Pillars of Eternity Review – The Best Baldur’s Gate Since Baldur’s Gate

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The RPG hobby is a fickle mistress and no developer knows this better than Obsidian. Ever since cutting the digital umbilical cord that attached them to BioWare back in their Black Isle days, Obsidian Entertainment has struggled to earn the respect and admiration that Muzyka and Zeschuk’s former company currently enjoys. Though immensely talented, Obsidian has never reached the same level of industry recognition that their Canadian brothers have.

Much of the blame is, rather unfairly, placed at their feet. The reality of the situation is that nearly all of their supposed “failures” are the result of clueless publishers and the deliberate inhibition of Obsidian’s talent. Whether it was Dungeon Siege 3 being forced to detach itself from its Diablo-esque roots or KOTOR 2 being shipped out a year too early to boost the publisher’s quarterly financial report, Obsidian has been required to continually kowtow to other’s demands even when common sense dictated otherwise.

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This is why, when Pillars of Eternity’s Kickstarter debuted in 2012, I knew it would become a masterpiece. Obsidian has the best writer in the hobby (Avellone), One of the genre’s best designers (Sawyer) and a team that is well-versed in creating complex modern CRPGs. All they really needed was the freedom to do what they wanted without publisher interference. Once they were unshackled from the white shirt CEOs and boardroom clowns that pollute the hobby with mainstream pablum, Obsidian would create an RPG that would make even BioWare’s best titles seem weak by comparison.

After spending over 70 hours playing Pillars of Eternity, I can confidently state that my theory was correct. Even if you neglect to read the rest of this review, you can rest well knowing that Obsidian has created a game that easily surpasses anything they’ve published before.

As I’ve said, Chris Avellone is this industry’s best lore builder and story-crafter. Though you’ll find just as many people who despise him as do adore him, I firmly believe there is no one better at spinning a yarn than he. All the proof you need is in Pillars of Eternity’s story, which starts with a very original premise and only gets stranger as the plot progresses.

The game takes place in a land called Eora, where it, just a few years prior to your character starting their quest, was nearly burnt to the ground in a war. This conflict was not just one king fighting another for land, but was instead a battle against the very god that their people worshiped.

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Shooting fire from his eyes and dazzling people with otherworldly powers, the god Eothas decided he needed to clean house and began wiping out anyone who wasn’t on the up-and-up. Naturally, people didn’t care too much for that and formed an army that sought to destroy him. After building the medieval equivalent of a nuclear bomb and dropping it on Eothas’ head, they thought their problems were over. After all, they murdered a living god and claimed independence. What could possibly go wrong?

Apparently, quite a bit. Soon after Eothas’ death, children were being born without souls and existing only as braindead piles of flesh. Panic over this new affliction caused many of the land’s people to retreat to ancient cults and forbidden magic in hopes that they could negate whatever curse that had been placed on them. People were butchered, heretics were hanged, kings murdered their families and profane experiments were performed on unwilling peasants…all in an effort to figure out why souls were no longer being “recycled”.

Pillars of Eternity may appear, at first glance, to be a typical medieval-themed CRPG, but it actually shares more in common with Fallout than it does with Baldur’s Gate or Icewind Dale. Like Fallout, Pillars of Eternity takes place in a broken, hopeless, lawless and woefully depressing post-apocalyptic world. The land is dead, its people are literally one crisis away from mass rioting and anything even remotely resembling stability has been removed from their society. The world you enter when you create your character is every bit the wasteland that Fallout was, perhaps even more so.

This feeling extends into every single quest you take as well, since they are all drowning in gray area morality choices and often result in pangs of guilt once completed. I often found myself reloading saved games after being upset over my choices in a quest, only to give up and go back to my original save when realizing that the other option was just as distasteful.

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Nowhere was this more obvious than in the quest to deal with the king of Gilded Vale. Herein, a decision eventually boiled down to you either allowing a mentally damaged murderer to stay on the throne or give the crown to his power-mad and manipulative cousin. There simply isn’t any “correct choice” and it’s that sort of feeling that creeps into every single quest you take.

It isn’t just the choices you make that change the world, but also the skill and statistic checks that are made for you during each quest. Perhaps bordering on being excessive, every single mission in the entire game performs at least two or three checks against your character’s stats. It may look for a base stat or it may call up a skill, but whatever it looks for, you can be assured that the way you build your character will play an immense role in how each quest plays out. Turning on the option to view this “behind-the-scenes” checking in the options will reveal just how non-linear and fluid the game’s story is…as well as probably spoil a lot of the fun in not knowing what the hell is going on.

Making things even more complex is the fact that Pillars of Eternity borrows the exact same reputation system used in Fallout 2 and Fallout: New Vegas, meaning that not only do your base stats affect dialog options, but your standing within each of the game’s factions and their surrounding communities ultimately determines how much people believe you. Have a reputation for being “honest”? Then you’ll enjoy a much easier path through many of the game’s quests due to people taking your word over others. Have a reputation for being “Aggressive”? Than cackle in glee as people grovel for mercy before you and empty their pockets at your feet. There are a dozen different personality traits you can develop through the course of the game that affect your reputation and the effects they have on NPCs are almost always factored into every dialog.

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There was a scene towards the end of Act 2 where I was called in to be an advisor to a very important meeting. Though I was an outsider, I had an unusually high “honesty” rating and was able to successfully get everyone in attendance to believe the seemingly outrageous things I was revealing to them. This had a huge effect on the ending I received and made me appreciate how finely woven Obsidian’s tale is and how your character’s statistics and skills can alter it.

I’m normally not the kind of guy who cares about dialog or story. It’s nice to have, but being a combat nerd means I’m not too interested in it. The fact that even someone like me found it impressive speaks volumes about how well-crafted the interaction is. It goes far, far beyond what even Baldur’s Gate 2 and Planescape: Torment accomplished and stands as the absolute best example of non-linear quest progression and dialog tree use ever seen-Or at least the best since Tim Cain & Troika’s Arcanum.

Speaking of Arcanum, much of what made that game such an underrated gem is what makes Pillars of Eternity so strong. Perhaps it’s due to Obsidian hiring Cain, but that game’s oppressive atmosphere and unconventional fantasy world (as well as a somewhat similar ending) are repeated here as well. As much as reviewers like to compare it to Baldur’s Gate, I feel it owes more to Arcanum than anything else.

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And like Arcanum, Pillars is a very combat-heavy game.

On the surface, Pillars of Eternity’s combat appears to be nothing more than another Baldur’s Gate inspired knock-off. Though they share the same real-time-with-pause style and a robust mathematical underpinning, Pillars actually goes one step beyond that by refining the standard that they, as Black Isle, helped set all those years ago with Interplay.

Similar in play to the Dungeons and Dragon’s 3.5 edition rules that were used in Obsidian’s Neverwinter Nights 2, Pillars of Eternity has the same feat and skill system that Wizards of the Coast employed in their tabletop games. Sure, the spell and skill names have changed but the system is still remarkably identical. Anyone who enjoyed the complex character building in 3.5 will be pleased with what Pillars has to offer. Each one of the 11 classes has their own distinct set of feats they can choose every other level, as well as a general perk to pick in-between.

Combat flows mostly the same as it did in all of the old Infinity Engine games, with you pausing to issue orders and unpausing to see them carried out. Though a speed-up and slow-down button has been added to make battles a bit more tolerable, you can expect to use much of the same tactics you did 15 years ago to get you through this game as well. This isn’t a bad thing, but may serve as a warning for those raised in the Skyrim generation who aren’t fond of intense micro-managing.

Balance-wise, it’s a bit of a mixed bag. Most of the game feels just right if played on hard, but then you have very oddly placed sections where, even if you bump it down to easy, it feels a little rough. Battles like the boss at the end of the stronghold dungeon and the very first underground area in Gilded Vale where you fight scores of untouchable phantoms one after another are mind-numbingly difficult, if you don’t know how to exploit the faulty AI. Much like the old “fog of war exploit” from Baldur’s Gate, Pillars of Eternity has a similarly cheesy move that involves funneling monsters into cramped doorways and forcing them to fight you one by one. Other than that, however, fights are nearly identical to the old Infinity Engine titles.

What sets it apart from those older RPGs, however, is how certain classes are used within those fights.

Take the paladin for instance. Everyone knows that paladins possess auras that protect companions and often heal by laying on of hands, right? Well one very intriguing wrinkle in that old formula that Pillars of Eternity has successfully implemented is the idea of reputation affecting your faith.

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There are multiple paladin subclasses you can play as, each one favoring a certain style of dialog. Some may prefer cruel dialog choices while some may desire to appear benevolent to the citizenry. Whatever their preferred methods, each Paladin is beholden to their reputation and the severity of their aura is directly related to how well they follow their core beliefs.

If you’re a “shield bearer” paladin and have to maintain a reputation for benevolence and honesty, then you had better never tell a lie and endeavor to help everyone…or else you’ll find that your buffs are worthless. On the other hand, if you do follow your church’s standards of communication, then you get to enjoy large buffs to your defenses that make you an unstoppable tank.

It’s not just paladins that get clever little ideas like that thrown into their class description, either. Obsidian also fixed the age-old problem of D&D Bards simply being “that wizard that can sing and wear leather” and created a special kind of lute-strummer for their game called a “chanter”. These chanters sing while in battle like their D&D counterparts, but unlike bards, their songs aren’t just an avenue for providing buffs. They also slowly build up power as more phrases are sung and allow access to powerful magic depending on how long the chanter has sustained their music.

There are other ingenious class ideas too, such as how monks gain more power with each wound they sustain and ciphers (think “psionic”) can mess with opponent’s minds and cripple them from within. All of this makes for a lot of interesting class/race combos which go a long way to increasing the game’s replay value, especially if you hand make your group instead of relying on in-game NPC recruits.

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Which brings me to another feature of those old 1990s CRPGs that Obsidian’s designers used as a guide – inter-party relationships.

Anyone who ever had the pleasure of drafting Minsc into their Baldur’s Gate party knows how much a well-written and well-acted character can add to an RPG. Pillars of Eternity doesn’t exactly have the world’s most colorful NPC recruits, but all of them have clever quests tied to them, which play out over the course of the game. Not only that, but they do frequently chime in with their own comments during important quest dialog and will, at least in the grieving mother’s case, leave your group if you act against their beliefs.

Though I’ll admit the NPC roster is a bit small at only eight recruitable characters, there are a couple that really stand out as well written. The first of those is Sagina, the dwarven ranger. Whether it was her cute little warnings directed at Erde to never pet her companion wolf (One of the more hilarious reoccurring random dialog topics) or her very personal quest line, Sagina was an easy character to show empathy for.

As for the second of the two stand out NPCs, that would be Durance.

If anyone in this game is the equivalent of Minsc, it would be perverted old Durance. Worshipping the goddess Magran, whom he frequently refers to as a whore, he is about as dirty as an old man could possibly get without requiring the game to sport an adults-only rating. It doesn’t help matters any that he is filthy, has decaying skin, and speaks like a man who has smoked a pack a day for 50 years.

Then there’s Durance’s NPC portrait. The initial description the game gives you in flavor text when you first meet him is nothing compared to that portrait. Whoever drew it has my respect, because it is so disgusting that it’s hilarious, and it really sets the mood for the kind of experience you’re going to have by including him in your party.

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There have been a lot of comparisons between Pillars and other CRPGs in this review, and while that seems like a cop-out, it’s actually indicative of the type of game Pillars ended up being. Obsidian did something not many would have tried, and that is take every single one of the genre’s best features and tie them into one cohesive, perfectly balanced title. These include the likes of the stronghold minigame from Baldur’s Gate 2, or the idea of individual faction reputation and overall disposition, Pillars just takes everything that worked in Obsidian’s long list of older games and glued them together into one final end-all, be-all title. For the most part, this has worked.

However, there are some slip-ups they’ve made that should have been addressed before the game shipped out.

Chief among these, in my opinion, is the lack of AI scripts. Unlike many other similar party-based RPGs, Pillars of Eternity has no option to create or select combat scripts for your party members. What this means is that you have to manually control each of your six combatants during each battle, creating a scenario where you need to apologize to the spacebar for how vigorously you’re hitting it while playing. It didn’t make me love the combat any less, but I certainly would have loved it even more if an AI script option was implemented before it shipped.

Another unfortunate feature is that the overworld, which while navigated the same as it was in the Infinity Engine games, is nowhere near as large as them. Disappointingly, not only are the overworld locations very small in number, but each individual map is also lacking in girth. This results in a “Was that ALL?” type of feeling while exploring the map that initially turned me off. I only say “initially” since the underground portions, as in the dungeons themselves, are impressively labyrinthine and do a good job of making up for that shortcoming.

Last, and perhaps most nitpicky of my gripes with Pillars of Eternity, is how the actual main quest makes up such a painfully small percentage of the game’s content. What makes this bad is that the tasks the main quests have you conduct are, at least in my opinion, very bland.

You receive a vision in your sleep that directs you to a man. That man’s rantings lead you to a cult. You investigate said cult. Then you hunt down their leader for one final battle. All told, the playtime of just the main quest itself barely reaches 20 hours. The meat of the game, that extra 50 hours I spent beyond the initial 20, came in the form of optional side quests…of which there are many.

Whether that’s a detriment to the game or not is up to you, but for me it was a bit of a disappointment.

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The real question is, will you like it? I feel that as a classic CRPG done in the old “Late 90s style” that Black Isle and BioWare made popular, Pillars of Eternity succeeds in its quest to not just emulate those games, but improve on them in several ways. While it may have been plagued by glitches upon its release and frequently gets compared to industry giants that no game studio will ever manage to slay, it’s a fantastic game in its own right and deserves a place in every RPG’ers collection.

With its well fleshed-out world and clever twist on classic Dungeons & Dragons-style rules, Pillars of Eternity could be the next big RPG series that people have been wanting from the genre for the past decade. As for me, I’m already working on a second trip and still gloating over the success of my dwarven Paladin to anyone who will listen.

Pillars of Eternity was reviewed using a copy purchased by Niche Gamer. You can find additional information about Niche Gamer’s review/ethics policy here.

The Verdict 9.5

Pros:

  • Deep character creation
  • Excellent faction/reputation system
  • Highly non-linear
  • Addictively challenging combat
  • Excessive lore and well-written storyline

Cons:

  • Small overworld map
  • No AI scripting for party members
  • Slightly imbalanced in some areas