The turning years of this century marked one of the most easily recognized ‘golden ages’ of role-playing games, with RPG series such as IceWind Dale, Baldur’s Gate, Torment: Planescape and Fallout, among others, coming out in a short span of years. These titles, more so than some of their other computer predecessors (i.e. The Bard’s Tale, The Pool of Radiance), attempted to recreate the experience of pen and paper role-playing, giving players multiple venues to solve problems and creating a world that reacted to the player’s choices. Pillars of Eternity is an amply funded kickstarted game that, along with other similarly crowdfunded role-playing games, came to satisfy the yearning for an open-world game where player choice matters, and where there are multiple solutions to the same problem. It succeeds greatly in many aspects, but has a few stark failures as well.
As with many pen-and-paper inspired games, the first step taken is to create your character – in Pillars, you’ll have a protagonist created by you and a party of five more, which you can gather along as you play or create for a fee. Character creation is detailed, with six races to choose from and eleven classes to pair them with, along with the less important culture and background choices you are also given. While the process is certainly enjoyable and greatly changes how you face combat situations, it didn’t take me long to realize how little a difference this gave me outside of combat. Your attributes and skills will give you different interactions while playing, but the world and its NPCs are mostly indifferent to your race and class (bar a few exceptions), which gave me the feeling that what matters more is the resulting attribute and skill spread and not what causes them to be like that.
The combat itself, which is arguably where you’ll be spending most of the game at, is a pausable, real-time affair – a veteran of the old Infinity Engine will feel right at home here. The typical classes, such as the Wizard, Fighter and Druid, will play much as expected, with the game-specific Cipher and Chanter introducing mechanics particular to the game. I enjoyed the particularities of the spells and class skills, but they won’t be foreign to anyone who’s played a D&D-inspired PC game. Encounters will vary in difficulty, but bar one or two earlier in the game, there won’t be any insurmountable challenges, and progression will rather be limited by what you’ve done quest-wise (only the first kills of a monster type give you XP). You’ll find challenges requiring the use of consumables and spells in a couple of specific encounters and in the bigger boss fights (the dragons specially), which will also require clever management of two new mechancis: endurance and engagement.
Endurance is a per-fight resource that goes down when you’re damaged, along with your HP. When it ends, your character is knocked unconscious and won’t recover until the end of the ongoing fight, as opposed to when your HP ends, at which point your character dies. HP, for the most part, can be recovered by resting, be it at a campsite you create or another resting place. Engagement is the mechanic that will give your fighter and tanks function: each character can engage a number of enemies, augmented by certain class-specific skills, and those enemies will have to attack the engaged character or face attacks of opportunity and other penalties. This adds a tactical layer to the tank function and classes like the Fighter and Paladin that are very often ignored in other cRPGs.
The other half of Pillars of Eternity’s gameplay comes in the shape RPG players expect: exploration and interaction. The game’s world is vast, split by locations you access by an overworld map, and within there are many dungeons to explore, books to read and people to talk to. Aside from using your skills to disable traps and open lockpicks, your interactions come in two main forms: dialogue and ‘choose your own adventure’ segments. Both have the expected variation of choices and outcomes depending on your attributes, skills and previous decisions, with the CYOA segments involving both dialogue and decisions on what to do – you can, for added immersion, opt to have the impossible dialogue options removed rather than only grayed out, so that you can’t see the possible outcomes. This adds an interesting spin to the game and brings its decision-making process closer to the one of a pen and paper role-playing game.
Your actions in the game are reflected in your character’s sheet with traits such as aggressive, clever and cruel, which will in turn offer you different interactions further into the game and, in the Paladin’s case, benefit or detract from his combat aptitude according to how closely he follows his order’s guidelines. While a full-blown interaction system where your choices at character creation matter throughout the game would have been better, the personality system was a great way of guiding my choices according to what my character would likely do.
Unlike pen and paper role-playing games, however, Pillars of Eternity fails to emulate a truly open experience, even within its scripted boundaries. Your plethora of skills and attributes aren’t really tapped into in a creative manner, and alternate solutions are very clearly limited. Much like its combat, Pillars’ problems seem to have, for the most part, simple solutions – there is no incentive toward being creative, such as there is in Divinity: Original Sin, in any aspect of the game. You’ll never have something close to Fallout’s possibility of reverse-pickpocketing a bomb into someone’s pocket – the use of your aptitudes is very much scripted – and sadly, most quests that lead to combat will always lead to combat.
At a certain point in the game you’ll gain access to a stronghold, which you can upgrade and man with the people you find. It’s a side-activity that, if not interesting, offers some sense of progression and a place to gather your bearings. While it has its uses, the fact that I had to go through multiple loading screens to go to and from it means I didn’t visit it as much as was, perhaps, intended. It doesn’t detract from the gameplay but could’ve been better implemented – in its current state I can’t help but feel the wasted potential of not being able to interact more with your prisoners or have more quests tied to it.
The moment where the game shines, however, is when you’re progressing towards the solution of quests, specially those of your companions. The random banter you get from the game’s NPCs and the lore excerpts you can piece together for a better comprehension of Dyrwood and Eora, its people and deities, are often needlessly verbose – Pillars of Eternity, much like its spiritual predecessors, is dense – but the quests and stories your companions tell you are all very well written, with immersive, if mercurial, voice acting. I was intrigued by the search for one of my companion’s ancestors, whose soul now dwells in a new person, and I helped decide the fate of a priest’s relationship with his deity. Pillars of Eternity’s narrative never loses its grip, giving you both sidequests and a main questline that seem important and interesting, rather than just filler content.
The game’s immersion is enhanced by a soundtrack that will evoke memories of Baldur’s Gate, if you’ve ever played it. The various sounds of spells, the battle songs of chanters and combat banter of your companions further add to the game’s personality and drama. The isometric viewpoint allows you to view the world’s forests, dragons, spirits and eery machines from the angle its creators intended, and at no point does it feel like it detracts from the experience. Pillars of Eternity is beautifully drawn, making you feel inside a Tolkien-inspired world with its own personality and style, with ploys and stories that are unrelated to your own, but existent nonetheless – a world with a story of its own. Much like Tolkien’s book, the titular protagonist also holds great importance within the story: you are much the proverbial hero, of that there is no doubt.
Limited replayability comes in the form of trying the different solutions to quests, though as said before they deviate little in their endings, and in challenging yourself by playing with restricted party sizes, in ironman mode or with a different class. Even so, the game is long and rich: for personal reference, I’ve played the game for eighty hours and took about two thirds of that to complete it and most of its sidequests, including the lengthy Paths of Od Nua, a sprawling dungeon beneath your keep. There’s plenty of meat on Pillars of Eternity’s cRPG bones, although I did feel a certain lack of ambition regarding the main questline – secondary solutions and dramatically different outcomes felt amiss in them, specially regarding the act finales and some unavoidable casualties.
Pillars of Eternity is a great game on its own merit, but it’s clearly something made for those nostalgic of classic RPGs such as IceWind Dale and Baldur’s Gate. The game relies heavily on its quality writing and presentation, as any good RPG should, but is unambitious when it comes to combat and exploration. There is little novelty here, but Pillars has such quality in its writing, world and a large amount of quests and sidequests that while it isn’t particularly groundbreaking, it is a very refined, polished and expansive game that follows in the footsteps of its ancestors of yonder. Even without great steps forward in innovation, Pillars of Eternity crafted a story which made me feel like a protagonist, where my choices carried weight and where I was able to, within limits, shape a slice of Eora.