"...even as a skeptic, I'm impressed by how smartly-designed, thoughtful, and (most importantly) fun Pillars of Eternity is."
Today's the day a number of Pillars of Eternity reviews hit. In fact, the original plan was for me to present to you my clean and tidy thoughts on the game around this time, but after sinking around 35 hours into Obsidian's Kickstarter-fueled love letter to the Infinity Engine games of bygone days, I still felt like there was more to uncover — and more importantly, I wanted to see what the culmination of all the game's various systems would be before gritting my teeth and putting a number on it. With that in mind, you can check back next week for my full review on the game, but for now, I'm happy to provide my thoughts on the game so far.
Anyone that has been keeping up with Random Encounter knows that, despite my Kickstarter pledge to Obsidian, I was a little down on Pillars. In the wake of the fascinating, truly evolutionary style of Divinity: Original Sin's turn-based combat, fun physics, and great cooperative play, I was worried that a throwback to the Infinity Engine games that inspired Larian's epic would feel dated. It didn't help when Wasteland 2, another throwback title, left me feeling a bit ho-hum about the whole thing. Perhaps the nostalgic, imagination-required, text-heavy computer RPGs of the past were better left to my memories than widescreen displays and high-powered graphics cards.
So, it was with trepidation that I delved, almost entirely blind, into Obsidian Entertainment's return to the style that made them famous under a different name. From the get-go, I was impressed by the polish and strong sense of style. While the game has a few glitches here and there, I was surprised by how tight and responsive the user interface is. It's immediately obvious that while this is an homage to the Infinity Engine, my fears that the developers would hew too closely to the classics and forsake modern gameplay refinements were unfounded.
The interface is modular and can be collapsed in pieces for exactly the amount of info-vs-scenery you want. It is well-organized and cleaner than I expected, given the games Pillars is aping. Every character's inventory is visible on the screen at once, and moving things around between them and the party stash is easy, thanks to the ability to select multiple items at once. Crafting items and other prone-to-disorganization baubles are immediately stashed and don't have to be removed for recipes. Even better, every single statistic and effect in the menu system is clickable for more information — whether it's what the heck the difference between Endurance and Health is, what a "sharp" weapon does, or how your damage is calculated, the interface in Pillars of Eternity makes it absolutely simple to find out what you need to know. Pausing for tactical combat is a simple spacebar away, and if you find yourself exploring or returning to old areas, a fast-forward option eliminates much of the "wait at the destination for your party to catch up" that was so prevalent in every old Infinity Engine game.
From the moment you build your character, it's clear that a great deal of thought was put into making each class distinctive and useful in its own way. Wizards retain leveled tiers of spells and numbers of uses per rest, but these limitations ease with each subsequent experience level until they eventually become per-encounter. Fighter abilities are immediately tied per encounter, as are abilities like the Paladin's Lay on Hands. Much like the fast-forward option, this speeds up the pace of the game, cutting out tedious "rest after every encounter" scenarios without sacrificing complexity. Resting is tied to a finite resource whose limit is dependent on the difficulty mode you've chosen. These two factors combined mean resting is no longer a system to be cheesed, but rather a tactical decision. In other words, it's actually a fun gameplay mechanic instead of a pace-killing necessity.
The smart refinements on the old system are ever-present in even the smallest game systems. Dialogue options are plentiful and detailed, and you have full control over how much metagame becomes involved. Want to know exactly when and where a higher stat, reputation, skill, religion, or class will afford you additional choices? It's an option. Would you rather maintain the illusion and never know? You can do that, too. I've experimented with several quests to see whether or not the options feel substantially different, and so far I'm rather impressed. Furthermore, the writing has also been top-notch — a good thing, considering how much of it there is. This is not a game to play if you prefer your conversations Shepard-style in their brevity, but if you like delving into Fiction with a capital "F," you'll be right at home. Every item has a detailed description, characters have lots to say, narrated portions flow like a real tabletop gaming session, and your character's ability to read the soul memories of countless NPCs provides short-form storytelling I haven't experienced or enjoyed this much since Lost Odyssey.
While the interface, game systems, and writing seem top-notch, the overarching plot is interesting, but seems to be something of a slow burn so far. There's a lot left for me to explore, though. I've only recently unlocked the stronghold, a huge feature with lots of moving parts (you can upgrade it, staff it, task it with side quests, defend it, and more), and delved about 7 floors deep into the game's mega dungeon, the Endless Paths of Od Nua. My characters are in the area of levels 7 to 8, and I'm loving the sense of steady but pronounced growth in their strength. For now, I can say that even as a skeptic, I'm impressed by how smartly-designed, thoughtful, and (most importantly) fun Pillars of Eternity is. Barring some sort of late-game catastrophe on the scale of Mass Effect 3's ending bufoonery, I'm comfortable giving an early recommendation to the game, and will fill in the remaining blanks when I review the game in the next week or so. Until then, dear reader!
(Oh, by the way, the music is good. Very reminiscent of your Icewind Dales and Baldur's Gates, though nothing quite as epic as the Bhaalspawn battle theme from Throne of Bhaal, yet.)
"Gamers constantly complain that modern games aren't as deep as they used to be or that player agency has disappeared in favor of streamlined gameplay and this is why PoE may be just the game for old farts like me."
We're finally starting to get some of the major Kickstarter products into our hands, bringing this grand experiment in crowdfunding to dramatic fruition. One of the more exciting titles is Pillars of Eternity, an old-school RPG from Obsidian that brings to mind aspects of classic PC RPGs like Baldur's Gate and Icewind Dale. Gamers constantly complain that modern games aren't as deep as they used to be or that player agency has disappeared in favor of streamlined gameplay and this is why PoE may be just the game for old farts like me.
The ability to customize a main character fully at the start of the adventure is a hallmark of the old Infinity engine games, and Obsidian made sure to highlight this feature at the start of our E3 hands-off demo. Character customization plays a larger role in the story, however, as it's not just confined to combat scenarios. Unique cinematic moments play out in a storybook-style fashion, with strong writing describing the actions players can execute. This helps make each party feel unique given the constraints of the world. A strong warrior character, for example, may be able to knock down a door blocking the group's path, while the roguish sort could circumvent it with the careful pick of a lock. These types of interactions are what have me truly excited for PoE. I love it when a game gives me a lot of options for different character types, as it adds a great deal of replayability. With six playable races and eleven classes, it looks like PoE will keep players busy for a long time. In addition, every class can use every piece of equipment, though some will obviously work better with certain armaments. I expect we'll see some crazy class and party combinations (I like the idea of a magic user using a war hammer, but that's just me).
Just about every preview I've written from E3 has the word "painterly" associated with the art style, which probably says something about current trends in the industry. Thankfully, PoE stands out with a very dramatic high fantasy style. You feel the high concept book covers for dramatic Dungeons and Dragons campaigns or books flowing through the environment and characters, allowing the game to transcend the more derivative style found in many other fantasy games. Color explodes on the screen, further elevating PoE from the pack.
Combat takes place in real time from an isometric perspective with the ability to pause and plan out attacks with your six person party. We got to see some pretty devastating area of effect spells, but nothing that truly broke the mold of various other vintage RPGs or the latest effort from BioWare. One thing younger gamers will have to get used to is the fact your party's health doesn't return at the end of combat. You're required to rest at an inn or use supplies in order to recuperate, adding a layer of depth that's been severely lacking in many modern games. Maybe your party can only make it through one more scenario, or perhaps you pushed the party a bit further than you should have. It adds a level of risk and reward that more and more indie developers are toying around with these days, and I gladly welcome its addition. Dungeons will, apparently, have puzzles and multiple points of interaction, but our demo driver quickly passed through these sections without giving them much attention.
Player decision seems to play a big part in most of the narrative interactions. At one point, the player has to make a delicate decision during a hostage crisis. We saw a more direct approach than I would have probably taken, as the main character chose to engage the enemy in combat rather than seek a more diplomatic solution. One can only guess what ramifications these decisions may have, but the choose-your-own-adventure style story sections have me intrigued and ready to start my journey.
Pillars of Eternity is due out some time this winter.