Pillars of Eternity is just the type of RPG you don’t see made these days, at least from major studios and is only possible because of the advent of crowdfunding. And despite it’s kickstarter budget, Obsidian have developed a very high quality RPG in the vein of the classics.
In RPGs of this kind, the quality of the writing can make or break the game to a large degree, since you are going to be doing plenty of reading. I’m pleased to say the writing is, while not earth shattering, is quite solid. In terms of the plot, the premise is that your player character is settling in a place known as the Dyrwood,when after your caravan is ambushed, you escape and come across a ritual and survive a deadly, supernatural weather. This causes you to become what is known as a Watcher, who is someone who can see into the souls of others, as well as see fragments of one’s previous lives. So the main thrust of the narrative is a personal quest to find out how this happened and who caused so that you have a hope of finding some kind of eternal peace. Through this main quest and some of the side quests, concepts such as past lives, mental illess and existentialism that just screams Nietzsche, at least a little bit. All these things are presented in a way that is engaging and interesting. The worldbuilding, through dialogue and lore books is mostly well done, although there can be a bit of lore dumping at times, but this wasn’t terribly indigestible and through pretty much just playing the game normally I had a pretty decent understanding of what was going on.
Another strength of the writing is that it is suitably descriptive, yet never being too verbose for it’s own good. And it also avoids the fantasy racism type of side narratives that is often poorly done and hamfisted in the fantasy genre. Although the game does claim that the race of your character can impact how NPCs or party members interact with you, I had never experienced something like this happening.
As for other parts of the presentation, the sound effects are by and large quite good and the music is quite nice. Voice acting however is a mixed bag with some of it being decent to being laughably bad and while the game isn’t fully voice acted, you will still be hearing it quite a bit. Still, it’s decent more often than it is bad.
The game utilises the unity engine with a mixture of 2D and 3D graphics, with players, NPCs, creatures and so on being 3D with the backgrounds being stunningly prerendered. Many sections, from the first dungeon, to the towers (as pictured in the header image) and all the interiors, everything looked very nice. The only thing that looks kind of shit are the faces on characters, but you’ll rarely be seeing them anyway so it’s not too annoying.
As for the game itself, being a game harkening back to classic computer RPGs, it plays very much like them. It’s in an isometric view and you control a party of characters, levelling up your stats, specialising them.Levelling up can take a while since the base game only has 10 levels. You cannot grind since enemies don’t respawn, which is wonderful for backtracking through a zone. You can also put characters on double speed which makes backtracking far less tedious. The inventory system is quite nice too since you have a stash which you can store infinite amounts of items, which is great for getting easy money just by looting enemies and selling all your shit.
As far as classes go, there are your usual fighter, ranger (which i played), wizard, rogue and so on and your party will follow the usual tank, support and dps type of arrangements. The game doesn’t exactly move the genre forward, but it doesn’t intend to. Pillars of Eternity however does have a couple of it’s own interesting classes amongst the usual. One of these is the chanter, which is much like a bard but with the twist that they’re quite capable in combat. Indeed, I had one of these as my main tanks and it’s support abilities are very useful. They can be specced out to support a more melee or ranged playstyle. There’s more classes, such as monk or barbarian but I never had them in my party so I don’t know how well they play. Another nice touch is that you can reroll your characters if you want and also hire other party members that you have full control over them if the given companions don’t tickle your fancy or suit your desired party composition.
Combat in Pillars of Eternity , instead of being turn based like other recent classic RPG revivals like Divinity: Original Sin or Shadowrun: Dragonfall, is a real time with pause combat system where you control your party actions and can pause the game to survey the situation and to queue orders for each character. Combat encounters can take minutes or seconds depending on your characters and how well you begin the encounter. Good planning is favoured over improvisation, although you can get away with a little bit of that. As an aside, i found the wedge formation to be the most useful. I found this combat system generally quite enjoyable and rewarding. Anyone who has played a game like this in the past will likely find this enjoyable too. When you pull off a quick victory against odds that at first appear insurmountable or winning battles by a hair, it’s very satisfying.
As for the difficulty, I played the game on normal and it was quite a decent challenge most of the time. Starting out as a ranger can be quite tricky but once you’ve got at least a wizard and a fighter, the game starts becoming manageable for competent players. The difficulty is up and down, with some parts kicking your ass or at least being quite intense and requiring you to use your brain. At one point however, combat encounter became trivial and I was on autopilot for a while until I got to the last third of the game where the combat became challenging again. The difficulty for the most part is fair, although sometimes the game will fuck you up and ruin your day, such as running into a mob of pretty powerful ogres that will grind you into dust.Boss type encounters, which are few but still present, can also feel quite cheap at times. The main boss itself will be quite difficult enough on it’s own, such as the dragon at the Hylea temple but the game insists on throwing a posse of smaller enemies that aren’t trivial, which will likely cause you to have fuck all magic or ability uses by the time you’ve got your whole party focusing on the main enemy.
As a whole, Pillars of Eternity is a successful classic computer RPG with modern polish. It’s presentation is mostly great, it’s combat challenging, fun and intellectually stimulating and it’s writing solid. The game will take you about 30 hours or more depending on how many side quests you do, at least on a first playthrough and there is plenty possible replay value here through having different character builds and party compositions and making different dialogue and narrative choices. For anyone who has ever enjoyed this kind of RPG ,it is well worth checking out.