Pillars Of Eternity is exquisite. Magnificent. It's like crack and catnip to me: bona fide roleplaying cracknip. Then again, I was always going to love it.
You need to be aware that I adore Black Isle's Infinity Engine RPGs, and Pillars Of Eternity is a true return to form by many of the original masters. Though I didn't back the Kickstarter, I've reviewed this game through a thick lens of nostalgia and affection that I simply can't do anything about.
Bear this in mind, but thankfully it doesn't really matter here. Pillars Of Eternity is a truly exceptional isometric cRPG that's worth playing if you're a fan of the genre, but it's specifically designed to cater to those who still carry a torch for those grand old Infinity Engine days. After all, they're who funded it in the first place!
Take its setting, for example. Eora is a marvel, a world where souls are mutable and complex interesting people live complex interesting lives. The huge tract of it that exists in-game is gorgeous, moody and exciting, from dense forests and crumbling ancient ruins to its massive bustling cities, while evocative naming conventions and beautifully-written lore fleshes out what doesn't. There are gods and wars, big events, real history. We'll enter this setting as a wildcard, a Watcher, who goes from refugee to destined hero. It's fabulous and provides plenty of scope for new modules or sequels like any quality campaign setting.
However, Eora is also cleverly designed to be just similar enough to Faerûn that we have a frame of reference, letting our imagination fill in the gaps. There are dwarves. halflings and straight-up Genasi. A frozen north and Moonshae isles. The level of technology is identical, its magic similar and pantheon distinct yet welcomingly familiar. We don't need every little thing explained to us despite the evocative new terminology, which allows Obsidian to get away with fleshing out the details on the fly without getting bogged down at the start -- even though there's no expanded universe to build on! Playing Pillars Of Eternity is like snuggling back into your favourite pair of slippers and finding they're still warm.
Don't get too comfy, though, because the first major decision you'll have to make is also the biggest. Character creation. Theorycrafters be warned, I've rarely seen such a robust, exciting and versatile character creation suite. Familiar classes like Fighters, Mages and shapeshifting Druids rub shoulders with vicious soul-ripping Ciphers who regenerate mana through murder or Chanters who can literally sing enemies to death or pull skeletal allies out of the ground. Races all confer different stats and even abilities that trigger mid-battle. Spells and skills are numerous, powerful yet limited, leading to loads of tough choices. Despite some incredibly useful tooltips, things quickly threaten to overwhelm.
But they never do, because once again Pillars Of Eternity is familiar enough to subconsciously remind us of the basics. There are six big stats that govern our character's development, Might, Constitution, Dexterity, Perception, Intellect and Resolve, which are all nicely digestible. Better yet, they all confer slight general bonuses (for example, Strength increases all forms of damage, including ranged and spells), meaning that it's very difficult to spec yourself into a dead end. Pillars Of Eternity is so much more streamlined than the rickety old AD&D mechanics, empowering you with bonuses for specialising rather than slapping you down for daring to try things like dual-wielding or stealth.
According to the Steam clock, I spent 53 minutes making my first character: a Dwarven Rogue called Lester. Who I then completely abandoned after half an hour in favour of a Death Godlike Cipher... who's also called Lester. So I have no imagination. That's why I critique games, not make them.
Your character created, you'll sink into Pillars Of Eternity like you never left the Forgotten Realms. You'll explore beautiful maps packed with detail, hidden secrets and visual flair, clicking around, setting formations and using a convenient 'scouting' mode for both stealth and trap-searching. There are portraits and character sheets, doors to pick and hidden tidbits to highlight with a tap of the tab key.
The game handles exactly like an Infinity Engine cRPG only smoother, more convenient and more consistent, giving you unlimited stash space, in-depth crafting and item enchantment at the touch of a button. Losing your health doesn't instantly kill you, instead it knocks you out and replenishes your HP from a larger persistent pool, granting more opportunities to explore at your own pace before high-tailing back to civilization. You can even hire NPC party members and design them from scratch, effectively turning the game from Baldur's Gate into Icewind Dale, or perhaps granting you a particular level of mechanics or lore that you otherwise need to progress. All while enjoying smooth performance and a decent level of detail from the new 3D models.
Forget the slipper analogy, it's like a vintage Roller with a totally restored engine and detailed interior. It purrs, it's gorgeous, but it's still familiar.
Naturally much of your time will be spent in combat against a wide variety of dangerous foes, which is where Pillars Of Eternity bears its fangs. Encounters are brutally tough from the start on default difficulty upwards, meaning that charging in blind will almost always get you killed. Instead you'll need to ensure that you're always fighting on your terms, using all of your party's strengths to the full. Set traps and magical wards. Lure foes into killzones. Blast them with magic, flank them, blindside them, backstab them, never let them engage you head on. There's a lot going on, and a huge number of options, but the ability to pause and issue commands at any time is a godsend.
Pitched combat can become slightly confusing and difficult to keep track of, though, especially in tight quarters. This is partly down to a near-total lack of allied AI but also mainly due to the new true real-time mechanics. Unlike the Infinity Engine, which was sort of turn-based, characters in Pillars Of Eternity all attack and cool down on their own rhythm, making it trickier to compartmentalise in your head. Just ensure to pause frequently and activate most of the fantastically useful Auto Pause criteria in the options menu. You'll thank me later: auto-pause will save your party countless times.
However, what sets Pillars Of Eternity apart from most modern RPGs is that it genuinely lets you role-play. Your race, class, stats, history and numerous other factors all unlock new avenues for dialogue, conversation or confrontation, potentially letting you into fascinating new lore or massively changing the odds of a tough encounter in your favour. Your party members all have their own agendas and fascinating backstories to uncover. Many sections transform evoke classic choose-your-own adventure novels with heavy narration and options depending on your inventory items or stats. Cool, I just found a grappling hook... oh so that's how to to climb that tower I found an hour ago!
The world is huge, utterly enormous, to the point where you'll explore massive sprawling multi-district cities and even run your own upgradeable stronghold (replete with its own massive dungeon!), but Obsidian have lavished an extraordinary level of care and attention into the writing and detail. They've accomplished with words what David Cage completely fails to do with his much-vaunted visuals, using a turn of phrase or a perfect description to add emotion, humour, detail or pathos to a character or situation. "Durance is about to launch another volley of words, blinks, then he rolls his head back and laughs deeply, the laughter coming until it seems the air will run out of his lungs, until it seems... forced." I defy even Nolan North to pull that off.
Quests, too, are never phoned in. What seem like standard 'kill' or 'fetch' missions always expand or divert in totally unexpected ways, constantly throwing up twists and turns, keeping you gripped to an utterly astonishing amount of optional content and allowing you to make some big decisions too. All of which affects your reputation in a particular zone. It's just yet another reminder of Pillars Of Eternity's pedigree and Obsidian's exceptional grasp of storytelling. The writing is magnificent but not overly verbose, muscular and punchy, but with optional dialogue for days. You can even optionally dip into NPC's souls for short stories about traumatic events in their past, completely unnecessary to advance the plot, yet an utterly compelling read nonetheless.
Viewed by today's standards, I suppose you could level a few criticisms at Pillars Of Eternity. Yes, a few more cutscenes and lines of voiced dialogue might have been nice (though there's plenty of the latter). Perhaps the combat can become a little overwhelming, diddums. Possibly there's too much reading and not enough doing. And there's no denying that the setting is still somewhat derivative by design, fantastic yet pushing few boundaries in the process. Sequels could potentially help to further differentiate Eora from the Forgotten Realms.
But you'd be missing the point. Pillars Of Eternity promised to bring back the legendary Black Isle CRPG days and succeeds masterfully. It is, quite frankly, essential.
- Compelling cRPG gameplay based on a robust yet forgiving ruleset
- Fascinating and astonishingly deep character creation and development
- Masterful writing, lore and dialogue doesn't waste a word; lets you role-play
- Huge, expansive, feature-rich and eminently replayable
- A perfect homage to the Infinity Engine games: mission accomplished!
- Pitched combat can be overwhelming (use auto pause)
- Character creation and sheer amount of choice can be overwhelming (use common sense)
- Somewhat derivative (by purposeful design)
The Short Version: Pillars Of Eternity is a masterpiece and nothing less than essential for anyone who's ever heard of the Infinity Engine. Superbly written, expansive yet rich and detailed, tactical and thought-provoking, it's the sort of roleplaying experience that we've been dreaming about for years.
You must gather your party before venturing forth!
9 – EXCELLENT: Only the exceptional need apply here. There might be one or two slight blemishes, but overall games that score a 9 are genre-leaders: must-have titles with perhaps the odd imperfection. You won’t be wasting a single penny in buying a game that scores this high. A few games of this calibre will make it worth spending hundreds on a console or powerful enough PC. Killer apps, indeed.
Developer: Obsidian Entertainment
Publisher: Paradox Interactive