Pillars of Eternity preview: Promise becomes reality for this spiritual successor to RPG classics
When I saw Pillars of Eternity back in November, it was a promise. I looked at a lot of concept art, I saw some environments early in development, I watched characters walk around a mostly empty field—and even then, I saw the promise underneath in this spiritual successor to Baldur's Gate, Planescape: Torment and other Infinity Engine CRPGs of yesteryear.
"It's changed a bit since you saw the game in November," said Pillars of Eternity executive producer and lead programmer Adam Brennecke as I settled in for my behind-closed-doors demo at E3. And indeed it has. The concept art and placeholder interface have turned into a real game—one that's barely discernible from its Infinity Engine predecessors. And I mean that in a good way.
The starting line
Brennecke played through the opening of the game, although he skipped character creation. For the purposes of the demo we played a human, though he assured us that there are, as expected, plenty of other racial options for characters. (Six total, to be exact.)
From the very start, there's no mistaking this for anything other than an Infinity Engine game, even though it's not one. The game even opens with a text scroll, detailing the story set-up--the same as any classic Black Isle CRPG. I'm reminded of when I was told in November that this is a game for people who enjoy reading. Obsidian wasn't lying. There's a lot of text to behold here.
When the text scrawl ends—actually, when Brennecke unceremoniously skips past it—we're in a small glade, surrounded by wagons. Our group is setting up camp for the night, and after a lengthy conversation (also skipped in the demo) we're sent off to collect some berries.
Despite Obsidian's claims in November that they were looking at a more skeuomorphic UI, the standard on-screen interface is surprisingly modern and muted. There's no enormous stone/wood bar taking up a large chunk of the screen. Instead, UI elements sit across the bottom, out of the way. Most of the icons and the day/night indicator look ripped right from the Infinity Engine titles.
That's not to say traditional skeuomorphism doesn't appear. Perhaps more extensive menus, like the inventory screen, are hewn from rock and timber like the Infinity Engine games of old, though I didn't see any of these in the demo.
Project lead Josh Sawyer talked with me in November about how the game planned to avoid costly cutscenes while still conveying information that wouldn't make sense in-engine. The answer? Little text adventure or choose-your-own-adventure type snippets that describe actions, such as "The person slipped and nearly fell off the cliff" with an opportunity for you to respond. In the cliff example, for instance, our demo character's skills were high enough we saved our unlucky comrade from certain death.
All of this plays out through text. We neither saw someone start to fall off a cliff nor saw our character rescue them, so bring your imagination to the table when you play Pillars of Eternity. It's a smart way to provide more random events and contextualization to the game, however, without running up against the barriers of a low-budget, Kickstarted game.
On our little excursion to find berries Brennecke also showed off the game's new "biography" system. The old Infinity Engine games allowed you to create a character, but only within certain bounds—in Baldur's Gate you were always Gorion's ward in Candlekeep, and in Planescape you were always the Nameless One.
When you walk off to collect berries, another member of your group accompanies you. She starts asking you about your past, about what you did before you fell in with the group. The answers you give—whether you were a soldier or a doctor—may play into the story later on, but more importantly they give you, the player, a better idea of the character you've created and his or her role in the world. Your answers are taken and inscribed into your character's biography for the rest of the game.
It actually reminded me a lot of the different backstories you could choose for your character in Dragon Age: Origins—funny, since Dragon Age was so clearly influenced by the old Infinity Engine games in its own way.
One other nice touch since November: characters now have a bar above their heads that shows when their next turn comes, based on their stats. If you remember from the old Infinity Engine games, combat is an "active-pause" system, meaning that it's technically turn-based but can be played in real time if you want. In Pillars of Eternity, the yellow-orange bar slowly fills up until it's time for a character to take another action, providing welcome mechanical feedback for a modern games crowd that might not be used to active turn-based combat.
Smaller tidbits: You can still rest anywhere, but the amount you can rest is governed by how many camping supplies you have. Also, there are environmental puzzles to solve. We entered a dungeon late in the demo and saw an enormous one off to the side, before Brennecke ushered us onwards, to a mysterious and massive machine of unknown purpose...
Pillars of Eternity looks gorgeous, and what little writing I could read as Brennecke flew through dialogue options seemed on par with typical Obsidian quality. I have no doubt this game will be great, provided Obsidian can avoid its typical pitfalls—bugs, terminated questlines, et cetera .
That's a big "if," but Pillars of Eternity is definitely looking like the CRPG I've waited to play for the last decade.
Note: I already saw Pillars of Eternity back in November, and a lot of the basic information about the game was covered in this enormous ten-page interview I did with Project Director Josh Sawyer. I highly recommend it if you're curious about the game's inner workings or have any questions.