The Average Gamer

First Impressions: Pillars of Eternity

Pillars of Eternity - Brighthaven Rest
I love this game. Made by Obsidian Entertainment (South Park: The Stick of Truth, Fallout New Vegas), after a tremendously successful KickStarter, Pillars of Eternity lives up to its promise as a spiritual successor to Baldur’s Gate and other Infinity Engine games of the 90s. It’s filled with love and references. After playing through the first 15 hours on two of the many modes available, I’m really enjoying it and I’ve explored no more than a third of the map.

On my normal playthrough, I’ve been adventuring as a slightly reckless rogue, giving me the ability to find secret stashes, disarm traps and so on. I’m bright enough to understand what people are telling me and diplomatic enough to get a reputation in my local area. While the look and feel of the game is directly taken from Baldur’s Gate (and plenty of the staff at Obsidian worked on BG, Icewind Dale and other such games) the system is entirely Obsidian’s own.

You can choose from 11 basic classes and any class can wield any weapon without penalty. Weapon specialisation groups do give you more proficiency with certain types and are determined by talents that you pick every 3-ish levels. Even within those, you always have a mix of ranged and melee. You could also choose not to specialise in weapon types at all, instead going for boosts to a type of elemental damage, class-specific skills or general abilities like patching up your companions in battle. Give your singing chanter some fire buffs and swing a burning torch in people’s faces as you summon skeletons to aid you in battle. Skip weapons entirely and become an unarmed monk who gets more powerful as you wound him. The variety is incredible.

Pillars of Eternity - Combat ProneIn contrast to most computer-based RPGs, you don’t receive any experience points from combat. Instead, most of your XP comes from completing quests, with a little earned in combat for completing the bestiary entry of each enemy type. Most of your stats will unlock dialogue options

That doesn’t mean battles are easy. Far from it. Playing the game well requires an incredible amount of combat micromanagement – you’ll rarely be clicking on the nearest target and letting your party’s auto-attacks grind your enemies down. Instead, you’ll be pausing often, looking for ways to combine your abilities. Read a scroll to trap advancing enemies in a tanglefoot patch, then follow up with your mage’s AoE fire attack before your fighter knocks over the leader so that your rogue can take advantage of her bonus against prone enemies. Great, that’s 2 seconds of the battle over. What’s everyone’s next move?

If you prefer your motion to flow faster, there’s a half-speed option that’s very useful for giving orders in combat, since there’s no party AI to automate your fights. There’s also a fast mode which is very welcome when walking around areas you’ve already explored. Enemies don’t regenerate so once you’ve cleared an area, you’re safe to scamper unimpeded and can fast travel directly to maps that you’ve visited before.

Pillars of Eternity - World EncounterOn my second playthrough, I’m playing a cipher, one of the two unique classes for Obsidian’s ruleset. Where my traditional sneaky rogue is great for kicking off the action with a sneak attack, the cipher has to build up focus points on each attack, in order to unlock her special moves. She’s much better in longer battles or with fast weapons. Many of the story-driven party members will be shared across games but swapping out even one person can drastically change the nature of each fight.

I also accidentally selected the Trial of Iron mode, a permadeath option that deletes your savegame if your party is wiped out or your main character dies in battle. With just that one change, my whole game is completely different. I can no longer be the cocky upstart in conversations. Every dialogue choice must be made carefully lest a local lord takes offence and orders my unprepared party to be killed, so I size up the room before opening my mouth. Sneaking around an inn lifting valuables from under people’s noses is now a life-or-death decision. Is that bottle of cheap wine really worth bringing all 20 pub-goers down upon our heads?

And, of course, every battle is now fraught with real tension. Shooting an enemy on sight is no longer an option. There could be another four standing in the shadows and are you really sure you can take them too? There’s no room for foolish mistakes.

The first act is remarkably dark and your characters take themselves rather seriously. Of the five I’ve met so far, only one lightens the mood a little and I hope the others will warm up as things progress. It’s a lore-heavy game introducing a new world, so expect to do a lot of reading if you want to follow the story. Much of the critical information is voiced but there’s plenty more to be found.

Of course, there’s room for silliness as well. If you don’t mind your fights being slightly obscured, there’s a Big Heads mode, filling the world with absurdly bobble-headed people. Thanks to an off-hand comment by a viewer yesterday and the ease with which you can add in your own custom character portraits, I created The Adventures of Batmonk last night. I’m sure plenty of mods will be available to do things properly but it’s trivial to pop into the game’s music files and replace the battle music with something more thematically appropriate.

Pillars of Eternity is out now on Windows PC, Mac and Linux.