Platforms: PC (Reviewed), Mac
Pillars of Eternity made its money on Kickstarter thanks in large part to its proud dedication to gaming nostalgia. The original announcement of the game was full of references to titles such as Baldur's Gate and Icewind Dale, games which many members of the development team at Obsidian had actually worked on, back in the Black Isle days.
For those who remember the isometric Dungeons and Dragons RPGs of the late 90s and early 2000s fondly , the chance to see a spiritual successor from many of the same crew was certainly worth a pledge. Pillars was a huge crowdfunding success, and with that success came a lot of pressure, as documented in the behind-the-scenes documentary Obsidian and publisher Paradox Interactive have been releasing on YouTube.
Throughout the development process, Obsidian spoke of their responsibilities to their backers, and so it will come as a relief to both the crew that worked on the game and the legions of fans who have been anticipating it that Pillars of Eternity delivers what it promised. It's a narratively-rich isometric RPG that feels in many ways like a game which could have been released in 2002, right after Baldur's Gate II. It's authentic and old-school -- occasionally to a fault -- and can remind fans of the genre exactly why they poured so many hours into games like this in the first place.
Things That Need Killing
Pillars of Eternity is a story-heavy RPG in which players design a character of their choosing and explore a world which combines standard fantasy tropes -- elves, dragons, dwarves, and so-on -- with enough unexpected notes to keep it from feeling stale. There are quests around every corner and lurking in every tavern, so you'll always have something you need to do.
Sometimes quests can be completed simply by exploration, travel, or conversation, but most often you'll find something in your way that needs killing. Combat in Pillars of Eternity is real time, and party members take no actions other than auto-attacking when they get hit, so you'll be in charge of the whole thing. Even on normal difficulty combat can be a challenge, so you'll quickly find the rhythm of pausing and issuing commands necessary to keep your team alive.
If you aren't one of the nostalgic gamers who actually played any of the old Black Isle RPGs which inspired Pillars, you'll probably recognize the combat system as most similar to a game such as Dragon Age. You pause, select abilities and issue commands, let time move forward, pause again, heal your team and change commands, and so on. It might not sound like a lot of fun when you describe it like that, but in practice it's a tried and true RPG combat method, and works just as well in Pillars as it ever has before.
One way in which Pillars improves on its forebears is the introduction of an optional Slow Mode, which slows down time in combat depending on how many enemies are active on the screen. This is easy to miss in the game's options but I highly recommend turning it on, as it makes things more manageable and keeps the action flowing.
The game's various classes are well-defined and interesting, and after spending a few hours with the game and figuring out how things work you're likely to want to try out different compositions of party members to see what happens. My first playthrough of Pillars was done in the role of a dwarf barbarian named Al (this is the option I choose in every game if it's possible) and while I appreciated the barbarian's ability to engage with and deal damage to multiple enemies at once, several other classes caught my eye on my journey. Since it's very possible to play all the way through the main story of Pillars and only experience about half of what the game has to offer, class-wise, it's easy to imagine diving back into the start and exploring other options.
Chanters in particular were a highlight of the game, and their music-based abilities seemed truly fresh and original. For Chanters, you select a few different phases for them to chant during combat, each of which has a different effect (to either bolster your party or damage your enemies). Individual phrases each last a short, defined period of time, and so you're free to repeat two phrases over and over or create complex musical patterns of buffs and debuffs which cycle throughout combat.
Bright New Touches
Though Pillars is designed to feel like an old-school title in many ways, there are certain areas in which Obsidian changed up the formula a bit. To their credit, just about every idea that feels new and different also works extremely well, and these new bits ended up being some of the highlights of the entire game for me.
Ironically, one of the best "new" ideas in Pillars is actually inspired by something very old; the interactive, illustrated storybook segments are conscious throwbacks to the Fighting Fantasy-style gamebooks of the 80s and early 90s, but have never been a regular feature of video game RPGs. In Pillars, they feel like a brilliant and perfect complement to the game's other, more traditional mechanics. These segments provide easy ways to craft elaborate scenes and challenges that would have been difficult to pull off otherwise and allow for abilities like Lore and Athletics to take center stage.
There are also a variety of things Pillars does better than its predecessors that fall into the "games shouldn't be frustrating for no reason" category. These include tweaks like the two-tier vitality system, which allows characters to take damage to their endurance and health separately. Endurance takes the brunt of the damage in fights but continually regenerates outside of battle, and can be bolstered in combat by a variety of spells and items. Health, on the other hand, requires a rest to replenish. In practice this allows parties to fight for longer without having to load themselves down with healing potions to top themselves off between battles, and if you're a skilled combatant and you carry camping supplies with you (which allow you to rest away from an inn) you can stay in the action for a long time before needing to return to civilization to restock.
In a similar fashion, the "Stash" option in the inventory functions as a massive amount of extra storage into which you can pitch all the rusty swords and leather armor you find along the way, in order to sell your loot later. If this is too much of a sacrifice of realism for you there is an option to restrict access to the Stash, but I was personally quite happy to keep pressing on with my adventure without having to leave every few minutes to go sell shields and junk back in town.
The Stronghold system in the game, which allows players access to an upgradable castle full of side-quests and ways to spend your money, was a fun diversion, though never particularly exciting. The multi-level dungeon beneath the castle, on the other hand, was one of the game's highlights.
Some Things Are Better Left In The Past
Unfortunately, Pillars of Eternity's dedication to an old-school experience extends beyond the positive, and there were a number of times I found myself frustrated by elements which may have been acceptable in a game ten years ago, but which felt primitive in 2015.
Too many of the game's fights were won or lost due to very simple positioning or pathing issues, to the point where often the only intelligent plan is to arrange your combatants as you like before luring your enemies to you. Characters in Pillars can't move through one another, and indeed seem frustratingly incapable of a simple "Excuse me, wizard, please step aside and let me, the fighter, stand in front of you." The lack of character AI is very much a double-edged sword, as it provides complete control over the party at the cost of frustrating stupidity, and necessitates a lot of fiddly re-positioning in the middle of combat.
I was also not amused by the fact that one of the only bits of AI your party members DO have -- auto-attacking when they are attacked -- will cause them to begin attacking friendly characters who are momentarily confused or enchanted and who have turned against them for a few seconds. I understand it must be difficult for my party's ranger to not fight back when a fighter is slashing at her face, but he's going to be on your side again in a second, so just chill out okay?!
Difficulty is always a tricky thing to manage in tactical RPGs, and Pillars of Eternity leans towards the "unforgiving" side of things in a way that fans of the inspiration titles will probably appreciate. Setting aside the aforementioned pathing and positioning issues (which increase the game's difficulty in a way that feels frustrating, not fun), you'll likely still find yourself reloading regularly after suffering total party wipes. To the game's credit, a fight that seems unwinnable can often be beaten with some important strategic tweaks (such as paying attention to the kind of damage your enemies might be resistant to and switching weapons), so there's a definite lure to try fights over and over again.
Pillars allows players to end up in areas and on quests that are too difficult for them, according to their level, and aside from an occasional hint from a party member on certain quests the only way you'll learn you're in for a fight you can't realistically win is by dying. And since so many fights can feel unwinnable at first until you figure them out, that means you're likely to try fights two or three times before deciding they're actually hopeless and making a note to return later, with more abilities and better gear. I found this open world system a bit frustrating, especially early on when my characters were low levels and I ran into several quests in a row which I couldn't complete for one reason or another.
Looking, Listening, And Reading
I was a little let down by the visuals in Pillars of Eternity. I didn't expect anything that would tax the graphics cards in our Jackhammer PC, but aside from the spell and lighting effects everything looked almost as though it had come straight out of the Baldur's Gate-era. Retro graphics can be fun, but Pillars very much felt like a game which would have benefited from more vibrant and detailed visuals. While playing, I found myself missing the intense colors and stylized graphics of Divinity: Original Sin. The music and voice acting in Pillars is comparatively strong, but I occasionally felt as though sound effects were absent or unclear.
The story that drives Pillars of Eternity is an interesting one, though at times the game seems so big and full of lore that everything can get a bit muddled. When presented with so many odd fantasy names and kingdoms and gods at once, keeping things straight can be a challenge. The longer you play the clearer things become, though, and Pillars touches on some interesting philosophical issues which are sure to keep lore-hounds engaged.
Intricate tactics and team management are needed even on normal difficulty, but positioning and pathing issues can hamper your strategies.
Lower-end graphics are serviceable, but it seems a shame they don't reach for the same heights as the storytelling. The voice acting and music are both strong.
Although sometimes too broad and lore-packed for its own good, Pillars of Eternity has an interesting and original story to tell at its core.
Replay Value: 9/10
If you have fun playing Pillars of Eternity once you'll almost certainly want to try it again. The wide variety of classes and rich selection of sidequests will keep you busy for a long time.
Fans who contributed money hoping Pillars of Eternity would feel like a return to the era of Baldur's Gate-style RPGs will not be disappointed. Gamers who never played those Black Isle games may be frustrated by some of the "classic" gameplay elements, but Pillars offers a lot to like for those who want tactics and story in their RPGs.