three years have been an exciting time to be any kind of gamer, but it’s been especially exciting if you’re a life-long PC gamer who has patiently awaited the resurgence of once-popular genres such as the classic computer role-playing game. The increasing popularity of Steam and other digital distribution services and their coexistence with popular crowdfunding platforms such as Kickstarter and Indiegogo has created a perfect storm for indie game developers, who can now survive and thrive as they make the games they’ve always wanted to make for niche audiences that never went away. Obsidian Entertainment are a mid-sized company that have been a part of the industry for over a decade – you may have heard of their work on critically and commercially successful games like Fallout: New Vegas and South Park: The Stick of Truth. The company has a history of making great games, but their latest opus, Pillars of Eternity, is the first one they’ve ever been able to make on their own terms, divorced from publisher interference. While it doesn’t quite reach the same heights as the best moments of New Vegas or Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II, it feels more like a complete and polished product than their only other attempt at an original IP, Alpha Protocol, and when compared to its peers in the tidal wave of new old-school RPGs, it easily stands head and shoulders above the competition.
Pillars of Eternity was pitched on Kickstarter in September 2012 as a spiritual successor to the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons games that ran on the Infinity Engine – Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale, and Planescape: Torment. Collectively, these games have sold several million units and are still greatly admired by many RPG fans today. Creating a modernized pastiche of the Infinity Engine games that lived up to their legacy would be a daunting task for any company, but with lead designer Josh Sawyer’s experience helming Icewind Dale II and the continued presence of many of the same people who made those original games a reality, it seemed like a natural fit. Its sources of inspiration aside, Pillars isn’t afraid to carve its own bold path, and the resulting product is an experience that’s all at once welcoming to newcomers, divisive to hardcore AD&D veterans, and a powerful blast of nostalgia for everyone else.
On a fundamental level, the aesthetics and gameplay experience of Pillars of Eternity are very much of a piece with its forefathers. You control a party of up to six members from an isometric perspective, and combat takes place in real time with the ability to pause at will to issue commands to your characters. The maps you traverse are beautifully pre-rendered 3D environments that have been painted over and touched up. Throughout the course of the game, you will crawl through dungeons, meet new potential party members, kill monsters, level up, and do other familiar RPG things. Distilled to its purest essence, an RPG doesn’t seem all that difficult to get right. In practice, it’s another story entirely. Even the titles that are held up as pinnacles of the genre are typically fundamentally flawed in one way or another, and with Pillars Josh Sawyer set out to correct some things he saw as lacking in the Infinity Engine games.
The differences in Pillars’ character system are noticeable from the get-go, with more classes to choose from than in AD&D. Additionally, the attributes of your characters are not meant to simulate reality. Increasing your Might statistic won’t just make you hit harder in melee combat – it also affects your healing abilities and the power of some spells. Instead of having health points and magic points, Pillars has a dual-health system and limits your usage of magic in a couple of different ways. As they are hit in combat, your characters will lose endurance, causing their portrait to fill up with red. When their portrait is completely covered up, they are knocked out and typically cannot get back up until the end of combat. You lose health at a slower rate than endurance, and when that runs out the character dies. In the Infinity Engine games, keeping your vulnerable characters out of harm’s way was a constant struggle that had serious consequences if you messed up. Thanks to the engagement system, it’s now more important to properly set up your party formation before combat starts than to run around like a lunatic in the midst of battle. With this system, enemies will lock on to a character and focus on attacking solely them. It’s possible to break the engagement, but doing so allows foes to get a few extra hits on you unless you activate abilities to prevent this. The combat in general feels more forgiving this time around (although the difficulty level on Hard and Path of the Damned is certainly no slouch), and since limited camping supplies means you can’t infinitely rest in dungeons without making the boring slog back to town, the game not only easily forgives your mistakes, it actively encourages you to play better. This kind of design is ingenious and should be seen far more often in RPGs
. Even inventory management—something otherwise negligible that added tedium and bogged down the experience of the Infinity Engine games, has been improved greatly with the addition of an infinite stash that you can send trash loot to to sell off later. All across the board, you will find these examples of good, well thought out game design. It’s debatable whether all of these changes are objectively better or not, but it’s hard to deny that a lot of thought and iteration went into the mechanics of Pillars of Eternity.
While the game’s mechanics are a solid foundation, the content itself doesn’t always deliver. The excellent combat system, for example, is largely wasted on boring encounter design; most maps only have a few different types of enemies that are repeated throughout in different group sizes. There are tons of quests to be solved, secrets to be found, and dungeons to be delved, and while most of what’s there is good, if unremarkable, Pillars cries out for more locations, quests and characters that really instill that “wow” factor. The beginning of the game presents an interesting premise, with your character becoming a Watcher and gaining the ability to look into people’s souls for new insights, but the plot gradually goes off the rails until it’s hard to tell what it wants to be. The town of Gilded Vale—with its prominent tree of hanging corpses—starts the game off in a somber and affecting way, and raiding the keep of the tyrant responsible for those hangings is one of the best and most memorable optional quests. The crazed war priest Durance and the disturbing cipher Grieving Mother are the two best written characters who can join your party, and getting to know them is a task in itself. It’s not that there isn’t exceptional content here, because there is – there’s just not quite enough of it. To be fair, this is not a problem unique to the game, but rather one that is symptomatic to almost all new IPs, and with the foundation of the game’s setting and mechanics already in place, the inevitable sequel should improve tremendously in these areas.
It’s not surprising that Pillars of Eternity is selling very well and is Obsidian’s best reviewed game to date: it deserves to be. It’s the game that has finally proved the company can make an original IP with good game mechanics, and it’s mostly devoid of the bugginess their games used to be known for. Perhaps uncharacteristically, it falters a bit compared to their previous titles in its writing, quest design and compelling content, but what’s there is by no means bad, broadly speaking. If you liked Baldur’s Gate or even old computer RPGs in general, it wouldn’t hurt to give it a shot- and you can feel good about financially supporting an independent studio that has been instrumental in keeping good RPGs alive and well in this day and age.