Review: Pillars of Eternity (PC): On Spirits and Watchers

Review: Pillars of Eternity (PC): On Spirits and Watchers

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I will admit, I was but a wee lad when Baldur’s Gate first came out back in 1998. I watched my father play it and gave it a try myself (as good as a six-year-old could, at least) and I remember being so enraptured by the story and universe. Aside from the lore of Warcraft, it was Baldur’s Gate that helped shape my understanding of high fantasy–not Lord of the Rings, as many people seem surprised by.

Since then, the original developers of Baldur’s Gate have shuffled around the past few years, some of them sticking together, others branching out on their own projects, though it seems to be common to equate Obsidian Entertainment as the most direct successor of the original Black Isle Studios. Obsidian’s known for some pretty high profile stuff in recent years: South Park: The Stick of Truth; Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II; Fallout: New Vegas (and, in a past life, the original two Fallout games), among others.

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As TGN states so eloquently in their Top 10 Reasons to Play video, Obsidian “for the longest time [has] been making other people’s sequels.” The fact that the developer has made a universe all its own, full of rich lore, characters, and mythology, is only a fraction of what makes this game so impressive. But more of my fanboying later.

Pillars of Eternity (originally “Project Eternity” in development) was one of the first big Kickstarter projects of 2012 to finally be released, proving that the funds of passionate backers (game-vestors, really) were spent wisely. Having accrued a massive $4.1 million, Obsidian’s Kickstarter drive fundamentally saved the studio from shuttering.

Wanting to make games akin to their classic forebearers (ala Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale), they were having a hard time convincing publishers that there was still a demand for cRPGs. As awards and accolades seem to keep mounting, I bet those publishers aren’t too thrilled on the chance they passed up on.

Though the game–to the initiated of cRPGs–feels quite familiar, the world you find yourself in is quite different. You take on the role of a Watcher, what the kith (humanoids) call someone who has Awakened to their past lives. In the mythos of Pillars of Eternity, it seems like everyone is very aware of the supernatural and that all beings die and are reborn again, leaving their bodies and returning to the Wheel where parts of the soul fragment and are recombined with others before entering a new vessel (which seems to have replaced the word “body” almost entirely).

The line between the mortal and the divine is so thin that the Saint’s War–a religious conflict prior to the game’s beginning–was one of a god taking control of farmer, using him as a conduit to rally his followers and bring about a new era. Well, that was until he was blown up on a bridge, bringing the war to an end and, with it, a phenomenon that has caused children throughout the Dyrwood (the realm this all takes place in) to be born without souls. Hollowborn, as the locals call them. As you try to unravel the mystery behind these “unliving” births, you seek to cure yourself of your Awakening, slowly going insane with the voices of past lives filling your head.

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If my bias isn’t evident enough, I’m quite a fan of Obsidian’s work or what they and related developers have collaborated on. I’m all about roleplaying games and good storytelling and that’s definitely what you’ll get with Pillars of Eternity. Though gamers of today will be quick to critique the game on its visual presentation, appearing so similar to the 1990s games of old, Obsidian did well in polishing up and improving everything on a time-proven model.

The environment is like a living painting; the colors of the landscape and the lighting effects of flickering torches or arcing lightning channeled forth from a mage’s hands all add to a subtle ambience that makes Pillars of Eternity as much a work of visual hybrid 2D/3D art as it is a video game.

With such a huge world to explore and pages upon pages of text and books and dialogue to sift through, this game can be a little overwhelming at first. Though I struggle to-date with maneuvering in Baldur’s Gate, combat is fun and intuitive this time around. That isn’t to say, it’s any easier.

Despite my own love for strategic challenges and the game’s real-time presentation, a smart player will pause frequently during battles, moving and managing their party with the utmost precision. Initially, I thought that stopping and starting fights would get boring after a while but with its blending of both strategic and action elements, the combat still flows seamlessly (think Knights of the Old Republic, but from an isometric perspective).

I will say though, the features that Pillars of Eternity is praised for is also where it opens itself up to criticism. Much like its spiritual successors, this is a very lore-heavy game; you have to pay attention to conversations as clues to your objectives (or easier ways to complete them) are nonchalantly included in dialogue or found in notes or books.

The game rewards the player for thinking critically and paying attention–two traits common gamers weaned on other genres seem to either lack or entirely disregard. Admittedly, I skip through some of the conversations, but I will say, it does hold my attention a lot more than other games (I’m looking at you, MMO quest givers).

Where Obsidian is known for its attention to detail, it’s also known for its oversight in other areas, chiefly polishing up technical flaws. On a few occasions, the AI does not seem to pathfind all that well, or at least to the level I’d expect, given the standards set in other areas of the game. And though crafting and having a stronghold which you can later manage and upgrade seem like good ideas… heck, GREAT IDEAS… they still feel a little unfinished and lackluster in comparison. That isn’t to say they’re not enjoyable features at present, but there are certain lingering annoyances that keep them from shining as bright as they can.

The stronghold, for example, seems like it requires a lot of physical presence in order to upkeep. That wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing if you weren’t an adventurer thwarting the forces of evil (which, by the way, seems pretty ambiguous for most of the game; I haven’t really found a strong, central antagonist and I’m kinda diggin’ that). If you’re given a notification that a new adventurer has showed up and is looking for work, you best hope you’re nearby because he might get fed up and leave before you even are able to make it back to the stronghold.

I’m confident, however, that given how receptive Obsidian has been to feedback and recognizing its ethical debt to its fans, creating such an awesome game from game-vested money (can we make “game-vesting” a term?), they’ll figure out a way to sort out the lingering issues.

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At any rate, I definitely recommend Pillars of Eternity to any and all gamers, especially those who have been yearning for an RPG like the good ol’ days. Though it was made with a target audience in mind, the fact that this game is easily one of the best games of 2015 thus far, but its achievements and what it represents for Kickstarter projects, crowdfunding, and honoring quality and the passion of game development, as well as the amount of power we gamers have, keeping Obsidian afloat in what seemed to be a last ditch fundraising effort… this is one for the history books.

I’d be so bold as to say that Pillars of Eternity is the cRPG equivalent to Skyrim: it exhibits mastery, charm, and a standard of excellence that ought to make Obsidian proud, and that other developers should strive for.

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Anthony Magestro

Anthony "Tony" Magestro--or known on the field of battle as Metzge--is an avid writer, gamer, and entrepreneur. When he's not writing, gaming, or entrepreneuring, he enjoys cooking, trippy movies, and trying to be awesome to varying degrees of success. Feel free to check out his LinkedIn page, especially if you need freelance help with content writing or digital marketing. Or just like to network, that's fine too.