Pillars of Eternity review

Pillars of Eternity review

Pillars of Eternity is a sprawling, wordy, isometric RPG. It’s also a long love letter to a very specific time and a very specific type of game. You might have played some of them. They all have silly names that we perhaps forget are silly because they are uttered and written down so often; names like Baldur’s Gate, Planescape: Torment and Icewind Dale. Collectively, they’re the Infinity Engine games, sharing the same engine and well-worn Dungeons & Dragons rules. 

Like a love letter, Pillars is a wee bit purple at times, but also eager and sincere. It’s a game that 77,000 people asked for with their wallets through Kickstarter, and the sort of adventure that a lot more people have been wishing could exist. It’s not really from this time, yet here it is, anyway. But it’s more than just nostalgia fodder; more than just something that feeds on the popularity of the games that came before it. It’s progress.

“You must gather your party before venturing forth.”

The first time I heard that phrase was in 1999, a month after Baldur’s Gate came out. I was 13. It’s strange how such an innocuous phrase can have meaning and memories piled onto it. It just means that you have to wait for your whole party to get together before you can transition to a new area. That’s it. It means more to me, though.

These games are so much more than one character’s journey – they’re about parties, travelling, fighting and even falling in love. D&D and tabletop roleplaying are games to be played with friends, where companionship and adventure go hand in hand. That one line, often repeated, seems to me to capture that.

“You must gather your party before venturing forth.” I heard it again. That’s when Pillars’ claws sunk into my flesh. It might not rely on nostalgia, but that doesn’t mean Obsidian hasn’t made it extremely familiar. But everything’s just a little bit different. You’ll recognise a lot, but there are surprises and novelties and moments where you’ll go, “Oh crap, why wasn’t it like this in 1998?”

The improvements that Pillars heaps onto the tried and tested formula that dominated the genre in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s are many, though they are made with a gentle touch. It starts right at the beginning, in character creation.

Your typical fantasy races, your Dwarves, your Elves, they are all there, in the world of Eora, but they are joined by people mutated by the gods, with elemental and magical properties and strange protrusions jutting out of their skulls; colourful giants that sail the oceans as pirates, mercenaries and explorers; and furry, halfling-like folk who are sometimes feral, sometimes “civilised”. The familiar sits beside the alien, Tolkien and Gygax mixing with creatures spawned from the minds of Obsidian. And when you build these characters, you’re not just putting them together from a list of races and stats – you’re choosing their backgrounds and exactly where in the world they hail from, too. There are strange places and distant lands that you’ll learn more about as you play.

Those races that you will recognise have been dragged out of their generic fantasy lives and thrust into new ones. That a character is an Elf is often about as relevant as their hair colour is. Gone is the traditional fantasy segregation that forces Elves into woods and Dwarves into mountains. An Elf might be a member of the old Imperial nobility while a Dwarf could be a member of a tribe of arctic hunters that include members from several races.

This subversion of expectations extends beyond the races, to the stats, which include mainstays like constitution and dexterity but other abilities like will – your mental fortitude – and resolve. Might, at first, seems a lot like the strength stat that one encounters in just about every fantasy RPG, but in Pillars, it’s something entirely different. It translates into damage, regardless of how a character causes damage. A damage dealing mage needs it as much as a fighter with a greatsword.

Inevitably, these handy adventurers will end up in some scuffles, with ogres, dragons, assassins and the countless other things that Pillars throws their way. Combat is in real-time, and is quick and messy, only really controllable through liberal use of the pause feature. I’m still not certain if the game wouldn’t benefit more from a turn-based approach, but this is undoubtedly the best real-time with pause combat that I’ve encountered.

Fights can be slowed down at the touch of a button and similarly paused, and the pause feature can even be customised so that breaks in the action occur at certain points. I tweaked it so that the game paused the moment enemies spotted me, so I wouldn’t be completely buggered if I was ambushed, and again when one of my party was close to death, so that I could get my healer to bring them back from the brink.

The unobtrusive UI makes managing battles, once you learn to use it, considerably easier. Though combat can be messy, the UI is clean and informative, eventually even detailing the strengths and weaknesses of opponents after you’ve fought their type enough times and filled out their bestiary entry in a book full of sketches, creature lore and battle tips.

Fighters, wizards, rogues, rangers, priests and monks – you can play them all, but there are two altogether more exotic classes that have found their way into Obsidian’s original world. Chanters take the place of bards, in that they have lots of utility and can mix combat with spellcasting and supporting their fellow adventurers. This handy lot perform chants, an exotic magic from the East, where each verse is a different buff. And as those verses are spoken, the chanter gets points to spend on unique spells that, along with buffing the party, can reach out through time and space, grabbing a creature and making it join the battle.

As powerful and novel as chanters are, I’ve really fallen in love with the second unique class: the cipher. Pillars is a game about souls. As winding an elaborate as the adventure is, it always comes back to souls. The land is cursed, with babies being born hollow and soulless, while people fight over how to cure it, meddling in soul manipulation and disturbing magic. This makes the cipher a rather appropriate class, as its defining feature is the ability to peer into an manipulate souls. In combat, the cipher augments its attacks with soul magic, generating focus that allows it to cast spells that damage and control enemies. But outside of combat, it opens up a lot of new opportunities.

The majority of stats, and often the choice of the main character’s class, has a massive impact on dialogue. Even seemingly incidental encounters might create opportunities to explore new dialogue, gain more information or work towards the completion of a quest through abilities that in most other RPGs would be restricted to combat. A character with a lot of might can intimidate an NPC, while someone with a high lore skill – skills are separate from the big stats like might, but unlike them can be increased through leveling up – can leverage esoteric knowledge to change the direction of an encounter.

In the case of the cipher, they can soothe corrupted souls and peer into the lives of those around them to gain secrets or manipulate them. Only the main character can do this, but even if you choose not to play as a cipher, you’ll be inundated with choices specific to your character.

It’s all rather impressive, the way that the game is built around so many potential character builds. It’s liberating. The rules, rather than restricting builds and experimentation, encourages exploring countless paths. A wizard can be covered in heavy armour, flailing around with a big axe – if that’s what you want, go for it. It won’t be able to cast spells as quickly, but it will be able to survive for longer.

The game can be completed with a custom party exclusively made up from sneaky rogues that almost always avoid confrontations, or a bunch of bull-headed warriors that never back down from a fight. It’s your party, you can do what you want. Instead of hiring custom characters from the various inns that dot the world, you can also recruit companions with their own motivations, or swap between them.

My party of six has been mostly made up from the first five companions you meet, but sometimes situations call for a slightly different group. My priest, a mad bastard called Durance, whose obsession with fire and calling women awful names makes him a thoroughly unpleasant fellow, was, for most of the game, also doubling as my lockpicker. Mechanics, the skill that affects the chance to disable traps and open locks, is class agnostic, like all skills. Anyone can gain levels in it. But some particularly tricky locks called for a character utterly devoted to that skill, so I just went ahead and hired a new custom adventurer, quickly overcoming the bump in the road.

Playing exclusively with a custom party is not, however, a compromise that I think is worth all the benefits of having a fine-tuned group. Obsidian’s companions are extremely flexible, but more importantly, they are fascinating people. Even the horrible Durance, who really is just gross, is someone I’ve been glad to get to know. His history and twisted views on religion have been the source of countless debates between he and my extremely nice cipher.

Each party member is driven by desires and history that unfurls through side quests and roadside banter. They all start off with a single purpose, but grow and expand, revealing more about themselves until they become indispensable, not because of their combat prowess, but because they are part of the group, an organism created out of these diverse people who have been flung together but rely on each other all the same.

It is a world of interesting people. Dyrwood, the region the game takes place in, has been marked by a historical war for independence and, more recently, a war against a man who claimed he was a god. It is rich in eccentrics, power players and puppeteers. All the important folk argue about how to solve the myriad crises that plague the place, while regular folk watch on, ignored. Until a certain party of adventurers walks in, of course. The stories that you’ll be drawn into are often elaborate, multi-faceted quests. Many seem rote at first, tasking the party with finding missing people or getting rid of bandits – but they rarely end in expected ways.

For instance, in one quest, I am tasked with taking out an unpleasant lord who was holed up in his castle. How I do that is up to me, right down to how I get into the castle. Do I enter from above, clambering up massive walls? Do I slink through filthy, monster-infested sewers? Or do I charge through the main gate, sword raised, spells spewing out of outstretched hands?

Each approach is its own separate adventure requiring tools that range from crowbars to a quick tongue. And within the castle, there are even more paths, quests within quests and opportunities dependent on how I’ve already built my party. A simple assassination mission grows into a multi-tiered adventure with people to help or ignore, and an end result that is not predetermined.

I find myself at the end of the quest, and I’m given a choice. Do I kill this man, as I promised to do, or do I betray the man I swore to help? After a good hour or so of working my way through the castle, I now know more than I’d want to about both men, and it’s not entirely clear who I should back.

Choices are heaped on top of choices. And while the result of those choices might not be as dramatic and earth shattering as the decisions made in something like The Walking Dead, they are meaningful. Most acts in Pillars have an effect, most commonly to the reputation of the hero and their band.

Towns, cities and factions all form their opinions based on the activities of the party. If you’re honest, you’ll be known for that, and people will learn to trust you. If you’re sarcastic, it might make your words hollow when dealing with someone who doesn’t mince words. And good deeds done for different groups will open up new quests and impact others. Who you are and how you treat people matters.

With such weighty decisions flowing through the whole game, I’ve found myself frequently re-reading the text, considering who I am as well as pondering the potential outcomes. Pillars’ text descriptions and dialogue exist to lose yourself in. It often borders on purple, but that only ends up evoking the theatrics of an energetic Dungeon Master. I don’t want to go back to cutscenes after this.

Beautiful text descriptions elevate conversations and give more voice to the mood. Even the most innocuous exchanges that Obsidian has crafted have an elegance that is rare in the surprisingly conservative writing found in many of its contemporaries.

Its the rants I live for, I confess. The denizens of Pillars do love their soap boxes, and many chats descend into long political diatribes and philosophical monologues. And what a sense of place they give to the world. Through these speeches, the world is made almost tangible – a real place where people grasp for meaning and argue over it.

The text does a lot of the work, but diverse environments do a fair share of the heavy lifting too, when it comes to bringing this world to life. At first glance, they are what you would expect from an isometric RPG with a legacy that comes from Baldur’s Gate, but the detail and care they’ve been crafted with is still impressive, while the fidelity is also obviously much improved. Yet I admit a bit of disappointment with some of the areas.

Pillars is, sometimes, a bit too grounded. Despite the high concept themes, some parts of the world itself are actually a bit bland. Defiance Bay, a large city where you’ll spend a lot of your time in the first half of the game, is downright boring. It’s a late medieval style city made up from five distinct districts that feel entirely disconnected, featuring nothing approaching the exoticness of Athkatla or Sigil. It’s a detailed city, pretty in places, but ultimately forgettable. At least visually.

Other areas are not so unfortunate, and Pillars is full of carefully built dungeons – often massive in scale – with striking architecture and ancient monuments. And importantly, they are often labyrinthine in construction, full of shortcuts, locked doors, traps and surprises at the end of long, ominous corridors. And loot. So much loot. These are the sort of places that are borderline holy sites for adventurers; the dungeons they live for.

There’s a place that acts as a safe haven, away from these dungeons and the adventures of the road. Early on, a stronghold is obtained, a base that must be managed and rebuilt. It’s a source of income, and eventually a hub complete with merchants – stalls full of handy items and crafting ingredients – and quests that idle companions can embark upon, earning experience, gold and reputations in the places where they tread. Ultimately, it’s a slightly shallow diversion that means you’re unlikely to go broke. And I also lied before. There’s no respite from the dungeons, because underneath the stronghold is the largest, toughest dungeon in the game.

Obsidian had a daunting task before them: to make a spiritual successor to a series of games that are inextricably tangled up in nostalgia, over a decade after the height of those games’ popularity. This is not the Baldur’s Gate of 2015, it’s Baldur’s Gate, Planescape: Torment, Icewind Dale, the best parts of the lot of them wrapped up in something new and brilliant. And before you venture forth, don’t forget to gather your party.

10/10