“Pillars of Eternity was made possible by Kickstarter and over 77,000 backers.”
This message greets you upon launching Obsidian’s new RPG, which is, at its heart, a gift to all the fans who made it possible. And as someone who loved the game, I’m grateful to all the backers as well. Pillars of Eternity is a love letter to the old Infinity Engine RPGs—think of Baldur’s Gate and Planescape: Torment, if they were made in 2015 and had all the wonders of modern game development. Never having played any of these games (I know, I’m ashamed of myself too, can I still work here?), but being a devout fan of the genre, I dived headfirst into Pillars not knowing what to expect but knowing that I was excited. What I found was an addictively satisfying game that I haven’t been able to put down.
The power of Pillars lies in its storytelling and its sense of adventure. But before you can get into any of this, you need to make a character—and listen to me when I tell you, you’d best prepare for a deep and wonderfully complex character creation system. The races and classes are clearly inspired by Dungeons & Dragons staples, but there are new introductions that spice things up a bit. If you want to play as a regular human, elf, or dwarf be my guest, but why not be daring and try a towering aumaua, a short furry orlan, or a godlike, a person blessed with aspects of the gods? And sure, you can be a boring fighter or a common ranger, or you can go big and make your character a mind-power wielding cipher or a magical bard-like chanter. These additions are a nice touch because they ground themselves in the familiar while playing around with what you already know and love and have seen a thousand times before. You also choose your culture and background, which become relevant in certain interactions, and from what I’ve seen they can be pretty influential in how some of the more important events unfold. Of course, you also choose your body type and appearance here. There aren’t many looks to choose between, but that isn’t an issue because the Pillars art style never really gives you any opportunities to take a good look at your character’s face outside of the inventory or levelling up screens, and unless you’re a godlike you’ll spend most of the game in a helmet. The character creation system is so deep and intricate that that I restarted the game several times before I had a character I was totally happy with. Like I said, prepare yourself for a long, but satisfying haul.
Luckily, your choices here go beyond your abilities and appearance: NPCs and factions react to your background differently, and your character’s details can have a big impact on the narrative experience you get. Dialogue, however, plays the biggest role in tailoring the Pillars story.
So thank god the writing is superb! Seriously, Pillars has some of the best writing I’ve come across in any game—or even any book! Character interactions are a mixture of dialogue and written descriptions, and these set the scene to a tee. With the addition of subtle sound effects, the dialogue immerses me into the Pillars world better than I ever expected a game with minimal animation and voice acting could do. Your dialogue choices affect your alignment and reputation, and your attributes open up unique dialogue choices that can make quests easier to complete. It’s impossible to say without replaying the game or reading other players’ experiences, but I get the impression that your dialogue choices are very important in determining how the game plays out.
To be honest, sometimes the walls of text were overwhelming. If you’ve been at it for a few hours it’s easy to feel like you’re facing down one too many intense conversations. I didn’t enjoy the game as much when I was skimming through the dialogue, so I’d suggest taking a break if this happens to you too—it really is wonderfully written and it’s worth devoting your whole attention to!
If you don’t love the idea of reading mountains and mountains of text then I’d steer you away from Pillars. If this doesn’t put you off, though, you’re going to be treated to an amazing narrative and I’m so excited for you!
The other half of Pillars of Eternity is the combat. This is the familiar real-time affair of the game’s spiritual predecessors. It’s complex, requires your strict attention, and satisfying to pull off. Combat can be paused and slowed at any time, which makes it far easier to manage your party and keep everyone alive. I enjoyed the strategy, but there were issues that sometimes made it tricky.
The HUD is just too small to easily see what characters are doing, and I was constantly losing track of which party member was where. Not even Big Head mode helped (which is a hilarious feature and I’d highly recommend turning it on for at least one quest). Maybe it was just my unfamiliarity with the Infinity Engine system, or maybe I need a new contact prescription, but it was needlessly frustrating to have to struggle to see what everyone was doing and to whom. The health indicators also let me down—I don’t know how they’re measured, but I could never get an accurate reading of enemies’ health from them. These are minor gripes, but they did lessen the experience for me. I’m left loving the dialogue and kind of resenting the combat, even though it’s mostly a fun experience.
There’s one point about the combat that I actually love, and that is that it doesn’t give you a huge amount of XP. “But Alana, I hate when games do this!” But I see it as levelling the playing field; you can smash your way through the game like the magical Hulk, or you can be quiet as a mouse and still get the same amount of XP. This inclusion is a very thoughtful one when you consider how flexible Pillars’ quests are. I had a great time with one of the early side quests, determined to overthrow an evil lord and avenge innocent villagers. I explored every nook and cranny of his castle that I could reach, and thought I’d found everything. So I was surprised when I read a walkthrough and realised that, despite my exploring, I’d made an inadvertent beeline for the boss fight, and missed out on a substantial sub-plot of the quest. Turns out there’s a much more delicate way to reach my goal that involves a higher lockpicking skill and more of that wonderful dialogue I just gushed about. So, the moral of the story is, make sure you explore everything, and above all, invest in the Mechanics skill!
Pillars of Eternity is filled with thoughtful little touches that don’t have anything to do with the story but make your experience just that little bit sweeter. You come across NPCs whose souls you can read, getting a small glimpse into their lives. These NPCs actually represent the backers, which is another sweet gesture of thanks from Obsidian. I stopped interacting with these guys pretty quickly, but I always smile when I see one. Walking through cities, you can overhear snippets of conversation remarking on your adventures, which solidifies your place in the world and the importance of your actions. But the best, and the biggest, of these extra touches is the stronghold management. Not far into the game you’re sent to an old stronghold, and you become its master. You’re tasked with rebuilding it, and are rewarded with an ever-improving base of operations. Eventually you can set up shops and hire soldiers, and it provides you with special rewards for resting there as opposed to camping in the wilderness or staying at an inn. Upgrading the stronghold also allows for events—special quests special quests to send your party members on while they’re not traveling with you. Characters gain XP for completing events, and bring back loot and gold.
Not that you’ll need gold often—I always had more than enough from exploring and looting bodies. The same goes for items, so I very rarely needed to buy anything. You’ll put most of your coin back towards further stronghold upgrades. Overall, I don’t feel like the stronghold adds anything amazing to the game, and I sometimes forgot I even had it, but it’s a nice touch that helps build the world around you.
But the most exciting surprise of the stronghold is the Endless Paths of Od Nua! I still haven’t completed the massive 15 level dungeon settled underneath the building, but it’s filled with side quests and tasks and will feed your sense of adventure for hours.
Pillars of Eternity is an unforgiving homage to the RPGs we (you) know and love, but it’s obvious to anyone that it’s a labour of love. Thankfully, it’s a good game in and of itself, so don’t be put off if you’ve never played the classics. Pillars isn’t the best RPG I’ve ever played, and I don’t think it will be the best of the year, but it’s an exciting experience that made me feel like I was on a grand adventure and made me genuinely care about its story. This is a game you can really sink your teeth into immerse yourself in. If you enjoy PRGs and crave a game with an exceptional story, look no further!
Review by Alana Young