First Play: Pillars of Eternity
With almost £2.5m raised through crowd-sourcing, Project Eternity was the most successful video game project Kickstarter had ever hosted. Now, with a Q4 release date looming, Obsidian Entertainment's retitled Pillars of Eternity promises a return to the golden era of CRPGs for PC gamers wistful for the likes of Baldur's Gate and Icewind Dale. A backer beta was released last week which provided an introduction to the classes and mechanics of the game whilst ensuring that none of the main plot points would be spoiled, and The Digital Fix took the opportunity to see how this as yet unnamed world was progressing.
Let's begin, in time-honoured RPG fashion, with the characters. You're presented with six races: Human, Dwarf, Elf, Godlike (mutant), Aumaua (merman-like), and Orlan (gnome-like). Your race dictates what bonuses you receive to begin with. Elves are more dexterous and perceptive, Aumaua benefit from increased might, and so on. In addition, each race has multiple variants with unique traits allocated to each. For instance, Wild Orlans will gain bonuses to all defences after being on the receiving end of a Will attack, whilst Hearth Orlans gain a bonus to their critical hit chance when enemies are being attacked by multiple party members. Godlike are even more varied, with four playable types ranging from the healing-happy Moon Godlike to the Fire Godlike which become more dangerous as their health drops.
Furthermore, a whopping eleven different classes are available. Many are taken from the staple fantasy ranks of fighter, rogue, wizard and priest, but there are also more interesting additions such as chanter, cipher and barbarian. For our playthrough we opted to build a Godlike wizard; the number of spells available to wizards from the outset is impressive (you can choose four out of fourteen from the first level alone) and we were keen to see how area of effect spells would look on our shiny test PC.
From a visual point of view, Pillars’ environment is pretty but not particularly engaging. The characters are well-drawn, but higher resolutions will sacrifice some of the detail for a wider view of the location, although you can zoom in and out as needed. Orchestral strings are pleasant enough but someone has gotten a little enthusiastic with the tweeting bird sound effects package which lessens the experience somewhat. Both aspects owe a large debt to other CRPGs, which is no bad thing but dampens the “wow” factor somewhat; it’s as close to an AV spin-off of Baldur’s Gate as you’re likely to get, although if you read the feedback forums, some feel that there’s still a way to go before the Bioware magic is truly captured.
The town we explored was relatively small in terms of the number of buildings you can actually enter, although the inhabitants can all be spoken to. Background NPCs have a rotating number of lines which are displayed above their heads, whilst more interesting characters favour you with more in-depth conversation trees in the main window. It's worth noting that none of these conversations are voiced - Pillars of Eternity seems to be promising a real return to the text-heavy adventures of Planescape: Torment and the like, and is making no apologies. It's certainly a risk in an age where many gamers are used to a level of immersion on a par with film and TV entertainment. Ploughing through a novel's worth of text might be considered too much effort for some but it shouldn't be dismissed so easily, as the writing style is shaping up to be one of the most interesting parts of the game. Instead of typical back and forth lines of dialogue, Obsidian have opted for a prose style which turns conversations into a far more engaging interaction. Reading that a character is looking uncomfortable, stroking their chin or sighing between sentences helps pull the reader in, like a good fantasy novel. In many respects, it's actually more involving than the voice-only ping-pong found in the likes of Mass Effect and Dragon Age.
The conversations themselves also promise to offer a breadth of variety far beyond that of the isometric RPGs of yore. Your stats are heavily integrated into the dialogue trees, opening a range of paths up to you dependent on the choices you've made during character creation. You can also temper your responses with modifiers such as "passionate", "rational", "sympathetic" and more, and the force with which you use these modifiers will have an impact on how NPCs perceive you. If this persists through the entire gaming world, it means that there is massive scope for replayability as you can potentially build a completely different character, have entirely different outcomes in your conversations, and embark on a totally different path through the game. In one quest, we came across an official hunter who was after a murderess and sent us to find her. She was holed up in a nearby inn, but all was not as it seemed and the hunter was operating far from the bounds of the law. The choices in resolving this were plentiful - we could kill the woman and her associates, tell her the correct way of avoiding capture, or send her directly to the hunter. Even then further choices were offered - if we’d provided her with means of escape, we could then return to the hunter and - if our resolve stat was high enough - convince him that she had gone in a different direction. Failing that, we could take him out. This was just one minor side-quest, so the thought of having hundreds of similarly branching decisions scattered across the game makes us excited to see exactly how deep Obsidian’s bag of missions is.
As for the overall plot, we are in the dark. The beta deliberately avoided any potential spoilers for the main story arc, instead focusing on introducing us to the game world and the mechanics within. Whilst we start with a mixed party of four mute companions and your chosen character, we've been informed that these are being jettisoned in favour of fully developed party members who will interact both with you and each other. The theme is purported to discuss the nature of having a soul, a rather philosophical topic for a game of this type, but not unexpected given that Chris Avellone who penned the similarly existence-focused Planescape: Torment is on the writing team.
Whilst the story and character engagement are developing nicely, they need to be layered onto a solid framework. Unfortunately, it's here that the game starts to creak. The interface is very much along the lines of older Bioware efforts - each character has their own inventory, but it is limited to a meagre eight slots presently. A stash is present but is only accessible for transfers when your party is camping. Transferring items and utilising the shop system when trading is far too cumbersome, with item swaps requiring too many clicks to complete. Pathfinding is passable and the animations of your party (and that of NPCs) are serviceable, if a little erratic. However, it is combat which will require the most work. Whether you’re attacking lions, giant spiders or bounty hunters, the main issues rear their head each time: a lack of clarity around what is happening on screen, confusion over who you are controlling at any one time, and a tendency for each encounter to end up as a mass brawl with your party circling an individual foe and hitting it until it’s dead before repeating the approach with the next enemy. An information panel explains exactly what is going on behind the scenes with each roll of the virtual dice, but the text moves so rapidly that it renders the panel almost useless. Furthermore, the status bar indicating health is not particularly clear, using an odd orb system rather than a solid energy bar. When you combine this with the general murky green/brown palette - especially in forests - combat often tends to be a case of saving before each encounter and then piling in and hoping you survive. The stop/start nature of the combat system has always been divisive, even since the days of Baldur’s Gate, but here it feels like a step back with spellcasting taking a back seat to melee - mostly due to the plentiful AOE attacks having the unfortunate problem of affecting your own party. When you combine this with the aforementioned proclivity of your party to get up close and personal, spells which directly target enemies are the only viable approach.
Still, we are some months away from release and Obsidian have plenty of time to iron out the kinks. They are also actively engaging with the beta community and soliciting frank feedback from players to help inform their forthcoming changes, which can only be a positive step. What we’ve seen so far is impressive, and anyone who has fond memories of the Baldur’s Gate series is unlikely to be disappointed with this offering. We’re keen to see how the story and party members develop, but have high hopes that Pillars of Eternity will be the spiritual successor the CRPG fanbase has been waiting for.