Pillars of Eternity (Review) – Old School Role Playing Fun

Reanimating the long dead bones of singleplayer RPG’s with a fourth level Mage spell.

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Developer: Obsidian Entertainment
Publisher: Paradox Interactive
Platform/s: PC (reviewed), Linux, OS X
Released: 26 March, 2015

Pillars of Eternity is an old school, western RPG developed by Obsidian Entertainment, a company founded by former members of Black Isle Studios. Black Isle were the masterminds behind some of the greatest role playing games ever made back in the day; Baldur’s Gate I & II, Planescape Torment and Icewind Dale. These games were isometric, party-based RPG’s that used modified Dungeons & Dragons systems as the basis of their gameplay. Pillars is a chip off the old RPG block, being an isometric, party-based RPG using a custom gameplay system based on a modified Dungeons & Dragons system. Okay, so it is the block, with a few tweaks and a fresh coat of paint, but that is by no means a bad thing.

Western RPG’s like Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale, and the Divinity series are right up my alley, as I am a huge fan of story-based role playing intertwined with other gameplay facets. Games like The Elder Scrolls series and Fallout are amazing, don’t get me wrong, but sometimes the story and characterisation can take a back seat to just killing guys. So already, Pillars has its pedigree going for it, but it isn’t just a rich kid born with a silver spoon or three in its mouth. Pillars of Eternity earns every bit of praise it gets from me through hard work and awesome gameplay.

Guess I just spoiled the review there, didn’t I? Ah well, read on!

Pillars of Eternity gains an immediate leg up over its predecessors by having a wide variety of options available to help new players. I’m not exactly a newcomer to the genre, but it was nice to be able to tweak the number of hints the game gave me. There are colour-blind options, dialogue settings to make the game harder or more immersive, a big-head mode (because every game needs one), and many more. Also – and I will praise this from the highest mountains – there is an option to auto-save all changes made in the menu. It is a very, very minor thing, but it makes navigating the menus and making changes infinitely more enjoyable.

And it’s single-player only, so I don’t have to feel bad about not socialising with others while playing. That’s always a tick in my book.

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Not only are there a massive amount of gameplay options available, there is a metric shit-ton of character building options. The character creation screen can take a good thirty minutes to go through on your first play if you’re like me and read all the flavour text on every option. There are multiple variations for each of the five races, different backgrounds for your character to come from, different homelands to choose from, eleven individual classes and loads of attributes to choose between. This is all before actually changing your character’s appearance or voice. The sheer quantity of options available from the word go mean a hundred people could all start character creation at the same time and the chances of any two people getting the exact same character are a million to one*.
*Not a real statistic.

This extremely detailed character creation can allow one to be as neurotic as they please when making a character or jump through randomly choosing what sounds cool. You could start with a generic looking human warrior woman and end with some insane, min-maxed being going by the name ‘Fazbagle Banana-Face’. The possibilities are nigh on impossible to exhaust.

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My absolute favourite part of the game (which is a carry over from old Black Isle games), is the dialogue, or, more specifically, the moral choice system. Pillars’ moral choice system is amazing for one reason alone: it doesn’t actually have moral choices, it just has choices. Sure, some choices are “good” or “bad” but others aren’t so clear cut. Do you tell the truth about a murderer even though he looks after the town financially or do you lie for him and blame a mentally handicapped person so that they can get medical help they otherwise can’t get? Do you pick up a kid and shake him down for information, or buy him a knife he shouldn’t have at his age? Do you buy a round for local thugs and try to convince them to leave an old man alone or do you press cold steel to their neck and threaten them with death? Do you just say “Sod it,” and set fire to everyone that won’t give you what you want, or do you spend your hard earned money and time trying to fix relationships that maybe shouldn’t be?

These choices are my favourite kind because they aren’t black or white, good or bad choices. They are complex issues that have no right answer. Sure, killing that young woman would stop her from killing her boss, but her boss is a misogynist, bigot and a racist. Her boss does have information you need for this murder case though, and if he dies so does your lead. However, if she kills him, she’ll end up in jail and her children won’t eat. But if you kill her they’ll still lose their mother. The only way to stop her without killing her would be to give her a special pendant, but you gave that pendant to a homeless man who sold it to a travelling merchant so he could go on living. Do you hunt down the merchant and take it back? What is the right choice?!

There is no right choice, which is what makes the choices made so meaningful. Even before you finish the first area you realise that you will never please everyone, because guess what? The world isn’t fair, and you’ve been given the hard task to choose who gets what they want and who gets nothing.

This makes the actual role playing part of this role playing game so much more immersive and impactful. There were a few times I found myself pausing before making a choice because it was too difficult, or other times that I made rash decisions because I was so invested in what was happening that I barely stopped to read the options properly.

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The combat in Pillars is lifted straight from Baldur’s Gate and Planescape Torment, but given a fresh coat of paint and a spray of WD-40 to liven up an old system. Battles are all real time, with the ability to pause all actions and weigh up options before continuing. This means you can queue up abilities, aim spells, swap weapon sets, and survey enemy units without feeling under pressure (if you so choose). The combat feels impactful and satisfying for the most part, but unfortunately, for as good as it is, it’s easily the weakest part of the game. My party had a tendency to be quite obtuse, choosing not to attack another target when their current one was slain, meaning I had to keep an eye on them constantly to make sure they were attacking. Other times their path finding seemed to bug out, meaning they couldn’t navigate to the enemy when directed and would instead sit behind allies, twiddling their thumbs and huffing Sharpies. There were numerous times that I would have to manually lead them to their target by moving them an inch at a time so they could get through a two metre gap to the next adversary.

The enemies weren’t much better either. Sometimes they would show amazing intelligence by expertly disabling my strongest members and slaying my weaker members before they could recover, but most of the time they were thicker than half frozen gravy on rice. They would run in circles, cast Charm spells on my allies that were already Charmed, and there were several instances in which enemies stopped reacting in any way as my team wailed on them. Some of this can be marked down to the game’s difficulty, since I was playing on Normal, but not even Easy mode could explain some of the really poor AI from both parties.

While I’m on the gripe train, while the game looks nice enough, even on low graphical settings (hooray for crummy computers!), there were a few bizarre cases of misplaced animations and particle effects. One such situation involved a summoned beetle familiar. At the end of combat, instead of disappearing, it just kinda stayed there and twisted its head around slowly, like some sort of Coleopteran demon. And it never went away! Every new map, the beetle waited, a silent watcher, hoping its master would return it to the hell from whence it came. Combine that with my chanter’s mysterious ability to fire his arquebus and have the muzzle flare and smoke come from thin air six metres away, and it was an ultimately nice looking but occasionally off-putting experience.

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[Not an actual bug, I just thought big head mode was kinda fun]

The party dialogue more than makes up for small AI cock-ups or graphical abnormalities however, as the level of characterisation on display was a marvel to behold. Upon entering an area, I would occasionally be greeted with some banter between my party members. Each character interacted differently with each other. Some were more tolerant of that one racist bloke that called his goddess a whore like clockwork whenever her name was mentioned (I wasn’t, and he was put into reserves as soon as a new member came along), and some rightfully called him out. Sometimes characters got along, or joked with one another, and sometimes they argued. However, this was all brief, rarely being more than a minute long, and the player stays in control the entire time, meaning no gameplay time is lost even while characterisation is added.

This comes across in combat as well, as party members will call out to one another should they fall, making your tightly knit band of adventurers truly feel like a party rather than a group of mannequins lashed to logs. Each line is different too, they aren’t just stock answers repeated for each character. One member can have several lines of dialogue for a single other member, and each character truly feels unique in the world. Sometimes characters will even interject mid-conversation, giving life to the discussion and once again adding more characterisation to a world already sopping with it.

Oh, and the voice cast is bloody fantastic too.

That’s why my final rating is:

A Baldur’s Gate after going to the gym / 10

That’s what it all boils down to in the end. This game is Baldur’s Gate, but refined, beefed up, and twice as powerful. It takes everything that made its predecessor great, trims the unnecessary bits, and makes its self even better. All the great elements of Pillars of Eternity come together and fill any holes left by the shortcomings, which makes this game amazing to play and experience. Many games hide behind the guise of being an “experience” rather than a game, often to justify being complete shit, but Pillars is a game that knows it is a game, bills itself as a game, and ends up being far more than just a game because of it. It truly deserves to be experienced, and you deserve to experience it. Not just play it, but truly experience the beauty, passion and soul behind Pillars of Eternity.

Though I still can’t figure out why the hell it’s called Pillars of Eternity.

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