Pillars of Eternity Back to Square One, 2.0, Again… and stuff
Bill Clinton is on the TV denying any and all involvement with Monica Lewinski, Boyz II Men is on the radio and boy do they love their mama, Arsenio Hall was on late night in the background, women are ready to play football at all times thanks to foam shoulder pads in everything they wear, and best of all Baldur’s Gate is busy sucking away hours of life away from me. Welcome to the late 90s, and PC RPGs reigned supreme, zits danced on my face, and sunlight was a rare commodity for game lovers. PC RPGs in particular were known for its undeniable depth, length, and rich intricate goodness available to the platform, and it was here that PC Games like Baldur’s Gate gave PC the reputation of being for the “hard core” gaming enthusiast.
Baldur’s Gate wasn’t the only game that knocked many gamers into severe UV isolation, and prolonged virginity. The release of Icewind Dale was right around the corner, alongside many other legends like Bard’s Tale, Planescape Torment, and more. Yeah so like, what happened to all those great detailed games that took upwards of 200+ hours to really take in? Those RPGs you waltzed around “real” life daydreaming of where you were going to go next in your game?
Fast forward a decade and a half, Obama has given us healthcare, I think Boyz II Men may have died but for sure mama is, but best of all Pillars of Eternity is busy sucking the remaining bits of Vitamin D left in my aging body. As I played through this little gem, I kept checking the calendar on my calculator watch, says 2015, how can this be? RPGs of this length and this style are dead right? RPGs now come with FPS or TPS action swords that are 4x the size of a normal human being, and “long game” comes in the form of grinding out giant mice in some cave until I’m high enough level to grind out mutant gerbils. Pillars’ is not simply a throwback to an era of RPG gaming that is special to many long-time gamers, but it comes screaming onto the PC game scene with a cohesive and well woven experience. This game will stab you brain with Airheads and Now and Laters, and tie your Luke Perry sideburns together faster than you can say “Baldur’s Gate Spiritual Successor” 5 times.
When I dive into a game, movie, or book, there are certain expectations a medium or genre must hit to be a serious contender in the much crowded entertainment market. For a role playing game, it has to excel at allowing you to be someone else, take you somewhere else, and soak you in the story like hair in Jerry Curl juice. As a game sucks you into its alternate reality, one may be an incredibly handsome game reviewer, but said reviewer, a anus destroying ninja elven monk who also happens to be a stranger in strange land with even stranger events occurring all around. I want the ability to shape this adventure in any way I wish, I want to go beyond mindless item collecting prevalent in so many alleged role playing games as I exchange between 20 different rose colored metal helmets that adds +2 to this or that, or swapping through swords just scanning DPS numbers, and hoping to get better numbers so I can improve the numbers later on and my awesome numbers will beat the big boss at the end because… numbers. No, I want the ability to shape the made up world I am in, I want things to matter, and most of all I want to have fun doing this, you know fun, the reason I sit in my chair spilling pizza sauce on my jeans, pee-ing into 12 ounce bottles of Mountain Dew to save time because I just NEED to know what happens next.
Pillars of Eternity excels and thrives on just that, taking you beyond the numbers and into a story. A pretty darn good story. By the time you are finished with Pillars (which should take you at the very least 75 hours, if you rush through it and do it in less time, well turn in your Hardcore Nerd card, do not pass go, do not collect 200 internet memes) you will sit back and watch as all your decisions conclude like a well written novel. I was sincerely impressed by how many of my overall actions through the Dyrwood lands had an impact on the ending of this game. There were divisive themes throughout the game that I honestly had to pause and analyze, before deciding on an action. For example the game presents a major element with “animancy”, which within Pillars is the arcane study of living souls (stem cells?) and the moral benefits and consequences due to tinkering with living souls. This topic is presented in various forms throughout the entire game, along with strong benefits from choosing one of the three sides to this topic. The downfalls to such choices are not always immediately evident either, creating a fantastic sauce for the meat of the game.
In addition, there are minor story plots, minor story elements that end up mattering to you in the long run. You may have decided to always be the noble heroic knight saving poor townsfolk from doom, but every once in a while, you’ll go all John McClain on some shady characters that need unjust, justice.
One of the things I was taken aback with was the fact Pillars is not a grind based RPG, shocker! You gain no XP points from combat, mobs that you destroy stay dead, no rat respawns. Instead you gain XP and level up your character from finishing STORY elements. Why that’s just crazy talk.
You may sit back and read a section of story, or hear villager’s plights about some kind of important event, or watch hand drawn stills leading up to important decisions. Your next chapter maybe narrated, it may not, it may simply be an area of bandits you have to clear out, or a nondescript character on the ground maybe an important NPC, it may not, you just don’t know unless you investigate. Obsidian Entertainment does a superb job of mixing presentation styles throughout the game to keep you engaged throughout the entire adventure. This game is a labor of love. When the credits rolled, I knew I was playing something that a team of people fervently enjoyed making. If you hadn’t heard, Pillars of Eternity came to life by legions of old school RPG fans through Kickstarter. Obsidian has no qualms with reminding the players of this game, of its humble origins with special thanks, monuments and markers to all the people that donated to make this game a reality. Think of how special that is? Most game publishers are looking for a high action RPG only, noted by the higher amounts of action-rpg games released across the last decade. Yet here we see Pillars of Eternity (and a few others) getting greenlit and published not by Activision, Blizzard, or Bethesda, no, by regular everyday game fans. Impressive.
From a technical standpoint, Pillars of Eternity is very well put together game. Audio work is very good, and often enjoyed the very well done narrated story moments throughout the game, but not only that, combat effects, the echoed voices of chanters, ciphers, wizards etc., impressively escalate the intensity of combat moments, music intensifies or calms, moves, or saddens the player on cue with every passing moment. Visually, the world of Eora, is very detailed and its locations crafted to leave a distinct impression as you travel through the country side of Dyrwood, the country where your novel, aka the game takes place. While the game carries an air of older RPG influences, it is far more detailed than its 1990s predecessors, which is another aspect of this game that helps it stand in many regards above its ancestors.
There are intricate dungeons, caves, palaces to explore, expansive and dangerous countryside, meadows, forests, abandoned cities, bustling towns, citadels, and more, each location is exquisitely drawn and put together to enhance and drawn in the player to this new world and the heart of this game, which is its story. The writing in Pillars of Eternity is excellent, good dialog, intricate storylines, some plot twists here and there but all in all I enjoyed every town, cave, city, and palace that I explored. Quests ranged from simple tasks to complete for a helpless villager (those sometimes came with a twist or two), to complex spanning quests that literally take as long as the main game to complete. For example, early on I came across the “Endless Levels of Nua” quest, thinking it was a simple dungeon crawl quest. It isn’t, it’s a massive over ten level dungeon crawl ending in a crucial moment that while not a part of the main quest, will affect your ending upon completing the game.
Just because it’s a “old school” in influence, does not mean it lacks visual splendor
In an era where the western action-first RPG, or the over the top color vomiting JRPGs, take precedence over depth, Pillars is a breath of fresh air mixed with delicate nostalgia, it is a loving throwback to an era where RPGs where about story first, gameplay second, and everything else served as a conduit to draw you into this imaginary land.
Pillars of Eternity may be worth a couple of play-throughs as it has an unforgiving pen-and-paper RPG nature as well. You will miss out on dialog choices and benefits for not having the traits needed in a certain conversation. You’ll miss saving throws and or not have the right party member at the key moment. While these elements may make you “miss” portions of the game or story you may have wanted to explore initially, you’ll find as I did, that such dangers will increase the tension and drama for certain moments that would otherwise be mundane. It will draw you into each combat moment where you will need to plan, yes plan your attacks, your movements because even though combat is real time, you are able to pause (and pause you will) in between movements to select your next actions for you party. Combat is hard, but satisfying, strategic but not otherworldly impossible. Enemy combatants range in the mindless minions that charge straight at you to the groups that will zone out your weaker party members. Each combat situation matters, and you are cleverly limited in most cases to the amount of abilities you can use before you camp, or head to an inn. So win or lose on any moment, when you complete the campaign you find yourself eager to try again with new character class, new party and try other choices.
I spent countless moments nervously biting my nails, wondering if should push my luck and go to the next combat scenario with only 2 heals, 4 damage abilities, a party member that should he go down again would mean certain permanent death in the game. So the answer is simple, I should just camp right? Wrong. Camping supplies, which is a limited item, will prevent you from abusing the “rest to get better” mantra so many other games follow. You will be forced to plan out not only your combat situations, but your overall adventurer plan, you will constantly be weighing not only the choices presented to you in quests, but also how far are you able to go, or should be able to go before you trek back which will cost you time – and in some cases you will not be able to double back from where you came as some unforeseen element can spell doom for you and your group.
In conclusion Pillars of Eternity, is more than an “old school” RPG, it is an excellent role playing game that harkens to a time when games were much more detailed and involved, which are in essence based on old paper and pen schemes and lots and lots of imagination. Pillars does more than just imitate the past, it enhances old ideas, producing a bigger experience in this genre than has been seen in a long time. It’s easy for me to recommend this game to older more nostalgic Icewind, Baldur’s, or Planescape players, but I would caution, there was a time when I was just a young pup, and I fell for those old (and even older RPGs) hard, why wouldn’t younger gamers (although some of the thematic elements within Pillars are pretty adult in nature) give this a shot? Pillars of Eternity is about being a story, your story, so open the cover and enjoy your story.