Developer: Obsidian Entertainment
Publisher: Paradox Interactive
Rating: M for Mature
At the outset, Pillars of Eternity seems like any other RPG. My player-created character has destiny thrust upon him and leads a ragtag band on a continent-spanning quest to right a wrong.
Within the first half hour, however, Pillars of Eternity proved to be so much more. By then, I knew that I was in for a ride unlike any I had ever experienced. And what a ride it was.
Pillars of Eternity is unique in its creation. Rather than being made through the traditional developer-publisher format, Pillars was funded through Kickstarter with the support of over 77,000 backers. But you wouldn’t know it as a player. The game has all the nuance and substance of a triple-A title, and all the heart of an indie game. The game is meant to invoke the classic RPG Baldur’s Gate, one of the most beloved games in history. I have actually never played Baldur’s Gate, and while I hear from others that the game does a good job of honoring its legacy, I know from experience that it stands up all on its own. Developer Obsidian was unconstrained by publisher demands, and thus was able to create an amazing labor of love.
The story of Pillars revolves around the actions of the player character, but the machinations thereof begin long before your character enters the scene.
The game begins with your character traveling with a caravan, which stops for a rest. Your dialogue choices determine your reasons for travel, as well as your character’s personality. Trying to defuse situations will earn you points as diplomatic, while shaking down merchants for gold will earn you points as aggressive, and so forth. These personality traits, as well as the reputation you build with the communities that you interact with and your characters stats, will affect future dialogue options.
Soon after the caravan stops, you’re sent to find a medicine plant, with a companion to accompany you. This companion is voiced and interesting–a compelling character who I predicted would become one of my favorites. Within the next hour, she dies, but this goes to show how great the characters in Pillars are. Even throwaway ones are fleshed out and interesting.
The caravan ends up being a hit by a mystical storm, the escape from which leads your party straight into a mysterious ritual being formed by a towering machine. The blast from this ritual leaves your character as a Watcher, someone who can see souls and can communicate with the past lives of those around them. As you stumble alone to the nearest town, you find it beset by a curse known as Waidwen’s Legacy, which leaves all children born without souls. From here on, your character embarks on a journey to find the man who turned him into a Watcher and discover the cause of Waidwen’s Legacy.
The story is deep with twists and turns, and the companions that join you along the way add to its intrigue. I was very satisfied by the story, and found it a great motivator for the player’s quest. In addition to the main quest, the greater number of side-quests have their own sagas that may or may not intertwine with the main story. I spent hours running around completing side quests before remembering that there was a high-stakes main quest to get back to.
Pillars of Eternity is a very, very, lore intensive game. However, this is a good thing because the lore rocks. The story is told for the most part through text. While some important conversations are voiced, most of the dialogue and story consists of you reading it. This might sound like a turn-off, but the lore is so well-written that you well find yourself transported into the world of the game by force of your imagination. In addition to the story, there are many books to be read, and you can use your powers as a watcher to see into the past lives of numerous NPCs. This doesn’t affect gameplay, but the stories told can be very fascinating and are usually worth reading. However, if you’re not a big fan of reading, then Pillars will be tough for you to get through.
Unfortunately, this game comes with a hefty share of adult content. There’s plenty of cursing (f***, bast***, sh*t) and suggestive language (whore, etc.). There’s a number of crude jokes said by NPCs, as well as some that can be said by the player character. Prostitution does factor into the game, and the player can choose to buy someone for a night, though no nudity or sexual acts are shown. These things are not hugely prevalent throughout the game, but they are notably present.
As for violence, the top-down view prevents it from being very graphic. There is cartoon blood, and occasionally enemies explode in a cloud of blood. There is also the mention of more gruesome violence through text. While I would not rate the violence level above Teen, the game as a whole is most definitely for adults only. Also, the game has multiple fictional religions that factor heavily into the story. If you are uncomfortable with talk of false gods, then this may not be for you.
First things first: You should know that this is a long game. I realized I would love it in the first half-hour because by the end of the first half-hour, I was still on the character creation screen. There are a variety of different races, backgrounds, and classes for the player to choose from, with both classics and new ideas mixed in. For instance, you can play as a human or elf, but why do that when you can play as a towering Amauna or an imposing Godlike? You could be a barbarian or paladin, but why not try out the soul-sucking abilities of the Cypher, or go the support role and play as a Chanter?
There are 11 playable classes, and in addition to picking a race, you can also pick a sub-race–a culture of sorts, to further set your character apart from any other that has been made. This diversity goes even further when it comes to leveling up. As your characters gain experience, you pick new, class-specific talents and abilities. But in addition to these, you can also pick universal talents, such as those that allow you to shoot faster or dodge incoming attacks. These factors combine to make it highly unlikely that any one player’s character ends up like any other.
One of the great things about Pillars is that, oftentimes, you can sneak past or talk your way out of combat. In fact, you don’t actually earn any experience for killing enemies. It’s a contentious decision, and one I don’t necessarily agree with, but I do respect its boldness. Instead, you earn experience by completing quests, exploring locations, and performing actions like disarming traps or picking locks. However, many times you do end up in conflict. It is then that the game’s deep combat system comes into play.
Combat plays out old-school, in the style of Baldur’s Gate. If you’ve ever played Dragon Age: Origins, you’ll know what to do. Pillars is real-time strategy, but with the ability to pause combat at any time to issue orders to your party. Depending on your party’s composition, battles can play out a number of different ways. You can also customize the formation your party travels in, so that you can have your tanks upfront to take on incoming damage and your spell-casters and ranged attackers behind them, safely out of harm’s way. I, personally, had my paladin and a fighter go a few paces ahead of the rest of the party, along with my ranger’s wolf companion. My priest would be just close enough to casts buffs and heal, and my cipher, ranger, and chanter would all shoot from a distance. This specific formation came after a lot of experimentation, and there are times when the formula needs to be changed to suit the enemies being faced.
Even on Easy Mode, the game is certainly difficult and has a steep learning curve. Also, managing every action of a party of six characters (seven, if you count a ranger’s pet) can get a bit tedious. As your journey progresses, your characters get stronger and you–the player–will get smarter; some fights that would have wiped you out at the beginning of the game will become minor annoyances. However, the game continually throws stronger and more diverse enemies at you, so the challenge is never lost.
I found that the game on Normal gave me plenty of challenge without having Dark Souls levels of frustration. If you’re new to games that use the Infinity Engine, you need to play on Easy. Trust me. “Hard” and “Path of the Damned” are for those truly seeking punishment. Turning on Expert Mode removes many of the ways the game would otherwise help you, and turning on “Trial of Iron” is truly insane. When playing under this option, the game will only keep one save file for your character. If the character dies, the file is deleted and you’ll have to start all over.
As far as graphics go, the game looks nice enough. I appreciated the attention to detail and art style, but I found the graphics a tad dated. However, there are enough beautiful and imposing sights in the game that I’m sure this won’t hinder your experience.
One issue that bothers me is the inability to rotate the camera. This occasionally led to my being unable to see where I was going, though this happened rarely.
The sound quality is very good, and the music is top-notch. What especially stood out to me was the music at the stronghold, which invoked a very Hobbit-like vibe. It can get a little repetitive over the course of a game so large, but I only felt annoyed by the music near the very end of the game.
Most of the voicework is more than competent, with some characters having voices that become iconic through the course of the game. There are a few bad eggs here and there, but for the most part it’s good work.
Like any large RPG, Pillars comes with a few technical issues. I ran into fairly frequent framerate dips, and the game did crash on me once. But considering the length of the game, I thought its durability pretty good.
Pillars of Eternity is, through and through, an adventure. From the character creation screen, to the very end of the game, you will be given a plethora of options and avenues, and the ability to craft a story unique to you. What few technical issues the game has are outshine by the wealth of things to do, the depth of its lore, and the fun of the combat and dialogue. The game may have its roots in classics of the past, but it is certainly fit for the here-and-now and able to hold its own against such contemporary RPGs as Skyrim and Dragon Age. The fact that a game this amazing was made through Kickstarter is a testament to the power of fans. Though the amount of text may be too much for some, most will find the attention to detail and the shear depth of the game to be boons along a journey they’ll never forget.
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The Bottom Line
Pillars of Eternity is an incredible game, rich with content and heart. If you decide to jump in, make sure you clear your schedule first.