Pillars of Eternity Review

Eschalon: Book II

Publisher:Paradox Interactive
Developer:Obsidian Entertainment
Release Date:2015-03-26
Genre:
  • Role-Playing
Platforms: Theme: Perspective:
  • Third-Person
Buy this Game: Amazon ebay

Introduction

Pillars of Eternity is the latest role-playing game from Obsidian Entertainment.  It's another Kickstarter success story where game players worldwide have shown a desire to return to franchises from yesteryear.  In this case, players were hoping for another Infinity Engine title (which powered the iconic Baldur's Gate, Icewind Dale, and Planescape: Torment games), and that's just what Obsidian delivered.

Pillars of Eternity takes place in a fantasy world that contains a mixture of new and old things.  There are familiar races and classes, like elves, dwarves, fighters and priests, that all do about what you'd expect and thus give players something familiar to latch onto, but there are also new wrinkles, like the chanter class, which unlocks invocations by chanting phrases, and the monk class, which powers its abilities by receiving wounds.

But probably the most interesting new idea in Pillars of Eternity is how the game treats souls.  Souls are immortal while the bodies they inhabit are only temporary.  This changes what it means to die, and it also sets up the introduction to the game, where you learn that babies have suddenly started being born without souls, which means that something is wrong with "the Wheel" that rotates souls between life and death.  Conveniently, your main character is a Watcher, which means you're able to interact with souls, and that leads you into the game's campaign.

Character Creation

Your first order of business in a new game of Pillars of Eternity is to create a main character.  You get lots of options for this.  You get to pick one of six races (including human, elf and "godlike"), one of eleven classes (including druid, priest and ranger), one of 17 backgrounds (which give a small bonus to skills), and one of seven cultures (which give a small bonus to attributes).  Most of these options don't mean a whole lot -- they're balanced, and they almost never come up in dialogue -- and so there isn't much difference between playing a merchant orlan from Aedyr or a mercenary dwarf from the Living Lands.

But the classes are unique and interesting, and you can definitely tell which one you're playing.  For example, all of the casting classes have different mechanics.  Priests and wizards basically use regular D&D rules where they memorize a certain number of spells when they rest, and those are the only spells they have available.  Meanwhile, chanters and ciphers can use as many invocations / powers as they want, but they have to unlock them by chanting phrases / damaging enemies to gain focus.  Even the melee classes have some differences (although less than the casters).  Barbarians can effectively deal with crowds, paladins can become defensive specialists if they maintain their reputation, and rangers can work in synergy with their animal companion to add extra damage.

Each character is also defined by six attributes (including might and intellect) and five skills (including lore and mechanics).  You finalize a character's attribute values when you create them, but you build up their skills as you level them up.  The most interesting thing here is that only the attributes and skills of your main character are checked during conversations, but when you have an environmental interaction, such as trying to climb a steep cliff or jumping across a chasm, you can use the most appropriate character in your party, so it's best to specialize your companions and keep your main character a jack of all trades.

Finally, characters can learn talents and abilities as they level up.  Talents are usually passive bonuses, and they include things like weapon specializations and ability improvements.  Abilities are usually active combat maneuvers, and they're specific to each class.  Some examples of abilities include Unbroken for fighters, which allows them to get back up after being defeated in battle, and Stunning Shots for rangers, which allows them to stun enemies when they crit.  As with other parts of character creation, there are lots of talent and ability options for each character, which allows you to build them up in a variety of ways.

Along with your main character, you can also recruit up to five companions to join you.  There are eight companions available in the game, each one with a quest and a story to tell, but if you don't like them, then you can also create your own companions from scratch instead.  The built-in companions are a little on the dull side (they're not going to generate the same sort of love/hate conversations like the companions from, say, the Dragon Age games), so there isn't much of a downside to skipping them.  But with eight companions, eleven classes, and a party of six, you can easily play the game twice just to try everything out.


Gameplay Mechanics

Obsidian used the Unity Engine to create Pillars of Eternity.  The Unity Engine has powered all sorts of games during its history (including recently Wasteland 2 and Might & Magic X: Legacy), but for some reason Obsidian massaged it to look like the Infinity Engine, and so the difference between playing Pillars of Eternity and one of the recent Enhanced Edition games is minimal.

In other words, you play Pillars of Eternity in roughly the same way as the Infinity Engine games.  The world is presented using an isometric view, and you left-click to move your party (or right-click to move in formation), you left-click to interact with people or containers, and you left-click to attack enemies.  There are also some useful hotkeys, like the spacebar for pausing the game (including during combat so you can issue commands), the tab key for highlighting interactive objects, and the alt key for switching to scouting / sneaking mode.  Since there aren't a lot of keys to remember and most everything can be done with the left mouse button, controlling the game is easy.

Combat starts up whenever an enemy spots you -- or when you force-attack someone, if you're feeling murderous.  Combat usually involves a dozen or more creatures (including your party), and it proceeds in real time, so it can be hectic.  Luckily, you can pause the game at any time to check what's going on and issue orders, and you can also slow down the game's speed if you really want to micromanage your party's actions.

Characters have endurance as well as health, where their maximum endurance is usually about a third or a fourth of their maximum health.  Each time a character takes a hit, they lose endurance and health.  If they lose all of their endurance, then they're knocked out.  If they lose all of their health, then they're either maimed or they die, depending on your difficulty settings.  The important thing about endurance and health is that endurance can be healed by spells during battle, and it returns automatically after a battle, but health only returns when resting.  That means you can start multiple fights in a row and be at "full health" for each one, thus reducing the need to rest.  But on the downside, the system is a little weird, and you might be better off in a fight not trying to heal a squishy character at all, because it might reduce their health too much, forcing your party to rest afterward (which is bad because the game limits how much you can rest before returning to town).

The combat system is relatively simple.  There isn't anything resembling aggro.  Enemies just attack whoever they want, but they're also dumb, so if you present them with an obvious target -- like, say, your tank -- then they often oblige you.  The only way you can control enemies is through engagement.  Melee fighters can engage one or two enemies at once (just by being next to them), and if one of the enemies tries to move away, then your fighter gets a free, powerful attack against them -- which means they usually don't try to move away.  So if you have three melee characters and three ranged characters, then you should be able to keep your back row safe, but if you're like me and you try playing with two melee characters and a ranger's animal companion, then you're frequently going to have enemies where you don't want them.

The most important stat for combat is accuracy, even for spellcasters (since spells can hit or miss just like regular attacks).  Not only does accuracy control whether characters hit or not, it also controls the kind of hit they make -- from a minimal graze to a damaging crit.  Accuracy is compared to a character's defenses, including deflection (for targeted attacks), reflex (for AOE attacks), will (for mental attacks), and fortitude (for physical attacks, like poison), and the more it wins by, the better the hit is.

Overall, the combat system works well enough.  It does what it needs to do, and there are enough enemies, spells, and combat abilities that it never gets dull.  Combat is also frequently optional (you mainly only earn xp for completing quests, not for killing enemies), so you can skip it when possible with no harm done.  There's even an achievement for completing the game with fewer than 175 kills, but I'm guessing that sort of extreme might be difficult to accomplish (I received the opposite achievement, for over 1200 kills, about halfway through the campaign).

Since you don't earn experience points for battles, your reward for defeating most enemies is the loot they drop.  Pillars of Eternity uses the same sort of equipment rewards as the Infinity Engine games, where there aren't any random or set items, and where about a third of the fixed items you find come from battles and quest rewards, and the other two-thirds come from shopkeepers, thus giving you a place to spend your money.

Most enemies also drop ingredients, which allows you to do some crafting.  You can create food items (which can only be used outside of battle), potions (which can be used in battle), and spell scrolls.  You can also enchant weapons and armor to increase the quality of the item and add a couple of bonuses.  The enchanting mechanic is convenient because it means you're not held hostage by the items you happen to find in the campaign.  You can modify basic items so they're useful to you as well.


Campaign

The campaign in Pillars of Eternity takes place in a region of the world called Dyrwood, which consists of towns, keeps, ruins and forests.  You start out in a caravan headed for one of the towns, but along the way you get ambushed, and during your escape you have a strange vision and you learn that you're a Watcher.  From there you pick up a lot of information about the game's world, including that children are being born without souls, and that leads you to your main quest in the game: to figure out what's going on and put a stop to it.

Being a Watcher means that sometimes you can read souls, but strangely this ability doesn't give you much of an advantage during your investigations.  About 90% of the people you read are simply backer characters who don't have anything to do with the plot.  Of the rest, it probably wouldn't have been difficult to relay the information to you in a different way, meaning you didn't really need to be a Watcher at all.  My guess is that you're only a Watcher so the voiced characters in the game can call you "Watcher" rather than your name.

For me, the best part of the campaign is the world where it takes place, including the factions of the people, the places where they live, and the gods who govern them.  A lot of work went into breathing life into these areas.  You don't just learn names of regions and dates of wars.  You come to understand the motivations and personalities of the people of involved.  And so, for example, the War of the Black Trees isn't just a meaningless war in the history of the region.  It's an example of why the Glanfathans don't get along with their neighbors, and why sometimes they shoot first and ask questions later.  I liked the design of the world a lot, and I think that it has enough potential that it could easily support more campaigns if Obsidian wants to stick with it.

Unfortunately, I'm not as enthusiastic about the campaign itself.  The story behind it is well written, and it has nuances and layers, but it's also a little highbrow, and it could have used some more visceral appeal.  For example, your main character learns that there are bad things going on, but nothing really links you to them or motivates you to correct them.  You don't encounter anybody who can give a face to the "hollowborn" problem.  The closest you come is when you meet a local lord who has a pregnant wife -- and who has started executing any healer or magician who can't find a cure.  But for this case you're only motivated to deal with the lord, not the underlying problem.

The campaign also felt a little monotone to me.  Your companions are kind of bland (to the point where they can't be romanced, and they don't care how you play the game), the primary villain is more of a concept than a character, and the voice actors all read their lines very clearly but without much in the way of enthusiasm or emotion.  I would have loved for the characters directly involved with the campaign to have added a spark of energy to the proceedings, but it didn't happen.  For all the life Obsidian breathed into the world, very little of it found its way into the campaign, and I found myself completing a good portion of the quests just because they were there rather than because I was excited about seeing what might happen next.

On a more positive note, the side quests are often more interesting than the main quests, and they usually have more weight to them than somebody simply asking you to retrieve a cloak that was lost in the woods.  These quests also frequently give you multiple options -- for how to solve them, for which factions to please, for if you really want to complete them or not, and more.  It's always nice when quests give you options, because that way they allow you to role-play more, and they give you an extra reason to replay the campaign.  As an example of a side quest -- and one that has a certain amount of appeal here -- in one of the towns you discover a lighthouse being haunted by a banshee.  If you want, you can simply kill the banshee to end the haunting, but you can also learn more about the banshee and (in a roundabout way) convince it to leave, and you get the same reward either way.

Technical Issues

Pillars of Eternity has some positives and negatives when it comes to technical areas.  Let me start with the negatives.  I didn't encounter any serious bugs when playing the game, and it never crashed on me, but the engine has all sorts of rough edges.  Useful features are missing (like the ability to annotate maps), the loading screens get longer and longer the deeper you get into the game (and they're lengthy even with an SSD), there are typos and poorly written descriptions all over the place (like the cipher's Detonate power, which I'm pretty sure doesn't actually deal over 1000 raw damage), and more.  Plus, by emulating the Infinity Engine, the game's interface feels like it's about 15 years out of date.  I understand the desire for nostalgia, but I have no idea why Obsidian didn't create a more modern, robust engine to keep to the Infinity Engine spirit rather than trying to recreate the Infinity Engine exactly.

But on the good side -- well, in a way -- my five-year-old computer died when I was about halfway through Pillars of Eternity, and I ended up playing the game on three different computers: my old computer, my new computer, and an interim non-gaming computer.  Impressively, it ran well enough on all three.  So if you saw the hefty system requirements for The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt and nearly had a heart attack, don't despair.  Pillars of Eternity should work for you regardless of the type of computer you have.  And better yet, it looks like Obsidian is going to support the game with patches -- with two already in the books and another nearly complete -- so maybe the roughness of the engine will get polished to a sheen in the coming months.

Conclusion

Overall, Pillars of Eternity is a fine game, but it's not quite the masterpiece that I was hoping for.  To me, it was more reminiscent of the Infinity Engine games rather than rising to the level necessary to join their lofty ranks.  A lot of things about Pillars of Eternity work well -- the character classes are interesting, and the unique world is full of potential -- but the 60-hour campaign that comes with the game didn't really capture my interest, and that put a damper on my enjoyment of the title.  That sort of makes Pillars of Eternity my new Temple of Elemental Evil, a game where I liked the engine and its architecture, but disliked the campaign.  I just hope Pillars fares better than Temple did, and is able to spawn a more exciting expansion pack and eventual sequel at some point in the future.