Review: Pillars of Eternity

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I’ve been away from RPGs for some time, after burning out on Final Fantasy in my youth and watching Fallout mutate into a junk-collecting FPS. With those notable exceptions I never really had the patience for lengthy RPGs, bouncing shamefully off both Baldur’s Gate and Planescape: Torment long ago. But I am definitely older, presumably wiser, and as a father more patient by necessity, so I turn now to Pillars of Eternity to set me back on the path of role-playing grandeur. Grand is this journey, to be sure, one full of mystery and adventure and richness to its tales, but also one that can be nearly as tough to settle into as its distant precursors.

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You play a newcomer to the Dyrwood, a promising land of fields and forests to make your fortune in anew. Bandits and mysticism make short work of that dream though, and leave you in the thrall of an ancient machine that changes your life forever. Your hardships put you on the trail of a great conspiracy in the Dyrwood, as well as open up the potential to change your fate and that of the many people you meet. Gathering companions and establishing your hold on the land, you face many choices that will shape the course of the story underpinning the world itself.

In high fantasy terms, this is a familiar hero’s journey with some unfamiliar trappings. As you proceed from location to location you’ll meet new companions to round out your party of six, the usual smattering of priests and rangers with some new twists like chanters and ciphers. The residents and travelers you come across will inevitably have quests for you to complete but very few of them fall into the “kill X bring back Y” pit that modern fantasy games so often backslide towards. Quests here require you to pay attention to the roles played and their reasons for playing them, and then make decisions based on fuzzy morality. Do you let the prostitute keep the family heirloom she stole if it lets her escape her servitude? Would you kill an innocent if it meant delivering an ancient being from their eternal prison?

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While the story may open in familiar terms, the twists and destination are anything but. Much of the narrative you’ll encounter in Pillars is steeped in the world’s unique theology, casting actions in relation to the gods that claim providence over those realms. The further into the game you delve the more these deities will insinuate themselves in the workings of the world you’re trying to change. Pursuing the main plot will have you butting heads with religious fanatics, nature spirits, explorers of the living soul, and specters of civilizations long dead. Ultimately it’s a story about agency, about how the mortal and divine worlds affect each other, and what it takes for people to move past their mistakes. It’s quite moving at times, and asks some tough questions if you get wrapped up enough in it to hear them. It also never promises happy endings, something I much appreciate in storytelling but others might not. There are no obvious “good” choices, and by the end of the game I had pretty much ruined the lives of half my party through the choices I thought were right.

The issue is that you may find it more than a little difficult to get that deep into the story. I’m used to RPGs that wear their themes on their sleeves and hang their plot beats on tentpoles for all to see. Pillars doesn’t do that, keeping the story firmly rooted in their mythology and expressed through interpersonal actions, and this can make it hard to connect with beyond the most basic “go here and do X” level. You need to pay attention to the motives and dispositions of the characters you meet, care about their feelings for events that transpire, and listen intently when they deign to explain the complex motivations for those events. The cosmology of the game is incredibly important to following the plot, and on top of that the writing leans heavily on its fantasy naming conventions in the name of immersion. Plot threads are hard enough to follow on their own but you’ll need to remember the differences between the Readcerans and the Engwythians and the Eir Glanfath, and the relevance of the gods Wael, Waidwen, and Woedica to name a few.

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Plot isn’t the only place the game confuses, either. Pillars very closely follows the designs of the old Infinity Engine RPGs with a real-time tactical battle system that can be paused at any time. With six party members to control and usually just as many foes to handle, positioning is important and making sure your softer classes aren’t getting pounded is a must. But this is just the tip of the iceberg in managing battles, because every character has skills, auras, spells, potions, scrolls, and more that can be used. There’s also a fairly complex damage system that will take some time to learn, as every attack does one or more kinds of damage like Crushing or Piercing and is then reduced by resistances and defenses like Deflection or Reflexes. Oh, and then there are status effects like Dazed or Sickness with their own applications and resistances.

There’s a reason the game strongly, STRONGLY encourages you to play on Easy the first time, and offers a difficulty even easier than that. I tried Normal from the start and in the first real town you reach, I was getting killed by everything. It was specifically because I wasn’t using all the resources at my disposal like matching damage types against defenses or crafting potions, but I didn’t even realize those were things I had to worry about. Pillars does a fine job of teaching you how to play but not how to succeed, leaving key systems to be discovered on their own. There’s also very little direction in the early game of where you should go to progress, which is sure to lead to many deaths in the dungeon beneath the first town or being mauled to death by packs of wolves in the first open wilderness area.

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I can see plenty of potential in the battle system for deep interactions and meaningful gear choices, but it’s the kind of complexity that’s only worth it if you devote yourself to learning all the tricks and details. And the story falls into a similar category, where it has fantastic depth and nuance but only if you’re set on reading between the lines, drinking up the descriptive text, and fully immersing yourself in this alien land and culture. It’s a game designed to be obsessed over, not run through once and shelved, and that expectation makes it tough to get into and potentially tiring to master. There’s more than enough here to explore, of course, from the detailed side stories to the rich history and even into some light management of an estate you claim and those you invite to inhabit it. You don’t need to fully immerse yourself to appreciate these elements but the crunchier aspects of the game may drag on your enjoyment.

The graphics certainly won’t disappoint, featuring detailed character models on lush backdrops of fields, caves, cities, and more exotic locales. The interface is clear and clean, essential for managing your extensive inventory and stat sheets. I’m not overly impressed with the sound design, it does its job but none of the effects or musical scores stand out in any way. The voice acting is top-notch though, dragged down only by inconsistent application of voiced lines and the script’s dogged adherence to their nonsense fantasy words. Really that’s an appropriate microcosm of the game as a whole, a polished, high-quality title marred by too great a devotion to its genre’s trappings. Pillars of Eternity takes effort to get the most out of, and may be a tough sell to those more comfortable with modern RPGs, but these rough edges hide a true gem of a tale within.

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