Pillars Of Eternity
Will the circle be unbroken? It’s the question that haunts Pillars Of Eternity’s Dyrwood, where children are being born without souls after a fateful war with a god incarnate, but it’s also the one that hovered over this Kickstarter-funded CRPG. We won’t spoil how the birthing complication turns out, but the latter is met with a resounding yes: Obsidian has delivered exactly what was promised, a game that revives the spirit of Infinity Engine RPGs such as Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale. It’s a reverent successor to that bloodline, offering an expansive new realm, Eora, and a new ruleset for realtime combat while still pinning down the essence of those videogame translations of Dungeons & Dragons-style adventuring.
What that means here is a captivating trek through a painterly isometric landscape alongside a party of up to six NPCs. Some are entertaining, some sympathetic, and one is vile to women, but all need to be micromanaged in oft-paused realtime combat, since there’s no party AI to speak of. Early on, the character you build will have their soul awakened as a Watcher, able to commune with the spirit realm, and the quest to come to terms with this power is driven by branching conversations as much as spell flinging. All this floats atop a sea of lore, and the reams of text are well crafted by Obsidian’s learned hand. The descriptions can wax purple at times, but the powerful scene setting and deft tale weaving are forgiving of a few overwrought passages, the infrequent moments where choice becomes illusory to serve story beats, and NPCs only too willing to choke up backstory.
But for all the craft poured into it, Eora feels very safe. Perhaps a project fuelled by nostalgia dictates that, but despite the three new races – the Godlike, marked by the touch of a deity and ostentatious head growths; the Orlan, furry halflings with a bonus to intellect; and the Aumaua, giants in stature and combat – this land of Medieval villages, castle towns, grungy dungeons and basement-dwelling cults is often highly familiar. Still, enough memorable moments do crop up as the main plot builds pace, and when Obsidian touches on less usual themes, such as one early sidequest that nods to the placebo effect, or another that deals in drug crime.
The more wide-sweeping updates are mechanical, however. Granting you limited camping supplies introduces some tangy new considerations to party management, especially when combined with abilities rationed to a number of uses per rest and the threat of grave injury or permadeath for those who run out of health. You can take the pressure off by resting at inns for a few shekels, of course, but an alehouse can be hard to come by deep in a skeleton-infested catacomb. Health, once lost, is gone until the next nap, but party members have a more transient damage tracker too, Endurance, which governs their ability to keep fighting in each encounter. It’s the latter you manage with potions and abilities, but be wary: if everybody is knocked out or the Watcher dies, you’ll need to restart.
And you’ll be seeing those screens a lot, since even on Normal, Pillars is a challenging game. Partially, that’s down to the nuanced, option-rich combat system, which rewards careful positioning and effective ability blanketing, but punishes withdrawing from fights and catching your own party members in offensive areas of effect. Partially, it’s due to a lack of signposting on mobs. While we appreciate not being mollycoddled, it’s too often the case that the only warning that your party isn’t yet ready for an area is being summarily flattened. Doubly so since that means backtracking. Experience is rewarded not for combat, but finding new maps, picking locks, disarming traps and completing quests. It’s a divisive change, but one generally for the better, eliminating a lot of tedium and grinding, and doubling down on your investment in Eora’s tales. It only chafes when you have to abandon a track you’ve already sunk time into to seek more power elsewhere.
The combat system more than makes up for this, microscopic attention to the details of enemies’ four different types of damage mitigation and your spell queue amply rewarded in fizzing showers of death. And a few breaks from tradition, slight as they are, do much to keep fights fresh deep into a quest that can easily absorb upwards of 40 hours. Spellcasters needn’t be squishy robe fanciers, but can tote pistols or chainmail, heavier armour restricting only their recovery time. Chanters and Ciphers are magic users with a difference, one singing buffing songs to build up to mighty powers, the other gaining Focus by siphoning it from enemies to spend on devastating attacks. And any hole in your party can be filled with a mail-order adventurer, significantly reducing frustration in the opening hours.
Sadly, Obsidian’s QA failings occasionally step in to fill that void. We’ve seen character attributes disappear, orders ignored and party members take the oddest routes to contrive to run into the path of deadly magic. We’ve seen spells last a fraction of the time they should, and vibrating text on tooltips. Tight spaces can be a nightmare, and it’s horrible when a doorway presents a greater challenge than your foe. And while Pillars would not exist without its community, the backer nods are immersion-shatteringly intrusive: memorial walls full of Internet inanity have no place in this world.
Nonetheless, Pillars is one of the better relics of yesteryear to be revived through crowdfunding. Viewed with a fond eye on the past, many of its imperfections melt away into insignificance. Even without that lens, this is a deep RPG that aims to address some of the genre’s clichés and flaws. At times it hews too close to convention to fully achieve that goal, but there’s no denying that Obsidian’s soul was in the effort.
You can take the pressure off by resting at inns, but an alehouse can be hard to come by in a skeleton-infested catacomb