Pillars of Eternity
For a certain segment of the PC gaming community, the turn of the millennium represents the high water mark for single-player roleplaying games. Black Isle’s Dungeons & Dragons-licensed RPGs Baldur’s Gate, its sequel and the eclectic Planescape Torment breathed life back into a genre once considered all-but-dead. These games, built on Black Isle’s 2D isometric Infinity Engine, soon picked up a cult following but internal strife at publisher Interplay meant that the highly anticipated Baldur’s Gate III was never released.
Enter Obsidian Entertainment, new home of many Black Isle veterans. In 2012, the developer launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund the making of Pillars of Eternity, a spiritual successor to the Infinity Engine games that would capture the look and feel of Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale and the rest. The campaign was one of the first high-profile Kickstarter successes and raised over $4 million. Three years later, the finished product is finally here.
Pillars of Eternity takes place in the fantasy world of Eora, a setting of Obsidian’s own making in the absence of the Dungeons & Dragons license. While Eora isn’t the Forgotten Realms, it keeps much of the flavour; the usual cast of humans, elves, dwarves and halflings are present and correct, albeit some with altered names. The core storyline concerns the player character who receives mysterious visions and magical abilities after being being the only survivor of a storm. These events seem inextricably linked with a plague sweeping the region of Dyrwood that causes children to be born without souls. In a way though, Pillars of Eternity’s setting doesn’t matter much; this is pure fantasy pulp and those who enjoy that sort of thing will find themselves at home in a universe that’s reassuringly familiar, yet is quirky enough to remain interesting.
Obsidian have attempted to recreate the gameplay experience of the original Infinity Engine games in Unity and in this regard, Pillars of Eternity is an unqualified triumph. The player controls a party of up to six characters, made up from the usual stable of fantasy character classes with a few original ones thrown into the mix, and uses a point-and-click interface to guide them around the gorgeously detailed isometric environments which are filled with treasure chests, points of interest and traps to be interacted with.
Clicking on neutral or friendly non-player characters will engage them in conversation. Major characters have a huge quantity of very-well-written dialogue, some of which is impressively voiced. The responses you choose in conversation have a tangible impact on a NPC’s disposition towards you, and can have a significant impact on the quests they are involved with. Perhaps most interestingly, Pillars of Eternity strongly encourages you to actually roleplay and stay true to your character’s beliefs and attitudes; some classes, such as clerics and paladins, are penalised if they breach their codes of honour and ethics.
Combat, meanwhile, is nothing short of a revelation. Obsidian have preserved the flavour and basic mechanics of combat in the Infinity Engine but have streamlined and modernised it in intelligent and well-thought-out ways. Encounters take place in real time but – as in Baldur’s Gate – can be paused for you to issue commands to your party. Stopping and starting constantly can interrupt combat flow, so Obsidian have added an option, enabled by default, that allows combat to play out at half speed. This strikes a near-perfect balance between turn-based and real time fighting, and feels manageable even for new players.
The game’s power system is well-balanced and shows the influence of 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons, with a large selection of different spells and abilities split into at-will, per-encounter and per-rest usage. This approach, and limitations on the camping supplies that allow you to rest in dungeons and the wilderness, keeps up the pace between encounters, striking just the right balance between giving you plenty of cool toys to play with and encouraging you to save your big hitters for important battles.
Pillars of Eternity isn’t without its problems though. While there’s a lot to be said for the level of fan service on show here, the game’s lore can be overindulgent and confusing. It’s in such a hurry to immerse the player in its backstory that the constant deluge of names, places and events in the opening ten or fifteen hours soon becomes overwhelming. The writing itself is great but the way it is delivered early on is not. It’s also questionable whether Pillars of Eternity really does anything new, or if it’s more of a (admittedly very impressive) refinement of a decade-and-a-half old gameplay template.
Pillars of Eternity takes some of the best aspects of the Infinity Engine RPGs of yesteryear and hammers them into an impressive game that feels slick and intuitive even by modern standards. Obsidian haven’t simply recreated Baldur’s Gate; they’ve captured the experience in a way that is faithful and respectful to the original games while deftly sweeping away many of the clunky and outdated mechanics. Alongside Divinity: Original Sin, Pillars of Eternity is one of the finest PC RPGs around.