Months after the game’s launch I found myself writing the first draft of this review as an apology for Pillars of Eternity. As one of the first big crowdfunded games to come to fruition, Pillars faced Phantom Menace levels of expectations. Its initial positive reviews quickly gave way to outrage over a failed attempt at comedy in some crowd-authored ephemera. As an outsider looking into the games media, Pillars never seemed to bounce back from Obsidian Entertainment’s failure to vet (or failure to see the issue with) its user generated content. Enter, Shaftoe. And if I put a bracket around this one gaffe, I can’t recall the last time a RPG managed to enthrall me quite so completely.
Pillars of Eternity is a throwback to the likes of Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale, and, most appropriately for the studio that inherited some of Black Isle’s talent, Planescape: Torment. For the uninitiated, you should expect a harder game than today’s standard fare. This is not to suggest PoE is the second coming of Dark Souls. It will, however, offer more challenge than a romp through Dragon Age.
In so much as Pillars is an homage to the games of yesterday, it’s not blind to their short comings. Thankfully, Obsidian has thrown out the often Byzantine and impenetrable Advanced Dungeons and Dragons ruleset as applied to computer games. No longer will players have to wrap their heads around THAC0 versus AC. Pillars also eschews rolling a magic user as an invitation to masochistic torture. Good luck getting through the first few quests of Baldur’s Gate as a magic user with 4HP. Stats like that make a person vulnerable to a stiff breeze. Whereas in Pillars my level one wizard can at least manage a few good punches to the stomach before begging for help.
Iterating the AD&D rules into something new hasn’t come at the cost of a complex role-playing experience. There’s a deep amount of tinkering and customization available to players if they so desire. A less fussy player can venture forth focusing only on damage and damage reduction stats. Either path will lead an adventurer to fortune and glory.
While stats and fiddling might get a person into the game, what keeps me coming back for an hour or two of questing each day is the world of Pillars of Eternity. Like most memorable high fantasy settings, Eora is a tremendously lived in place. The politics and culture of Eora are often reminiscent of Europe during the Age of Enlightenment. There are political rivalries great and small. A pantheon of gods and faiths lead to upheavals and pogroms. Class struggles, anti-intellectualism, conflict between settlers and native peoples, and rapid scientific progress absent modern ethics or methodologies round out the mix of ideas contributing to the feel of the setting. There’s also magic, monsters, and an entropic doom that threatens all life in the Free Palatine of the Dyrwood. So maybe it’s not exactly like Enlightenment Europe.
Nevertheless, the deeper I get into the game, the richer the Dyrwood becomes. Each action reveals a little more about the world I’m trying to save. The more I try to save it, the more my reputation precedes me with NPCs, which in turn re-enforces why I care about the Dyrwood. It’s quite the clever feedback system. On that note, let’s talk about quests.
Too often questing is a euphemism for level grinding – a substitute for content and meaningful engagement. Collecting endless goat gonads and dragon cocks is a sure way to bore a player out of the game. PoE is smart enough to limit these to tertiary chores. Where they do exist, they generally impact how players are perceived in the world by other NPCs. Primary and secondary quests are much richer affair; they almost always become branching plot points, moving far afield from where they began. Beyond offering monsters and brigands to slay, these quests usually offer some sort of moral dilemma. In these situations I’m left trying to make the best of an ugly world, while wondering how it will come back to bite me in the ass later in the game.
Unlike a BioWare game, Obsidian’s approach leans closer to a story-driven experience rather than a character-focused one. I don’t point this out as prelude to debating which style is superior. Instead, I would praise Obsidian for the way Pillars of Eternity works to make Hiraku, my character, my proxy – insert your character and proxy as appropriate – the star of the game. The likes of Eder and Kana might not be the most memorable characters, but they serve their purpose in keeping the focus on the player and their story. Ask any D&D dungeon master worth their salt and they will tell you that letting your players shape the story is the most important part of their job.
Everything here amounts to an experience where combat is challenging but not impossible. A player can go down the rabbit hole of party management, but they don’t have to earn a degree in statistics to enjoy the game. Most important of all, the story – including a player’s part in it – doesn’t feel like a contrivance of tropes along the monomythic path, leading to an inevitable conflict with Sauron (or some other manifestation of pure evil). As fantasy role-playing games go, I don’t think I can ask for much more.
Job well done, Obsidian.