Thursday, September 3, 2015

Pillars of Eternity: The White March Pt.1 - Review

The White March - Part 1 is the first of at least two planned DLC-sized expansions for Pillars of Eternity, Obsidian Entertainment's recent isometric RPG. See my review of the base game here (short version, I liked it a lot). This expansion introduces a new region of the world map with several explorable areas, a bunch of new quests, new enemies, new types of equipment, and a couple new companions. The new content takes place roughly in the middle of the main campaign, once you've begun the second of three acts and have gained access to the player stronghold, Caed Nua, but before moving into the game's final dungeon.  

It certainly makes sense for Obsidian to put the DLC in the middle of the game -- it wouldn't really work if it took place after the base game, since the ending specifically talks about your companions going their separate ways and describing their lives in the months that follow your adventure -- but it's a bit of a nuisance in practice. For anyone who's already completed the game, that means you have to load a save from before the "point of no return" and sort of pretend like you didn't already beat the game, and for anyone playing for the first time, the DLC will feel like a huge deviation from the careful narrative pacing and mechanical balancing of the base game.

Fortunately, the DLC scales appropriately to your level; the first time you enter the White March, the game checks your level and sets the enemy levels either to the normal mid-game configuration, if you're appropriately mid-level, or to an end-game configuration, if you're sufficiently high enough level. In the second scenario, you're given the choice whether you want everything to stay mid-level so that you can breeze through the story, or else take the higher-level enemies for more balanced combat and difficulty. I chose to take the higher-level enemies, and the DLC therefore felt like any typical expansion that would take place after the end-game, basically just offering an excuse for me to continue playing the game with the party to which I'd grown attached over a 90 hour playthrough.

In essence, that's all you're getting with The White March Part 1 -- just more Pillars of Eternity. The new content will take roughly 15-30 hours to complete -- a decent value for $15 -- but there's not much in the DLC that's really all that new or exciting. The snowy mountain scenery is a pleasant change of pace from the green meadows and forests of the entire base game, but nearly all of the other new additions are somewhat bland and uninspiring.

Take the main quest line, for example: you receive a letter from the mayor of Stalwart, a simple fishing (and formerly mining) village that's fallen on tough times, asking for help stimulating their economy. They want you to gain access to a legendary dwarven forge that's been closed up for the past 200 years, after the dwarves allegedly locked themselves up in their keep and died off, so that the village can start producing durgan steel from the White Forge. The quest arc follows a two-part structure, the first part being to find a way into the keep, and the second part being to explore the keep and find a way to reactivate the forge. Once inside, you witness ghostly apparitions that relive the moments leading up to the fall of the keep as strange, powerful creatures invade and the dwarves eventually fall.

You get to read a few journals, and there are several dialogues from a trio of named characters to listen to, but there's not much context for what's going on. It's basically a cliche with no interesting twists or characters. If you'll forgive the pun, it's a bit soulless. I never felt any mystery or intrigue; the whole thing felt like it was just going through the motions, and I had no reason to care about anyone or anything. They mentioned something early on about the Leaden Key (the bad cult you're trying to stop in the base game), and I thought maybe they were up to something I needed to prevent, but that plot point got lost somewhere. When I reached the end and the dwarven spirits asked me what I'd hoped to find in the White Forge, I had six or seven role-playing options to choose from, but I really had no idea why I was even there in the first place. Really, I was just trying to get my $15 worth, but as you might expect that wasn't an option.

As "part one" of a two-part expansion, the story is entirely self-contained; it doesn't end in some dramatic cliffhanger that would force you to buy the next DLC just to finish the story, but at the same time it doesn't seem to set anything up for the sequel. For a game to sell the expansions in separate parts, they really do need to be self-contained so that you can justify buying only one and feel satisfied with the experience, but you'd think there'd be some kind of teaser about where the story's going to go in the next installment to entice to you to get the second one. Once I activated the forge, the main quest line just kind of ended, and I was left standing around town going "that's it?" as I talked to various NPCs trying to figure out what the actual consequences of the story were. You have to make a few important decisions along the main quest line that seem like they'd have a lasting impact and possible branching outcomes in "part two," but they seemed to have little to no consequence within "part one." One can only wonder.

Some of the side-quests are fairly interesting, at least. There's one where you follow the soul memories of a meek adventurer trying to find his soul twin, which ends in an unexpected twist, and another one where you're hunting down pieces of an ancient warrior's helmet, reliving his memories and altering the helmet's stats based on the decisions you make in his flashbacks. There are other good ones, of course, but sadly, a lot of them are just as bland and uninteresting as the main quest. Perhaps it's just because the DLC consists of just four main maps, but the quests often felt like a much simpler matter of "go here, fetch this, kill that" than the majority of quests in the base game because they didn't have me wrestling with moral or ethical conflict, practically at all. You basically always have some kind of role-playing option, but the "right" option is almost always completely obvious: do you side with or against the drug runner, the slaver, the thieves, the murderer? In the base game, there'd often be some kind of twist that made you consider the "bad" person's perspective and, sometimes, even sympathize with them, but here, they're just straightforward, one-dimensional "bad person" archetypes.

The two new companions aren't much better. Both of them appear to have some kind of interesting personality trait when you first meet them (Zahua the masochistic monk believes in the virtue of pain and suffering, and that the world is perfect because of its flaws, and the Devil of Caroc, as the rogue is called, is the soul of a serial killer transplanted into the body of a robot) but the game doesn't do much with their personalities past their expository dialogue. Once the introductions are over, they kind of fade into the background. Zahua seemed pretty boring to begin with, but he doesn't even have his own quest. The Devil of Caroc at least has her own quest that expands on her personality, but it's over way too quickly, and then her character development just stops. I kept both of them in my party for the entire DLC because I was expecting them to have some kind of important role or contribution to the experience, but I felt like I gained nothing by having them with me. I should also point out that they reused the voice actors of Kana and Sagani for Zahua and Devil of Carcoc, respectively, which takes even more away from their characters because they sound virtually identical to preexisting party members.

The whole town of Stalwart and all of its inhabitants are bland and forgettable, too. Like the main story, the town is a bog standard fantasy cliche. The characters all have some kind of notable personality, which comes across in the writing and voice acting, but save a couple exceptions they don't feel like actual people because their function in the game is so dryly mechanical. Everyone exists to serve one, specific purpose; a lot of characters are basically soulless mannequins until you get to the necessary part of a quest that involves them. When a main quest needed me to find someone in town whose soul had some connection to the White Forge in a past life, it was pretty obvious: "Let me go talk to these two named NPCs with whom I haven't yet been able to interact." Sure enough, both of them were candidates, and promptly went back their to purposeless existence once I finished the quest.

I also felt like there was too much emphasis on combat in the DLC, to the point where three or four quests arbitrarily forced me into combat when there should have been a logically clear diplomatic option. I encountered a group of pale elf slavers out in the wild who had an ogre in tow; I wanted to get them to let him go, but I had no such dialogue option. Every option led to direct combat with both the pale elves and the ogre, no matter which side I was trying to take. In another quest, I needed to get a key from each of a mage's four apprentices, and I had no choice but to kill most of them, despite being there with the intention of helping. In another situation, I was sent to negotiate a truce with an ogre clan's matron; when I got there, every ogre was hostile and I was forced to fight my way through the entrance. Half the clan remained hostile even after negotiating the truce, so I had no choice but to fight them or else not complete another quest in that area.

Those kinds of moments were frustrating by themselves, but they were even worse because so much of the DLC centers around combat; after getting tired and worn out from too much combat, I was annoyed that the game was forcing me into yet more combat when it wasn't even necessary. There are three new "dungeons" in the DLC, all of which are loaded with enemies and traps and things -- the main focus of which is understandably combat -- and all of the new maps besides the village have you fighting your way through various types of ice monsters just to get anywhere. I like the combat system well enough that it shouldn't have bothered me, but there were times when it felt like I was playing more of an action-RPG than a true role-playing game, and it just got tedious after a while.

The new "soulbound" weapons are meant to add extra incentive to engage in combat, since they get stronger as you complete combat-related objectives with them, but I just couldn't get them leveled by the end of the content. One required me to kill 15 beetles after I'd already cleared the entire base game of monsters, and cleared nearly half of the maps in the White March before I even got the thing. I saw few beetles thereafter. Some weapons could only be used by characters I just didn't use, or else didn't match the weapon specializations I'd given that character. Meanwhile, I was already at end-game, anyway, so even if I had gotten them leveled I would've had next to no opportunity to use them. The only one I did level all the way (it happens through exploration and deductive clue-finding instead of arbitrary combat objectives) seemed only marginally better than the sword I was using before. When you finally activate the White Forge, you get to use it to upgrade some of your equipment, but you can't use it on soulbound weapons, so I upgraded the sword I was using before, and the soulbound sword became inferior by default.

Besides all the new content, there are a ton of updated features that are patched into the base game whether you own the expansion or not. There's now an option to respec your characters, which you can do for a monetary fee with most merchants. There's now an AI system that lets you set basic behavior conditions for individual party members -- a feature that cuts down on the tedious micromanagement by making your party members automatically perform certain basic actions. The stealth system has been improved, letting characters go in and out of stealth individually so that you can actually do backstabs and sneak attacks in combat in an effective, logical way. They added extra visible information, like a dotted circle that shows each character's attack radius, so you know whether they'll have to move to cast an AOE in a certain location, and accuracy indicators for likelihood to hit with certain attacks. They're all great updates that make the game just a lot more pleasant to play, and it's nice that Obsidian have continued to support and fine-tune their product so consistently after release.

Sadly, this does reinforce an opinion I've long held that it's better to wait one or two years before playing new video games, because you're almost always guaranteed to get an over-priced, inferior experience if you play from day one. Obsidian have patched in a ton of features and updates in the five months since the game's release, but I already had to suffer through some of the problems and nuisances before the patches came out. They released a sizable update for the DLC, for instance, that drastically lowered the requirements to level soulbound weapons and supposedly decreased save and loading times by 20%, among other things, after I'd already finished the DLC. I was already complaining about the load times in the base game, long before completing my 90 hour playthrough, but with all the extra content in the DLC, load times continued to increase over time. It got so bad that I spent around 15-20 minutes out of every hour just watching load screens.

I didn't dislike playing the DLC, but I didn't really enjoy it either. For the most part, it's all good and serviceable, but the whole thing just felt kind of bland and uninspiring. Whereas the base game felt like a labor of love -- Obsidian creating a game because they wanted to make something fun -- the DLC feels more like a labor of business -- Obsidian creating an expansion because they want to make money. There's nothing really wrong with it (except maybe the heavy emphasis on forced combat), but it didn't do anything to excite my interest or impress me. In general, it felt like a pointless, wasted opportunity. I'd say it's probably not worth playing until The White March Part 2 is released.


  1. Haven't played the game yet, I hate this practice of DLCs and Expansions, they never let me play games on release and always have to wait till the entire game is released.

  2. Very very good review. Thanks a lot.