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Sunday, August 23, 2015

Pillars of Eternity Review
















I consider Obsidian Entertainment to be one of the best developers of modern role-playing games. That should come as little surprise, considering all of its founders were former leaders of Black Isle Studios who worked on games like Fallout, Planescape: Torment, and Icewind Dale -- some of the most influential and iconic RPGs of the late 90s. Their latest game, Pillars of Eternity, is not only one of the best RPGs of the past decade, it's one of the best RPGs ever made.

Successfully kickstarted in 2012, Pillars of Eternity (then known as "Project Eternity") set a record for the highest-funded video game ever on Kickstarter, bringing in nearly $4,000,000 from project backers. Faced with budget cuts and layoffs as the result of a cancelled project, the outpouring of support for "Project Eternity" allowed Obsidian to stay in business and take its time creating what would arguably become its magnum opus, while also playing a key contributing role in the recent revival of "old school" RPGs. Pillars of Eternity is a brand new intellectual property (only the second original IP Obsidian have ever released) that plays like any classic RPG from the 90s, complete with the isometric camera angle and mouse-driven interface, aided by some crucial updates and a lot of modern polish.

Set in a fantasy world where gods can manifest themselves in the form of ordinary people, and in which practitioners of magic and science consider souls both real and malleable, Pillars of Eternity sets players on a journey to discover the secrets of their own soul after a strange ritual causes their past lives to be "awakened" in them. Creating your own character, you take the role of a traveler come to the Dyrwood region in search of a new life. Arriving on the outskirts of civilization, a magical storm wrecks your caravan and forces you to take shelter in an ancient temple. There, you witness a group of robed men performing a ritual around a magical contraption, which grants you the rare ability of a "Watcher" to peer into people's souls. Realizing that you have a connection to the ritual leader from a past life, you set out to right past wrongs and put a stop to the cult's godly plans.

That's the basic premise, and unfortunately, there's not a lot of strong narrative thrust behind it, at least in the beginning. There's basically no set-up for the mythical storm that hits your caravan; the fact that it's some great ordeal, and that you miraculously survive when supposedly no one ever does, is kind of lost on you because it's all just people telling you this. Meanwhile, you witness a ritual you know nothing about and suddenly start seeing ghosts, and someone tells you that you're a "Watcher" who can see and communicate with souls, which leads you on your epic quest to find out what the hell is going on and why you should care. It's not clear that there's anything significant with the ritual leader at first, and it takes about 10-12 hours before any pieces of the puzzle start to reveal themselves. Until that point, it doesn't feel like there's anything at stake, or even a main story. It feels like you're just wandering around aimlessly looking for content.


Fortunately, there's plenty about the story in Pillars of Eternity to enjoy, once it gets going. This is a world ruled by nearly a dozen gods, you see, all of whom serve their own unique purposes and interact with the mortal world in different ways. When you arrive at the game's first town, you discover that the townsfolk and their leader, Lord Raderic, have a particular concern for the blight known as Waidwen's Legacy, which has been afflicting the Dyrwood for several years by causing virtually all children to be born "hollow" -- without souls. The curse of the hollowborn, as it's also referred, is believed to be divine punishment for the Saint's War, which culminated with the Dyrwoodans literally blowing up a god with a device known as the Godhammer.

As lore has it, a farmer named Waidwen had a vision in which Eothas, the god of light and renewal, told him to bring justice to the colonial governor for corrupting his people. Waidwen began prophesying the will of Eothas, built a following, and waged war on the kingdom of Raedceras. He eventually overthrew Lord Raedceras, assumed the throne, and became imbued with the divine power of Eothas, making him the physical reincarnation of a god. He sought to spread his control south to the Dyrwood, which prompted the Saint's War as the Dyrwoodans opposed his rule. A group known as the Dozens lured him to a bridge and delayed him there in battle long enough to detonate the massive Godhammer bomb, killing the Dozens with it. Eothas seemed to vanish from the mortal world after St Waidwen was killed, and the curse of the hollowborn commenced shortly thereafter.

Ostensibly just a bit of lore to flesh out the game's backstory, Waidwen's Legacy and the curse of the hollowborn become a central aspect of the main story and various side-quests. Once you start learning about this stuff in greater depth, then the story and, more importantly, the world become far more interesting. Pillars of Eternity has quite a bit of lore to it; you learn most of what you need to know through quests and direct interaction with characters, but there's a lot more that can be gleaned from its wealth of in-game books. I normally don't care for reading history books in video games (I've never read a single one in any of The Elder Scrolls games), so I was quite surprised when I found myself deliberately checking the shelves in libraries hoping to read up on certain subjects, because I found the backstory in Pillars so fascinating that I wanted to know more.


The world that Obsidian have created in Pillars of Eternity is one that's both accessibly familiar and refreshingly new. This is a world dominated by traditional sword and sorcery motifs, the likes of which have been standardized in fantasy lore ever since Tolkien's The Lord of Rings trilogy in the 1950s; much of the world, from its racial composition to its technology and societal structure, should all be instantly recognizable the moment you step into its boundaries. It's therefore pretty easy to get into the game, but once you're in, you discover a lot of new, original ideas which help make Pillars one of the more novel RPGs of recent memory.

Your first glimpse of this comes at the very beginning, in the character creation screen, when you're asked to choose your character's race. The usual suspects (human, elf, dwarf) are all present if you desire a more traditional fantasy approach, but you can also choose from three original races unique to Pillars, if you want to try something new. Things get more interesting when you're asked to pick a sub-race -- you know you want to play an elf, but do you want to be a wood elf or a pale elf? Things get even more interesting when you're tasked with selecting your character's culture -- are you one of the plains people of Ixamitl who're used to living off the land, or are you from the Old Vailian empire of warring merchant nations? Things get yet more interesting when you're tasked with choosing your character's background -- are you a colonist, former slave, aristocrat, drifter, hunter?

You have a lot of options to choose from when creating your character, which makes it feel more like a true role-playing game. Specifically, it reminds me of tabletop RPGs where you could go into as much detail as you wanted with your character's backstory, just for the purpose of creating a unique story for a unique character. Everything you choose in Pillars comes with some kind of mechanical benefit (e.g., wood elves get ranged bonuses, pale elves get elemental resistances) and has a chance to affect interactions with NPCs as well. Playing as a [female] [Moon] [Godlike] [former slave] [chanter] from [Old Valia], each of those variables was used at least once in gameplay (each one an average of 2.3 times). Sometimes this took the form of extra dialogue options I could select because of my choices during character creation; other times, they were reactions from NPCs who recognized those attributes in me.


The world itself features a blend of science and technology alongside its "traditional" fantasy trappings of magic and medieval weaponry. You can, if you desire, be a holy priest who casts healing magic on his allies while bringing divine justice upon his enemies at the end of a smoking gun barrel. Magic makes its appearance in all the usual forms (divine priests, shape-shifting druids, fireball-slinging wizards, demonic blood mages, etc), but Obsidian also introduce us to animancy -- a type of science crossed with magic that's used to study and manipulate souls. With Waidwen's Legacy threatening to end all humanoid lineage in the Dyrwood, animancy has gained popularity as a possible means of curing the blight, though society remains ethically torn over its virtues. Some perceive it as a noble science, while others think it a violation of the natural order. It's up to you to navigate that landscape and help shape public opinion.

That's where some of the role-playing comes into play, and it's, in general, some of the best I've seen in a computer game. Pillars of Eternity uses a disposition system that keeps track of how your character acts and responds in dialogue. This affects how other characters perceive and react to you, and it even gives you extra role-playing options in dialogue; if you've built a reputation for your honesty, you can reference that reputation when people question your claims. Likewise, if you develop a reputation for your cruelty, your threats will carry more weight. The beauty of this system is that it tracks your disposition across 10 different categories, rather than the typical binary "good or evil" you see most often in games, and thus never penalizes you for acting "out of character" because it understands you might want to act differently in different situations. In other words, it encompasses the entire spectrum of the D&D-style character alignment, allowing you to play a "chaotic good" or "lawful evil" character if you so desire. I, for instance, trended towards benevolent, honest, and rational dialogue responses, although I was sometimes deceptive, cruel, or aggressive when it served my purposes.


While the computer keeps track of how you're acting now, in the present, you also get to develop your character's personality and backstory through visions of your previous life. It's an all too common trope for video games to star a protagonist who doesn't know his or her own history, who progressively learns about it over the course of the game for some dramatic reveal, but it's pretty rare that a game actually lets you shape that history yourself. Throughout the main quest, you experience flashbacks (in the form of a Watcher's soul-reading visions) in which you, as the player, get the chance to role-play your character. The actual events of your history are preset by the game, for narrative purposes, but you're free to determine why your character does the things he or she does. While not a completely original idea, it's a clever execution in Pillars, since it serves the typical purpose of revealing critical details in the main story while giving you an extra dimension to develop your character, and thus making you feel a little more attached to and involved in what's happening in the main story.

As with most RPGs, quests are your primary means of interacting with the world, and the quests in Pillars offer a lot of great role-playing depth and decision-making. Many of them fall victim to the unbearable, often inexcusable "errand boy fetch quest" structure, but the content of these quests, the exploration involved in solving them, and the decisions you have to make keep them fascinating and engaging all the way through. Even the most trivial, banal fetch quests offer tough moral role-playing options; I often found it difficult to weigh my meta-gaming desire to go for the best reward with what I thought was morally or ethically correct. 

One such quest has you retrieving a former knight's heirloom breastplate from one of its current members, who allegedly stole it from him. You dig into the suspect's records and find out that he doesn't have the right soul lineage to be a member of the Crucible Knights, and therefore had to forge his way in. You can threaten to reveal his forgery in exchange for him returning the breastplate, but is it fair that he be kicked out of a knighthood he passionately believes in, just because he was born with the wrong soul? Another such quest tasks you with helping an old man find the source of a voice he hears echoing from the catacombs, which sounds like his long lost lover. You discover that her soul was trapped in the amulet of a powerful necromancer for decades, and she yearns to be set free; do you give the amulet to the old man who yearns to be with his love again, or destroy it to end her suffering, or do you keep it for yourself to gain its powers?


The quests in Pillars almost always feature some form of conflict, often with three of more conflicting interests. In both of the above examples, you have to choose between helping two different characters, each with mutually exclusive desires, while factoring your own rewards and interests into the equation -- even if you choose to support one character over the other, it could be for multiple different reasons (which you can play out in the dialogue system) with multiple different ways to support that character. Using the old man and his amulet as an example, if you think it's best to set the woman's soul free, do you lie to the old man and tell him it was a dream, and destroy the amulet in secret, or do you give it to him and convince him to destroy it himself, or do you destroy it in front of him?

In every single quest, you have some kind of input over what happens, with multiple meaningful choices to make along the way. These quests aren't just binary "black or white" outcomes; more often than not, they get you thinking about deeper issues than just what's best for your character, or what's best for that NPC, which, at least in my experience, made me feel so much more involved in the game because it felt like I had such a strong connection with, and impact on, the world. 


Other evidence that points to smart quest design: recurring consequences. Every quest has some kind of permanent consequence on the game (mostly in terms of your character's disposition, but also opening doors with NPCs while closing doors with others), but a decision you make early in the game will come back into play much later, offering a completely different branch in the questline depending on what you did. Yet more evidence of smart quest design: overlapping quests. If multiple NPCs are involved in the same quest, you can usually initiate it with any of them, for different reasons. What you do in one quest might affect how another quest plays out. One town in particular has multiple quests that all completely overlap, where progress in one often leads to progress in another. 

Although the game world is apt to change once you complete a quest, it's often content to remain idly passive until you start a quest. You approach named NPCs on the street simply because you know they have a quest to offer you, and with each one you go through the usual process of listening to their story and offering to help them -- again, not because it serves a contextual purpose in the game setting, but because that's your only way of accessing the game's content. It got kind of annoying at times, because although I usually cared about people's problems once I was halfway through their quests, I had no reason to care up front. Interacting with NPCs, and thereby accessing the game's content, often feels forced. It's a minor complaint, to be sure, because every game does this; the only reason I even notice with this game is because Pillars does so many things so well, and reverts a lot of bad trends in modern RPGs, and yet doesn't overcome this basic pitfall. 

The actual gameplay mechanisms behind the role-playing system may seem overly simple at first ("only five skills, none of which are remotely related to persuasion or diplomacy?"), but this apparent simplicity is offset by the prevalence of stats-based dialogue options that allow you to use your might, intellect, resolve, etc, in addition to those five skills, among other things like your reputations, in ordinary interactions. When attempting to convince someone of your case, you don't just click the obvious "persuade" option and see if you pass or fail -- you have to pick from a variety of dialogue options that you think will work best with that particular character. Sometimes your stats and skills will give you extra options, but picking a stat-based response isn't necessarily a better option than picking a generic one. 


Despite the relative simplicity, you still have to make some pretty agonizing decisions when you level-up, such as how you're going to allocate skill points, what class abilities you'll take, and which talents you want. Depending on your class, you'll likely be given a choice to take one (or two) abilities from six or more options, which progressively unlock more and more advanced abilities as you go up in levels. If you're a chanter, do you take the chant that will reduce enemy endurance over time, or one that will reduce enemy slashing and piercing damage, or one that reduces enemy concentration, or one that will improve your movement speed and reflexes, or one that will give a fire damage boost to your weapons? Then, do you take the invocation that will let you reduce enemies' damage reduction, or one that will stun and push back enemies, or one that will let you detonate enemy corpses for splash damage, or one that will let you summon a phantom ally, or one that will boost your own damage reductions, or one that will let you cast bolts of lightning? 

In addition to these class-specific abilities, you also get to choose from a list of nearly 50 common talents, which further refine your character. Do you want to get a damage bonus for specializing in two-handed weapons, or specialize in one-handed and convert more weak hits to regular hits? Perhaps you'd also like to focus with certain types of weapons, gaining bonus accuracy for knight's weaponry like swords, morningstars, and crossbows. If you're the party tank, you might take the skill that lets you engage more enemies on the front line, or a toggled stance that reduces your attack speed in exchange for increasing your deflection stat. Perhaps you take a support/utility skill that lets you treat wounds, or one that gives you two extra quick-use item slots. 

They're all tough decisions to make, because you usually have four to six really good, desirable options during any given level-up, so you have to prioritize which ones you want first, before the game introduces new, perhaps more desirable options, all the while knowing you won't have enough skill points to get nearly as many abilities and talents as you might want. And since you control an entire party of up to six adventurers, each decision isn't necessarily about what's best for that character when he or she levels up, but what's best for the entire party. 

Even the party system offers a ton of customization options. You get a ton of freedom to pick what kind of character you want to create for yourself, but there's even an option to create your own party members, going through the same process as if you were creating your own character -- choosing their sex, race, class, background, voice set, and everything. So, if you want to role-play a band of holy adventurers, you might assemble a team of nothing but paladins, priests, and monks. Or maybe you just want to go crazy with the combat system and create a party of six AOE spellcasting druids. The downside to doing any of this, of course, is that none of the party members you create will have scripted quests, personalities, or banter with other party members, like those party members created by Obsidian, but it's nice that the option is there if you want it. 


Each companion in Pillars has their own side quest to follow, most of which span multiple acts of the game, and thus you benefit from keeping them in your party throughout the majority of the game. There's not as much emphasis on companion interaction in Pillars as there is in a typical BioWare game, mind you -- there are no romance options, and they're not constantly breathing down your neck -- but there's still plenty of characterization and interaction. Besides all the great depth and interaction you experience with each party member when working on their quests, you get to experience playful banter and call-outs when you're walking around town, and they'll sometimes chime in during quests to offer extra insight your character might have missed. Two or three of the eight companions are duds, in my opinion, in terms of personality and quests, but the majority are all genuinely interesting, sympathetic characters whom I immensely enjoyed having accompany me.

Pillars of Eternity offers a sizable amount of landscape to explore, which provides a large enough scale for this type of grand adventure, while keeping exploration focused and directed. It doesn't give you the limitless freedom of, say, Skyrim, to set out in any direction at any time -- the world is more regimented than that -- but you always have choices about where to go and what to do. Do you go tackle the endless paths of Od Nua, or pursue the main quest and go to the big city? Or, do you go exploring surrounding territories, or help a companion with his side quest? 

The world spans a couple major cities, with smaller villages, temples, and fortresses dotting the landscape, broken up by forests, plains, gorges, and mountains. Each marked area on the world map represents a smaller map (a hub, if you will) that you can explore, fast-traveling between them at the expense of time and stamina. There's a lot of space on that world map that you simply don't explore, but that's perfectly fine, because the smaller maps basically condense a much larger world into a more manageable, accessible space. Rather than spend five or ten minutes at a time walking around doing absolutely nothing, you skip past the boring legwork and get right to the more interesting parts of the game. Again, there's not as much total landmass to explore as there is in Skyrim, but since Pillars packs a lot of content into its smaller spaces, there's still a ton to discover, and plenty of content to occupy a 60-100 hour playthrough. 


I only wish there was a little more going on between map markers in Pillars. Like classic tabletop role-playing games, the fast-travel is meant to gloss over the uneventful treks between towns, where nothing out of the ordinary might happen. Sometimes, however, a party would randomly encounter a wandering pack of wolves, or a merchant on the road, or a damsel in distress -- something unexpected that they could choose to engage, or else be forced to engage. Most open world games have some form of randomized encounters that are meant to make the world seem more dynamic (and therefore "alive"), but Pillars has absolutely zero random encounters while traveling between locations. All that happens is your party loses some stamina for being on the road for eight hours, which can lower their stats in various ways, the worse their fatigue gets, but even that has little consequence in the actual gameplay because it's so easy to rest and recover lost stamina. 

Likewise, the game features a real-time day/night cycle with weather patterns, but it has no functional impact on gameplay. Important NPCs (merchants, quest-givers, etc) stand in the same place 24 hours a day, and you're free to enter any and all buildings at any time of day or night. There might be more ambient NPCs wandering about the trade square in the day than there are at night, but like any other changes you might notice, it's purely cosmetic. It would've been nice if time of day played more of a role in the game, like if it were more expensive to rent a room at the inn late at night (because they're all full and you're bribing the innkeeper to make a space for you), or if more dangerous creatures were active at night, thus making you factor in the time of day when setting out on an expedition. There is some convenience in not having to worry about missing content because of elements generally beyond your control, but it screams "missed opportunity" to me, especially since other RPGs have implemented time considerations successfully before. 


Combat follows the old school point and click system of "real time with pause," a system that has you micromanaging your party members, pausing the action to issue commands, like moving someone into position, or aiming an attack cone for a magic spell. It features all the basic elements you'd expect of this type of combat system: setting your party's formation so that everyone's in close enough proximity to receive buffs, while being spread out enough to avoid enemy AOE attacks, and positioning your party such that your own AOE cones, lines, and circles won't hit each other. It's a highly tactical system that rewards careful planning and execution.

The game can be played with multiple difficulty options, including the standard "easy, normal, and hard" modes, along with the ultra hard "Path of the Damned" mode. Additionally, you can throw extra difficulty options into the mix like "expert mode," which disables certain hand-holding and ease of use functions that are enabled by default while making other effects more punitive, and/or "Trial of Iron" which limits you to one in-game "life," wiping your save files if your character ever dies. At normal difficulty, the game offers a pretty satisfying challenge; common encounters are usually no threat, but you occasionally encounter tougher situations that require a lot more careful planning and tactics to survive. 

The thing I enjoy most about Pillars' combat is the way it differentiates endurance and health. Endurance is the fantasy equivalent of "auto-regenerating shields" in sci-fi shooters; it replenishes between fights, but provides a soft limit on how long you can stay in each fight before you're knocked unconscious. Damage you sustain goes to your endurance, but a smaller portion will be dealt to your health, a separate scale that represents the cumulative effects of wounds sustained across multiple battles. If your health ever reaches zero, you die. I love it, because it allows for short-term tension of getting through individual battles while balancing long-term tension of prolonged stays out in the wild. Additionally, you have to manage your spells and abilities, many of which can only be used a certain number of times "per rest," which puts you in a delicate balancing act of not wanting to be too frivolous with them in case you need them later, but not wanting to be too stingy that you make yourself worse off for not using them. 


It's a thinking man's combat system, one that's more about making smart decisions than simply having the best stats or being able to click the mouse button faster than your opponent. It's about knowing when to charge forward and when to hold back, making sure you're setting yourself up to get the most efficient use out of your limited abilities. Even outside of combat, you've got fun decisions to make about how you equip your party, with pros and cons to every piece of equipment. Heavier armor will offer greater damage reduction, but that comes at the cost of lowering your action speed; lighter weapons give better accuracy and faster attack rate, but at the cost of less damage and being less likely to interrupt enemy actions. What aspects do you value more, and how do you balance offensive and defensive priorities among your six party members? You can even modify equipment with crafting and enchanting, so what bonuses do you choose to apply?

And it changes dramatically over the course of the game. As you and your party members level up, you learn a bunch of new spells and abilities that change the way you go about combat. Every few levels, you're adapting your strategies and tactics to new skills and items. It even changes as you gain new party members, whom offer entirely different class options you didn't have before; since companions are spread throughout the entire game, you get a constant dose of fun, new variables to play around with. That being said, combat can get repetitive at times, especially once you lock into an effective setup that you really enjoy. I found my ideal party balance about halfway through the game, and then spent most of the second half basically running through the same routine at the start of every fight, cuing up the same combination of spells and abilities in a certain order. Kind of makes me wish they'd set up macros for this kind of thing. 

However, it's to the game's credit that the combat doesn't have to be boring if you don't want it to be. I kind of made it boring after a while by finding an effective strategy and basically spamming it for hours upon end. Certain classes, like priests and druids, unlock all of their spells over the course of the game; you're not restricted by which spells you choose to use, just how many you can cast on a daily basis. As such, you can play around with all kinds of different options, trying different things when and if you ever get bored. If you really want to, you can swap party members out to try completely different setups and combinations. With the party creation system, you have practically no restrictions about what you want to do and try out in combat.


As an added bonus of the Kickstarter campaign, the game features an "optional" dungeon you can explore, which functions like a lot of classic old-school dungeon crawlers where you go down a series of floors, deeper and deeper into a labyrinthine dungeon with tougher and tougher threats. I say it's optional because it has nothing to do with the main quest, but there's no way you're not going to explore it. It absolutely didn't have to be in the game, but it's like the cherry on top of a deliciously crafted cake because of all the varied mechanics, puzzles, NPCs, quests, enemies, and environments that are in its 15 levels. I mean, the Endless Paths could have been its own short little game, and I would have been happy to spend $20 on it. It's a shame, therefore, that the quest line has to go unresolved in 97% of playthroughs, because its final boss is just so damn hard. I make no exaggeration here: the final boss of the optional dungeon is possibly the hardest boss I've ever faced in a video game. 

Attached to the Endless Paths is a stronghold which you acquire, and spend time and money renovating over the course of the game. It functions kind of like the villa from Assassin's Creed 2, giving you different bonuses as you upgrade it while also serving as a base of operations for your party. As you renovate the stronghold, Caed Nua, you increase its prestige, which draws the attention of special visitors who might have rare items to sell you, or offer you other bonuses while they're staying in your keep. Unfortunately, a high prestige also attracts bandits who would want to pillage your stronghold, so you have to fortify its security and hire people to protect it for you, occasionally defending it yourself. Additionally, it will produce various resources for you and net a steady stream of income, if you set it up right, while also providing "adventures" for your idle party members. Basically, you send them out to complete tasks while they're not in your party, and they get experience bonuses and bring back rewards like items and reputation. 


The stronghold is about the closest to random encounters that Pillars ever gets, since the special visitors, available adventures, and enemy assaults all happen randomly, every so often. You can manage the whole thing remotely (a button on the main interface brings up the stronghold window), but it's really abstracted and not very engaging. The bounty quests it provides -- tough fights you seek out for monetary rewards -- are fun and worthwhile, but none of the random encounters are all that involved. Mostly, things just kind of happen in the background, and you get a notification telling you that something happened. I also didn't use it as a base of operations very much, because it's a bit remote from the majority of the world map. Still, being able to send your party members on missions to keep them (approximately) leveled when they're out of party is a nice feature, and I can't really complain much since it was just a stretch goal from the Kickstarter. Still, it feels like there could've been just a little more going on with it.

The rest of the Kickstarter extras, like the tombstone epithets and the ambient "flavor NPCs," whose souls you can Watch to read a short story-esque version of some moment in their lives, are implemented in a fairly interesting and generally non-intrusive way. Those in-game extras are kind of fun to read through, and it's a nice little reminder about how this game might never have existed if not for the advent of crowdfunding. Quite simply, it's nice to see little touches from fans in the game itself, and it's even nicer to see Obsidian thanking everyone for the support, both in loading screens and in the final credits. Like I said, the Kickstarter in-game extras were never distracting for me, but you can easily ignore them if you find them disrupting your immersion. 


One indication of how much effort and attention to detail went into Pillars is the in-game encyclopedia. By accessing the menu, you can bring up an interactive manual, essentially, that tells you exactly how everything works, whenever you want to access it. If you want to know the specifics on how combat rolls work, you can look it up in game. If you can't remember what willpower does, you can look it up. Beyond that, there are tooltips for nearly every important stat, which give you a quick overview of the mechanics by simply hovering your mouse over something. There's even an in-game beastiary which progressively fills up with information as you fight enemies, not only giving you specifics on their stats, strengths, and weaknesses, but also fleshing out the lore with several paragraphs on each one about what they are, how they came to be, how they're perceived in the world, how they function in the wild, and so on. It's just tremendously impressive how much content exists behind the scenes, if you choose to access it.

Finally, on the technical side of things: this is the most sleek and polished game Obsidian have ever released. For anyone who was staying away because of Obsidian's reputation for releasing buggy messes, let me assure you that is not the case with Pillars of Eternity. It played like a well-oiled machine for me. The interface was smooth, everything felt intuitive, and I never encountered any serious, noticeable bugs or glitches. The most I ever experienced was one instance when a debuff icon got stuck in my status bar after the effect wore off, and one, single crash. I might also have experienced a weird graphical glitch when I paused the game during a drake's death animation. The whole thing just felt so sleek that it was a literal pleasure just to interface with the game. 

The only complaint I have from the technical side is the loading times. Load screens happen a bit too frequently: bigger areas are broken into multiple smaller maps, and you have to sit through a load screen every time you enter a new map. This includes every time you enter a building, and even when you go up or down stairs within a building. It wasn't much of a nuisance at first (I have a solid state drive, which improves load times significantly), but the load times got noticeably longer the further I went in the game. They took maybe 3-4 seconds initially, and then took maybe 15-30 seconds by the end of the game. 


The game generally looks and sounds amazing. I don't usually spend much time talking about graphics and music in my reviews and I won't break that trend here, but the two-dimensional backgrounds are all beautifully rendered, and they truly evoke those nostalgic feelings of playing old-school RPGs. Because this is, after all, an old school RPG. I also have to respect Obsidian for their decision not to blow their budget with a bunch of extravagant cutscenes or voice acting. Every important character has a unique voice actor, each of whom does a fine job bringing their character to life and adding to their personalities, but the bulk of the dialogue happens through pure text, which pleases me immensely because I generally prefer to read subtitles and skip past the voice acting in video games, anyway. Cutscenes, likewise, are replaced with miniature "choose your own adventure" narrations that feel like a dungeon master is narrating the story to you, which again, makes the game feel so much more like a classic tabletop RPG. All the text narrations, meanwhile, provide a lot of depth you don't get from watching a cutscene, so I found this whole aspect of the game rather stimulating. 

That's really about all I have to say about Pillars of Eternity. I loved it. Minor blemishes hold it back from perfection, and there's still a lingering feeling that, somehow, the game could have still been bigger and more complex, but those thoughts never took away from the experience. Hopefully, that potential will be tapped in a sequel. Pillars of Eternity is easily one of the best role-playing games of the past decade, and it even ranks up there with the likes of the original Fallout games and Planescape: Torment, in my book.

6 comments:

  1. That's convenient; I started recently to play this game. And I'm loving it. I'll come back to read your full review when I finish it.

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  2. Sorry this is so late, by the way. I was real busy this summer and didn't have much time for productive gaming or writing. I've got some free time coming up, so hopefully I can get back to a slightly more regular schedule.

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    1. Great! you're actually one of the very few reliable reviewers I can find.

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    2. Well, I loved the game and loved your review, that was a fantastic work. I must say I agree in almost everything. Possibly the only exception the storyline with the soul thing which I found not that great but interesting nonetheless.
      ;)

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  3. I'm currently playing through the Baldur's Gate and Icewind Dale series and so far I'm really liking this style of gameplay. As for your review, you had me at "no romance options".

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  4. This game has put me into depression lol. Mostly because I cant play it. I suffer from extreme motion sensitivity which makes my eyes explode whenever I see a scrolling image or top down game - diablo and POE like.. (sigh) Why god why? I was so excited!

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