Game Review: Pillars of Eternity

I love RPGs: Western RPGs, JRPGs, action RPGs, games with RPG elements, all kinds of RPGs, so when I heard that Obsidian, the studio behind such gems as Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale, and Planescape Torment, wanted to make an old school RPG in the vein of the old Infinity Engine games, I backed it right away on Kickstarter.

Pillars of Eternity is about an ordinary person who is thrust into extraordinary circumstances. Your journey begins with you accompanying a caravan into the Dyrwood pursuing a fresh start. Soon after, you witness a terrifying event and find yourself thrust into the role of a Watcher, a person with the ability to see into the souls of others. Your journey will take you across the Dyrwood in the hope of finding out what has happened to you and whether you can free yourself from your new burden.

Pillars of Eternity is an isometric CRPG, a style of RPG which has become less popular in recent years but is enjoying a resurgence thanks to funding platforms like Kickstarter. If you’ve never played a CRPG like Pillars before, it’s difficult to find a point of comparison, if you’ve ever played Dragon Age Origins on “tactical mode”, it’s kind of like that with tighter controls.

The game starts, naturally, with character creation. You choose staples like race (with a number of sub-types) and class, but also background and place of origin. These choices aren’t just cosmetic, they have an effect on how NPCs treat you and what you can equip. Godlikes, for instance, have some sort of protrusion that makes it impossible to equip helmets and other headgear. For my first character, I broke my own tradition of playing a human mage and opted to play as a Moon Godlike Cipher (a class focused on using psychic abilities to manipulate others’ souls directly instead of using complex formulae like Wizards or songs like Chanters) named Paresh whose background was as an Old Vailian Aristocrat. As always, I tried to do “good” and honest things over acting like an asshole.

Unless you’re dedicated to soloing your journey of discovery (which you can apparently do with the right build), you’ll probably want some companions to help you out. The game gives you the option to create your own party from scratch a la Temple of Elemental Evil, but you’ll also meet a variety of colourful companions you can recruit, including Eder, a farmer turned fighter who is a follower of the persecuted Eothasian faith who is looking for an answer as to why his brother fought on the opposing side during a war, Aloth, an elven mage with some interesting secrets, Pallegina, an avian godlike who joined an all=male knighthood on a technicality who is caught between duty to her superiors and her conviction that there is a better way to help the Republics, Sagani, a dwarven hunter who is searching for the reincarnation of her village elder, and others. Each companion has a personal quest and the outcome of that quest (as well as how you treat them throughout the narrative) determines which of a few different endings you get. The characters all have depth and they all have a central conflict that you can influence. You can also gain reputation with various factions, which affects everything from which quests are available to you to the ultimate fate of a settlement. One of my favourite aspects of reputation is the way your decisions shape your character’s personality and open up different dialogue options (in one case, an Honest character will have an easier time giving testimony during a certain event, whereas a Cruel character gets more opportunities to be a complete asshole).

Combat is definitely one area of the game that sounds complicated but actually isn’t as hard as the fanbase or critics are saying it is. In a nutshell, enemies have four defense types: Deflection, Fortitude, Reflex, and Will, higher numbers indicate more defenses against that sort of damage. For instance, an enemy with high Fortitude but low Reflex might resist most status effects but be susceptible to area of effect spells, whereas an enemy with low Deflection is very susceptible to melee attacks. It’s often a matter of checking enemy stats to find the lowest number and then using spells and abilities that cause damage against that attribute, provided you’ve fought enough of those enemies that you can tell what those numbers are in advance. Combat (at least at the time of release) involves adjusting the position of your fighters and coordinating their attacks, as (again, at the time of release) they didn’t have much in the way of AI. Some might dislike this level of micromanagement, but fortunately you can (and should) pause the game to issue orders. The “with pause” part of “real time with pause” makes combat much less stressful. Another important part of combat is health and endurance. In a nutshell, endurance is short term injury and is refilled at the end of battle and through healing potions, food, and spells. Health is long term injury and can only be recovered through resting. On every difficulty except Easy, if a character’s health is depleted, they permanently die. There are no resurrection spells or the like in this world. There’s something about the combat that is deeply satisfying, especially when you score a critical and the enemy explodes into giblets. There’s also something deeply satisfying about emerging from a fight with no unconscious party members, especially if you were like me and had trouble with the dungeons at the beginning. The fact that someone like me, who had immense trouble with the Infinity Engine games, can conquer the bonus dungeon and kill the challenging bonus boss is proof that the game is not nearly as difficult as everyone is making it out to be (or else I’m better at delegating than I thought).

While I was playing this I was also playing Dragon Age Inquisition, and I think modern RPGs like DAI could learn a thing or two from Pillars of Eternity‘s quest design. Whereas DAI had me running all over the Hinterlands looking for letters and corpses and endless distractions like shard hunts and constellation puzzles, Pillars of Eternity had fewer things to do (some areas are practically empty except for monsters) but made up for it in quality. Almost every quest has something more to it. Almost every quest is more than it initially appears to be. Even simple quests like “kill this bear in this cave” or “deliver this ring” tell stories of treachery or desperation, and many of them give you opportunities to develop your character’s personality as well as dole out precious experience. The bulk of experience is gained through completing quests, you do get some experience for killing monsters, but (at least when the game was released) you stop gaining experience when you’ve learned about them. You can also gain experience through exploring new areas and interacting with the world (unlocking chests, disarming traps, etc.).

The graphical style should be familiar to you if you’ve ever played this sort of RPG. The graphics are 2D and made by rendering high quality 3D models but the effects and characters are in 3D. Pillars has gotten some flack for its “old” graphics, but while it might not have sprawling vistas like Skyrim, the Dyrwood is still very pretty and objects like the “Gilded Vale Welcome Tree” would provoke an emotional reaction from me regardless of rendering. The music is another high point, with tracks that reminded me of the likes of Icewind Dale and Morrowind. Although there is little voice acting, it’s all pretty great with no voices that I really hated. Durance’s voice actor in particular nailed the “fire and brimstone preacher” personality, and Matthew Mercer is truly a man of a thousand voices.

Keep in mind that the few negative points I have may or may not have been fixed with a patch since then, but when the game first came out, the AI had a really annoying pathing problem where they would run back and forth instead of moving around to strike at an enemy. Although your party members are all very interesting, I feel as if Sagani, Pallegina, and especially Grieving Mother weren’t given as much attention as Aloth, Eder, and Durance. Grieving Mother is a particularly egregious case because the Watcher is the only one who can see who she actually is, limiting opportunities for party banter, and you can also permanently lose her at least twice in the story if you make the wrong decisions (although the second time you deserve it, you monster). Ciphers at the time of release seemed somewhat overpowered, with plenty of abilities that could knock an opponent down or make enemies attack each other, although I hear they have since been nerfed. The game is also pretty difficult at the beginning, and one of the earliest dungeons, the Temple of Eothas, can easily wipe the floor with your party and laugh. Stick with the game, however, and characters like Eder and Aloth become practically superhuman (casters starting off weak and then becoming powerhouses by the end game are apparently a staple of the Infinity Engine games). Miraculously, I didn’t encounter any game-breaking bugs, something that Obsidian games are infamous for having.

Pillars of Eternity might look like a standard fantasy romp in a standard fantasy setting but its also a very bleak world where terrible things happen to good people. In that sense, it’s very much a successor to Planescape: Torment. Rape is mentioned but never depicted in a couple quests, war and its effects on the land are ever present, human sacrifice (which can be performed by the player), death by hanging, and violence against children are all present, as are parental and spousal abuse, and this is barely scratching the surface of the dickish things the player can do. Suffice it to say if you can think of a way that a person can suffer, this game probably has it. No character earned quite as much ire from me than Durance, with his sexist comments and leers to his hatred of absolutely everyone, he is, as someone on tumblr put it “such a white boy”. My dislike for Durance is so great that someone actually messaged me asking how they could avoid recruiting him. Unfortunately, as he’s a priest, if you want to do a playthrough with no player-created characters and you’re not a priest/ess yourself, you’ll want to have him around, and to be fair, Hiravias is at least as filthy as Durance and doesn’t get half my scorn.

In terms of diversity, Pallegina, Sagani, and Kana are people of colour. Pallegina is black, and Sagani’s people clearly resemble the Inuit, Kana is a bit more ambiguously brown. Interestingly, the dominant culture in the Republics (which resembles Italy) are the dark-skinned Calbandra (also known as “ocean folk”). I do wish, however, that at least one of them was a normal human like Eder, Durance, and Grieving Mother. There isn’t much in terms of queer representation outside of backer-created content (the little stories that appear when you view an NPC’s soul), although a quest may be about a female captain and her lover, and two of the deities, Berath and Wael, have male and female aspects (Berath) or are flat out seen as genderless (Wael) although the decision to use “It” for Wael’s pronoun wasn’t the best decision. An interesting bit of lore concerns godlikes, who are legally seen as agender regardless of how they present or identify, which becomes a plot point in Pallegina’s story.

In short, Pillars of Eternity was one of the best RPGs I played last year and if you’re looking for a great RPG and don’t mind a bit of a learning curve or difficult beginning levels, I absolutely recommend it. Steam has me clocked in at 96 hours although the in-game clock says around 60, but regardless of my exact time, it’s an RPG that focuses on quality over quantity, and when so many RPGs seem to be focused on cramming the most stuff in as possible, Pillars of Eternity is a breath of fresh air.

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