"PoE is that rare game where each of its components...are individually exceptional yet manage to combine into something greater still."
A popular manifestation of literary realism in fantasy over the last few decades has been in the form of "grimdark" fiction. Authors like Glen Cook and George R.R. Martin have successfully combined the inherently contradictory concepts of realism and fantasy to create compellingly juxtaposed collections of people, places, and conflicts. Pillars of Eternity (PoE): Complete Edition, a port of the PC original that includes the base game and both of its White March expansions, brings its own grimdark fantasy tale to consoles.
The bulk of PoE's story takes place in the Dyrwood, a free nation in the world of Eora. While this former colonial territory of the Aedyr Empire is relatively young, it has a complex history steeped in blood, rebellion, and civil strife. At the game's outset, the denizens of the Dyrwood are beset by, among other tragedies, a curse known as "Waidwen's Legacy" in which all of their children are born without souls.
These "Hollowborn" husks are thought to be retribution for the death of Waidwen, the self-styled avatar of the god Eothas and divine king of neighboring Readceras who waged a holy war on the Dyrwood. The game's protagonist, "awakened" to a former life and granted the ability to interact with souls as a "Watcher," sets out on a journey to identify the true cause of the Legacy and find the man at the heart of his troubles or risk being driven to madness by increasingly irrepressible past memories.
That's quite the setup, yet it's just a taste of the robust lore underpinning the game's complex and devastatingly grim backdrop. Each location you visit is fundamentally altered by the events of the game world, both past and present, and the characters living in them are as morally ambiguous as their circumstances necessitate. There's an air of hopelessness, a sort of fog of despair, weighing on and suffocating every corner of the Dyrwood that's perceptible to the player almost immediately.
The story itself touches on many aspects of human suffering, and it eerily reflects many historical and current issues plaguing the real world. Politics, faith versus fanaticism, ethical quandaries in science and experimentation, corruption, classism, and the enduring impacts of colonization are just some of the issues intertwined into PoE's supernatural tale of souls and past lives. Much of it unfolds through segments where events and actions are told like an illustrated storybook or short story, and the descriptive writing and dialogue is some of the best I've ever experienced in a video game.
There are eleven playable classes in PoE that fit into the typical tank, support, healer, and damage dealer roles. Each is varied enough in play style that combat feels fresh with each class, though upgrading each of your party members properly can get a bit daunting with the sheer number of skills available. Battles are fast-paced and can become quite frantic, though the real-time-with-pause system helps keep the madness manageable and the combat ultimately player-friendly. Still, PoE is a difficult game and painfully unforgiving of mistakes and miscalculations. The same complexity that enables robust customization can quickly become overwhelming, and the game certainly doesn't hold your hand beyond some very basic tutorials.
The depth of the game's mechanics allows for remarkable freedom in how players choose to tackle challenges. Simply defeating enemies does not reward experience points, for example, and players that choose to avoid battle have the same opportunity for quest experience as those that choose to fight. I frequently found myself able to talk my way out of trouble during scripted interactions based on certain stat checks, and outsmarting someone was oftentimes more satisfying than simply killing them. I rarely felt like I missed out on something because of how my character was built. PoE does a great job of offering the player multiple paths for completing quests.
Environments are beautifully intricate, where asymmetrically-laid stone walls covered with lichen, blades of grass, flower petals, and wood grain stand out to highlight the level of detail and care given to the authenticity of the game world. The rustic, drab color palette and weather effects enhance the dreary atmosphere as well, topping off a visual aesthetic as intriguing and depressing as the story.
Similar attention to detail is evident in the sounds of the Dyrwood as well. The quiet streets of Brackenbury after dark accentuate distant, echoing conversations, and the faint sounds of music emanating from a distant pub grow louder as you move closer to it. The music is of a typical high fantasy variety, with lots of flutes and strings highlighting the soundtrack. It's very well done, however, and applied in a somewhat minimalist fashion that enhances the overall disquiet of the atmosphere. The abundant voice acting is also high quality and the actors, for the most part, do a fantastic job of bringing the characters to life.
Most of PoE's problems stem from its porting from PC to consoles. The redesigned control scheme can be a bit unwieldy, particularly when trying to target individual items in the environment. Menu navigation is a chore, and scrolling through long sections like the Cyclopedia, where there is inexplicably no page up/down option, is especially annoying. There are some minor graphical and sound glitches as well, where music and voices are simply gone after loading a saved game and journal text is garbled. One significant glitch I experienced in the final dungeon involved an inability to open a specific door until I reloaded several times.
The most glaring distraction for me, and one that pulled me out of the experience on several occasions, is PoE's load times. While the load times generally are not individually unreasonable, the game's method of movement between locations exacerbates the issue by not allowing for fast travel from all points on the map. Rather than allowing you to travel from the second floor of a pub in Defiance Bay straight to your Keep, you need to make your way down to the first floor, out of the inn, and finally to the edge of the town map before you can move to your intended destination.
Although the porting issues affect the experience enough to bog it down a bit, they're not so extreme as to ruin it. PoE is that rare game where each of its components, from the story and writing to the audiovisual aesthetics, are individually exceptional yet manage to combine into something greater still. It presents a level of immersion that leaves a lasting impression, and you owe it to yourself to experience it firsthand.
This review is based on a free review copy provided to RPGFan by the developer. This relationship in no way influenced the reviewer's opinion of the game or its final score.