There are few PC games more fondly remembered than the isometric RPGs of the late 1990s. Fallout, Baldur’s Gate, Planescape: Torment, and Icewind Dale took the tabletop RPG experience and brought it to the screen. They showed just how much adventure and narrative could be provided in a single game.
With Pillars of Eternity, Obsidian Entertainment set out to not only create a game that lived up to the nostalgia those games evoke, but also to successfully update the genre for a modern audience. After spending over sixty hours with this title, I can safely say they’ve not only met those lofty goals, but exceeded them.
Pillars of Eternity tells one of the most novel stories in modern video games, all while offering deep and engaging gameplay. While a scant few bugs and hiccups mar the experience, Pillars of Eternity stands as a must play for any RPG enthusiast, and indeed any lover of fantasy narratives in general.
Remembrance of Games Past
Anyone familiar with the Baldur’s Gate or Icewind Dale will feel right at home in Pillars of Eternity. Like its isometric predecessors, Pillars of Eternity sees the player controlling a party of up to six adventurers in a top down adventure. Cities and dungeon areas are accessible from a world map, and combat happens in real time with the option to pause and issue orders to each party member at any time.
Unlike some of those earlier games, however, Pillars of Eternity uses its own unique rule-set rather than existing tabletop rules like those of Dungeons and Dragons. Players can choose from one of eleven classes, including genre standards like Wizard, Paladin, and Rogue, and ones unique to the world like the Cipher. The player can obtain other party members by finding the available storyline companions in the world, or simply by creating their own at various adventurer halls. In either case, the player takes total control of their equipment and abilities, including levelling up each party member individually.
The overall rule system is designed to ensure that players will never find themselves with a terrible character, and this largely appears to have been successful. That said, careful choices will still ensure an overall better party, and some classes still appear to be more useful in the long run than others. As much as I enjoyed his personality, I quickly relegated my Chanter (which is similar to the Bard class in other RPGs) to the bench.
Die by the Sword… and Spell, and Claw
Even though you’re unlikely to have a bad party, it’s important to have a good one, because this game is hard. Obsidian made this clear at the difficulty selection screen by recommending easy difficulty for anyone not familiar with isometric RPGs. Even on normal difficulty, it’s not uncommon for a fairly standard encounter to knock out one or more party members, or even kill them. Careful planning and control in combat is key. On harder difficulties, not only are the enemies stronger, but the fights themselves are redesigned to be more challenging. One option will even allow only one save game and will delete it if your party ever dies.
The challenge is welcome, however, as it keeps each fight engaging. The combat system is deep enough to offer myriad options for each character at every moment, especially at higher levels. The glut of spells available to casters can at first be overwhelming, but experimentation will quickly allow for a strategic approach to each encounter. Even fighters will obtain a number of abilities, and the option of using various items in combat adds more variability to the game. For example, my Paladin became an offensive caster on par with my Wizard through the use of scrolls.
Fortunately, combat remains an enjoyable experience throughout the game, though a few small bugs often complicate things. As there is little AI, micromanagement of each party member is crucial. Even then, you’ll often find your party members ignoring your orders as soon as they come close to another enemy. The pathing algorithm is also in need of work, and on more than one occasion, I found a party member running back and forth over and over again, continuously changing his mind as to what the fastest route to his target was.
But these problems can’t detract from the care that’s been put into the encounters, with enemies often set up in careful groups to ensure that early scouting of positions and careful planning is key.
Beauty and the Many Beasts
Combat, along with the rest of the game, looks quite nice. The character and enemy models are adequate, if fairly low-fi. But animations and spell effects fill the void, adding dazzle to each engagement, especially in the late game where spears of light and pillars of fire burst all around the screen.
The game world itself is gorgeous, with each map appearing like a painting on which the game is played, with all the detail of a Vermeer. Environmental effects pop out, from the cascade of a waterfall, to the fluttering of butterflies. Tilesets are rarely reused. Each dungeons and town is given its own character and flavour.
Even merely exploring these places is a joy. Dungeons have carefully placed traps and secrets aplenty, and the cities are filled with interesting locales and hundreds of NPCs with which to interact. The sound and ambient music also perfectly reinforce the tone of each area and scene, increasing the immersion.
None of these places feel like just another dungeon or just another little town. Each feels like a natural part of the world, and each contains its own stories and colourful characters to explore.
Big Story in Little Dyrwood
It’s hard to discuss any other element of Pillars of Eternity without discussing the grand heroic fantasy tale that stands right in its heart. There are few developers at work today who have the narrative chops of Obsidian’s veteran writers, and it shows in every lovingly-crafted dialogue tree and quest line.
The player is thrust into Dyrwood, a country that’s in the middle of doing a bit of soul searching. That’s because children are being born without souls. Fortunately for you, not only do you have a soul, you find you can also read other people’s souls, whether living or dead. You are a Watcher, and you set out to explore how your newly acquired soul-seeing abilities and this soulless curse on the land came to be.
For a game that rarely disappoints, Pillars of Eternity is, oddly enough, a game about disappointment. Much of the story and the narrative arcs of your companions focus on unmet expectations and coming to terms with things that ultimately cannot be changed or cannot be known. A lost brother on the wrong side of a war, a god who has turned her back on her priests, a five-year search that ends only with death. Even the gods themselves hide a faith-crushing secret. Answers are few, and the great reveal at the end certainly sets up the possibility of more to come.
This story is told primarily through text. While some dialogue comes with universally solid voice-work, most of it has to be consumed by reading. Unlike many other text-heavy games, Obsidian includes not only the dialogue itself in NPC interactions, but also the surrounding actions of the speaker in the manner of a novel. A character might drift off contemplatively while speaking, or nervously rub their sleeve. These little additions help enormously in rendering character in a game that doesn’t have the advantage of seeing the characters interact close up. A few words wonderfully fill in what would take hi-res models and a team of expert animators to show visually.
Despite the heavy reading requirements, the quality of the writing ensured that I rarely found myself skipping text. And this attention to narrative detail carries through every element of the fifty to sixty hour story. Quests are universally interesting, and rarely devolve into mere fetch quests or kill quests. Most allow for multiple methods of completion, and many force difficult decisions that might seriously affect the world. Do you side with the lord whose desire to protect his people has led him to mass executions, or with the rebels who may destabilize the region and throw it into chaos? Do you let unethical research go unpunished when its results are beneficial?
The impact of these decisions isn’t always immediately apparent in the world, and in many cases isn’t until the ending of the game. But in each case, they do force you to think. And many provide you with reputations, such as being honest, benevolent, aggressive, or cruel. They also may raise or lower your standing with various groups and factions. These reputations sometimes provide or restrict future conversation or quest options. Indeed, your reputation in the Dyrwood always precedes you.
It may also anger one or more of your colourful companions, each of whom has their own biases and opinions. Whether it be the contemplative wizard carrying the boisterous soul of a peasant woman, or the priest trying to reconnect with his god after he helped destroy another god, each party member carries their own history and personality, and each is wonderfully rendered. Each also comes with a quest that lets you explore the elements of their character, and brings them some resolution.
And resolution is what your own character seeks in his chase to stop a two-thousand year old evil that, in a past life, he once knew.
A Keep of One’s Own
Fortunately, the chase comes with its own rewards, including a near endless supply of loot, money, and even your own castle.
Itemization in the game runs deep, as each character can not only carry weapons and don armour, but also wear belts, rings, cloaks, hats, boots and gloves. Items in each of these slots can offer magical bonuses, enhancing that character’s attributes and abilities. There’s even a slot for a special pet to follow you around on your adventures.
The crafting system is relatively simple, but it allows the creation of potions that provide combat benefits, food that provides a longer-term buff, and scrolls that allow even non-spellcasters to hurl fireballs and summon monsters. Items can also be enchanted, improving their quality and adding other effects like additional elemental damage to a weapon or special resistances on armour.
There are dozens of uniquely named items, each of which comes with its own little history or lore in its description. These unique items are often much more powerful than their generic counterparts, and finding them always feels like a significant reward.
Unfortunately, the keep you’re given early in the game offers little extra. While you can upgrade each aspect of it, buttressing its walls, finishing its libraries and gardens, and fixing up the surrounding shops and chapel, these are simply done by spending some money from a menu. The rewards for doing so are minimal, and the whole thing very much has the feel of a Kickstarter stretch goal.
The keep also sits atop the game’s mega dungeon, a fifteen-level descent to face the Master Below, and claim undisputed title to the land of your keep. The dungeon is an intriguing addition, offering its own story and quests, and handing out a bounty of unique loot and rewards.
If you find yourself out of things to do before returning to the main quests, you can also get bounties from the Warden at your keep, which tasks you with killing a few high-level creatures scattered about the world.
All in all, the many extra adventures make for a long and fulfilling time with the game, even if you never do test your luck in one of the harder difficulties.
The Soul of a Game
Fortunately, especially with Obsidian’s track record, the game has few noticeable bugs, and I never encountered one that only reloading an earlier save would fix. Some conversation options did mysteriously disappear at some points, but these never ultimately impeded progress.
Pillars of Eternity is clearly a labour of love. It may be a game about missing souls, but it’s not hard to see that it has a soul of its own. From its excellent writing, to its gorgeous backdrops, to its complex and rewarding combat, every element of the game has been crafted with care.
It’s a game that reminds you that games are a narrative medium, fully capable of telling powerful stories, and of putting you right at the centre of them. It’s a game that reminds you that RPG combat can be challenging, strategic, and fun. It’s a game that reminds you that all the modern bells and whistles aren’t necessary to making a good game.
But more importantly, it’s a game that reminded me of why I fell in love with PC games in the first place.