Pillars of Eternity is a game that’s trying to be too many things to too many people.
To Obsidian, it’s a chance to prove themselves; after years of putting out bugged/incomplete titles because of publisher interference, they can finally show what they can do when developing a game with their own funding on their own schedule. To the gaming world at large it has some sizeable shoes to fill as a spiritual successor to the old Infinity Engine games, a Baldur’s Gate 3 in all but name. And to the people who backed it on Kickstarter, and who have been waiting the best part of three years for the game to be finished, there were a lot of promises made. Strongholds! Cities! A 15-level mega-dungeon! All things that would require a lot of time and effort in order to do properly, and since Pillars of Eternity is also the most successful game Kickstarter that’s actually going to be released it’s fair to say that Obsidian must have been feeling the weight of expectation a little bit.
Given that, is it really any wonder that they’ve ended up playing it safe?
Pillars of Eternity is a good game that doesn’t take the risks it needed to in order to be outstanding. It chooses the road-more-travelled at almost every turn in terms of its structure and themes, with only a little bit of Obsidian’s trademark choice-and-consequence to liven things up. Now, a “good” Obsidian RPG is automatically going to be better than 90% of other RPGs released this year since they’ve been at this a while and they know what they’re doing, so perhaps this was the right thing to do. Pillars has a lot it needs to accomplish; in addition to ticking all of the above boxes it had to establish, from scratch, a brand new world with its own rules and foibles, and so playing it safe might have been the wiser option.
My problem here — and Obsidian’s problem, in my opinion — is that they’ve previously excelled at taking somebody else’s established intellectual property and driving it into new and interesting territory. Knights of the Old Republic 2, Neverwinter Nights 2, Fallout: New Vegas — this sort of restructuring is basically their entire resume for the past decade, Alpha Protocol excepted. Now that they’re playing with their own IP and their own universe they seem to be a lot more reluctant to go off-piste. Pillars of Eternity could just as easily have been a Baldur’s Gate game had it been released ten years ago, and while that’s precisely what a lot of people who backed it will have been looking for it’s also not entirely a good thing.
Nowhere is this more obvious than the game’s main plot. Set in the virgin swords-and-sorcery world of Eora, Pillars has you playing the part of a Bhaalspawn Spectre Grey Warden Watcher, which is something that caused an eye-roll of epic proportions once I realised I was going to spend yet another game being referred to as a capitalised noun that gave me magic powers. Pillars’ big conceit is that the reincarnation of souls into new bodies after they die is both proven and commonplace, and thanks to being caught in a magical storm during the game’s tutorial sequence you’ve gained the ability to see other people’s past lives — and your own. Said magic storm was kicked off by the game’s main villain, Thaos, and so you spend the rest of the game hunting him down so that you can get some sort of explanation, or at least deliver a strongly-worded note telling him not to do it again.
If this sounds familiar it’s because it’s the plot to Baldur’s Gate 2 with some of the words changed – except Pillars’ take on it is far weaker. The player’s motivations for hunting Thaos are never explained convincingly; one of your past lives is connected with him in some way, but there’s nothing else particularly driving the Watcher to travel halfway across the planet in search of the man. Unlike BG 2’s baddie wizard Jon Irenicus, Thaos hasn’t taken anything from you, he has no cure for your condition, and he’s not voiced by David Warner, making it spectacularly hard to care his nefarious plots. The Watcher thing itself is treated in a very fuzzy way; the game says it’s basically a terminal illness where you slowly lose control and become unable to tell the difference between your past lives and your current one, but it only ever says it. It never surfaces this descent into madness to you in any tangible way; you experience many visions of the past but they’re always relevant to the plot or sidequest you’re currently on, which made me wonder why I’d be so anxious to get rid of something so useful. BG 2 at least had the player character experience some pretty hardcore nightmares that gave them some impetus to find Irenicus and fix their problem. Pillars on the other hand seems to think it’s enough to assume you’ll be happy spending thirty hours finding Thaos just because that’s what the main quest tells you to do.
There’s no getting around the fact that Pillars’ main plotline is a pale shadow of what you’d expect from a game of its heritage, and that’s its a largely self-inflicted wound caused by the conservative need to stick to the general story structure of the Baldur’s Gate series. The story does get interesting towards the end, but that’s due to reasons and revelations that have absolutely sod all to do with the first twenty hours of the game — and even then I couldn’t help but think that Mask of the Betrayer explored many of the same themes in a far more effective way. Some of the individual story events are fun enough, but because it’s so unusually clumsy in tying those events together into a coherent narrative there’s no single moment in Pillars that even comes close to the punch-to-the-gut conversation with Myrkul in MotB. Perhaps that’s a high bar for the game to clear, but it’s one Obsidian themselves set back in 2007 and one that I was hoping they’d at least equal with a game set in their own universe. As it is Pillars not only falls short, it also only narrowly avoids sprawling in the dirt thanks to Obsidian’s innate talent for choice and consequence.
These elements are less emphasised than they were in something like Alpha Protocol, but they are present and they’re very welcome – in fact I think they might be improved by being less obvious, as that makes for a more organic-seeming game where the player likely to respond naturally to the situation at hand instead of trying to game it. Instead of having you make obviously-signposted binary decisions (as you would in a Bioware game) Pillars chooses to deal with the choices you make through reputation and disposition scores. Reputation is exactly what you’d think; you have a reputation score with each major faction/town in the game, and certain plot events and quests will appear or be closed off to you based on how your previous actions have affected your standings with these groups. Then you’ve got Disposition, which is more to do with the manner in which your character has interacted with the world in general. If you’re true to your word you’ll pick up levels in the Honest disposition. If you threaten people a lot you’ll acquire an Aggressive disposition. The stronger your disposition is, the more likely you’ll be able to rely on it in conversation in the future, trading on your Honest reputation to get people to trust you or using the evidence of your Aggressive nature as a warning to others. The conversation options opened up by your dispositions won’t necessarily lead to better outcomes, but they at least give you more choices and encourage you to stick to a coherent character rather than — again — trying to game the system.
This ability to subtly mould events according to your character’s nature is very welcome in a game with such a thin main plotline, as it at least provides the sense that your involvement is having some effect on the outcome, even if it’s an illusory one. Better news is that the various companions you pick up on your travels are written with the confidence and sophistication that you’d expect from a developer of Obsidian’s calibre – Durance in particular is the first RPG cleric-type I’ve encountered who has made me buy into his spells being powered by his religious zeal rather than just being a particularly heavily-armoured mage whose speciality is healing people — and the vast majority of the side-quests are similarly excellent, with very few of them falling into the Fedex trap. Since that main plotline is so anaemic the side quests are what you spend probably 70-80% of your time on in Pillars, and so despite its weaknesses it still ends up being a pretty strong game in terms of content. It tapers off a little towards the end, as I think the second city was added more to tick some Kickstarter boxes than it was because the designers had anything particularly interesting in mind for the player to do there, but fortunately this is where the main plot starts to take up some of the slack and things remain on a somewhat even keel all the way up to the end boss.
One area where the conscious decision to ape Baldur’s Gate has helped rather than harmed Pillars is its appearance. I don’t know how it’ll look to someone who didn’t play the BG saga at the time and whose nostalgia glands won’t be firing at full throttle, but Pillars of Eternity is a really pretty game. The characters are 3D models and they look a bit basic when viewed side on in the level up screen; however when you switch to the isometric viewpoint the Infinity Engine is known for they look very nice indeed when paired with the painted/rendered backdrops; fifteen years of progress in how these things are drawn has done wonders for their appearance and detail, and about the only complaint I can make is that the maps themselves seem a fair bit smaller than the ones from the Baldur’s Gate series. Maybe that’s just because I spent most of the game with things zoomed out as far as they would go, though. While the UI is a carbon copy of BG’s in some places — everything from the movement and inventory icons to the faux-90s renders of environments in the loading screens to the layout of the innkeeper screen is designed to evoke fond memories of those games — there’s also a few incredibly welcome interface improvements, chief of which is the Fast Mode button that doubles the speed of the game and makes trudging from one map edge to another far less painful. I’m not so sure about the player stash, which is essentially a bottomless Bag of Holding you can access at any time and which allows you to loot literally everything you come across; it doesn’t matter that a merchant only pays 5 gold pieces for a Xaurip spear when you’re selling him two hundred of the things, and pretty soon money becomes totally meaningless. RPG economies usually break towards the endgame if the player is doing all of the content, but I wasn’t expecting Pillars to take the mechanical equivalent of a claw hammer to its own economy with such enthusiasm.
Still, it’d be selling the game short to say it doesn’t make some significant improvements over the Infinity Engine games. The combat system is outstanding, taking more than a few pointers from classic Microprose RPG Darklands. It’s built around the concept of fatigue and damage reduction; unlike D&D, wearing heavier armour won’t do anything to stop you from getting hit, but it will apply a flat reduction to the amount of damage you take. If the armour you’re wearing is thick enough you’ll only take a point or two of HP damage per attack, meaning your fighter in plate armour has suddenly become very difficult to kill in a melee and can tank multiple opponents for a long, long time. They won’t do all that much damage, mind — heavier armour does slow the wearer down so that they can’t attack as often, but this is why you have a backline of mages, rangers and other classes armed with missile weapons. Muskets and pistols are available in the Pillars universe and these weapons have armour piercing properties that make them very good against tougher enemies (who have damage reduction just like you do), meaning your backline often becomes a gunline when you’re fighting a boss.
The other thing Pillars lifts from Darklands is the separation of fatigue from regular hitpoint damage. In practice most characters have enough HP that they’ll never run out during a single fight, but what they have to watch out for is fatigue damage. Most attacks do fatigue damage to a character’s Endurance pool along with regular damage to their HP pool — getting hit in the face by multiple assailants is going to knacker you out even if you’re inside otherwise impregnable plate armour — and a character’s Endurance limit is much smaller than their HP pool. Letting your Endurance reach zero means that character will be knocked out and won’t get back up again until after the fight is done, so it’s just as dangerous as running out of HP. Fighters get big Endurance pools and skills that boost their recovery of Endurance points during a fight, which is another reason to stick them on the frontline and let them handle the skull-bashing while the rest of the party retires to a safe distance.
Fortunately Endurance damage completely regenerates once you exit combat, so it’s not something you have to worry about long-term; however any HP damage that’s bled through your armour cannot be healed except by resting up. This used to be something you did practically after every fight in Baldur’s Gate as there was very little downside to it, but Pillars puts the kibosh on that by making every rest stop consume one set of camping supplies — and you can only carry four of those at any one time. The decision of whether or not to rest therefore becomes a matter of how far you want to push your luck. Your party might be half-knackered, or you might have fired off all your good spells in the last fight, but you have to balance that against your dwindling count of camping supplies; can you get through one or two more combats without having to rest up? This is something of an artificial choice as enemies don’t respawn and you can always exit whatever dungeon you’re in to go and buy some more camping supplies from an ever-obliging innkeeper, but that’s enough of a faff that you still don’t want to rest unless you absolutely have to.
I like the things Pillars does with combat. Every class has something unique they bring to the table, and nobody is gear-locked by an absurd “can’t use spells unless I’m in my pyjamas” requirement. This gives Pillars a flexibility in how you put together your party that’s rather missing from modern RPGs; I’ve seen the Chanter NPC you pick up three hours in built with at least three different gear configurations, all of which are perfectly valid for what he does. It also makes the choice of sword and shield versus big two-handed weapon versus missile weapon a much more interesting one, as there are scenarios in which you might want to switch between all three on the fly depending on where you’re positioned and what opponent you’re fighting. It does have the problem that once you’re max level on Normal difficulty you can roll over just about any opposition that isn’t the end boss of Od Nua without breaking a sweat, but I think this is one of those rare RPGs where I’d actually be interested in playing it through on a harder difficulty level for the extra challenge, as the combat system is good enough to justify it.
And now, because I want to fit it in somewhere and we’re getting close to the end of the review, it’s time for the Kickstarter rant: because this is a Kickstarter game, there’s rather a lot of “features” that are in the game because they were promised as one of the Kickstarter stretch goals/backer rewards, not because they were in any way a good idea. Top of the list here is the player stronghold, added when the Kickstarter reached $3 million but never removed once Obsidian realised that they didn’t have the time or resources to make it work. When you first get it you’re bombarded with a list of about twenty-odd improvements such as new fortifications or renovating the buildings inside the stronghold’s bailey that take both money and in-game time to construct. Finishing them all takes most of the length of the game, but the problem is that none of these improvements actually do anything interesting. Most of them increase your stronghold’s Prestige and Security ratings, each of which amounts to a generic number since it’s never adequately explained what they do, and they never seem to have any effect in game. Bandits will still steal your taxes and attack your keep even with max security. Prestige boosts said tax rate, except by the point you get the stronghold you’re already the Eoran equivalent of Nicholas Cage from Lord of War thanks to the industrial quantities of only slightly bloodstained second-hand weapons and armour you’ve been flogging to innkeepers across the continent, and so you don’t need an extra seven hundred gold every hour. Occasionally a quest will come up in the stronghold which you can assign one of your inactive NPC companions to — a nice idea that I thought Dragon Age Inquisition should have taken advantage of — but once again the rewards from these quests are so pathetic and inconsequential you wonder why Obsidian even bothered including them in the first place. It’s a running theme in this review, but Obsidian executed the same concept much more effectively in one of their previous games (in this case Neverwinter Nights 21), so why is this version of it such a pale imitation of their past success?
(Other things on that list: the 15-level mega-dungeon, which you can tell Obsidian were regretting committing to once you get down to level 9 or 10 and the level maps have shrunk to something roughly the size of a broom closet containing a few angry mushrooms and nothing else, and the backer characters and gravestones, which only confirms my thesis that letting your most rabid and obsessive fans author even a tiny amount of content in your game is a terrible fucking idea any way you look at it. )
Finally, this is an Obsidian game. That’s a name that’s become synonymous with deep, well-written RPGs, but sadly also with bugs. Previously a lot of people excused them on the basis that they kept getting screwed over by publishers, couldn’t work to their own schedule and had to rush games out the door in an unfinished state. This is exactly the situation that the Kickstarter funding was supposed to avoid, which is why I’m more than a little surprised to find that Pillars of Eternity is still riddled with bugs. In my thirty hours I’ve experienced the following:
- Characters repeatedly getting stuck in the prone position after a fight, necessitating a reload.
- A scripted trigger un-firing and resetting an area to its initial peaceful state after a bunch of monsters had been let loose in the level. After killing the monsters while the various bystanders looked on in disinterest, I was immediately attacked on the next level by the guards after (I assume) the game deemed my actions to be hostile somehow.
- The Swarm of Insects spell having an indefinite duration. Since this is a damage over time debuff spell it makes any fight involving enemies that use it practically impossible unless you cheese it.
- Bounty targets not spawning in the very small area where the quest said they could be found.
- A repeatable, unavoidable hard crash to desktop in Raedric’s Hold that wasn’t solved by reloading. I was just lucky I had a save from just before I went there that I could go back to; otherwise this would have been a game-ending bug.
- Bloating save/load times that got longer and longer the further I got into the game. Loading screens were taking thirty seconds plus towards the end – since you have to endure a loading screen every time you enter a building or change floors this quickly became extremely obnoxious2.
Yes, Pillars of Eternity is a big, complex RPG, and the worst of these bugs have since been squashed in the game’s first patch, but while it wasn’t Total War levels of broken Pillars’ release state is still enough to make me think that maybe the publishers weren’t entirely to blame for Obsidian’s previous failures in this regard.
So Pillars of Eternity isn’t quite the unqualified success that everyone was hoping for. There is one area in which it does excel: it may be a decade too late, but this is as close to Baldur’s Gate 3 as we’re ever going to get. If you were expecting more than that you’re probably going to go away disappointed, however, since I don’t think it matches the quality of Obsidian’s previous output. The work that’s gone into establishing the world, the engine and the combat mechanics is by no means wasted, but nearly everything else in Pillars has been done before in a far more effective manner in a previous Obsidian title. Perhaps it’s a little unfair to ask that much of the game, though; it does its job competently, if a little unimaginatively, and expecting more of it just because it’s Obsidian making it seems a little churlish in hindsight. If nothing else, Pillars of Eternity does successfully set the stage for a sequel or expansion that’ll do the really interesting things with the universe that Pillars shies away from. And that will be a project more suited to Obsidian’s strengths, I think.