Game production cycles can stop and restart on the strangest whims. When 3D came along as a viable presentation option, it was assumed in some quarters to supercede 2D entirely. Distributors would tell Obsidian that no-one was buying the 2D(ish), Infinity Engine style games anymore. And to prove that point they stopped commissioning them.
“It was just a sort of self-fulfilling prophesy,” Pillars of Eternity lead Josh Sawyer told us in a recent interview. “3D is here so we’re not going to make 2D games anymore.”
The 2012 Pillars of Eternity Kickstarter campaign raised almost $4.0 million USD from ravenous RPG fans. With the post-release Steam player base currently holding steady in the 20,000-30,000 range (and clear popularity on GOG as well,) Sawyer’s belief that the audience for this sort of RPG has always been out there appears vindicated.
One of those audience members is me. My post-Kickstarter PayPal pledge of (I think) $20 helped to fund a mighty 0.0005% of the game.
I’d like to think I financed one of the adorable cats that can follow you around, or the amazing druid spell which makes maggots pop out of people. But it probably just went towards a trashy brigand dagger or something. Point being, I’m disclosing that I helped fund the game. You, reading this, can decide whether that makes me more or less likely to be critical about it.
Since I’ve already shared my thoughts about Pillars of Eternity from the 20-some hour mark, parts of this write-up will be treading similar ground. That Normal difficulty play-through wound up being about 45 hours long, but could quite easily have drifted to the 60 hour mark if I’d taken a more completionist attitude (I didn’t finish the Endless Paths, for example, and started mainlining the critical quest path pretty heavily through Act 3.)
Those additional hours of play have largely served to re-confirm my opinions. In Pillars of Eternity, Obsidian have successfully created an original, convincing fantasy world, full of the kind of (semi)reactive and thematically interesting quest-lines that much of the company’s reputation is founded upon. And while more time spent with the game’s unique combat and stats system has revealed a few flaws, the development team’s pedigree with adapting tabletop-based roleplaying systems to videogame settings is very clear.
Just as Divinity: Original Sin took inspiration from the freedom of player action present in the Ultima titles, Pillars of Eternity’s Kickstarter remit was to produce a contemporary RPG in the style of (Obsidian precursor) Black Isle or early era BioWare. In broad terms; a lengthy, party based, tabletop-rules-inspired RPG with 2D backgrounds, an isometric perspective and quests galore.
Those are the structural bullet-points, but a basic acknowledgment that Obsidian ticked them all off does a disservice to the fact that they also came up with brand new (albeit familiar in some ways) settings and systems.
Players learn, within the first hour or two, that they are a Watcher. Someone who can interact with souls, and who tends not to get much sleep as a result (something which has less of an impact on your combat abilities than you might expect.) It’s a premise which runs close enough to a “fate has chosen you” plot to allow a region-wide fantasy tale of great significance, and universal enough (within the game’s background) that it can apply equally to whichever of the eleven character classes and myriad backstories are selected by the player.
Pillars of Eternity’s primary location of the Dyrwood is one rich in history, so it doesn’t hurt to be able to chat directly with some people from the past every once in a while. You can also use this power to commune with the souls of golden-tagged Kickstarter backer NPCs and see how many of them turn out to be cunning prostitutes who use their sexuality to snag riches from doltish aristocrats. I counted three.
Like the best examples of High Fantasy, Pillars of Eternity’s soul-studying animancers and concerns about ancient, magical ruins are analogies for universal political themes in the boring old human world. In animancy, there are the complex moral concerns and hopes associated with early medicine (or perhaps something like psychiatry.) The colonial history of the newly independent Dyrwood, meanwhile, deals with the scars and lingering prejudices associated with territorial wars and indigenous peoples.
There aren’t too many writing teams involved in games who I’d trust to get that sort of material right, but Obsidian are one of them. They do not disappoint here.
The majority of the written party companions (you can also create your own, but they won’t have any associated side-quests or banter) bring the player further into this world. Be it a former veteran’s loss of faith and ties to a recent war, or a wizard dealing with similar “awakened” soul problems as your own. Others, like the hunter Sagani or feathered Pallegina, bring a perspective from abroad, expanding the scope of the world outside Dyrwoodian borders.
As with games like Planescape: Torment, the vast majority of this information is communicated through text and dialogue interactions; though the thoroughly lovely 2D layered backgrounds do a fine accompanying job, presenting the local landmarks of the Dyrwood in a refreshingly clear, romanticised-landscape manner.
Choice and reactivity are synonymous with the Obsidian name, and Pillars of Eternity offers plenty of both. Quests will routinely have multiple solutions (some obvious, some reliant on a little left-field thought,) the consequences of which will often be recalled at later points in the game. If you let someone go during an earlier mission, chances are you’ll run into them later for a line of dialogue or two. Quests resolved in a messy fashion may knock your reputation in a certain area, which could have repercussions further down the line.
The problem with opening the reactivity box for a 50-60 hour RPG is that once given a glimpse inside, players can sometimes wind up disappointed when major plot points end up prescribed.
Given the budgetary constraints Pillars of Eternity must have been under ($4 mil sounds a lot, but probably doesn’t buy as much videogame as people would hope,) the level of tracking and acknowledgment the game gives your party’s activities is pretty incredible. There are little nods to your main character’s background, appearance, and references to prior quests. But nods sometimes feel insufficient. Pick a ‘godlike’ appearance for your character (which can make them look utterly bizarre) and a couple of NPCs will give it an offhand mention. The fact that it’s even acknowledged should (and does) feel great, but it has the unfortunate consequence of drawing your attention to how few other people think it’s worthy of note that they’re talking to someone whose head is permanently on fire.
Reactivity to player actions, then, only goes so far. Expect plenty of neat little touches that make a first play-through seem unique to any given player’s character, and the ability to resolve side quests in quite a few (violent or non-violent) ways. Don’t expect to be able to divert the course of the climatic tides of the main story on a second attempt. That might sound like a pretty presumptive expectation to begin with, but then these are the people who made Alpha Protocol and Fallout: New Vegas. So you never know.
Throughout development Obsidian confirmed their commitment to avoiding ‘trap’ builds in Pillars of Eternity; characters who seem viable, but wind up with substantial unforeseen flaws. That doesn’t mean you can waltz through character creation, slapping points into whatever you please, and expect to finish the game on the hardest difficulty. It does mean that more eclectic builds outside the standard fantasy expectations are both doable and encouraged.
Fancy being a shark-lady bard who shoots people with duel pistols while warbling? Sure. How about a high-intellect elf barbarian? Intellect extends area-of-effect abilities, of which the barbarian has several, so feel free.
More straightforward builds are still fine too, of course. My main character was a ‘moon godlike’ druid who could turn into a were-bear. The latter ability diminished in usefulness as the game wore on, but the seemingly never ending list of insect swarms, hail storms and spells of leafy death that I could inflict on hapless foes more than made up for it.
Despite non-violent resolution options to many quests, and the ability to sneak past certain encounters, combat in Pillars of Eternity is still something you’ll spend a substantial amount of time doing. Not as much time as you can spend reading bits of lore paraphernalia and NPC dialogues, but plenty nonetheless.
Befitting of its inspiration, Pillars of Eternity adopts a ‘real time with pausing’ model and (as it does with almost every aspect of the game) provides a great many customisable toggles for when the player wishes battles to auto-pause. Combat encounters in this game are largely down to sensible positioning, either taking advantage of (or avoiding) the ‘engagement’ mechanic which locks nearby parties into battle, and a smart use of spells and abilities to overcome enemy defenses. Lumbering ogres with high Fortitude stats require a slightly different approach to lions with high Reflexes, for example.
Your party companions basically have zero AI (and, at times, some rather bizarre pathfinding) so everybody needs to be given orders, and the player must be alert to changing those instructions as circumstances dictate.
Depending on the difficulty level, this can involve a greater or lesser amount of maneuvering spellcasters into positions where they can do maximum damage with an AoE attack (while still avoiding allies) and consumption of things like food and potions to keep your front line healthy.
The system works well and is mechanically sound, but by the end of the game I’d noticed that there were only a few enemy types that would really force me to vary my general tactics (tie up tough things with my own tough companions, hit everything with relevant spells.) Spirit type foes which could teleport to the back lines and mess up my spellcasters made me more protective, and any enemy type which could charm or subvert one of my party would also tend to result in a slight change of approach.
I’m in part to blame for that for not bumping up the difficulty to Hard instead of Normal, but as far as I can tell Hard does not introduce sets of enemies with radically different, disruptive tactics.
Combat also suffers a little from presentational issues. It can be difficult to determine some status effects without hovering over character portraits, and the screen can sometimes get rather crowded with fancy spell and ability effects (or just dungeon walls,) making it more awkward to pick out a specific foe than perhaps it should be. A lot of said spell effects, while largely looking the part, seem to lack ‘weight.’ Lobbing a pair of boulders at people should probably have more crunch, instead of feeling a bit like ethereal styrofoam.
These are not dreadful issues, and it says a lot that combat fatigue didn’t really start to set in for me until around the 40 hour mark, but I’m hopeful that “more enemy types that force the party into adaptive or unusual tactics” is riding high on a list for any future Pillars of Eternity expansions.
Naturally, as with all extensive, reactive RPGs, I’ve hit a few bugs too. Not the infamous stat-altering one (now fixed,) because apparently the earlier Press Build was spared this problem. Smaller stuff, like animation glitches, a quest resolving in a slightly odd way, or (in one case) my main character’s weapon simply disappearing. There weren’t, for me, any progression-stoppers, and the latest patch 1.03 appears to have resolved some of the more major issues. Balancing tweaks and bug-fixes will no doubt continue across a few more patches.
I also wouldn’t mind ditching the stronghold concept. Players pick up this fortress (Caed Nua) during the opening third of the game and the intention is that it gets renovated and improved over time, serving as a base of operations. In general though, it seems a little under-developed. None of the renovation (save for one which unlocks bounties) really provide much that can’t be acquired elsewhere in the game, and the resting location is almost unforgiveably hidden away behind three loading screens (one to get to the main stronghold map, one to enter the building, and then another one to go upstairs.)
Instead of being a point of attachment for your merry band, Caed Nua ends up as more of potential dumping ground for your spare gold (although it gives some back as well, so it’s not great at this either) and a stone gazebo to go over the rather more interesting, optional multi-layered dungeon called The Endless Paths. Little would have been lost if Caed Nua were just another basic location to rest up, and it honestly seems like a feature that would’ve got the chop – had it not been a specific Kickstarter stretch goal and promise.
The stronghold stuff is largely optional; but for those who looked forward to an engaging bit of fortress mini-management, Pillars of Eternity offers a rare misstep.
Rare, because the majority of the game is tremendous. Pillars of Eternity has some of the best RPG writing and world creation that I’ve seen in quite some time. There are aspects which fall a little flat (parts of the third act, and some general character motivations) but others, particularly the resolution of some of the companion quests, absolutely soar. Obsidian know how to take all the doubt, regret, and suffering of the human condition, toss it through the High Fantasy filter, and create characters shrouded in existential disquiet.
They also know how to write a likeable soldier-turned-farm-hand who just wants to pet cute foxes. Sometimes, they’re the same person.
There’s enough flexibility in character creation, and enough reactivity in dialogue choices, quest resolution, and reputation mechanics for some genuine role-playing (best of all, dialogue options where the line preceded by [INTELLECT 15] or [PERCEPTION 18] may not be the default ‘win’ decision.) Conversely, for those who want a purely systemic challenge, it’s possible to whack up the difficulty to Path of the Damned and go all out to min-max your way through the game solo.
The curious forces which guide the whims of game production have once again made older role-playing titles viable for PC developers, and Obsidian, with all their Black Isle traditions and associations, have taken full advantage. Pillars of Eternity’s success is well earned and well deserved.