I’m eating my words. Happily, but I am. In the wake of how good I found Divinity: Original Sin to be, I made numerous proclamations that I was “worried Pillars of Eternity would feel dated or uninspired.” I didn’t care for Wasteland 2 all that much for the same reasons, so I expected to be similarly disappointed in the rebirth of Infinity Engine-style gaming. My early impressions seemed to challenge that expectation, and now, some 90 hours later, it has been totally refuted. Pillars of Eternity is a smartly-designed role-playing masterpiece, and easily the best game Obsidian has ever made.
The only “warning” that my hearty recommendation comes with is this: if you’re an action-first, no-reading type, don’t bother with this game. This isn’t in the vein of BioWare’s modern “the right side of the wheel rushes through conversations” style of interaction. Pillars is a text-heavy, introspective game. It isn’t uncommon to see more than six conversation options, and many of those will be completely locked off to you without the proper skills, stats, classes, reputations, history, or dispositions. As a result, each and every encounter holds the promise of excitement; provided you don’t mind that excitement delivered by lots of words and the occasional voice-over.
The game rewards careful wordplay, unlocking alternative quest paths or entirely new situations if you pick your phrasing with foresight. The reputation you cultivate through your responses will come back to you, often, and even make certain statements available to you. As an example, my character developed a reputation for blunt honesty, and as a result, there were several scenarios in which my word alone served as enough proof for certain characters. The reputation system is subtle, but it lends a sense of believable to the niche you carve for your protagonist, and makes it that much easier to get invested in your role. Aside from creating numerous interesting happenings to get yourself involved in, Obsidian also rewards those who dig around before making a quick decision. You might find evidence to contradict a liar, hear the other side of a story that seems cut-and-dry, or come across something that allows you to please both parties in a conflict. This kind of game design allows for you to feel as though you have a much greater impact on the world that just the slash of your sword or the cut of your tongue, and pulls you in that much more effectively.
But what if your role-playing fantasy involves you, 20 Might, and a very big hammer? Pillars does an equally great job of allowing you to live out your dream of being a burly, smash-first-ask-questions-never type, giving a variety of conversation and quest options built around your strength, physique, and intimidation factor. Of course, if you prefer letting your favorite implement of whacking do the talking, Pillars has a wonderful party-based combat system to let you do so.
If you’ve played the games upon which Pillars is modeled, you’ll know the basics. Your team of six adventurers can be given commands as a group or individually during the real-time combat, though you have the option of pausing at any time (and can set many conditions for the game to auto-pause for you, if you choose) to assess the battlefield. Much as tabletop Dungeons & Dragons has done in recent years, Obsidian has intelligently made many skills have finite uses per battle, rather than per rest (though the latter still exists). This means your mages and druids will have more to do than lurk in the corner and hope they don’t get one-shotted in each battle. In fact, with every class now given a robust selection of talents, traits, and spells to work with, each melee has an extra layer of strategy. Your heavy-hitters can engage several targets to keep them from attacking over your squishier pals, and managing the various buffs, curses, stuns, and spells between your party means every fight is quite interesting.
Class-building is also rather free-form. Each character has specific class abilities and a role in combat, but the nature of the armor system– that is, that anyone can wear any piece of gear– along with perk specializations means that you can have that heavy armor-wearing battle mage you always dreamed of. Donning weightier equipment slows your character’s action recovery speed, though, so you won’t be striking or spellcasting quite as fast as a less-encumbered companion. Skill choices have a sense of weight, because they define who your character will become; with a level cap of 12, you’re encouraged to make choices about your party’s growth that will absolutely affect how you approach combat throughout the game.
The interface and systems guiding all of this is are rather good ones, and it makes managing the party’s inventory and battle inventory quite simple. Crafting, comparing, and equipping all take relatively few clicks to work with, and the ability to minimize most of the UI during exploration is a welcome chance from the omnipresent frame walling in past Infinity Engine adventures. Character pathfinding across long distance is generally quite good, although you will have to manage who walks where during encounters in tight spaces, as your ranged fighters do tend to enjoy blocking your melee machines from getting to the action. The addition of slow and fast-motion speeds was also an excellent choice, as the former allows you to bypass battle pausing if you’re so inclined, and the latter allows you to quickly retread ground you’ve covered numerous times already.
While the game isn’t going to set your graphics card on fire (arguably a good thing), it’s still detailed and full of polish and beauty. The environments to tend towards the dank and dingy of European fantasy, and many of them are variations of “forest, cave, dungeon,” but there’s still a surprising amount of variety between those archetypes. Character models look rather good (though their diminutive size does make it hard to see at times), and the various suits of armor and weapons all have an effect on their in-game appearance. Spells in particular look awesome, with all kinds of lights and particle effects dancing across the screen. The music is all excellent, following in the tradition of Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale more than Planescape Torment, and while the main battle themes get a little well-worn by the end (and seriously, what’s up with major conflicts not having their own theme?), but the music is never not at least pleasant to hear. The voice acting is also quite good, but as I mentioned in my preview, the sporadic application of it is jarring. Characters will voice one line and skip the next, and there seems to be no discernible pattern as to which dialogue is voiced and which isn’t.
I managed to complete the story, all side quests available to my playthrough, and the bonus dungeon in about 95 hours, and I found the resolution of all of these to be mostly gratifying. A few of the companion-specific side quests have somewhat abrupt conclusions, where others have dramatic and affecting finales. Some of the many Kickstarter backer-inspired soul stories are a little on the uninteresting side, but far more offer wonderful short tales in the vein of Lost Odyssey’s Thousand Years of Dreams. The bonus dungeon’s final boss is a blast of cold, though exciting, air, featuring a foe leaps and bounds more challenging than anything else in the entire game. The overarching plot and villain are also quite good; the latter isn’t necessarily on the level of your Jon Irenicuses, but is still quite intriguing. Most importantly, the ending of the game serves up a text-and-voice-heavy epilogue that tells you how many of your choices played out, and features a surprising amount of variability based on such. How (and if) you completed your companion’s side quests has a great impact on their futures, and how you choose to align yourself in the final hours all change the world in interesting ways.
Pillars of Eternity is a dense, lengthy, fascinating adventure that represents an appreciation for the past with its gaze set firmly forward. The Dyrwood is a place whose history you’ll have an intimate familiarity with by the end of your journey, and not just because someone threw bits of lore down in their journals and books all over the world (although they did do that, too). The history of this world is told in each and every encounter and person you meet, and is embodied by your companions, as well as your hero’s own murky past lives. With each piece of the puzzle revealed and every peeled-back layer, you learn a little more about how the world got to where it was when the game began. It’s up to you to decide where it goes from there, and let me tell you: it’s a wonderful series of decisions to make.