Pillars of Eternity: The White March Review, Real Time with Pause Retrospective

Writing Pillars of Eternity reviews must have become an in-joke on RPG Codex by now. The latest one, however, goes above and beyond a mere re-review of the game with The White March expansions in mind. Apart from the review itself, we get an extensive retrospective of the Real Time with Pause RPG subgenre. I'll let you explore that beast of a retrospective on your own. Instead, here are a few snippets from the review that's about as glowing as it gets:

Winter Came

Had I written this review before August 25, 2015, perhaps it would have ended here - with mixed feelings punctuated by the aforementioned metaphor of a finely cooked meal seasoned with toxic ash.

However, on this date, Pillars of Eternity changed from a promising, but unfulfilling, game, into a masterpiece.

'The White March', Pillars of Eternity's expansion, is a testimony to what iteration and continued passion for a project can do for quality. Its narrative removes the tiresome focus from the player's role as the writer-imparted chosen one, except when it uses that gimmick for the explicit purpose of clarifying details about the story and resolving the conundrums of its main plot step by step. The story is simpler this time, less ambitious and more connected to Pillars' roleplaying roots. In many ways, Stalwart and its surroundings take the lessons learned from Gilded Vale and blows them up to fit an entire expansion. We meet believable characters with clear motives here and more importantly: we keep pushing to reveal the secrets of the ominous Durgan's Battery, secrets that are exposed to us in satisfying bits, each bit both feeding us information and deepening the wider mystery. Rather than every step bringing us another nonsensical flashback, we instead meet characters with something on the line; people, monsters and artifacts that each give us a piece to the puzzle.

With regards to atmosphere and art, Sawyer uses The White March as an excuse to return to his dearly beloved Icewind Dale and borrows in no small part from places like Dorn's Deep. The White March takes what made those areas work and grounds them in a historicism that works much better this time, because this time, most of it is delivered as the incidental byproduct of what characters actually experience and not through tiresome exposition.


In terms of gameplay, the constant updates, tuning and tweaking have paid dividends.

In a display of intellectual honesty that few designers can boast of, Josh Sawyer recognized his mistake and reintroduced counters as a larger part of the gameplay to incentivize tactics-switching. Obidian's team refined the character system and made many talents more build-defining, while simultaneously diversifying abilities and nerfing strategies that were too efficient. The White March also features encounters that feel like Obsidian had a whole team of people who did nothing but plan out, test and re-test battles, filling areas with monsters placed in innovative and annoying combinations – especially on Path of the Damned difficulty – to encourage even further planning on the part of the player. Spamming the same abilities fight after fight is no longer an option, not only due to enemy resistances, but because of the placement, attack type and abilities of your opponents. Even a few, basic trash fights in difficult areas such as Longwatch Falls demand diverse tactics.

Speaking of Path of the Damned, this difficulty mode finally got its chance to shine with the AI updates and varying monster defenses. What is a push-over trash fight with a few fighter-like Sahuagin Lagufaeth on easy can become an all-out brawl with specialized casters, pesky, fast-attacking ranged units and a front of fighters that are hard to pass with your melee characters and which, if you do, will often switch priorities and attempt to finish your backline before you finish theirs.

Combat on the latest patch can still be trivialized by abuse – as is the case with every other RPG – but never has it been more difficult, and never have the challenges felt more diverse. Pillars of Eternity is a slower, more unwieldly version of RTwP combat than its Infinity Engine predecessors, and it lacks the epic mage battles of Baldur's Gate II. With the latest updates, the game makes up for these knocks with some of the best encounter design in RPG history, a finely tuned character system and a 'hardest' difficulty level that feels so different to play, it might as well be a different game altogether.


On top of the painstakingly detailed encounters, Pillars' character system has been expanded and diversified and the amount of possible builds and party compositions is staggering. Talents will greatly alter your character, and depending on what you pick, the same class can be a staunch supporter, an AoE-based damage dealer or a Zone-of-Control extending tank. Currently, the best melee build might actually be a self-buffing Wizard that functions much like the Fighter/Mages or yore, achieving momentary power surges through spellcasting. Discovering all these options, testing them out and finding that clever combinations will actually work is immensely satisfying. Even a few races can shape your entire build path; building a moonlike Paladin and specializing in the racial ability can make her an incredibly efficient healer.

My next playthrough will feature four paladins as the party's backbone, and while they will all pick up the same low-radius AoE damage abilities in the late game in an attempt to stack them on top of each other, their initial, different talents and combat styles will make them feel like four distinct characters. This is in no small part due to another sound success of Pillars of Eternity, making each weapon type and gear setup feel distinctive. In the original game, these differences were masked by poor design choices - mainly that rote strategies could defeat every encounter. In The White March, however, the differences between the weapon types shine.

If you are not paying attention, chances are as well that you will find some encounters oddly easy and some nearly impossible if you rely too much on the same strategies or are unwilling to have different weapon setups. The trick is that resistances, defenses and the armor type of your opponents have a huge impact on the number-crunching in the background, and switching attack types can be as important as changing the overall battle plan.

Itemization is another area of the game that has moved from simple sufficiency to elegant beauty. The amount of variety on display both in terms of basic gear types but also in unique equipment and item abilities has not been rivaled since Shadows of Amn. Everything from basic abilities like giving your characters another chance when they are reduced to 0 hit points to granting unique spells that can only be cast through that specific item to granting conditional immunities or buffing your character while prone. Choosing between these items is rarely a simple problem of just picking the one with the highest stats, but rather demands you factor in which enemies you are fighting, what your character build is and how your gear can become an extension of your character's abilities. Agonizing over which of all these items you are actually going to equip nevermind on which character is pure, clean RPG fun, and once you have played through the game once or twice, you will definetely have found items which inspire you to craft entire characters around them. To add to this diversity, new and very rare crafting ingredients dropped by bosses or given as quest rewards allow you to add unique enchantments on top of your favourite items.

It bears repeating that with patch 3.0 and The White March, combat and character customization in Pillars of Eternity has been iterated from a great idea with mediocre execution to something resembling flawless implementation. Excepting further games in the series, it is undoubtedly the closest you will ever come to playing Baldur's Gate II with the full Sword Coast Stratagems package – and, in many ways, it is superior. Some will find the sluggish control less appealing – it is for me – but there is no denying that the strategic variety is greater in all encounters save the most well-designed mage- and boss-battles in the Infinity Engine games. That The White March also features the most indulgent trip down D&D memory lane you are likely to play on a computer in a long time in the form of dungeon delving, lich battling and loot hunting makes the experience all the sweeter.

Funnily enough, the timing here is impeccable, since I've played through these expansions myself a couple of days ago. And while I still believe that some systems in Pillars of Eternity are fundamentally broken, and despite a myriad of patches there are still stray bugs and typos to be found, for the most part I agree with this Codex review. Playing The White March is like playing a completely different, well-crafted game. For anyone who found the base Pillars of Eternity to be a bit on the dull side, I would strongly recommend giving The White March a chance.