Pillars of Eternity Review
When does homage end and plagiarism begin? The first hour of Pillars of Eternity may have you muttering about where the line between reverence and sheer pilfering is drawn, but then something wonderful happens: the inclusion of a party plot twist that Bioware wouldn’t have dreamed of including in either Baldur’s Gate or its late nineties’ brethren. And from there, things only get better.
For all of its outward appearances of being another clone from the Black Isle Studios isometric RPG heyday, Pillars sidesteps almost all rational expectations of its content by improving, expanding, and respecting everything that has come before it. Whilst it certainly owes a huge debt to both Shadows of Amn’s visuals and Planescape: Torment’s writing, the presence of genre heavyweights such as Chris Avellone, Feargus Urquhart and Chris Jones at Obsidian has meant that the quality you would expect is present and correct. Reams of atmospheric text, wonderful hand-drawn environments which drip with snippets of information for you to absorb, and deep (and often disturbing) character interactions are all here.
You start as a lone traveller, tagging along with a caravan on a quest for a place to settle in a foreign land. Things take a turn for the worse almost immediately and a freak mystical storm awakens hitherto unknown powers within you, thrusting you into the role of a Watcher - a being who can look into people’s souls and glean their history. How this power manifested, its purpose and your role in controlling it are at the forefront of the story. It offers a unique storytelling element - instead of merely chatting to the locals in each town you visit, you can “reach” out for their spirit essence and get rewarded with interesting tidbits of their life. They act as mini novellas, drawing rich characterisations of folk you have only just met in a few mere paragraphs and often leaving you anticipating more. An impressive feat on its own, given the number of NPCs you’ll come across in-game.
Player-controlled characters don’t get short shrift either. A wide array of colourful denizens line the roads and towns, including lunatic priests, schizophrenic wizards and earnest rangers. Some are better defined than others but all of them have their own motivations for travelling with you, whether it’s a quest to find a lost piece of their history, a personal mission to track down a reincarnated tribe member, or a curiosity to simply observe your newfound powers. The classes and races are simultaneously familiar and varied. Alongside your typical Dwarf, Human and Elf races are Aumaua, Godlike and Orlan, whilst less obvious classes such as Chanters, Ciphers and Monks bolster familiar staples such as Wizards, Fighters, Rogues and more - with twelve classes in total and a variety of options for customisation for your own character, hardened character creators should be very satisfied with what’s on offer.
Graphically, the isometric viewpoint will either appeal or not, but it’s fair to say that any CRPG veterans will enjoy being able to zoom in fully and be presented with well-defined sprites rather than the pixelated 800x600 blockiness of yesteryear. Rather than relying solely on staid delivery of narrative through text boxes, Pillars also intersperses many events - often puzzle elements - with choices laid over a storyboard-style backdrop rather than the lush hand-drawn environments. They feel reminiscent of a more involved “choose your own adventure” book, and whilst they aren’t actually that much different in content than the main story mechanic, the fresh visuals punctuated by complementary sound effects offer something that feels unique to similar RPGs. There is also a commendable amount of voice work throughout, most great, some average, although it does suffer from a lack of consistency. During dialogue exchange, some paragraphs with party members and quest NPCs are voiced, others aren’t - there’s no continuity. You can read a few pages and the vocals will suddenly pop in and then go again, as if there was only budget for each voice actor to record specific lines. It distracts more than it needs to, but fortunately only on a superficial level since the writing is uniformly excellent.
The most impressive element of the game is how it meshes everything together. The content cleverly incorporates a staggering amount of detail without making you feel overwhelmed. Whether you’re choosing which additions to make to the stronghold you’ll discover early on in the game, hiring additional adventurers in pubs to customise as tagalongs for your party, or crafting recipes from the myriad of flora and fauna you’ll discover on your travels, the available tasks are prolific yet focused, similar to the main thrust of the storyline. It feels like an open world game, but steers you in the right direction; you’ll wander into some areas where you’re clearly outmatched by the beasts stalking the wilderness, and at that point a retreat to map out other areas of your expansive map will be advisable until you’ve leveled up. There is a definite steer to the main quest, but Pillars never penalises you too heavily for exploring - although saving often is recommended.
The interface also deserves praise, with a plethora of sensible options which will be familiar to anyone who has played this genre before. Your journal, quick items and spells are all intuitively managed. The inventory system is slightly finicky, which makes things far more difficult to sort and manage than is necessary, and comparing stats of items between the party members can become something of a window-fest, but it’s a minor niggle especially when you’re given a massive central stash to dump all of the items you don’t want to burden your party with.
Spells in particular stand out from the game’s spiritual roots - instead of selecting certain spells to memorise each time you rest, you can select from everything in your learned grimoire immediately and are given a set number of uses at each spell level, per rest. Not only does this provide more flexibility during battles, it also allows you to experiment with powers you might not have even thought of casting previously. Many Baldur’s Gate players would have stuck to the staples: Magic Missile, Fireball, and so on. Here, you can try any spell you like - if it doesn’t work for you, don’t use it again in future. It’s a small change which is liberating in implementation and encapsulates the kind of accessibility prevalent throughout, freed from the shackles of the D&D ruleset. Want to hurtle through already visited environments, instead of waiting three minutes to plod across a screen as Icewind Dale forced you to do? Simply enable Fast mode. Want to see everything you can interact with on screen? Hit Shift and get investigating. Fancy creeping through the shadows? Press Alt and you can, without concern that your attempt to hide might not be successful.
Stealth actually becomes an important mechanic in combat. You can reach a certain distance from an enemy before a yellow proximity dial around your character piques their attention, turning red when they’re about to spot you. Hide from a far enough distance though, and you can take advantage of a pre-emptive strike or spell from cover. You’ll need it too, as fights are brutal. Real-time combat can be paused at any time by the space bar, allowing you to alter your actions and regroup if things are going badly. It will become apparent very quickly that this is not a game to be taken lightly, as your entire party can be wiped out with a few badly selected choices. Even normal difficulty level will have veterans wincing, but there are two more harder options sitting alongside the insane Trial of Iron, which gives you one save game to play with and deletes it when you die. Pick it at your peril.
As with everything else though, combat is quick to get to grips with. A series of five coloured dots over a sprite’s head gives a quick visual indicator of their health, whilst actual damage is split between Endurance and Health. Reduce a character’s Endurance to zero, and they’ll be knocked out and also take Health damage, but whilst Endurance recovers fully once combat ends (or through means of potions or spells), Health damage can usually only be recovered by resting. It offers an excellent risk/reward strategy, tempting you to push that little bit further even though your camping supplies are dwindling and it would be a much more sensible option to return to town. But that chest is just over there...
If this sounds a little simplistic, fear not. There are more stats and dice analysis available for you to pore over than you could hope for. Almost everything listed in the combat ticker can be hovered over or clicked for more information including statuses, attacks and bestiary notes. The more similar creatures you kill, the more you learn about their strengths, weaknesses and health. Essentially, the detail is there if you want it, but if you aren’t interested in the behind-the-scenes mechanics then it’s tucked neatly away in the background for the hardened role-players to enjoy.
There’s so much to enjoy within Pillars that it’s near impossible to cover it in a short review. We haven’t even touched on the branching conversation trees which offer moral quandaries and unlockable answers based on your stats. Nor have we mentioned the wonderful orchestral score and incidental effects which round out the medieval flavour of its richly detailed world. Or the reputation system based on your deeds, which alters the way in which NPCs react to you. Or the mammoth optional multi-level dungeon crawling with traps, treasures and beasts, tucked away below your stronghold.
This is Obsidian’s four million dollar labour of love for its backers, and it shows within every facet. In almost every respect Pillars of Eternity is a true successor to the genre - a perfect introduction for RPG newcomers, and for everyone else, the game they’ve been waiting fifteen years for.