The advent of the crowdfunding platform ‘Kickstarter‘ has led to the birth of many passion projects in the video game world. Not having to rely on publishers and having creative freedom unleashed has resulted in many promising projects from 2012 onward. One among these, Pillars of Eternity promised fans of oldschool rpgs a trip back to the golden days of Infinity Engine rpgs. Did PoE truly deliver? Was its success fueled by blind nostalgia and hype, or is it the true Baldur’s Gate successor everyone was waiting for? Let’s find out.
Pillars of Eternity is an rpg developed by Obsidian Entertainment by means of crowdfunding with marketing and distribution handled by Paradox Interactive. PoE was released for PC on March 26, 2015. A two-part expansion, Pillars of Eternity: The White March was released in 2015 and 2016 which is included in the definitive edition. A PS4 and Xbox One version was released on August 29, 2017.
PILLARS OF ETERNITY
Story and Narrative
Pillars of Eternity is set in the fantasy world of Eora, one that is going through a scientific and technological revolution. PoE has you play as an unnamed character who unwillingly becomes a ‘watcher, a gifted person who is able to read the souls of all living beings. The strange events that bestows this gift on you also leaves in its wake, lots of questions, mystery and intrigue. Combine that with conspiracy, warring factions, grand adventures, camaraderie, and you’ve got yourself another chosen one rpg story. The story is nothing to write home about. It lacks focus and desperately tries to grab onto your attention. The heaps of side content buries the main story completely. There are a few interesting companions, but there are some not-so-good ones too. All of this is averted in the White March expansions, which feature a genuinely interesting and tightly scripted storyline.
What makes PoE special is the amount quality lore the devs has crafted. The lore is free of filler content that is present in licensed properties like Forgotten Realms and Warhammer. Themes such as theology and faith plays an important role in the story as well as the setting. Chances are you’ll forget about the main quest and immerse yourselves in the backstory and lore. Events like children being born without souls and a war with a self-proclaimed god holds your attention by the hand. At what length does faith becomes fanaticism?, the game asks the player.
Gameplay & Mechanics
Pillars of Eternity is a spiritual successor to titles like Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale. The game features a fixed isometric camera and point and click gameplay with a real time with pause combat system. You play as either one or a party of up to six characters, all of whom can be controlled individually. PoE begins with a robust character creator featuring a custom ruleset. Compliant to oldschool rpg tradition, your party travels through a non-linear set of locations fighting monsters, helping denizens in danger and solving quests. Quests, for the most part are pretty interesting. Quests in which there is only one outcome are few and far between. The expansions carry this tradition forward and adds in more open ended quests. Fetch quests and kill x quests, too are very few in numbers. There are six playable races and 11 classes with each having their own permutations. All are viable and fun in their own rights. AI pathfinding is either hit or miss. During combat encounters, party members can be seen trying to squeeze through blocked areas and get stuck if you don’t micromanage them often.
The primary problem with the vanilla game are the locations. Most of them, including the main city of Defiance Bay feel lifeless and offer little in the way of wow moments. You’ll get access to your stronghold a few hours into the story. The stronghold is a side quest on its own, allowing you to upgrade individual parts to get access to resting bonuses, items and unique events. The stronghold also features a 15 level mega dungeon which can be completed at will. The stronghold is a nice distraction, but one do wish for class specific strongholds like in Baldur’s Gate II rather than the common stronghold that is featured here.
The combat in PoE takes place in real time and can be paused at will. Most of the time, it works well but things get very hectic and chaotic when you are fighting 5+ enemies and a plethora of magical effects are on screen at the moment. The custom ruleset for combat is a well appreciated addition. It doesn’t have the unnecessary filler from DnD ruleset, but comes with some of its own. Newcomers may feel that lot of the systems present like engagement, action speed, recovery, fortitude and a whole lot of status effects are too complex or confusing. Some times one does feels like most are there just for mechanics sake. Designer J.E Sawyer’s obsession with balancing is clearly evident. The vanilla game also suffers from poor encounter design. Many of the combat encounters can be cheesed through using the same tactics and formation. Send in two tanks to engage enemies, have a priest support them and have your rangers and mages rain down hell upon the enemies. It lacks interesting encounters like the mage duels from BG II. The White March expansion, on the other hand tries to fix the flaws of the original and has some varied and interesting combat encounters and design.
PoE streamlines many of the outdated infinity engine mechanics. There is autoloot, infinite party stash, different game speeds, ability to respec characters and an improved UI. Controlling your characters hardly feel clunky and most of the systems are accessible even to newbies (provided that they read the tutorial and manual thoroughly). Many of the flaws of the vanilla game are fixed in the expansion and the whole package feels like a quality big budget game. In the definitive edition, you’re looking at a single playthrough of 70-100 hours at normal difficulty.
Graphics, Performance & Sound
Pillars of Eternity, in all it’s 2D glory is an absolute pleasure to look at. The environments are highly detailed. The art style elevates the mood of the individual environments. There are a lot of well done particle, lighting and weather effects. The addition of choose-your-own-story like segments within the environments are very nicely drawn. Overall, the game looks like a high quality remake of an infinity engine title.
PoE performs well even on a budget build. One only needs to turn down the graphics setting. It’d have been good to get fully customizable settings rather than the 3 phase slider that is present at the moment. The culprit here is the load times. The further you get in the game, the load times seems to get worse. After 60 or so hours, I was looking at a 3 minute or more loading screen at times. It doesn’t help that there are loading times each time you enter a building or a location. It’s an immersion breaker for sure.
Music is one of the high points of PoE. The orchestral soundtrack works wonders when you’re travelling through a sunny beach or spooky dilapidated ruins. Many of soundtracks are inspired from the Infinity Engine games. Only a few lines of dialogue from the base game are voice acted and this sticks out like a sore thumb. Hearing the opening lines of someone’s dialogue one moment, then having to reading mountains of text the next feels off. Thankfully the expansions improve both the quality and quantity of voice acting.
Pillars of Eternity refines the 20 year old crpg formula that had trouble keeping up with the times. Rpg purists may find a lot of faults in the mechanics but for an average player, PoE comes off as a well made game. It does not raise the bar set by Baldur’s Gate II, but rather it lays a solid framework for sequels in the future. By looking at the way PoE II Deadfire is shaping up, I can confidently say that Pillars of Eternity will be the Baldur’s Gate to Deadfire’s Baldur’s Gate II.