Pillars of Eternity – Review
Gaming time is a precious resource in my house. So it was with an extra measure of anticipation I sat down to start my game of Pillars of Eternity, knowing that the kids had not only gone to bed earlier than usual without much fuss but had actually gone to sleep as well.
An hour and a half of intense deliberation later, I finished creating my character. More time passed as I read the game’s introductory text, adjusted various combat and game controls to my liking and participated in the initial scene-setting conversation. Finally, a good three hours after I first sat down, I began the game proper.
Another hour later and I had started the whole process again, my carefully crafted character proving to be a less than ideal match for my particular style of play.
Well now. This was going to be interesting.
Pillars of Eternity is an isometric RPG harkening back to the days of Baldur’s Gate and Planescape: Torment. Indeed, it was conceived and created by Obsidian Entertainment, a development team largely made up of devs from the now-defunct Black Isle Studios, the team behind the Baldur’s Gate series. And much like its highly-acclaimed predecessors, Pillars is sprawling, elaborate and beautifully detailed.
The story, without wanting to reveal too much, revolves largely around an event that happens to your character early on in the game, changing your relationship with the nature of the soul. At the same time, babies have started being born bereft of their soul, the consequences of which are being felt everywhere and in a multitude of ways. As your character strives to better understand what has happened to them, you come closer to discovering what else is going on – and it’s clear it is anything but good.
If there is one thing you need to know about Pillars (aside from the fact it is fantastic and you should go buy it, like, yesterday) it is that it is complicated. While the influences of past RPGs is clear, Pillars is just as clearly forging its own path, and there is a lot to take in. Having a background in RPGs will help but a majority of the information is brand new. Pillars not only contains a unique and comprehensive world made up of various characters, cultures and lore, it forgoes the familiar Dungeons and Dragons rules systems of the past for a proprietary one of its own. But more on that later…
You start off the game by creating a character, a task more involved than it sounds. Far from simply picking your character’s gender and physical appearance, you must also pick its race (from a possible six), class (from a possible eleven) and unlike other RPGs I have played I also had to pick their culture and background. Among the more familiar RPG options (like humans and elves, wizards and fighters) there are also Godlikes who are a race of folk born to regular humanoids with physical aberrations said to be blessings from the gods and Chanters, a class of warrior whose main weapon is their extensive knowledge of chants, invocations and phrases that can be deployed to various effects whilst simultaneously swinging a cudgel.
All of these qualities influence your character’s reputation and dictate not only the way in which your character should ideally conduct him or herself but also how they will be regarded by others. For instance, a paladin whose behaviour doesn’t align with their chosen background will find their powers slightly diminished, while a Godlike character may find some NPCs are in fear or awe of them and react accordingly.
Reputation is also heavily guided by your character’s actions and conversation choices. Many times throughout the game you will be faced with a choice of actions and/or responses to what is going on. Sometimes, certain options will be dependent on specific prior actions or having enough points invested in a particular stat, such as Lore, and therefore may not be available to you. Often, your reputation will precede you and NPCs will base their interactions (or lack thereof) on that factor alone.
This is one of the areas in which Pillars particularly shines. While the overall story is already laid out, much of the narrative is left to you and your character to sculpt. You may opt to be a kind and benevolent priest wandering the countryside helping others or you could be a cruel and violent barbarian on the run from those who wish you dead. Choices are so many and varied that you are left feeling you are truly in control of your own fate – and the fact that the equally many and varied side quests available have multiple resolutions, and are left mostly for you to complete if and when you feel like, only enhance this sense of immersion.
Therefore it feels like less of a punishment when you start your inevitable second, third or tenth character. I currently have four on the go; an elf paladin and Godlike cipher just for playing around and exploring different options with, a dwarf monk I first started with and a human fighter I switched to once I’d figured out the combat a bit more.
Combat is the reason I say multiple characters are inevitable. Make no mistake about it, while Pillars is great fun, it is also hard. Combat involves a tactical real-time-with-pause system and also has the option to toggle time through three different speeds, slow, normal and fast. By default, the game will pause when combat begins, allowing you to issue orders to your character and any companions with you, then watch them be carried out once the game resumes. In the menu there are options to customise the pause system to your personal preference: from spotting an enemy to a character getting low on health, you can have the game pause and give you time to figure out your next move.
And planning ahead will definitely be necessary. As XP is gained via discovery and completing quests in Pillars, rather than via killing everything in sight, combat is something that must be carefully considered. Your character will be treated the same by the metadata whether they choose to kill enemies, interact with them non-violently or avoid them entirely, but your reputation and interactions with other characters will almost always be influenced by your choice. While there has been some outcry at the decision to remove XP generated during fights, it does allow you to maintain some character consistency if, like me, you dislike being forced to fight when you feel it would be out of character for your protagonist. A few times I was able to solve a quest with reasoning, rather than a knife to the face, and was always grateful for the choice.
If you do opt to fight, tactics are very much something to be considered. While there is nothing wrong with rushing headlong into battle, success is much more likely when you plan out your attacks beforehand. Deciding where your characters will stand and what weapons and spells they will use can make or break a fight – and with endurance being possibly the most important stat to consider, you will want that fight to be over sooner rather than later. Endurance reflects a character’s ability to take small injury and keep fighting and while they still have health to consider, they have a much smaller pool of endurance to draw from. Once endurance is gone, they are out for the fight, unless one of your characters has the ability to revive exhausted characters. And although endurance is quickly recovered outside of combat, characters can also become fatigued from general travel, meaning you will need to be equally tactical in your use of perks, boosts, inns and camping supplies.
To sum this all up, Pillars of Eternity is big, really big. I’ve managed to write 1200+ words so far and could honestly wax lyrical for a few more paragraphs, if I didn’t worry what my editor would say. It took me a good eight hours to reach Caed Nua, a pivotal moment in the game where you become lord of your own stronghold. It took me somewhere north of 10 hours to reach Defiance Bay, one of the game’s major locations. And now, with 25 hours under my belt, I have finally reached the end… of the first act.
That’s right; I haven’t yet finished the game. In fact, there’s apparently another good 50 hours or so between me and the conclusion. But, despite this fact, I feel confident in saying that this is a very good game. And, although they bring joy and meaning to my life, I can’t wait until my kids go to sleep again tonight so I can jump back in.