The first part of the White March expansion to Pillars of Eternity was released almost a year ago. I bought it, downloaded it and tried it, and bounced straight off almost immediately – partly this was down to a… questionable design decision that I’ll talk about in due course, but mostly it’s down to the game world. PoE’s fantasy universe succeeds in being more complicated and more nuanced than the entry-level D&D world of Baldur’s Gate, but that comes at the cost of accessibility and it turns out Pillars of Eternity is a damn hard game to get back into after six months, especially since the expansion does an absolutely terrible job of onboarding you into its content. I tried again in February on the release of part two of White March and got a little further, playing for an hour or so before I unaccountably lost interest; it turns out that you need to both be in the correct mood and have a sizeable run-up before you can really pick up White March with a seasoned adventuring party.
This is partly because Obsidian have made the weird decision not to target White March at a party which has played and completed the base Pillars of Eternity campaign, but instead to slot the majority of its content in about midway through the game — the new White March area itself is designed for player characters who are around level 7-8, when the reality is that the majority of people who are playing this thing will be tackling it with a party that’s at the pre-expansion level cap of 12. I’m not complaining that the expansion enemies were underlevelled compared to me, especially since it does provide you with an option to upscale them to provide an appropriate challenge for your level. However the fact that I was supposed to be hitting this area about fifteen hours before I actually did meant that I had to actively rewind my brain a little bit to think about the stuff that was actually important back then; it took me several hours to remember who the Leaden Key goons I was supposedly chasing into the March were, or what the hell a pargrunen was supposed to be, or why the various gods involved were important to the plot. It’s a dense world, and while D&D defining most of the genre tropes makes it a very easy world to fall back into the opposite is true of the world of Pillars; there’s practically no on-ramping to recognise that you might be a returning player, and that makes this process about twice as hard than it really needs to be.
Still, I’m sure that if you were to start a new game of Pillars from scratch you’d have enough time to get up to speed, and the new content would actually fit in quite nicely from a pacing perspective, if not a narrative one. White March takes the standard DLC approach of having you go back to your stronghold where you receive the equivalent of a letter saying that there’s a couple of new areas on the map and that you should totally go visit them1, and while there’s a couple of quests baked into older areas of the game the vast bulk of the expansion is split off into two new standalone questlines. Probably four-fifths of the content is reserved for the White March questline, which takes place in a snowy winter wonderland that’s just as impeccably presented as the environments in the original game; this is the story of the reclamation of an ancient dwarven forge called Durgan’s Battery and the ensuing fallout, and it’s all pretty high quality throughout. There’s a new hub area, Stalwart, with all of its attendant sidequests and bounties, 4-5 different overworld maps in the White March itself, and several dungeons to crawl through including the Battery. There’s three new party members to be found in the White March — a Barbarian, a Monk and a Rogue, rounding out the missing character classes from PoE’s existing party roster — and my only complaint about these is that while their characterisation is decently handled compared to the existing NPCs, their personal sidequests are extremely brief; there’s certainly nothing that even comes close to the extended conversations you have with Durance in the main game.
The White March expansion was released in two parts, and this has caused the White March narrative to similarly be split into two parts. Reclaiming Durgan’s Battery is Part One, and while it’s well-written throughout it’s also pretty standard RPG fare; there’s any number of motivations for your wanting to do it but when you boil it down to its most fundamental idea you are, basically, reclaiming Moria from Lord Of The Rings — albeit a rather low-budget version, as while the Pillars background art is very pretty it can’t do anything to really match the visuals from the film. There’s even a whole bit around trying to get the front door to open that’s arguably more interesting than the Battery itself, which is a stock dungeon adventure where you hit angry ghosts in the face. Eventually you run out of ghosts and get to the bottom and restart the forge, at which point you have to leave White March and come back to trigger the second part of the expansion; this is supposed to be because some time has passed in between, but I found it a little bit jarring nonetheless. Part Two takes a lot of its cues from Mask Of The Betrayer, being all about gods and the forgetting thereof – there’s one part that’s a straight-up ripoff of one of the most iconic scenes from MotB — but while it doesn’t win any points for originality some of that narrative shine does end up rubbing off on White March and the second half consequently ends up feeling a lot more accomplished. Most importantly it feels like its own story, a story that’s naturally part of the world it is set in and which is well worth telling, and which is a definite set up from the relatively humdrum Part One. I have some reservations about how well it fits in with the main storyline since the stakes seem so much higher than thwarting Thaos, but I think that’s more a failing of the main campaign’s plot than it is White March.
So the White March setting is an okay-to-good level of quality, ensuring that the bulk of the expansion’s content is relatively worthwhile if you liked Pillars. Outside of the White March, though, it’s a very different story. You see, while I may have complained about this expansion not being targeted at endgame players that’s not quite true of all of White March’s content. Obsidian have included a couple of areas that are actually targeted at players beyond the original level cap of 12 – i.e. you have to have done the White March questline first in order to get enough levels to take it on. If you go there before you’re ready you’re going to get absolutely destroyed, because it’s an extremely combat-focused quest designed for people who really grok Pillars’ complex combat system and you can’t survive there without the edge those couple of extra levels give you. Unfortunately:
- Pillars does absolutely nothing to surface this little titbit of information.
- The first area of this questline, Cragholdt, is built into the main PoE campaign map just above your stronghold of Cad Nua rather than being hived off in its own area like the White March, all but ensuring the majority of players are going to visit it first.
This takes White March’s atrocious onboarding to a whole new level. Not only do you have to make an effort to get back into the world and the lore, but it’s extremely likely that you first experience of the expansion is going to be getting your ass handed to you by enemies who pull the teleporting-into-your-backline horseshit I so despised in the main campaign. Cragholdt really needed some sort of warning on it saying “These guys are tougher than the Adra Dragon, AVOID UNTIL READY”; as it is it’s a large part of why I bounced off the expansion the first time around since I assumed the entire expansion would be as poorly-balanced as Cragholdt appears to be to a returning player.
(Also, apropos of nothing: the enemies you fight here are a mercenary company who are inexplicably more powerful than archwizards and dragons. It really smacks of the opening of Throne of Bhaal, where your character was literally approaching godlike levels of power and so they had to hand the basic human mooks +3 enchanted weapons in order to even pose a baseline level of threat to you.)
Cragholdt left such a bad taste in my mouth, in fact, that I avoided the area altogether even after getting enough levels to be able to take it on; I like the Pillars combat system but I’m absolutely not interested in something that throws broken enemies at me just to get me to optimise my party configuration, and the fact that it’s so story-light just makes it easier to ignore completely. The rest of the expansion is, as I said earlier, okay bordering on good in places, but I think that as far as I’m concerned that’s actually a disappointing outcome for a Pillars expansion. I said in my original review that, while generally weak story-wise, the base game did do the hard work of setting up the world and systems to be developed and explored properly by an expansion such as White March. However I don’t feel like White March achieves this. It’s a workmanlike addition to the game rather than a proper expansion on the ideas and concepts of the Pillars world, and its best beat is imported wholesale from an expansion to a completely different game that’s almost a decade old at this point. White March certainly delivers more of the same content as the base game but it doesn’t really improve on it, and so I think it’s kind of a failure; it’s an expansion pack that forgets to actually expand the game in any significant way, and a definite sub-par performance from a developer that had previously specialised in taking already-existing worlds and making them amazing2.
Anyway, after two decidedly underwhelming experiences I think I’m done with the Pillars world now, and it looks like Obsidian are too — at least for the time being. Roll on Tyranny I guess.
- Fallout and Oblivion were terrible for this; if you buy one of the GOTY editions with all the DLC you get assailed by about fifteen different messengers as soon as you exit the tutorial area. ↩
- It also does nothing to fix the atrocious loading times. I’m loading from an SSD and looking at loading screens for a pseudo-isometric RPG that are 20-30 seconds long. Resting at your stronghold requires you to go through three of these just to get into bed. It’s beyond ridiculous at this point. ↩