Pillars of Eternity Review

I won’t pretend to have had much of an interest in Pillars of Eternity before its release. While Infinity Engine games like Baldur’s Gate 2 and Planescape: Torment are among my favorites, they’re balanced out somewhat by the more boring and tedious Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale that are too focused on the mechanics to do anything particularly interesting. As such, I figured Pillars of Eternity to be a predictable traipse through the same sorts of identical-looking forests and phoned-in stories that games like the original Baldur’s Gate suffered from. While Pillars is definitely not anything near a perfect experience, I’m glad to say that I was totally wrong about that.

Of gods and bombs and souls

The setup will be immediately familiar: you, being some random person destined for great things, end up stumbling onto a bunch of crazy people doing crazy things and, in doling out brutal justice where necessary, wind up directly influencing the fate of the world. To be more specific, fifteen minutes or so into the game you gain the powers of a “Watcher,” that being a person who remembers what it was like to be a soul without a body after death but before reincarnation and is thus rendered able to see souls.

Double-clicking to move the camera AND characters makes running around easier.

Since Watchers have a tendency to go mad from the nagging remembrances of their prior lives, you set out on a quest to find the man who caused you to become a Watcher in the first place in the hopes that he’ll be able to reverse the process.

Of course, a Watcher’s ability to see things imperceptible to others proves invaluable during this search, allowing you to relive the experiences of the freshly-dead or find a reincarnated soul using an object belonging to them in a past life, and your abilities are doubly important because of “Waidwen’s Curse.” Waidwen was a farmer who was believed to have been used as a body for a god who then led a crusade to liberate everyone from less worthy gods, and this incited a war between those who believed and those who considered him a fraud that only ended when a small group of people blew him up on a bridge. Suddenly, children began being born without souls, hollow vessels that didn’t truly live, and this scourge became known as Waidwen’s Curse, considered by many the price for defying a living god.

This is just one of many threads you’ll have to unravel, and those who disliked Planescape for its constant barrages of text should be warned that there’s a lot of reading involved. However, for those who enjoy lengthy, detailed exposition, Pillars is a bit of a dream come true. It may not quite reach the levels of Planescape’s writing, but it comes surprisingly close at times. However, Pillars of Eternity was crowdfunded, which leads us to a fairly unique problem of immersion-breaking content. This shows up most noticeably in the form of gold-named NPCs who litter many populated areas, and you can’t actually speak to these people. Instead, you can use your Watcher skills to read their souls, and this is something that backers had a hand in (though I’m not sure to what extent). The writing isn’t necessarily bad and even manages to be enjoyable at times despite some of the stories being a bit on the boring side, but it’s ultimately a lot of writing that has nothing to do with the story. This causes the game to seem to lack focus toward the beginning when you’re not quite sure whether or not these stories are important. On the other side of things, there are monoliths littered throughout the world filled with backer-submitted content that includes poems and other random things that have no place in the world. All of this stuff is distracting, and the game would have been better without it, but at the same time it’s important to recognize that Pillars was only made because of its crowdfunding campaign. I suppose it’s best to ignore gold-named NPCs and random monoliths while trying not to hold this content against the game too much.

There are dungeons and dragons, but no D&D

The old Infinity Engine games revolved around Dungeons & Dragons. Now, I won’t pretend to know a great deal about all of that because I’ve never played a pen and paper RPG, but things like the spells and rules that Infinity Engine games used were taken straight from the pen and paper game and translated to work in the context of a computer game. Pillars of Eternity doesn’t use D&D rules, though, which makes the fact that its mechanics are so immediately familiar surprising and impressive.

The stealth system is a bit like Dishonored’s, with NPCs becoming
gradually more aware of you before you’re spotted.

This is an isometric game that sports real-time with pause (RTwP) combat that’s almost identical to the Infinity Engine games. The spells are similar—though there are plenty of interesting spells I don’t recall being available, such as a wall of fire you can position—while the tactic of using a “tank” character to distract enemies away from your weaker party members is intact (and arguably improved), and the whole thing is just incredibly polished; I even managed to make my way into an optional dungeon and defeat enemies quite a bit stronger than my characters using nothing but careful planning, which is the sign of a well-balanced game.

There are numerous classes to choose from when creating a character, from chanters who confer passive bonuses to allies while fighting to fighters who can effectively engage multiple enemies at once. Then you have rangers who have animal companions who join them in battle, rogues who can perform sneak attacks, priests who mix offensive and defensive magical abilities, and the class I found most interesting of all, ciphers. Ciphers are basically able to manipulate people’s minds and souls, and their attacks power their abilities. This means that having a cipher in your party allows you to do crazy things like charm half of a mob to attack the other half, or even cause an enemy with low health to explode and do area damage. My enjoyment of ciphers reached a whole new level when I discovered that the best companion in the entire game (in my opinion, of course) happens to be a cipher. Her writing is so abstract and sadly beautiful that I’d consider it near the same level as that found in Planescape, but I’ll leave it at that to avoid spoiling anything for anyone.

It’s not all sunshine and rainbows, though

To be fair, the game suffers from some questionable design decisions. For one, the backer stuff I mentioned earlier that litters the game, though I suppose that was unavoidable. Then there’s the more unforgivable stuff like only being able to rest if you have enough “camping supplies,” whereas Infinity Engine games allowed you to rest almost any time you wanted. The whole game is balanced around these camping supplies in such a way that they’re not likely to be removed, sadly. For example, health doesn’t restore after battles, instead being more of a long-term stat that determines when your character is maimed or dies (depending on your settings). Endurance acts as health in fights and regenerates afterward, with a character collapsing once their endurance reaches zero. It’s an interesting system, to be sure, but it still necessitates the micromanagement of these camping supplies which max out at 4 on the “normal” difficulty, and by extension, limits the number of spells magical characters can use; wizards and priests only have the ability to cast X number of spells per rest (it caps at 4 per level, as memory serves), so these magical characters have to ration spells in case an even stronger enemy is lying in wait around the next corner. This makes magical characters very difficult to use on a first playthrough since you’re forced to guess which spells you can afford to use in each encounter, and failing to guess correctly means potentially wasting camping supplies.

Backgrounds may be prerendered, but their quality is undeniable.

Once your camping supplies are gone, you can always camp at an inn (for free, even), but that means that you’re going to have to backtrack if you run out while exploring a labyrinthine dungeon, which never ceases to feel tedious. On the bright side, camping in the wild no longer means potentially waking up to an annoying monster encounter, so at least some good has come with the bad.

Then there’s the fact that the game features no pickpocketing mechanic. This is incredibly irritating to me, as my favorite thing to do in Baldur’s Gate 2 is pickpocket quest items from important NPCs to avoid having to actually complete quests for those people (the light gem in the Underdark springs immediately to mind). Not having anything like this makes rogues more or less worthless, because while their sneak attacks are incredibly powerful for one or two hits, I found them to be a bit too frail to last in lengthy battles. Add on top of that the fact that any character can learn to lockpick and spot traps, and you have virtually no reason to use a rogue.

I also have a complaint about traps: you can only use one at a time. What’s the point of picking up a million traps if setting a second one causes the first to disappear? This makes traps almost entirely worthless in combat.

It makes up for these flaws somewhat

I know it sounds like I’m being incredibly harsh on the game, but its flaws only stand out that much more because of how great everything else is. The story twists and turns in unexpected ways, and though it’s fairly linear and your choice of being either a do-gooder or civilian-killing monster doesn’t have any real effects until the storyboards at the very end highlighting the effects of your decisions, it’s nevertheless a story worth experiencing. The stealth system is also a highlight, with NPCs gradually becoming more aware of you like in Dishonored. Enemies who see enough of you will walk closer to get a better look, which makes staying undiscovered a bit difficult, but fair since any character can have points put into the sneak skill to aid them in remaining undiscovered. Stealing, then, can be as simple as either hugging walls so that no one sees you, or rushing toward whatever you want to steal fast enough that no one’s aware of you by the time you reach it. All in all, it’s a lot of fun to play around with.

The story is also a surprising highlight, and while you spend much of the early game wandering around forests and doing boring quests for people, you quickly find yourself in a city full of interesting personalities. This city may not be the equal of Athkatla from Baldur’s Gate 2, but it’s certainly a memorable place bound to win you over, and the twists and turns of the story once you arrive are welcome and avoid that M. Night Shyamalan, “forced twist for the sake of having one” quality.

The graphics are great, but the load times aren’t

Pillars of Eternity mixes prerendered backgrounds with 3D models for the characters, and it works really well. As you can see in the above video with the rain, a lot of work has been put into even the little details. As such, I have zero complaints about the graphics. However, the game uses the Unity engine, and that means that load times are excessive compared to Infinity Engine games. Many things seem to cause these long load times, from having too many saves at once to the game autosaving at each area transition (saves toward end of the game take longer than those at the beginning, which might be why loading screens seemed to last longer toward the end).

The music is perhaps a bit too understated

There’s a lot of musicality to the game’s soundtrack, and yet it struck me as a bit unremarkable. I think part of that has to do with the instruments, which seemed to always stay in the background except for when the horns started up in a shameless Baldur’s Gate 2 homage, but there was nothing that stood out as being unique to Pillars. That’s not to say that the music is bad, because it isn’t, but it could have used a theme like Fall-From-Grace’s from Planescape or Aerie’s romance theme from BG2 that really catches your attention and causes you to sit around listening instead of moving on. The sound effects, on the other hand, are amazing; one companion character has bells around her wrists that come with a great deal of back story, and selecting her causes the bells to chime rather than the traditional effect of the character acknowledging being selected. This little chime gave me chills, and while none of the other sound effects were quite as powerful, they always fit the scene.

Pillars of Eternity

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