Given the critical and commercial success of Pillars of Eternity, it was only a matter of time before Obsidian released some expansions for this excellent RPG. The first expansion, The White March - Part I, has arrived only five months after the original epic, which is surprisingly fast. You could be forgiven for expecting this $15 DLC to feel rushed or be light on content, but it is as well realized as the core game, and it is sufficiently meaty. It feels a little too familiar at times and it isn’t the cross country adventure of the original release, but The White March - Part I is nevertheless a solid contribution to this young franchise.
If Pillars of Eternity can be viewed as a spiritual successor to Baldur's Gate, then The White March might be viewed as the spiritual successor to Icewind Dale. It is a journey to the frozen North -- mostly a hack-and-slash affair that is light on story and heavy on exterminating monsters. The main attraction is a new large area that has approximately as much content as the city of Defiance Bay in the first game. This new area exists on a separate map from the main game that you gain access to as soon as you install the expansion pack and visit your stronghold. Your adventure begins in the small hub town of Stalwart, and it then branches out into a few different wilderness areas that include a few dungeons. One of those dungeons is the large and mysterious Durgan’s Battery, which is the centerpiece of the story. The other major component of this expansion, Cragholdt, is a dungeon on the main map. It provides some high level hacking and slashing, but not much in the way of role playing or story. Depending upon your play style, it should take you somewhere around 15-20 hours to experience this content. In typical expansion pack fashion, it also provides new details here and there, like new music tracks. It all adds up to be an impressive amount of content released after only five months, and at $15, it is an attractive value proposition. With so much ripoff DLC flooding the market nowadays, a package that makes you feel like you got your money’s worth is a refreshing change.
In addition to a new map and a side dungeon, The White March introduces two new companions to journey with you. They are moderately interesting and unique in their backgrounds, but like so many Obsidian NPCs, their personalities are too dry for you to become attached to them. The voice performances for those characters are also rather flat, an issue that was present in the original game. You will probably want them travelling with you to provide you with some much needed variety (one of them finally provides a rogue if you don’t have one already). They aren’t a step forward from the core game though and they don’t add much to the storytelling.
The release of The White March also coincides with the release of a huge patch for the original game. Normally a patch wouldn’t mention a merit in a review, but if you haven’t played Pillars of Eternity since its release, then the patch is a good reason to revisit the game via the expansion pack. The interface has been further upgraded to show you ranges for your attacks, so now you know if you can ambush an enemy with an arrow or a fireball without getting too close. Some simple AI scripts have been added for your NPCs buddies, along with some basic controls. Your companions, if you wish, can be programmed to aggressively use their “Per Encounter” abilities while holding back on their more powerful ones. It is one of the better and more thoughtful implementations of party AI that I have experienced in this genre. Companions can make themselves useful for routine combat, allowing you to jump from character to character making the more important decisions. It is yet another example of the developers’ experience in this genre shining through and the game excelling at small details. For the most part though, the basic formula of Pillars of Eternity remains intact, and why shouldn’t it? It is still a top down RPG with huge maps and real-time tactical battles. The terrific interface, the beautiful 2D artwork, the exploration, and the combat didn’t need a major revamp.
In this expansion pack, you will find yourself alternating between outdoor exploration and dungeon crawling. During combat, you will find yourself positioning and repositioning your party to gain any edge that you can while mixing up your special attacks and your crowd control techniques. It still works, but it does get tiresome at times. There are some challenging battles that take some thought to survive, but there are also a lot of nuisance enemies that you can easily dispatch by repeating some basic tactics. This issue doesn't get in the way when the game is fresh, but if you finished the core game, then you may have had your fill. By the time you have seen everything that there is to see, there is a good chance that you have put over 80 hours into the whole package. The dungeon crawling especially gets to be a drag by the end.
While The White March - PartI presents a sizable expansion, it is slightly disappointing that most of it wasn’t designed as high level content. If you are interested in this expansion, then there is a good chance that you already finished the original game. If that is the case, then all of your characters will be too powerful for the White March adventure. When you enter that adventure, the game will warn you of this and give you the choice of beefing up the difficulty. If you want to experience this side adventure the way that it was truly meant to be played, then you will have to start a new game. As much as I love and strongly recommend Pillars of Eternity, I was not interested in starting another 70+ hour adventure to play The White March. I was hoping that it would a mini-sequel of sorts in which I could continue my heroes adventures, but that was not the case.
Pillars of Eternity was great for a lot of reasons, not the least of which was its size and its grand sense of adventure. Since The White March is a self-contained piece that can almost be experienced stand-alone, it lacks the open-endedness of the original and, therefore, some of its charm. It's the downside of having DLC for a huge game – It feels too modular. It does have a lot of new high level toys for characters that reach the 13th level and beyond, such as new spells, recipes, abilities, and feats. Since you start at the bottoms of level 12, however, it will take you 10+ hours to reach level 13 so that you can see any of this high level content. It would have been nice to be able to experience this important feature from the start. One major feature of the game that got left out of the progression, however, is the loot system. The loot still comes with a max allowable enchantment level of 12, which means that there is a ceiling on how powerful any item can get. Since you were already carrying around Level 12 items at the end of the original game, then chances are you won’t find much, if any, useful loot in this expansion pack. Instead, you will just sell most everything that you find and accumulate a bunch of money that you can’t spend on anything.
If there is one area that is perhaps a step backwards from Pillars of Eternity, it is perhaps the puzzling choice to spam traps in a couple of the game’s dungeons. Traps in RPGs have always been somewhat cheap, but in Pillars of Eternity they stayed relatively alright. If you stayed in Stealth mode in a dungeon and were careful, you could usually spot everything, and all you needed was one character who specialized in Mechanics to disarm everything. In this expansion pack, however, there are so many more traps. Half of the traps are impossible to spot, even for a character with a ridiculously high Perception score (Sagani was in my party with a 21 Perception and she still couldn’t see most traps). The other half are impossible to disarm without a character who has devoted all of his or her skill points into Mechanics (thankfully, one of the NPCs has just that). They are a somewhat cheap way to add challenge to the game -- don't be surprised if you go through a dungeon where 75% of the damage that you receive is from traps. It is a rare flaw in a series that has otherwise done a great job of emphasizing what is fun in RPGs while discarding what isn’t.
If you loved Pillars of Eternity, then The White March - Part I is more of what you love, and a sizable portion at that. It is quality material and a satisfying add-on to the core game, but not quite the delightful experience that it was back in March for a few reasons, most of which boil down to the fact that the basic experience isn't brand new anymore. I enjoyed my time with this expansion pack, even though I’m not overly eager to see more material in the near future. This series may want to take a longer break before the next expansion pack, since you may be approaching burnout by the time that you finish this one. A bit more emphasis on story or perhaps more variety in the combat situations would be welcome shots in the arm.