Playing Baldur’s Gate was one of the foundational experiences of my young gaming life. Along with its Infinity Engine cousins, Fallout and Planescape: Torment, it proved that great fantasy and science fiction was not confined to the page. Instead, it could be reformulated in a narrative that immersed me in its world, reacted to my actions, and forced me to question my choices. It proved that games were a narrative medium that could rise to the level of art.
It might be enough, then, to simply say that Pillars of Eternity is a true successor to that legacy.
And so far as I can say at this point, it is. But I’ve only played Pillars of Eternity for a total of about twelve hours so far, and it’s become abundantly clear that there is a great deal more to play. In many ways, I feel as though I’ve barely scratched the surface of its heroic fantasy narrative, or truly explored the depth of its systems.
As a game fundamentally about exploration – of the world, of the gameplay, and of the soul – it’s impossible to comment fully upon the game without more time to explore. This, then, only encapsulates my first impressions. Expect a more detailed review next week.
The first thing to know about Pillars of Eternity is that it’s big on story. You are a Watcher, a person blessed or cursed with the power to see and hear the souls of both living and dead. Your quest to find out what this means and why you have this power takes you across a prototypical medieval world, filled with castles and villages, bandits and trolls, diplomacy and subterfuge.
While it never ventures far from its European fantasy roots, it remains a world that’s unique to its setting, built from the ground up to explore its themes. Here, gods walk among mortals, people are born without souls, and souls linger or are reborn on the Wheel when their vessels die. It’s a story full of colourful characters, each with their own stories, their own motivations, and their own quests.
You explore these characters through expertly wrought writing which more often than not is un-voiced dialogue. While voice-acting work is present for more important scenes, and is generally quite well done, this is a game with substantial text. Rare amongst even text-driven games is that the conversation text provides not only dialogue, but, in the manner of a novel, description and insight. You play this game from a largely zoomed-out perspective, and there are no facial expressions to see. Because of this, the text fills you in on a character’s mannerisms as he or she speaks, or what you think might lie beneath their surface comments.
It’s surprisingly effective in rendering character, providing in only a few words what would otherwise take a team of expert animators and modern technology to achieve. The limited voice work lends itself to one other advantage of RPGs of yore, which is the endlessly branching conversation trees, full of optional questions and answers, insults and rejoinders. It reminds one of what the phrase role-playing once meant.
And the story and quests so far have been eminently enjoyable, with few simple fetch quests or tasks to kill a certain bad-guy. Instead, most branch in multiple ways, bringing out character and plot details and forcing choices. Each one tends to increase the immersion rather than break it.
And fortunately, what the writing accomplishes, the visuals manage to at least sustain. They are a throwback, certainly, but one that doesn’t fail to mingle its age with charm. The characters themselves are merely passable when viewed from above, and show little detail up close. Spell effects pop, but hardly dazzle to the modern eye. But the environments, like the pre-rendered environments of Baldur’s Gate, are where the beauty lies. They remain crafted with the same attention to detail and the same sense of place that made exploring the Sword Coast so enjoyable. Crumbling fortress walls, sprawling cities, a path by a waterfall: each is its own painting on which the game is played.
And while the narrative and exploration is certainly a pillar of the game (excuse the pun), there is also a game there, too. Obsidian has crafted its own combat system from the ground up. While it shares many features with past PC role-playing games, and certainly also with their tabletop antecedents, the system is its own and deeply complex.
You build your own hero at the outset, choosing their gender, appearance and one of eleven classes at first, and then filling in that character with a background, skills, and ability points. But up to five additional party members can join you, each with their own statistics, abilities and equipment.
The system was designed to be one in which it’s hard to build a bad character, but at this juncture I can’t say whether they’ve succeeded. The system is complex enough to allow for serious customization and tweaking, but to do so there’s quite an information glut to be digested first. This is true of a great deal of the game, from issuing battlefield commands, to unravelling the chanter class’ chants, to managing inventories and enchanting. Helpful tutorial tool-tips pop up at times, but in many cases, it’s a matter of trial and error. I had to read through one character’s long statistics page before I found out that the deflection bonuses being provided by a ring and a robe on one character didn’t stack.
Death by Numbers
And these little things matter in a game as hard as Pillars of Eternity. Even on normal difficulty, death is around every corner. There is no enemy scaling, and some areas will simply be too difficult to manage early on. There are also odd difficulty spikes. You may find yourself breezing through a few encounters only to hit a major roadblock immediately after.
In any event, saving often is necessary, and planning ahead and moving with caution never hurt either. In every pre-launch stream of the game I’ve seen, no one has managed to avoid repeated deaths.
Combat itself, while thoroughly enjoyable, reveals its own foibles. “Encounters” begin each time your party is detected by an enemy and end when the last enemy visible is dead. The game immediately pauses at the start of an encounter, allowing you to issue orders to each of your members, whether it be to use a potion or ability, attack, cast a spell, or merely run away. Each character does its assigned action or merely auto-attacks each time its recovery bar runs down, which is the general timer on how often your character can do something. You can pause and unpause the game at any time to issue new orders, which is necessary given how messy combat can become in larger engagements.
And larger engagements are where the trouble usually begins. Pathing is poorly handled in the game, and a character given an attack order may simply run back and forth, constantly changing his mind about the shortest route to the enemy. Sometimes commands given seem to simply be ignored. Whether this is because some combat effect interrupted it or because your character had better ideas is hard to know. There seem to be dozens of combat effects, and in big fights, the combat log rolls by a mile a minute. Because of this, I often found myself re-issuing the same command over and over.
There are a number of other minor hiccups, including in the laying of traps and dealing with area of effect spells, but overall, these hardly change the combat experience. At worst, you simply have to micro-manage your party to a very high degree, which at times can feel a little tedious.
That said, combat remains enjoyable, and the first time you cast that perfect fireball makes up for all the little annoyances that preceded it. Fortunately I’ve encountered no major bugs so far, and haven’t yet reached any points that only loading an earlier save will resolve. With luck, this will continue until the credits roll.
Wrapping it Up
I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my time so far with Pillars of Eternity, and I look forward to spending much more time with it in the near future. Expect a full review later on, where I’ll talk more about questing, dungeons, side-characters and more.
Oh yeah, and you get your own castle. On top of a mega-dungeon. I’ll talk about that too.