“You must gather your party before venturing forth.”
If that line of dialogue – taken from Black Isle’s seminal 1998 RPG Baldur’s Gate – is burned indelibly into your memory, it’s likely you’ve heard of Pillars of Eternity.
When Obsidian announced in late 2012 that they were planning on making a spiritual successor to the classic RPGs made by Black Isle in the 90s, fans flocked to back the project on Kickstarter. A little over a month later the studio – which had been ready to close its doors for good – had managed to raise almost $4,000,000 to develop the game. Despite what many publishers seem to think gamers do – or, more precisely, don’t – want, Obsidian managed to prove that there is still a massive audience for an old-school PC role-playing game: one that doesn’t dumb down the gameplay or the challenge for the mass market, or afraid to offer a stiff challenge.
For some, Obsidian’s spotty record was a reason to exercise caution. Knights of the Old Republic 2 was excellent, though lacking content and full of bugs thanks to LucasArts pushing the game out before it was ready. Alpha Protocol has a hardcore group of fans, but also had plenty of issues. And Fallout: New Vegas saw the studio’s design outstripping the capabilities of the game engine. So as exciting a prospect as a return to the glory days of PC-based role-playing was, and with the legacy of the games it was paying tribute to lurking over its shoulder, it was difficult to get too excited about Obsidian’s latest project.
Thankfully, Obsidian has delivered possibly the best game in the studio’s history – one that’s easily on par with Black Isle’s best. Simply put, Pillars of Eternity is one of the greatest games I’ve ever played.
Just in case you’ve wandered into this review with no knowledge of classic PC RPGs, the general premise is that you create a character and are given the freedom to explore a huge fantasy world rich with lore, characters, magic and monsters, usually from a top-down or isometric perspective. Pillars of Eternity features a pausible real-time tactical combat system that allows you to manage the actions of up to six members in your party.
This leads to some highly strategic and satisfying encounters with enemies. You can’t use brute force to win in Pillars – you have to think things through and make sure you have a party that synergises well together based on the different classes that they are, taking advantage of the game’s active pause system to regularly stop the flow of combat and issue new orders to your troupe.
But combat in Pillars of Eternity is just half the experience; this is a role-playing game after all, and so the narrative and character customization is just as important as making enemies explode in showers of giblets. In Pillars of Eternity, while your group will eventually number 6 people at any one time, you’re only allowed to create one character – and they’re the main protagonist. All of the events in the story revolve around them and the choices you make. Will you be benevolent or cruel? Honest or deceptive? Passionate or stoic? All of these things matter, and the world convincingly reacts and adapts to your choices. Many games have done this before, but none did it quite so well as Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale and Planescape: Torment. That is, until now.
Once you start a new game for the first time, you’re assaulted by almost unbearable waves of nostalgia in the opening cutscene. There’s no fancy CGI; the story is introduced using simple hand-drawn stills accompanied by rolling text and narrated in a hushed, mysterious voice – as if the coming tale was intended for you and you alone. I was taken back to the childish excitement I felt when I first played Baldur’s Gate and heard about my character’s life in Candlekeep. Everything is written beautifully and the artwork is simple, but is more poignant because of it – only a framework of what’s happening is presented to you and it’s left to your imagination to build the rest of this mysterious, yet enticing, spectacle. As the cutscene fades you’re left with the character creation screen, and it perfectly shifts from a nostalgic old-school RPG style to Obsidian’s more modern take on the genre.
Without the license to create a game using the Dungeons & Dragons ruleset and settings, Obsidian has instead crafted their own – but the freedom this has given the studio has allowed them to do away with some of the more esoteric aspects of the tabletop RPG. Hits and misses are still being determined by dice rolls in the background of course, but it’s now a lot easier to determine the impact that an additional point in one of the game’s 6 attributes will have on gameplay. And creating their own setting has allowed Obsidian to be more imaginative with character classes and races.
There are plenty of options when it comes to creating your character. All of the options for race that you’d expect to be there, are there – humans, dwarves, elves – but there are some totally new options too. You’re able to play as either the giant aquatic race called the Aumaua or the short, cat-like Orlans. The most interesting option is to play as a Godlike – mystical beings that aren’t fully trusted by the other races and are the progeny of the Gods.
After choosing your race, you need to choose from one of 11 different classes. The usual suspects are there – warrior, barbarian, wizard – but there are some more exotic choices too, like the Cipher – essentially a telepath who is able to manipulate others. With your class set and your starting attribute points allocated, you get to choose your background – essentially your character’s origin story. While in many RPGs your character’s background is little more than narrative fluff, in Pillars of Eternity it affects how others perceive you, the stats you start off with, and can influence which quests appear in the game and the different paths open to you.
Obsidian has clearly put the $4m they raised on Kickstarter to good use. Everything about Pillars of Eternity screams quality. The graphics are faithful to classic Infinity Engine games, but with the benefit of more modern technology. The character designs, the backgrounds, the combat animations and the effects for various abilities and spells all look great, while backgrounds enjoy a high level of detail which rarely dips below genuinely impressive. Playing Pillars of Eternity genuinely feels like you’re playing the spiritual successor to Baldur’s Gate. Obsidian has absolutely nailed the look and feel of those earlier games, while tidying up some of their rougher edges for a more modern audience.
The soundtrack is similarly accomplished. The music in Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale tended more towards the heroically epic, conjuring images of great battles, sweeping mountains and dwarves grumbling over goblin corpses. However, Pillars of Eternity is a different story. The music feels more mysterious, more downplayed – less about dealing with everything on an epic scale and more lending itself to the story of your own particular hero. There are moments when the music is very reminiscent of particular pieces from Black Isle’s games, different but just similar enough that nostalgia grabs hold of you. For this, Justin Bell must be highly commended; he’s created a soundtrack that gave me nostalgic goosebumps throughout.
Pillars of Eternity is very similar to Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale and Planescape Torment. However, this isn’t a bad thing at all. The core mechanics of those old school RPGs are one of the reasons they’re so great. Most actions work on basic dice rolls that the game generates to add an element of chance to everything you do (much like the tabletop role-playing games that inspired it). If you’re familiar with those games, then you should be able to jump into Pillars of Eternity without too much trouble, but be forewarned that combat in Pillars of Eternity is difficult.
Obsidian warns you of this right from the start: even Normal difficulty is recommended purely for veterans who haven’t let their skills slip over the years. Heed those warnings, otherwise you might find yourself confronted with a game in which every encounter feels like a roadblock rather than a satisfying challenge. Combat seems to be a speedier affair than it was in those older games. Usually combat is won or lost within the first few rounds of fighting. You’ll need to make the most of the scouting ability (a stealth and search mechanic rolled into one) to scope out who you’ll be fighting next, and prepare accordingly. There are also options to speed up or slow down the gameplay, and you can set conditions under which the game auto-pauses, such as detecting an enemy – which can be very handy in certain situations.
Outside of combat, the decisions you make are just as meaningful. NPCs can live or die depending on your character’s particular attributes and the choices you make; the end result of every quest can change dramatically, depending on how you react. In a pleasant change to many RPGs in which charisma (or some equivalent) is the only factor that has any meaningful affect on these encounters, every character attribute in Pillars has specific uses in conversations. As a Cipher, I tended towards being a smart aleck who liked to deceive people, as my intelligence was particularly high. However, had I chosen a different class with high Resolve (the attribute governing bravery, willpower and leadership) like a Fighter, I could have tended towards being a more loud and bousterous hero who rests his arms on his hips and stares into the distance as the wind flows through his mighty beard.
You start the game travelling with a caravan to the village of Dyrwood, for reasons unknown. Due to certain unforeseen circumstances you bear witness to a supernatural ritual which bestows you with the special powers. You can perceive souls, past and present, and manipulate them to your will. In the world of Eora (where the game is set) souls aren’t the abstract concepts that one would expect, but are in fact objects that can be studied and manipulated. But people are losing their souls, and so it’s your job to heal the sickness falling over the land.
It wouldn’t be a role-playing game without plenty of sidequests of course, and in Pillars of Eternity there are hundreds of smaller side-stories to get involved in, all written to the same high standard as the main story. There’s so much to do that it can sometimes feel overwhelming, but Obsidian does such a great job of immersing you in the game that it never becomes a problem. The companions that you can bring along on your adventures all have interesting backstories and questlines. Interactions with them have great depth as they take notice of how you behave in the world and will react to you accordingly. However, those of you who are hoping for romance will have to look elsewhere, as sadly it isn’t featured. Despite this, your companions are still incredibly well-developed throughout the course of the game. I found myself very attached to them and genuinely cared about what they thought of my character, and felt a pang of loss and guilt when one of them kicked the bucket in combat.
Pillars of Eternity follows in the footsteps of classic role-playing games, but is still original enough to leave its own mark on the genre. Its world is rich in detail, combat is satisfying, and the writing is among the best the genre has to offer. There’s also a lot of content to work through – my playthrough took me around 70 hours and I know there were some stones I left unturned; Pillars isn’t a game that you’ll finish in a weekend.
By the time the final credits roll, you’ll be left in no doubt that what you’ve experienced is a modern classic of the role-playing game genre. Obsidian set out to create a spiritual successor to classic role-playing games. But instead of feeling like a pale imitation of past glories, Pillars of Eternity manages to join their ranks. It is, quite frankly, one of the best role-playing games ever made.
And on that note, I think it’s time for me to make a new character.