasy world, Pillars weaves its lore and backstory with such seamlessness that one might mistake it as being part of a long established franchise, and as such, players who truly want to have a grasp on what is going on with the story will have a lot of reading to do, whether it’s through the many books littered around the place, the long history lessons various NPCs can give you, or the very helpful in-game encyclopedia. This is important, as throughout the game you will be required to make certain moral choices or side with certain factions, and the only way to make an informed choice is to, well, first inform yourself on the context of your potential actions. Also, in the absence of fancy cutscenes and animated sequences, most of Pillars’ events are conveyed to you via its extraordinarily descriptive writing, and as such your imagination will be firing on all cylinders in depicting its unfolding story.
A number of your party members also have backstories that are steeped in Pillars’ lore, and your evolving relationship with them requires that you familiarize yourself with the game’s political factions, geographical history, various deities, as well as its unique take on souls, which are measurable and malleable by the likes of animancers and ciphers. Coupled with its extremely complex combat system (even for an RPG), which has dozens of different stats, damage types, resistances and effects, Pillars is definitely a game that requires a considerable amount of mental investment to truly appreciate.
As if that weren’t enough to deter gamers unfamiliar with its brand of gaming, Pillars’ first few hours are brutally difficult. Part of this has to do with your likely unfamiliarity with its various systems, but a large factor is that certain areas and quests don’t level with you. In one early instance, I undertook a quest to retrieve some bones from a ruin, only to be confounded by the spiders inside that murdered my character in a couple of hits. The first seven or eight hours of the game are permeated with enemies that are far beyond your abilities, and the lack of any indication as to which areas suit your level means that your enthusiasm for Pillars in its early hours will often be tested by repeated deaths and impossible battles. However, once you manage your way past these difficulties and acquire a full party of adventurers, Pillars becomes significantly more enjoyable and before long, a game that I was cursing at repeatedly became one of the finest games of 2015.
The most rewarding aspect of playing Pillars is enjoying its unique, complex story that transcends the typical “saving the entire world” plot that has become the norm in many RPGs today, such as Dragon Age and Mass Effect. Pillars’ plot is instead one that can’t be easily summed up in one sentence. While it initially begins as a personal quest to undo a magical ability involuntarily thrust upon you, like a 20 minute progressive rock piece, it slowly unfolds into something more expansive, drawing you into its unique take on the fantasy genre more potently the more you play. Each of its numerous sidequests are also dripping with narrative and are far from mere distractions to gain XP and loot. In one notable instance, a seemingly benign quest to help a father find his runaway daughter turned into a lengthy sequence of events that involved an ogre, a sadistic cult, and a pretty stunning plot twist at the very end that made the Witcher games look like Sesame Street. Player choice is paramount in even the most insignificant of sidequests, with each one having at least two or three different ways for players to decide how they end.
If there is a criticism to be made of the narrative of Pillars of Eternity, it’s that it gets a bit too abstract with its fantasy premise and becomes quite alienating in some instances, with magical and mystical events happening with absolutely no semblance of reality, or indeed, rationality, to give the player something to latch onto. This is especially apparent when your character’s Watcher abilities come into play, with so many unexplained and mysterious things happening all at once that it becomes hard to keep up. The character of Durance is a good example of this as well, as his frequent mindless babbling about his god, Magran, tends to quickly turn into white noise. The game’s encyclopedia does a good job at explaining these things clearly and concisely, but it doesn’t cover every topic, and in numerous instances I had to turn to the Pillars of Eternity Wiki for help.
Still, it’s a reminder that Pillars is a game that rewards those willing to devote themselves to every line of dialogue and the most minute details of its lore. The truth of the matter is that Pillars of Eternity has no significant or crippling faults; it is merely a game so dedicated to its genre and its lore that players who don’t know what they’re getting themselves into are likely to be blindsided. For players that do know what they’re getting themselves into, however, Pillars of Eternity is another triumphant example of the resurgence of no-nonsense, story driven PC RPGs. It’s an all the more remarkable achievement for Obsidian, considering that they were on the verge of total bankruptcy prior to starting work on Pillars, and it’s an excellent, excellent example of what game developers can accomplish without the meddling of profit-driven publishers like EA, Ubisoft and Activision. In short, if you even remotely enjoyed old school RPGs like Fallout, Baldur’s Gate, Neverwinter Nights and Planescape: Torment, your next action in life should be to buy and play Pillars of Eternity.
+Excellent storytelling and characterization no matter where you go
+Fast paced combat is a welcome change
+Vibrant, striking visuals
+/- Requires a lot of reading to truly appreciate
-Early game is tough to get through