It is impossible to talk about Pillars of Eternity without talking about the history of this genre and why this game exists. In 1998, Baldur's Gate arrived on the scene and revolutionized the party-based role playing game. With its beautiful artwork, memorable characters and setting, complex tactical combat, and rich sense of exploration, Baldur's Gate was something the industry had never seen before. The game and its successor enjoyed smashing critical and commercial success on the PC. In a five year period, Baldur's Gate, Icewind Dale, and Planescape: Torment formed the RPG backbone on the PC and became the mainstays of a genre teeming with life.
And then, it all disappeared. Enticed by the mass markets of consoles, publishers stopped funding isometric party-based role playing games. Meanwhile, 3D replaced 2D in every genre, increasing the costs required to maintain a high visual fidelity. A Baldur's Gate successor was killed during development along with the original Fallout 3 ("Project Van Buren"). Bioware became a lead developer for the Xbox and Black Isle dissolved with its team mostly moving on to make console games. The isometric party-based RPG died a quick, unjustified death. Gamers did not stop buying the games, nor did those games evolve into something better. The industry simply stopped making them.
For the most part, the genre remained empty until recently, when a few changes helped to resurrect it. Digital distribution and crowd funding grew in popularity, creating an assortment of options for funding and shipping games. Only in this environment could Obsidian Entertainment, a studio formed from the ashes of Black Isle, go back to its roots and make Pillars of Eternity. When it comes to love letters to old genres, Pillars of Eternity is as unapologetic as it gets. It was clearly made with the mind that there was nothing wrong with the genre a little polish couldn't fix. The design should be instantly familiar: there are green and red selection circles, paper dolls, fog of war, the same type of world map, pre-rendered portraits for the characters, and the same types of AI barks. The game even borrows the font from the Icewind Dale series as a stark reminder that the game won't fix what was never broken.
That’s not to say the game is exactly the same as it was sixteen years ago. It isn’t. Instead of using the Dungeons and Dragons system, the game uses a new system in a new universe better suited to real-time-with-pause combat. It also has an interface built for modern standards of usability and accessibility. It also looks as beautiful as any isometric game in recent memory. Pillars of Eternity picks and chooses when it wants to be old school or modern RPG and it makes the right choice almost every time. In the meantime, it offers some of the best tactical combat the genre has ever seen set in a huge, sprawling world loaded with a variety of locales. The game only falters occasionally when it outsmarts itself and tries to get a little too cute.
Pillars of Eternity is not a Dungeons and Dragons game. As such, it uses an entirely new role playing system, custom built for the game. This new system shines brightest in combat where every ability is used in real time with cool downs, instead of Balder's Gate's clumsy turn-based system running under the hood. The variety of tactics to use during combat are virtually endless. There are area of effect attacks, ray attacks, knockdowns, group buffs and debuffs, individual buffs and debuffs, passive effects, instant effects, and effects that take place over time. Some abilities are limited to a number of uses per encounter, while others are limited to a number of uses per day. The difficulty of combat varies, from encounters that you can win without breaking a sweat to brutal boss encounters that require you to drain every ability that you have. The enemies also come at you with a wide variety of strengths and weaknesses, keeping the combat fresh and engaging.
Combat is highly complex but still very elegant thanks in part to Pillars of Eternity’s outstanding interface. The most appropriate word to describe this interface might be “perfect.” Decades of experience with mouse and keyboard RPGs have gone into designing the game and it shows. It is slick and efficient, with every ability or piece of information rarely more than one or two key strokes or mouse clicks away. The HUD is perfectly sized that leaves plenty of real estate on the screen, but not small enough that you can’t see what the buttons do. Areas of effect for your spells show up on screen so that you don’t accidentally fry or freeze allies with fireballs and ice storms. Each character’s abilities automatically pop up in a hotbar near the bottom of the screen when you click on their portraits, showing you how many uses available for each ability. Tootips are conveniently located and all of the game’s descriptions are written Wikipedia style with links to numerous pages connected by highlighted keywords. Countless hours were clearly devoted to this part of the game so that micromanagement would cease to be a chore. It is incredibly rare to see a game that combines so much ambition with such solid blocking and tackling. Obsidian has never made a game with this level of polish. No one has, for that matter.
The developer's experience with the genre manifests itself in other ways too numerous to mention. All sorts of conveniences and balancing tweaks have been inserted, some of which are clever solutions to old problems. Many of those little changes will prompt you to ask “How come nobody ever thought of this before?” These changes include but are not limited to:
- The addition of “camping supplies” that alters the traditional resting mechanic. The game imposes a cost for resting to restore your daily abilities. It is balanced to force you into using abilities wisely without imposing draconian penalties for not doing so. The amount of camping supplies that you can carry scales with the difficulty level.
- A “slow mode” toggle that keeps the battles going without pausing them every second. Of course, during the tougher battles, you will still need to pause and micromanage extensively.
- Combining the “search” and “stealth” functions so that you won’t step on a trap and die while sneaking around. You can actually scout areas without risking your life and plan assaults much better than before. As a trade off, you can no longer cast spells out of combat, which means that you can’t spam off screen enemies with fireballs and the like.
- De-emphasizing buffs by making most of them usable in combat only. During the harder parts of Baldur's Gate II and Icewind Dale characters had a tendency to walk around everywhere with a half dozen buffs stacked onto one another. If you didn’t have them before engaging combat, you were typically screwed. Here, the tedium of constantly buffing after each rest or before each battle has been removed. The difficulty of the battles is scaled appropriately.
- Allowing you to give tasks to the members of your party that aren’t travelling with you while they hang out at your stronghold. It makes everyone in the group feel useful even when they aren’t on screen.
- Showing a tether on screen tying your character(s) to an enemy when they are engaged in melee combat. This tether signifies that if your character withdraws, he or she will be subject to an Attack of Opportunity. Until this game, I thought that there was no way that Attacks of Opportunity could be sensibly implemented in real time. Pillars of Eternity changed my mind.
- Replacing traditional “Good or Evil” or “Charm or Intimidate” dialog options with more realistic personality choices like “Diplomatic” vs “Aggressive”, “Honest” vs “Dishonest”, and “Stoic” vs “Passionate”. This subtle change makes role playing with the dialog feel more natural.
- Allow you to hire generic adventurers at taverns to round out your party if not aren’t satisfied with abilities offered by your travelling companions.
Everywhere Pillars of Eternity is loaded with these little improvements that may not be flashy or sexy, but they represent good nuts-and-bolts game design.
It would be good enough if these features had all been put into a linear, Icewind Dale style adventure. To the delight of PC gamers, Obsidian went even further and created a huge, largely nonlinear epic akin to the Baldur's Gate series. Wilderness areas have been designed very much the same as teh classic game, with each area unlocked one-by-one as you travel across them. It even has a huge city that is inaccessible until major objectives are completed. When Pillars of Eternity isn’t giving you the satisfaction of smashing your opponents to bits, it is giving you the sense of excitement and adventure that only a well realized world can provide. The game mixes excellent hack-and-slash dungeon crawling with fantastic cross country sightseeing. It is an incredible achievement.
It is an achievement made even more incredible when you take into account the game’s high quality production values. Pillars of Eternity is a beautiful game. It combines immaculate, colorful 2D backgrounds with highly detailed, meticulously animated 3D characters. Every area is rich and unique; there are no tile sets at work here. The animation is especially noteworthy, as it is also the best that the genre has ever seen. It is easy to miss the little details but after playing it for a while, the small things, like how wizards open spellbooks and read out of it as they cast, shine. The crossbow and gun reloading animations are also very impressive. Animation is one area where games without huge budgets almost always come up short. This game, on the other hand, could be confused with a AAA Ubisoft title.
Judging by the thousands of lines of dialog in the game, Obsidian’s writing department was just as busy as the animation team. Exposition is abundant and there is rarely a meaningful conversation that goes by without some kind of special dialog choice related to your character traits, background, or disposition. Random NPCs with no dialog have backgrounds that can be explored with a special ability found early in the game. You will have to do a lot of reading to get the most out of the story, even if you ignore everything that is optional. How you feel about all of that reading will depend upon how you feel about Obsidian’s writing style. Like a typical Obsidian game, it ranks high on the poetry scale and low on the efficiency scale. Some gamers may like it’s complex descriptions of characters, items, and events. Gamers who believe that brevity is the soul of wit, however, may find this verbose style to be frustrating and tedious to read. It does go overboard at times.
Pillars of Eternity takes a lot of chances and, despite its frequent nostalgic shout-outs, tries to differentiate itself from its predecessors in many ways. Like any game that takes lots of chances, it makes some mistakes. In particular, the role playing system is where Pillars of Eternity falters the most. In an effort to distinguish itself from other fantasy RPGs, the game comes up with its own attributes, abilities, skills, and restrictions. This is the one area where the game fixes what wasn’t broken -- by replacing and rearranging traditional role-playing abilities with abilities that are counter intuitive or don’t make any sense. One example of this is the “Might” ability, which at first appears to be a stand-in for strength. However, it modifies damage for all characters regardless of weapon, including wizards and their spells. Furthermore, there are no weight limits and minimum Might scores for special armors or weapons. Might is ultimately just a statistical expression for how much damage you do, and not something that represents strength or dexterity. Doing it this way doesn’t make the game more interesting, nor does it add flavor or functionality that other RPGs don’t have. It just makes it confusing. Another weird attribute is “Resolve.” On the surface, it sounds like willpower. However, it also affects conversations just like charisma. Intuitively, these concepts are different, but they have been glued together in this game. Why not split those concepts into separate abilities or just use old traditional ones? The game doesn’t provide an answer other than “because I am going to be different.”
Meanwhile, character traits have no effect on skills. Your dexterity has no effect on your sneaking skill and your intelligence has no effect on your lockpicking or lore. A barbarian with a room temperature IQ can disarm traps and a klutz who trips over his own feet can be a ninja. What was the point of this? Whatever you build as your starting character, you will probably find the system to be an unintuitive hodge-podge of abilities and categories that have been arbitrarily rearranged so that Pillars of Eternity can stand out from the crowd. This is one area where it should have tried to blend in.
There are no class or attribute requirements to use any of the equipment either, which means that your mage can use a battle-axe and your damage-dealing tank can use a rapier. Since the weapons’ statistics are all calibrated to make every weapon a “good” one, it effectively means that it makes little difference what type of weapon you equip your characters with. Since every weapon uses the same modifier for damage (i.e. might), there is no purpose in specialization either. The charm of identifying a certain weapon type with a certain character is gone. The same can be said for armor. There are no penalties in the game for using heavy armor other than that your actions have longer delays between them. Heavy armor, for instance, does not affect your ability to sneak. It almost feels as if the game was built for solo runs, since characters can easily become “jack-of-all-trades” types. This is a problem for a game with six characters in a party, which should support and encourage high levels of specialization.
These issues, however, will probably not be enough to ruin your enjoyment of the game. Pillars of Eternity gets so much right and surpasses expectations in so many areas that it is sometimes too good to be true. All of the criticisms of this game should be taken into perspective. They never ruin the moment-to-moment fun that the game has to offer. And there is a lot of it. There is always something entertaining to do, be it slashing through trolls in the forest on a rainy day, maintaining your stronghold, or barely surviving the boss encounters.
There is a lot to be said about this game. It is complicated, feature-packed, and clocking in at 80+ hours, suitably epic. It gets so many things right. Pillars of Eternity never sacrifices convenience for the sake of nostalgia, nor does it sacrifice depth and challenge for the sake of “accessibility.” It is a very well executed throwback, one that repeats what old games did right while fixing what a lot of those games did wrong. It is a tad unfair to call the game a “throwback” though, because that term doesn't give the game the credit that it deserves for being an excellent game in its own right. Some other recent games in this genre like Wasteland 2 and Shadowrun Returns have offered similar experiences, but they weren't as strong for a variety of reasons. If you are one who has been desperately hoping for this type of game for years, then you are going to be delighted to find that Pillars of Eternity meets and perhaps surpasses your expectations. If you aren’t, or you are simply too young to have played RPGs from the ‘90s, then you owe it to yourself to give this experience a try and see if it is for you. This combination of beauty, highly detailed tactical combat, and expansive game world is something that you rarely see nowadays. In many respects, you haven’t seen it since Baldurs Gate II, which means that some of us have been waiting for this game for sixteen years.