I’m going to be straight with you. I’m never going to finish Pillars of Eternity in time for a review in the traditional sense to mean anything. That does not mean I don’t have a lot to say about this game. So instead of a review, I’m just going to tell you all what I think about this, quite frankly, sublime game from the 70+ hours I have now played.
If you pay attention to the site, or even just listen to the game of the year stuff, you’ll know how much of a fan of the CRPG genre I am. Ever since baby Calum could understand how to grasp a mouse and keyboard, I have been playing Baldur’s Gate and its ilk. I gave Divinity: Original Sin game of year for a reason. It was a staggeringly well realised old school CRPG brought forward to the modern era. Gone were the cumbersome DnD 2nd edition rules. Goodbye THACO (still don’t quite understand how that works). Good riddance to strict class set ups and equipment requirements. Instead replaced with easier to understand levelling and talent systems, and incredibly satisfying interplay between skills. While easier to use, it still gave us old school players that in depth feeling like we know something other players don’t. They don’t understand the difference between “rot” and “soul-sapped”. Pillars of Eternity, goes one step further than this I feel. Into the realms of being both complex and accessible, camps that tend to be kept apart by a vast mountain range.
Pillars of Eternity does so much for the player to get them into the game and into their world. The sense of all-encompassing immersion I felt after leaving character creation as unlike nearly every other video game on the market. “How is this accomplished?” I hear you ask. Well the answer is so simple, I’m surprised other CRPG makers didn’t think of it in the past. Easy access to information. Every status effect. Every character background country. Every racial trait or story beat. All provided with, not only in text detail, but helpful tooltips brought up by hovering over the word. Then explained to you in basic English and in game terminology what it means if that sword is “fine” or “DR Reducing” That lowers the barrier to entry so much to games of the genre, even the most causal of players would have an understanding of what was going on. Whether or not they realise it’s a good or useful thing to their party is an entirely different set of armour.
Another facet of gameplay adapted by Obsidian is character building and progression. In CRPGs of yore, there is the concept of a dead weight character. A character who has been built, for all intents and purposes, incorrectly. They either serve no purpose to the party at large, or their build is so sub optimal that they aren’t even worth having around. This is an absolute nightmare to discover. After inordinate hours of gameplay, you are a whole party member down, unable to progress due to their inadequacy. What’s the solution? Why restart of course! Now that you understand what that class is FOR, you’ll get it right this time! Until you mean a new NPC, with a new class, and so on and so forth. While this process is infinitely frustrating, it was part of the charm of the games back in 1999. In 2015, we get pissed off by stuff like that.
Instead, Pillars of Eternity makes every character and every class feel useful. They all have their primary abilities, that typically define how the operate. But most classes have a bunch of other skills that can alter their position within the party. My created character was initially planned as a melee DPS style Monk. He was quite effective at this too, with attack speed buffs and elemental damage augments on his unarmed attack. I discovered as the game progressed, however, due to his incredibly high base dexterity and some moving around of gear, the guy made a surprisingly effective off-tank. He just couldn’t be hit, nimbly dodging out of the way of arrows, blades and magic alike. I also found my priest made and effective caster DPS, my actual caster DPS was incredibly hard to kill and my rouge would hit more often with a sword than my warrior would! All of this leads me to believe some crazy party combos may be possible, and i’m excited to try them out on a second play through. You will, therefore, rarely feel like you have made a mistake with your character. It may not be optimal, but it will FEEL like your character has purpose, and you will not die because of it (on lower difficulties at any rate)
It’s not just these strong points that Pillars of Eternity leans on. In the grand arena of CRPGs, Pillars is quite happy to pick up a sword and fight for itself. For starters, it looks incredible. It takes the game 10 seconds out of character creation before it places you in one of the most beautiful opening areas for a video game in quite some time. A clearing, surrounded by green crystal, that leads into an ancient cave. These backgrounds are incredibly well drawn and realised, and help you to become one with the world. Secondly, Pillars physically plays better than any of the other CRPGs by comparison. Now this is likely due to the 15 years that have passed since their hay-day, but it also shows a great amount of awareness from Obsidian. They seem to understand where older games failed in their execution. Party formations are now more customisable, letting you easily create a “front line/back line” set up, and avoiding those awkward mages trying to stop an axe with their forehead. Enemy focus is made incredibly obvious by drawing lines of engagement to show where their attention is directed. This, again, helps prevent those pesky casters from trying to go 10 rounds with an ogre by himself. All this just limits the phoenix-like death and rebirth cycle that these RPGs are known for. As I said earlier, give players more information, they’ll probably be able to survive in your world. Hence why the every evolving bestiary is such a great addition as well. As you kill more of an enemy, you learn more about its defences, attacks and behaviour in combat. This means that before every fight is preparation. How best to defeat the shadows around the corner? (Hint: those bastarding ghosts hate fire)
While I could continue to fawn over this game, I must say it is in no way perfect. A lot of the kickstarter pledge goals feel like an afterthought. The kind of ten minutes before quitting time thinking. “What are we going to do for Kickstarter Jim?” “How about we let the players manage their own castle stronghold Bob?” “That’s a great idea!” Yes very made up developers. That is an excellent idea…If done well. Instead what we got was a meaningless money dump that doesn’t really offer anything to the game at large. Yes you can send your unused NPC companions to go and do random quests to keep them levelling up and getting gear. But it isn’t a lot.
“Ok, ok, how about a seemingly endless dungeon BELOW the stronghold? We’ll make it harder as you go down and tie it into a character backstory and everything”
Again great idea, man in my head, but that’s really all it is. You go onto a floor, kill all the things, go to the next floor, realise you can’t kill all the things, so you come back later. Rinse, repeat. If it were more interesting, or the story was more obvious or forced in the endless dungeon, I’d care more about it. Instead, I found myself spending more time of the real story and side quests than the meaningless journey into nothingness back at the stronghold I never visit. There is also a lot, and I mean a lot, of non-voice acted writing in this game. While I love getting involved in the lore of universes, this may be a large turn off for some players. And I am aware that it’s a lot to ask of a Kickstarter game to be fully voice acted. Especially one with such a dense amount of world building. Just be aware how much better this game would have been served if it had been.
The game is also not 100% balanced. While it is true every class has its role and can fill it well. It’s very clear there are just some classes that are better than others. Rangers, for example, are an effective ranged dps class. However, their unique class feature of having a pet, is not all that. Animal companions seem woefully underpowered, and therefore pretty shit to have around. In this instance, you would be better served to have a rouge with a bow, or a cipher (yes they are just that good) with a gun or something. This means that if you really metagaming, certain build paths and characters are locked out to you. In a game that is incredibly open, limiting options like this simply by hindering classes seems like a massive oversight. This may have been worked on in the beta, with obsidian reacting to those backers with the money to get in, I don’t know. The developers have been doing a good job of patching and tweaking the game since release, so these problems may be alleviated with time.
Pillars of Eternity is a triumph of a video game. A true evolution of a once dead genre. Bringing forward the key ideas that made that period of PC RPGs such an amazing time for gaming, but building and developing on those concepts for modern gamers. While not without flaws, Obsidian should be incredibly proud of this achievement. Not only an incredible game, but one of the few (maybe the only) modern classics to come out of kickstarter. Let’s hope for many more in the future if they produce products of this quality.