When it comes to expectations, Obsidian knows that they are sky high for its upcoming crowdfunded throwback RPG, Pillars of Eternity. After all, why wouldn’t they be? The game was one of the first handful of super successful Kickstarter supported projects, with the team having learned a few lessons from the fast-paced community response almost immediately. With the release of the backers’ beta just a couple of weeks ago, the game went before the fans at PAX late last week, right back into the community where this all started. I got to check out Pillars of Eternity and chat about the development process that took us to where we are now.
Pillars of Eternity is not going to treat players with kid gloves. While there are some nods to modern players, there are also plenty of indicators of what you’re getting yourself into, even if you weren’t around for the original days of the Infinity Engine RPGs. The game is designed around a certain level of difficulty, and that’s just in line with what the team promised to deliver, which then amassed about 75,000 backers. Your first nod to all of this will be in the game’s difficulty settings, which offer several tiers (including Easy, Normal, and Path of the Damned) and further options to customize your play to include permadeath or strip away helpful things like hints or things that impede discovery on your own.
Your class and race options are not merely traditional either, and this is a strong point. There are 11 classes to choose from, and while some will feel more natural, classes like Chanter and Cipher seemingly need to have spent some time with before getting the hang of them. There are stats for absolutely everything, but you can choose exactly how immersed you want to be. The system looks to be pretty deep though, as you can treat player stats and item stats individually and concentrate on just a couple of numbers or you can kit yourself out in a more risky but potentially harder hitting build. There is choice in here for those willing to dig and use some focus.
As for race, the options include traditional and races like Humans, Elves, and Dwarves, but also include the Godlikes, who can be of any race and come with their own sets of stats and looks depending upon their type--Moon, Nature, Death, or Fire. New race options also include the halfling like Orlan and the Aumaua, but it’s those Godlikes that offer something striking. Walking around with a flame mask or the creepy Death Godlike head? Sign us up.
Though games of the era were known for their novel-sized manuals, which ultimately gave way to today’s in-game tutorials, PoE is taking a different path. There isn’t a step by step tutorial included, and while the team will introduce the game to players with some gradual play in the final release, there won’t be what we come to expect these days of the game turning its early parts over to instruction as gameplay. The backers’ beta emphasizes sidequests and begins somewhere deep into the game so that it will give players a taste of what to expect from the game after having leveled enough to have a range of abilities and options. And it’s a good choice, since the game really is going to feel somewhat punishing to the average player of today. Though things don’t have to be as harsh as they once were. Instead of being gone forever, a severely injured party member will go down but be considered as maimed until the party is next able to rest. Resting may be done in the field and doesn’t require an inn, just supplies, so you can avoid XCOM-esque goodbyes to loyal party members.
Combat is real-time and there is a strategic pause available so time your moves, but it will still challenge many. Including myself, since I didn’t fare that well, even though it didn’t help that my attention was firmly split between the gameplay and just how good it all looks. For a 2D overhead view game, there are many ways in which the game looks lush and alive. It may probably be seen most in the water, which is programmed with depth and to include various water levels, so things look more fluid and less static. This is no accident, as leaves, butterflies, and other small touches work together, along with the sound design (great as far as I could hear), to immerse players.
Yet, the question at the heart of it all - does the game feel right? Yes, yes it does. It’s a game with some modern touches but if you’ve been wanting to feel like you’re playing Baldur’s Gate all over again, the spirit is alive and well in Pillars of Eternity. This game is not a copy of the past but a successor, and Obsidian is on track to deliver exactly what those backers wanted when they flooded the Kickstarter campaign on day one and beyond. Based on this demo, it’s a great looking game that pushes at the limits of 2D and it delivers a challenge.
We’re in a time where many of the first series of major Kickstarter success stories are beginning to be released, and it’s probably no coincidence that several among them are nostalgia laden games in genres most large publishers wouldn’t necessarily take a risk on, thinking them ‘dead’. As with any game that is so linked with its community, some concessions and surprises from the community emerged too. It turns out that people wanted to feel accomplished by earning experience from large monsters, but the game doesn't always work like this. With team actually went back and created a special series of mobs that were challenging to find and to fight and awarding players XP for slaying them. The community has never been far from the minds of the team, and it does matter in the end.