Who do I want to be?
It's the question that plagued me at the start of every Infinity Engine RPG -- the plethora of choices, the breadth of meaningful combinations, I found them to be paralysing in some ways, often stuck for well over an hour in indecision. Of course, back in those days, the game usually came with an instruction manual of such thickness that the Bible might have seemed a pamphlet next to it, a manual that made for the best toilet reading ever. So I'd go off and to my business, catch up on some lore, immerse myself within the game world, and attempt to make a decision from a position of greater understanding.
So it is that I found myself spending an inordinate amount of time reading every bit of character description for the Pillars of Eternity Backer Beta, swotting up on the little twists that Obsidian have made to the more traditional classes, and deliberating over the geographical history of my character -- a feature that makes no real difference in the game itself on a mechanical level, but simply further envelopes you in the game's lore.
It was far too difficult. In the end I went for a Fire Godlike Cipher because he looked utterly badass, and because the psionic class is one of the most unconventional I've seen in some time. Typical.
To have spent so much time (none of it felt even remotely wasted) building a character for a slice of standalone gameplay with a party of template strangers and a bunch of powers and abilities that I didn't choose might seem odd, but actually I feel the Backer Beta has been somewhat perfectly balanced. That mix of the familiar and the utterly new, plonking you down in the game world without a lick of context, was probably the only way Obsidian could have made a working beta that manages to show off a great deal of the character of this game without spoiling things too much. Dyrford is a sleepy little village that's home to a fair bit of ruckus of late, and although there's nothing here affiliated with the main story in the game whatsoever, the settlement does a nice job of introducing quest types, gleefully throwing you into the middle of disagreements and disappearances and danger.
As for the characterless goons making up the party, I liked that I couldn't get attached to them. It made the beta easier to leave behind, savouring the systems of the game, exploring the ways in which the various classes can complement one another without forging the emotional bond with characters that always happens to me in good RPGs. Of course, that also meant I didn't really care much for the safety of party members besides my created character, but that gung-ho attitude certainly allowed for experimentation.
Combat in the beta has been a mixed bag. Not having that experience of carefully cultivating your character, not having the understanding of the various powers that comes with continuous experience and experimentation as you progress and slowly build your arsenal, has made combat in the beta a nervous, fraught thing indeed. You're playing with someone else's setup, another's toys, rather than having reached this point in the game naturally. Research was needed, and a finger or thumb was never far away from the comforting pause in action triggered by the space bar. Battles are quick and frenetic, and I found myself a little lost as first as I scraped the rust from my mind. Orientation is brutal, and the learning curve is steep, made all the more tricky thanks to a Stamina system that is potentially brilliant, but confusing without explanation or the context of levelling through 5 tiers. It adds up to a system where death is something to be truly feared, and where getting knocked out can lead to a ripping headache and serious injury, making rest stops even more important. It's nice to be back in a world where inns have real purpose, and rampaging off into the wild for lengthy periods of time is unwise. Sometimes you're going to need to get some serious rest.
Dyrford Inn is a joy to behold, not just because of its promise of safety. My first time through, I stopped and spoke to everyone before eventually washing down the stories and songs with a foamy virtual pint. The swathes of text in this game will be offputting to some, but for me this is the literary equivalent of "cinematic" gaming. Sumptuous descriptive prose bringing the world to life in gloriously detailed fashion, giving depth and shading to characters' body language and cadences of speech, giving substance to the minutiae of the environments with colourful writing that wraps you up in the moment. Every conversation, it seems, comes with a skill or personality check -- a way of further fleshing out your character and their role, filling the world with personalities who will come to judge you in a myriad of fashions for everything that you say and do.
I used to find myself worrying about what the "right" way through such dialogue might be, and indeed it's something that colours BioWare games a little too much these days -- the notion that you can fail at conversation. Here, in a game that owes a great deal to some of BioWare's finest work, I only found freedom in choices. Better yet, you can render the notifications of skill check invisible, removing the options you can't access from sight, covering up the moving cogs that little bit more and drawing you further into the experience should you wish.
There've been plenty of bugs in the beta, particularly little pathfinding issues that one hopes will be excised before the finished version is released. They become especially irritating in fights, with combatants unable to step around other people at times. Lockpicking appears to be rather broken as well, but one glance at the forums tells me that I'm not alone in decrying that particular aspect of the beta.
Overall, though, it's a captivating experience, albeit one that I'm loathe to wade too deeply into at this stage because as an Infinity Engine RPG fan and a backer, I want to savour the full experience when it eventually emerges and build my Cipher's skillset from the ground up. It's a fascinatingly tactical class -- having to engage in close combat attacks before unleashing some seriously powerful spells and dominating the minds of your foes. Once I'd gotten a handle on time management, I found myself enjoying combat more... when I wasn't sucking terribly.
If Obsidian can work out the kinks in the combat, which feels a little fiddly right now, and fix the bugs and the pathfinding issues ahead of launch, Pillars has the chance to be something truly special indeed: a truly modern retro RPG -- a thoroughbred successor to the Infinity Engine games that refuses to compromise on choice and cerebral conflict and confrontation, feels rich and compelling in its design, while updating a number of systems and improving the interface. It's beautiful and brutal and buggy, this Backer Beta, and it's brimming with promise.