Judging by what I saw at E3 2014, Pillars of Eternity development has been progressing steadily since we last had a chance to check out the game at Obsidian Entertainment headquarters in February. In a presentation headed by lead designer Josh Sawyer, we got our first look at some gameplay from near the game’s beginning, as well as a few glimpses of ways in which Pillars of Eternity draws upon its old-school lineage while still embracing touches of the modern.

pillars of eternity encampment

Pillars of Eternity looks to push the boundaries of what can be done with 2D environments.

A return to Black Isle 

The E3 demo began with the player’s character travelling as part of a caravan, which had camped for the night by the edge of a forest, near some ancient ruins. Just as was the case during my first experience with the game, I was struck by how much the game looks and feels like one of the Black Isle classics. In fact, if it weren’t for the updated graphics there would be very little to distinguish Pillars of Eternity at a glance from the games which initially inspired its Kickstarter success. For fans of those old-school RPGs that should be a major selling point, though if for some reason the visual interface of games like Baldur’s Gate never really worked for you then it’s likely you’ll have similar issues with Pillars of Eternity. 

As the demo progressed, the player’s character ventured away from the campsite in search of medicinal herbs to cure themselves of an illness. The player was accompanied by a helpful companion, and the question-and-answer conversation that unfolded gave the player an in-game method for fleshing out their character’s backstory. In a method that reminded me of the post-resurrection dialogue regarding Shepard in Mass Effect 2, the player was able to select details about their origins, which Sawyer said would then alter the story in small ways. In our particular demo, when asked about the past, the player passed over responses such as “I was a sheriff” or “I was a criminal,” in favor of a gruff “None of your business.”

The demo continued, and the player and his companion began to explore the nearby ruins. Once inside, we were treated to some absolutely incredible environments, with lighting and small details unlike anything that we ever saw in the Black Isle games. These environments, combined with the visual effects of things like magic spells or fire, are truly a treat to look at, and show that Obsidian weren’t content going with old-school graphics just because they were making an old-school game. Even the appearance of an obligatory “floor puzzle” was marked with glowing runes that made the familiar experience fresh and exciting.

pillars of eternity ruins

Look at the lights!

Because Pillars of Eternity is a game being produced on a crowdfunded budget — even if that crowdfunding was one of the most successful such projects in history — the developers have had to figure out ways to maximize their ability to tell an engaging story without using much in the way of expensive cinematic cut-scenes. One of the rather ingenious solutions to this problem was on display in our demo came in the form of what Sawyer called “scripted interactions.” These are story sequences told through the use of on-screen text descriptions, sounds, and illustrations that will be immediately recognizable to anyone who ever experienced a Fighting Fantasy-style adventure book. Players will be able to read the scenario and pick from a few different actions, some of which will only be available provided the player possesses certain stats or skills.

These descriptive interludes might not seem as flashy or exciting as a big CG sequence, but they struck me as much more than just a cost saving measure. The scripted interaction system fits the classic style of Pillars of Eternity far more than a jarring CG cut-scene would, and as an added bonus the existing overlap between Black Isle fans and Fighting Fantasy fans is likely to be quite high. Out of monetary necessity Pillars of Eternity is having to do without extensive video content or in-game narration, but they’re presenting their textual descriptions in such a fun way that it might just turn out to be one of the game’s strengths, rather than a shortcoming.

pillars of eternity wallpaper 1

Better than ever 

Sawyer describes Pillars of Eternity as a “traditional party-based RPG.” While many modern titles are exploring ways to bend the rules of classes or eliminate them entirely, Obsidian seems to be more interested in making their classes distinct and interesting to play. They’ve taken pains to identify problems with the way classes functioned in the old titles and worked to correct those issues, so now wizards will have offensive wands in order to contribute to combat on a regular basis, and rogues are high-damage, low-toughness opportunists who can present interesting strategic opportunities.

Another problem classic RPGs often suffered from was the way the resting system worked, according to Sawyer. Most games either went one of two ways: either you could rest anywhere you liked and the game became too easy, or you could only rest in certain designated locations and the game became frustrating. Pillars of Eternity attempts to solve that problem by linking resting to the availability of “camping supplies” in your inventory. How many camping supplies you’ll be able to carry at a given time will be determined by the game’s difficulty setting, so hopefully players can find a sweet spot that feels challenging but not unfair to them.

Your chosen difficulty setting is also the only thing that determines the scaling of the enemies in Pillars of Eternity. The game world will be fairly open as you progress, and right from the beginning you’ll be able to choose to explore side content that will likely be far too challenging for low-level characters.

pillars of eternity fire

The problem of resting in RPGs is something Pillars of Eternity will look to solve.

Pillars of Eternity will include over 140 area maps at release, according to Sawyer, which makes it bigger than Icewind Dale but smaller than Baldur’s Gate 2. It will also have a few different major endings depending on critical player decisions, with a wide variety of different smaller ending elements to provide players with nuanced conclusions reflective of their particular paths through the game. It’s currently on target for a release in the winter of 2014.

  • http://anonofholland.wordpress.com/ Anon of Holland

    Did anyone proof-read this?
    I’m only three paragraphs in and there’s already
    >we got out first look
    >dialogue regarding Shepherd

    I’m thankful for the detailed description of the experience though.

  • http://gamecrate.newegg.com/ NickGC

    Fixed, thanks. Mistakes happen.