Pillars of Eternity review impressions: The Baldur's Gate spiritual successor you've been waiting for
I'm not done with Pillars of Eternity.
Let's be clear: The only context in which that statement is bad is in the context of writing a review. Do I wish I could've finished the game in time to slap a score on it today? Sure, kind of.
On the other hand, I'm thirty-five hours into the game and I just popped an achievement telling me I completed Act Two. Out of (I think, maybe) four or five. All week I've inhabited this zone where I'd wake up at like, six in the morning and think, "Would it be weird for me to get out of bed right now and immediately start playing Pillars? Because I really want to play Pillars." There's no doubt in my mind that if the second half of this game is as good as the first, this is one of 2015's best games.
Obsidian's Baldur's Gate, Infinity Engine-era throwback is massive. It's sprawling. It's exactly the type of game (I hope) fans wanted and expected when that Kickstarter page went up two years ago. It's like an Infinity Engine game with the rough edges sanded off.
And normally that's something people say in a derogatory tone, at least when it comes to video games. Like, "Oh, they dumbed it all down." But this time it quite literally just means taking away all the things that didn't quite work in those games, or made them intimidating or boring or not fun to play.
For Infinity Engine veterans, that means: Getting rid of THAC0. Fine-tuning the "Miss/Miss/Miss/Miss/Crit-and-the-enemy-is-dead" combat. Adding a slow-motion mode so you can play combat (especially the easy encounters) without needing to constantly pause and unpause. Adding a double-speed mode that minimizes the pain of retraversing enormous maps. Allowing you to upgrade the equipment you love instead of throwing it away every level or two. Making inventories more manageable. A better-sorted journal. The list goes on.
Make no mistake: It still feels distinctively like an Infinity Engine game, in ways the other two CRPG revivals last year (Divinity: Original Sin and Wasteland 2) did not. It's polished, though. Modern even, in some ways. I can't help but think a lot of that comes from the fact Obsidian got to start from scratch here, rather than converting Dungeons & Dragons rules into ill-fitting video game form.
I've especially come to love the game's two-reservoir health system. Your characters each have a per-encounter stat termed "Endurance" and then a larger, overall stat termed "Health." For instance, if a character has 80 Endurance and 240 Health, that character will get knocked out if Endurance hits zero but will only die if, say, knocked out in three subsequent encounters without resting.
Contrast that with Baldur's Gate—you had one pool of health, total, and if it reached zero you died. That made parts of the Infinity Engine games a slog, because you'd inevitably have one character with much lower health than the rest of the party. Even if you beat an encounter with your strong characters, you might be forced to reload if your weakest character died and you didn't want to lose that party member. Sorry, wizards.
Pillars of Eternity's change is a small, elegant refinement, and that's basically the feeling I have about the whole game. It's the Infinity Engine game you wanted, but with some smart tweaks that make the whole thing just a bit more playable.
And you'll need that second health reservoir, believe me. This game is still hard as hell. I'm only playing on Normal, and even so I've done my fair share of reloading. The review guide we got from Obsidian straight-up recommended playing on Easy, and I understand why. Pillars is punishing, in the same way Baldur's Gate was—anyone who left Candlekeep and immediately died at the hands of a wolf will know what I mean. I'm just now getting to a point where I feel over-leveled, and I'm thirty hours in and have done most of the side content so far. I can't imagine trying to brute-force the main story straight through.
This might be the first game to utilize Pillars of Eternity's setting, but you wouldn't know it by the amount of world-building and lore that goes on here. Like Wasteland 2, Obsidian proves that world-builders and story-tellers can do some of their best work when freed from the shackles of voice-acting budgets and facial tech that doesn't quite work and "cinematic" camera angles.
This is a book. A book you play. Obsidian's Josh Sawyer was not kidding when he told me that Pillars of Eternity is a game "for people who like to read," and honestly if you played the Infinity Engine games you probably already knew that. But that reading allows for some incredible detail that other games simply can't afford—rooms, people, places, quests, everything is imbued with enough lore as to be overwhelming if you try to take it all in. Obsidian's world is an old one, with former civilizations passed into memory and massive ruins left to puzzle over.
But that doesn't matter a whit to your character, at least to start. You're a colonist, coming to the remote frontier-esque realm of Dyrwood because you've been told all settlers will receive free land. Sounds too good to be true, right?
Turns out Dyrwood needs settlers because nobody can have babies. Or, they can have babies, but every child birthed in the realm lately is "Hollowborn"—a baby without a soul, or without the spark of life that gives it true consciousness. It breathes, it blinks, but it isn't really alive.
Nobody knows why. Some blame the gods, or certain subsets of gods. Some blame the nobility, which threw off the shackles of the Aedyr Empire not that long ago. Still others blame animancers—scientists studying the nature of the soul. After all, animancy seems like a good enough place to start when casting blame around for soulless babies.
And then there's you. You have the opposite issue—your soul has "Awakened." Each soul in Pillars of Eternity is subject to strict rules of reincarnation, so when a person dies his or her soul finds itself in another body, though without any memory of its past selves...except when Awakened, like you. You remember flashes of your past lives, and can actually see other people's past selves as well.
Why you? That's the initial question that sets you wending through Dyrwood, trying to uncover your own fate while also surviving one of the most tumultuous game worlds I've ever experienced. Dyrwood is basically a revolution in the making. The peasants hate the nobility. The nobility cloisters itself away from the peasants. The Galfathans—a tribal group living in the wilderness—hates the people of Dyrwood. Everyone hates the animancers. And there's this whole Hollowborn epidemic hovering over it all.
I don't want to spoil much more, but the story so far is fantastic. Sure, much of it can reduce down to the age-old "random person saves the world" trope, but it's really the amount of care put into presenting the world that sets Pillars of Eternity apart. It's the way you'll read a random book and then six hours later realize that book was actually intrinsic to a conversation you're having, not necessarily in terms of actual conversation options but just because you have a deeper sense of the world itself.
It's also interesting how the lore mirrors questions from our own world. You can clearly see shades of debates about stem cells or the role of religion in government or "Has science gone too far?" in Obsidian's world, albeit couched safely in fantasy. And who's right? Well, nobody really. Animancers aren't necessarily evil, nor are the people against animancy. It's all shades of gray here.
Side note: Turn off the metagame information in conversations. You can have the game tell you whether specific responses are "Benevolent," "Rational," et cetera. Disable those indicators and just play. It's way more interesting to see how your character's dialogue is perceived when you don't know ahead of time.
The story is bolstered by fascinating party members: The priest who looks so insane he scares people walking down the road, for instance, and the hulking Aumaua (a race) who, despite his size and strength, is mostly at your side so he can continue his scholarly pursuits. Or the ranger who spent the last five years scouring the earth in search of her former tribe leader's reincarnated soul.
And these characters are, in turn, bolstered by Obsidian's unique character classes. The game industry seems content to settle mostly for a fighter/rogue/wizard paradigm, and that's fine. It's easy to understand, and the distinctions between those three are huge.
Obsidian's range is both more granular and more diverse—the mark of people who have a lot of experience building these systems and a lot of talent to back it up. Having now dabbled in all eleven classes, I'm amazed how different they all are, even amongst "similar" classes.
The wizard, for instance, has a lot of heavy offensive spells to choose from but only gets to pick one or two when leveling up. Priests? They get access to entire tiers of spells when leveling, but these are mostly support buffs and heals, not offensive spells. Then there's the cipher, who's the most interesting "magic" class. Like you, ciphers can "see" into an enemy's soul. The difference is ciphers use this ability akin to magic, causing enemies to for instance relive old wounds. And since their "magic" deals with souls, it can only be targeted at individuals.
What I'm saying in way-too-many words is this: Obsidian has a reputation for crafting fantastic RPGs, and deservedly so. Pillars of Eternity is, as far as I'm concerned, Obsidian at its best ever.
There are a few oddities—you'll have way too much money if you regularly complete side quests, I still find it strange not getting XP from every monster slain, and I miss some of the dynamic effects from Divinity. It's weird to cast a lightning bolt while standing in a pool of water and have it do nothing. Oh, and pathfinding is a bit janky at times.
But Pillars of Eternity is masterful. Earlier this week Obsidian released a documentary on the making of the game where it revealed the studio almost shut down before Pillars. Like, entirely. Obsidian was working on a project when the publisher pulled out, tons of staff were laid off, and there was even an expected shutdown date in place.
What a shame that would've been. With Pillars of Eternity, Obsidian once again proves that it is the foremost RPG studio in the world, with an understanding of its mechanics, its lore, and (most importantly) its story on a level most games don't even aspire to.