There was a bit of controversy when well-known AAA studio Obsidian reached out to Kickstarter in order to fund a passion project. Pillars of Eternity is a classic Infinity Engine style RPG in the vein of Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale. To be sure, as much as we would love updated games in this style, the fact is that most people with the venture capital money likely think we don’t. So instead, Obsidian took to Kickstarter, raised four million dollars, and later this year we’ll all be glad they did… because Pillars of Eternity is looking stellar.
Like pretty much everyone on this site, we grew up playing BioWare and Black Isle’s RPGs. Those sort of 2D hand-drawn open world adventures aren’t seen often these days, though, as everything skews to the action combat of titles like The Witcher or even Dragon Age. There’s nothing wrong with those newer glitzy games, but there’s something special about the presentation behind the isometric view of the Infinity RPGs. Obsidian gets this, and that’s why Pillars of Eternity does its damnedest to recreate that feel and look, albeit with much higher resolutions, particle effects, and 3D characters.
The ruleset, world, and races are all created by Obsidian themselves, but it won’t be something crazy and alien as the roots of Pillars of Eternity are planted firmly in the soil of D&D. Obsidian’s just trying to remedy some of the things that annoyed them with older D&D games. Casters still have spells that can only be used daily, but instead of being useless after spending them said casters can and will have weapons they can use in combat. In fact, there are no weapon or armor restrictions, just benefits and drawbacks to the setup you use. A Wizard could wear heavy armor, but his casting is going to be slower than it would be if he was wearing cloth, for example. There are 11 classes in the game as well as 6 races to choose from, so there should be plenty of replay value as well, when combined with the branching story and free-roaming world. The races are: Human, Dwarf, Aumaua, Elf, Godlike, and Orlan. Meanwhile, your class selection is as follows: Barbarian, Chanter, Cipher, Druid, Fighter, Monk, Paladin, Priest, Ranger, Rogue, and Wizard.
The demo we were shown (playing live on a PC Rob and I tried to steal) gave us a taste of the beginning of the story. We skipped the character creation because Obsidian wasn’t ready to show it, but you start in a caravan with other travelers. The world of Eora is based on 16th Century Europe, but with an obvious air of magic permeating everything. You’re working your way through the Eastern Reach, when your caravan must stop for the night. The leader, Heodan warns you and the rest of the caravan of the locals, who will do anything they can to protect the sacred ruins nearby, so you’re supposed to stick close to camp in order to stay safe.
Of course, that’s not what happens, and when one of your fellow caravan-era gets himself killed, all hell breaks loose. When you head back to camp, you rescue Heodan and something called a Soultstorm comes along to sweep all the dead away into the ether. The thing is, if you’re caught in this, it will rip your soul too. You make your way into the only area that seems to be safe: the ruins, along with Heodan and a badass female fighter. This intro servers as a way for your character to choose his or her bio, rather than picking or writing a few random things at creation. As you progress, your companions will tell you some of their stories, and ask you some of your own. POE’s multiple-path dialog gives you many options and the choices you make will affect everything that happens to you later in Eora.
Combat and formations are a lot like what can be found in IWD and BG, or even The Temple of Elemental Evil. You can choose from set formations or create your own and combat can be carried out in real time, slowed time, or with pauses between turns (allowing you to direct every move of your party). As we fought our way through the ruins, we found out that the Rogue in Pillars is not the weakling he’s typically cast as in D&D. Instead, he’s the offensive melee powerhouse, just with not-so-great defenses. Watching the team play Pillars of Eternity was like stepping back into a glorious time machine to when RPGs were tactical and not about mashing buttons.
The story is very scarcely voiced, with most of everything being told through text and interstitial scripted interactions. At certain times, one of these will spring up such as when our party was trying to make its way into the ruins, and Heodan almost died. It was up to us to use our class’ skills to save him or leave him, and risk it affecting the outcome of our game. You don’t do this in real-time, rather through a sort of “choose your own adventure” illustrated text. Your class and party make-up determines what you can do at each interaction, so if we didn’t have a way to save Heodan, we would have just watched him die.
We came away very impressed by Pillars of Eternity. It seems clear as can be that Obsidian is keeping every promise they made with their Kickstarter as they head towards a Winter 2014 launch. With over 140 maps to explore (Icewind Dale had just 80 for comparison), it seems that Pillars of Eternity will be a very meaty RPG to explore when it launches on PC, Mac, and Linux. With its lengthy story, tons of side quests, and engrossing tactical combat we expect RPG fans will go gaga over this one. Let’s just hope it all plays as well as that intro and we’ll be happy.
Bill Murphy / Bill Murphy is the Managing Editor of MMORPG.com, RTSGuru.com, and lover of all things gaming. He's been playing and writing about MMOs and geekery since 2002, and you can harass him and his views on Twitter @thebillmurphy.