Pillars of Eternity: The White March Part I Review
Expansions to popular games have always fallen into uncomfortable territory. Whilst standalone DLC such as Mass Effect 3: Citadel offered a satisfying end to the series, it was also a self-contained episode following on from the original game. This contrasts sharply to The White March, a new set of missions and areas which are inserted partway through the main campaign of the excellent Pillars of Eternity. On the one hand, we loved PoE. It was a joyous return to the story-driven, party-based RPG glory days of the late nineties. On the other hand, most people interested in The White March will have long finished the original story, so is there enough here to justify revisiting the world of Eora when your ultimate goals have already been met in the main questline?
Let’s start with the content. The White March sits as a separate area which appears after you reach Caed Nua in the main game, and can be visited at any point after that. The developers have kindly provided an option to assess your party and offer you the chance to scale the area’s foes up to your current party level. If you found the original game challenging enough on Normal difficulty, then it is unlikely you’ll want to alter this. However, more adept players will welcome the choice as it will certainly increase the expansion’s longevity. It should be noted that the extra challenge comes with no extra reward, however - the experience and items received will be the same whether you scale up or not.
The White March consists of five new areas: Crägholdt Bluffs, Stalwart Village, Russetwood, Longwatch Falls and Durgan’s Battery, all taking inspiration from frosty Nordic environs with snow-covered huts, icy caves and frozen lakes abounding. Yet the white layers fail to mask what are essentially snowy alternatives to the main game’s locations. The village has a few NPCs you can converse with, but the rest is bulked up with one-line characters serving as window-dressing. Durgan’s Battery serves as the carrier of the expansion’s narrative, an abandoned forge which was mysteriously closed many years ago for reasons unknown. The villagers want it opened so they can become more prosperous from the artisan metal it can create, whilst your purpose is to find out why the Leaden Key is so interested in it. However, if you’re visiting after completing the main game, your motivation for visiting here feels forced, an effect of retrofitting an expansion into a narrative to justify its existence.
Even when you discover the fate of the forge’s previous occupants, it is hardly revelatory. Compared to some of the more interesting side quests in the village, such as the man wanting you to steal some wine from the inn with hilarious consequences, a fishery owner’s secret and a temple sect behaving rather oddly, the main quest feels almost banal in comparison to the game proper. A bounty or two and a few fetch quests make up the rest of the grunt work, but thankfully Durgan’s Battery itself is a delight to wander around, once you actually work out how to get in. Interesting puzzles and a series of quest items fuel the scripted interactions which have been bulked up to offer a little more in the way of choices. Furthermore, the soul-reaching from the main game actually serves a brief purpose in the White March; it’s just a shame there aren’t more people to use the new skill on.
Out of the five additions, Crägholdt Bluffs is the area which will challenge even high-level parties. Sensibly kept as an optional visit from the main White March quest, the level cap boost to fourteen is absolutely required to tackle the foes here. Even drunken Orlans have the ability to smash you across the screen and teleport across the snowy tundra before destroying your party. The jump in difficulty is staggering, and Soulbound weapons may help in this regard. They are a new item class which is bound to specific character classes, and they level up as you attack specific types of enemy, such as spirit creatures. As the weapons level up, more abilities and information about them are revealed, resulting in powerful unique items that have an associated history - a lovely touch, which merges the narrative beats of unique items with a mechanic that makes you want to keep using them.
The add-on as a whole is very combat focused, which will please fans of Icewind Dale, but might not sit so well with those wanting a more rounded RPG experience replete with story. Two new companions are on hand to help or hinder, depending on how happy you are with your existing party. Zahua is a masochistic monk with a penchant for dual-wielding and flowery chat. His skills are activated by Wounds, or in common parlance, getting hit. The more damage he takes, the more damage he can do, which makes combat a little twitchy given the need to throw him right into the thick of things, but it’s an alternative to the usual two-handed sword wielded by a tank. The other addition is the Devil of Caroc, a metal construct imbued with the spirit of a female mass-murderer. The voice acting here is variable, feeling less like Chucky and more like KOTOR’s HK-51 crossed with Carol Brady. Both new party members have interesting backstories and the potential for decent party quests, but sadly neither fails to make the most of their potential, especially in comparison to the bigger characters of the main game such as Durance.
In addition to the White March, Obsidian have released a 2.0 patch which includes a number of nifty features. Spell range is now visible from the outset, making it obvious just how far away you can plant your weak little mage from the gathering hordes. Scripted AI is available on a per character basis, allowing you to assign each a combat mentality - defensive, aggressive, and so on - and then sit back to watch the carnage. Per rest abilities can also be toggled so you don’t blast through all of your powerful attacks unnecessarily. It doesn’t work as well as it could, but it’s an option for those who want to wipe out weaker mobs without relying on the space bar and issuing individual orders. You can also enable stealth on a per character basis, fixing a bugbear of the main game. There are even nice little touches such as accuracy indicators showing you how likely you are to hit them, and dialogue telling you how long your rest bonuses will last for when you sleep at inns.
The White March Part I adds another twenty hours or so of content, and has the same polish present in Pillars. The biggest criticism is its awkward insertion into the main game, feeling more like an unnecessary addition than an essential piece of Eora’s canon. It’s enjoyable enough to play, but once you wrap up the two main dungeons you may come away feeling underwhelmed, as well as wondering what the second part due out later this year could possibly add. In many respects it feels more in keeping with Tales of the Sword Coast and Heart of Winter than Throne of Bhaal and as such is recommended more to new players than Pillars of Eternity veterans. Part II may well provide the revelatory finale we’ve been hoping for, but until then this is a pleasant enough way of hacking through the hours.