When I think of the Obsidian Entertainment I know, I don’t think of Pillars of Eternity. I think of well-meaning sequels like Neverwinter Nights 2 and Fallout: New Vegas. I think of 2014’s South Park: The Stick of Truth. Never before has it been so painfully apparent just how much I missed by not being a PC gamer in the 1990s.
If Pillars of Eternity had released in December of last year, it would have been an easy contender for Game of the Year. Now, just three months into 2015, it’s a safe bet that it will be a contender this year. Pillars of Eternity should feel almost quaint next to the sprawling 3D RPGs of modern day, but, if anything, it’s shows just how much we’ve lost on our trudge to accessibility.
Pillars isn’t exactly what you’d call an easy game. In fact, I died more than my fair share. I’d like to say that it’s because I’m not familiar with the Infinity Engine but I don’t think that’s the case. Put simply, the game isn’t afraid to tease your mortality. There aren’t arbitrary limits. If you’ve opened an area and can puzzle your way through its nooks and crannies, you’re welcome to do so. Just don’t be surprised when enemies wipe the floor with your fledgling party. The rule is to play smart and strategize, pausing combat where you need to. In fact, it’s a necessity.
There’s also just a lot to take in. Obsidian throws you into the deep end of RPG swimming pool with six races, eleven classes, and seven cultures to choose from right at character creation. Each choice impacts on your starting stats, and even they don’t count for a lot, it made me read through every single option. Character creation involves six core attributes, which each have sub-attributes, resulting in a Cyclopedia entry that’s 18 entries long for “character statistics.” All this is completely atypical and completely wonderful if you’re into crafting a deep character.
It’s clear that roleplay is a pillar of Pillars of Eternity. That might sound unusual when discussing an RPG but consider how many games kneecap you by throwing characters into your party that overlap with your own. Here, the fun is relishing in the little person you’ve made. If a character comes along that you don’t like -- and there will be with eight total companions -- you can give them the boot and create your own hireling at the local inn.
But Pillars of Eternity’s biggest asset is the player’s imagination. When dialogue and narration occur, the game freezes in place and opens into text, sometimes cutting away from the game entirely to a storybook-like vignette. It is the most written game I’ve ever played, and it draws the player in better than motion capture could ever hope to. Rather than animating scenes with arm waves and sweeping gestures, Pillars plays on the player’s mind, describing everything like a good book.
The world itself is huge and filled with hidden content. Though there are 12 levels, playing through the campaign will only push you to level 8 or so. The rest comes from side quests and exploring off the beaten path, which is good because monsters don’t grant experience. Instead, all of your progress comes from exploring, completing the game’s bestiary, and completing quests. It’s one more piece in a cleverly designed puzzle that encourages you to invest in the game world.
Obsidian bragged early on about how each map was hand drawn and it shows. The game is gorgeous and extremely well-realized. In Gilded Vale, there is a hanging tree, decorated with the corpses of seers that buzzes with flies. It was this tree that first made me realize that I’d slipped into Eora like an old glove, even just an hour in. It made me grimace, this tree, something most games struggle to do. Those emotional reactions happened again and again: fear, anger, intrigue, sadness. Sometimes it was the art. Sometimes it was the prose. Other times, it was just because my Resolve roll failed in my dialogue tree.
It’s these gamey things that I suspect players will leave players conflicted. The spirits guiding Pillars are Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale, and Planescape: Torment: three RPGs born of an age many gamers only remember nostalgically, if they experienced them at all. For better or worse, Pillars has adopted many of these games’ systems. Most times, it works. Other times, it acts as a good reminder of why games have changed.
Take, for example, my first real side-quest. In my playthrough, I played a dwarven fighter, a guy with morals who wouldn’t run from a fight, but wouldn’t start one if he could help it. I’d uncovered murder mystery, a beaten wife whose lover took out the trash that was her husband. Did I bring him to justice, let him go, kill him on the spot? Dialogue, and how characters react to you, is based on your stats, so it’s possible someone who had specialized differently might have convinced him to turn himself in. Me, I just convinced him to kill me too.