Less than an hour into Pillars of Eternity, I was faced with something that I felt had to be my own mistake. As I awakened after a strange magic ritual outside a cave, I found my companions lying beside me, blood pooling from their now lifeless bodies. After more than another hour of playing through the same intro, I found I couldn’t change their fates, and had no choice but to continue on my journey. This is probably the point where Pillars of Eternity really gained ground with me, and slid its sharp little hooks into my heart.
We want to control every aspect of everything that we can in video games, from min-maxing stats to getting the "good" ending. To be faced by the gruesome fate of my companions, which the game had spent the past hour building up and introducing, was like Obsidian laughing in my face as I desperately tried to figure out where I went wrong, and what I could change. The fact that the writers had been able to make me care for someone so greatly, only to rip them from me, was extremely impressive.
Old School is the New Black
Being an RPG fan I’ve always loved the stylistic look of the older games like Baldur’s Gate and Planescape: Torment. For me, the retro art style of Pillars of Eternity is a welcome return to how things used to be before The Elder Scrolls “revolutionized” the RPG world with first-person open world games. The art, the characters, the environment, and how all of these elements interact is both astounding and beautiful.
The art style isn’t the only throwback in Obsidian’s newest RPG, and some of its reliance on older gaming conventions haven't aged as well. Like the old-school games which it is modeled after, Pillars of Eternity features real time combat, which requires a frustratingly precise amount of micromanagement depending on the difficulty. Micromanagement isn’t my biggest gripe with the combat system, however, as once your party members finish off their current target they usually switch to a new target without your input. This might not seem like a big deal, but as you move into the later stages of the game, it can be the difference between life and death as many battles will force you to focus your party on certain enemies before taking out the rest.
At one point, when facing off against Thaos and two massive animated guardian statues, my team automatically targeted the invulnerable Thaos without my noticing. This led to a few minutes of half my party wasting their time attacking someone they couldn’t hurt. Luckily that oversight didn’t cost me the battle, but there were many times earlier in the game when it had.
A Story Worth Telling
While Pillars of Eternity falls slightly short by echoing classic games, it makes up for that with an incredibly well-written story. No matter who I spoke to throughout my time in the world of Dyrwood, I was amazed at the intense level of care and attention given to each and every NPC. The world is even filled with specially marked NPCs, allowing you to "look into their souls." This reveals a fantastically written backstory, that doesn’t even matter to the overall journey but helps to build the world.
The twists placed within the story are gripping, from the first biawac, the reveal of my new role as a “Watcher of Souls”, all the way to the game-changer near the end. Each and every new turn was well placed, and completely rocked my notions of where the story was headed.
A Choice That Really Matters
Pillars of Eternity usually excels at making you feel as if your choices really matter in the world. Each conversation features various dialogue choices which can change the outcome of the next few moments, or hours depending on the conversation and who you're speaking with. Saying the right thing might lead to picking up a new companion, while saying the wrong thing could lead to a fight that you barely survive. Choices don't only play a part in picking up companions, however, as they can also dictate how the people of Dyrwood react to you. Completing a quest differently than you were asked could lead to your reputation in that town rising or falling.
Once, when my party was asked to retrieve a potion for a woman who was close to giving birth, I faced one of these difficult choices. She was worried her child would be Hollowborn, and asked if I would help her by finding a potion to help--which turned out to be a placebo. Should I tell the woman the truth, or let her believe in it? This simple choice caused people to look at me different, in either a negative or positive light depending on how I handled the situation. This made the world feel real, like my decisions actually mattered, and helped to weave that deeper into the story as I continued through the game.
My one disappointment with the choices, however, felt hard to shake. At one point, when you're faced with a faction to choose, the moment falls flat on its face. No matter what choice you make, the moment ends the same. This shattered the illusion of choice, and wasted the pride and responsibility I had felt over the last ten or so hours. The scene was still extremely well written, but having the idea that somehow my choices mattered ripped from my control just sits heavy on my heart.
Pillars of Eternity excels at bringing the look and feel of the Infinity Engine games to the modern world in an expertly written story that’s worth sitting through for over 70 hours.
Honestly, it's one of the best RPGs I've ever played.