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
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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.