Pillars of Eternity exists almost like a glimpse at an alternate past. What would have happened if the great RPG’s of old would have continued to evolve, rather than simply be replaced by entirely different games. (You can get a glimpse of it in this Rock Paper Shotgun article The Quests That Got Cancelled) Pillars is exactly that – it’s a continuation of the infinity engine games legacy, but built with the kind of things modern games expect.
For the uninformed, Pillars of Eternity is the result for Obsidian’s very successful Kickstarter a few years back. The graphics, while similar in style, are vastly improved over the originals – being able to zoom in goes a long way to help this. That the characters themselves are 3D, rather than sprites also helps a lot with smoothness in movement and action; this especially helps with the larger creatures, like dragons.
Pillars’ understanding of the importance of text is also hard to ignore. Not everything needs to be voice acted, and in many ways it gives the writers a lot more freedom when everything isn’t. As well as Torment style descriptions of people you engage in conversation, there are also great areas of exploration that are totally described in text, but become all the more immersive because of it. As an example, my party took to the water to exit a cavern. Our warrior was able to break the flow of the current and collect some treasure along the way because his athletics skill was high enough. Likewise, our wizard got carried away by the stream and got battered on the exit, leaving him with broken ribs and lowered constitution.
There are lots of encounters like this and they help personalise the game based on your decisions in stat distribution and party management. Buying tools in the towns often helps as well. Scaling down a cliff can be made safer by buying a grappling hook.
Pillars is often referred to as the continuation of the Baldur’s Gate legacy – but I think it’s fairer to say that it continues in the vein of all the infinity engine games. The story has a definite feel of Torment about it – especially some of the questions you are asked towards the end. The party management and combat (especially in the Endless Paths) feels more reminiscent of Icewind Dale. This isn’t surprising since Black Isle, many of whom formed Obsidian, worked on both of those titles.
The actual gameplay rules feel very much D&D, but there’s a lot of additions that improve the formula for a game; having endurance and health as two separate stats resolves a lot of the rest spamming of previous D&D games. Endurance heals over time while exploring and health only heals while resting.
The companions of Pillars are an interesting and diverse bunch – they never go for the obvious silliness of companions like Minsc or Morte, but they have interesting back stories and some fun interactions among one another. Somewhat disappointingly though there is no disagreement that has any effect between the player and the party or amongst themselves. There’s also no room for relationships or the ability to form bonds with any of them beyond the aid your powers offer them. A large part of the story is about the Hollowborn, children born without souls, the question of coupling when such a terrible affliction exists would have certainly been a complex and interesting situation to see unfold – especially if it were to directly affect your character. Similarly the ending summations of each characters journey read as though they barely knew the player – as if the player were wiped from history by the end of the game.
As a game – Pillars is the perfect continuation of the genre. There are options to tailor the experience perfectly to your desires. You can have constant access to your party stash, or you can turn it off. You can view the stat requirements and reputation effects of dialogue, or you can turn them off. Likewise there’s a lot of battles you can avoid if you prefer to settle things with words, rather than swords. The return to party-based real-time-with-pause battle system is most welcome and it makes me somewhat anxious to see how well the new Torment game will work, seeing as they decided on going back to turn-based.
The first half of Pillars is perfect – I wouldn’t be conflicted at all about giving it a perfect score. The exploration of the smaller areas and the quests in and around Defiance Bay are a perfect reminder and improvement on Baldur’s Gate. The second half falters a little bit – companion quests don’t really go anywhere; Caed Nua (your upgradable stronghold) loses its significance, and the enchanting never really makes you feel powerful. That said the story supports the flagging gameplay with some real Torment-like turns in the plot and Throne of Bhaal-like decisions to be made.
As a side note I feel I should say something about the Kickstarter Backer inclusions. As part of the higher tiers, backers could have an epitaph in the many crypts and graveyards in the game, or write a small history to a custom NPC. The epitaphs are fine, they’re very much in keeping with the kind of humour you’d find in the old infinity engine games. The stories feel pointless – they’re small random glimpses into souls and described a situation in their life. But as there’s no purpose to them, they just feel like a wall of text each time. If they built towards a single story, or somehow connected to each other, they might have felt worth it. As it is, they felt like a shout-out, nothing more.
Pillars of Eternity is one of the best RPG’s I’ve played in a long time. The last game that gave me that good old party-based RPG feeling was Dragon Age Origins. Hopefully whatever follows Pillars isn’t as rushed as Dragon Age 2, nor as insipidly mainstream as Inquisition. Currently there are plans for expansions, add-ons that are looking to be as big as the Tales of The Sword Coast for the original Baldur’s Gate. I’m definitely ready for more of this.