Thoughts: Pillars Of Eternity – White March


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.

  1.  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.
  2. 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.
Tagged , , ,

8 thoughts on “Thoughts: Pillars Of Eternity – White March

  1. ilitarist says:

    >Resting at your stronghold requires you to go through three of these just to get into bed.

    With the patch you can rest as soon as you arrive at stronghold, even outside.

    You’re spot on about world being hostile lore-wise. I’ve started a new game for those two expansions and I still had problems remembering what happens and why am I supposed to care about all of those things. WM story is good though, especially the second part. It has a pacing problems (that mountain monastery existed for no reason).

    What I liked the most about expansions was them bringing the combat system to its full potential. Especially with soulbound weapons I had to rethink party composition, constantly change equipment, respec all of my characters – some several times. Endgame – WM part 2 and Craighold questline – felt like the game I was supposed to be playing. Main campaign felt trivial even on maximum difficulty: min-max equipment, know where you’re supposed to go, heal characters and move weaklings away from enemy. I hope their next game, Tyranny, will try to capture this feel of numerous available tools to the main games so I not feel forever stuck in XCOM early game with ballistic weapons and grenades making choice between vest and scope.

    • Hentzau says:

      Oh what, really? *That* would have saved me some time, shame they don’t communicate that anywhere.

      Soulbound weapons! I really liked those, and regretted that the expansion wasn’t really long enough to unlock their full potential. Again, it’s another element that seems like it’d be at its best slotted into the middle of the main campaign rather than at the end. If I’d been in the mood for some crunchy combat I might have gotten on with Cragholdt a little better, but coming back to a party that was a year old meant I was more than a little bit rusty at it.

      And I’m looking forward to Tyranny. Nobody does bad guys quite like Obsidian; I’m really hoping they do something genuinely different it (judging from the fiction they’re taking some pages out of the Black Company books in their portrayal of an evil empire) rather than any of the cliched crap you can get up to in Bioware games.

      • Darren says:

        What little they’ve shown of Tyranny makes me cautiously optimistic that they’re going to let themselves off the leash a bit for combat design. Pillars, like Dragon Age: Origins, came pretty close to being over-balanced, offering well-designed encounters but an awful lot of useful-but-boring abilities. And, like Dragon Age, they went bolder in the expansion, with some cool abilities like the Barbarian’s leap and the Monk’s fire/ice clone ability.

        I liked the combat in both of these games a lot, don’t get me wrong, but I don’t think a little flair is out of place in a fantasy game, nor is it detrimental to combat balance.

  2. Darren says:

    They clearly signpost that Cragholdt is the domain of a very powerful wizard. They don’t stop you from going there, but it’s the only quest in the whole game where you are explicitly told that you might want to save it for later.

    It’s a shame you didn’t play that quest. I’m fairly sure that the game got an across-the-board rebalance not too long ago, so it might not be so bad now, particularly since it was designed for end-game levels *before* the second-half of the expansion came out; I’ve never fully mastered the game’s combat and was able to beat the quest after finishing all of the White March (it’s not a long quest).

    One thing that struck me about the expansion is that it seems to be trying to retroactively add impact to the twist at the end of the base campaign. In the White March you have to avert an apocalyptic event caused by the gods, and at the end of the base game you learn…well, that twist. It was underwhelming just because there wasn’t enough content related to the gods to get you invested in the twist one way or the other, but after going through all of the White March the player should have more developed opinions about the gods.

    • Hentzau says:

      Well, not sure it’s *that* clear – if I recall it’s a one-liner from the steward saying “This guy is a powerful wizard beyond what you’ve fought before”, but I killed the Adra Dragon and so took it with a pinch of salt. I think part of the problem is that aside from said dragon the base game is definitely pitched towards the easy end of the spectrum unless you intentionally up the difficulty level, and I think Cragholdt overcompensates by moving that slider too far in the opposite direction.

      I definitely agree that White March would be at its best slotted into the middle of the game rather than played at the end as I did – it would make far more sense in terms of pacing and narrative. Unfortunately I don’t think I’ll ever replay Pillars and so won’t see the expansion at its best.

      • Darren says:

        Fair enough. Maybe it’s because I enjoyed Pillars enough to read up on it beforehand and knew that Cragholdt was *the* high-end quest. It’s kind of weird, actually, because with both parts of the expansion you unlock a final area after clearing Cragholdt that’s quite a bit easier than Cragholdt itself, with an optional (you can talk your way out of it) boss fight against a powerful mage and two dragons.That’s when I realized that the whole questline is about fleshing out the wizards who designed the game’s spells; like the rest of the expansion, it seems designed not just to provide content but to flesh out the setting beyond “generic medieval fantasy.”

        I forgot to ask before, but what did you think of the new quest to defend Caed Nua? While the keep is probably the weakest system in the game–especially disappointing compared to Obsidian’s own Neverwinter Nights 2–I really enjoyed prepping my defenses and calling in the allies I had accrued across my playthrough.

        Also, sorry for pestering you with questions on a game you didn’t especially like. Pillars, flaws and all, really scratched an itch for me and I’ve spent a lot of time with it, but I don’t know anyone else who’s actually played it, so I’m a bit starved for meaningful discussion of it.

  3. aerothorn says:

    I’m a little confused by what you mean by the area being “underleveled.” It’s true that by default it targets 6-7, but a big pop-up told me, upon entering, that fact and offered to scall it for my high level party; I of course accepted this and proceeded to find it a good challenge (certainly more so than the end of vanilla Pillars!). So I guess I don’t get why you chose to go the 6-7 route and have them be underleveled?

    • aerothorn says:

      Sorry, clearly read too fast – you address that :)

      FWIW I am NOT a min-maxer, play with the characters whose personalities I like the most, and found only the final battle of Cragholdt particularly difficult (and like you I was coming back in cold, just now, after having not played the original for over a year). So no normal difficulty, at least, it doesn’t seem to go out of its way to be unfair, and the enemies are definitely not “broken” – I imagine they save that for Pillars of the Damned difficulty.

Leave a Reply