(Full disclosure: I was backer for this on Kickstarter)
Pillars of Eternity from Obsidian Entertainment is one of Kickstarter’s success stories. An original RPG from a studio staffed with CRPG industry veterans whose work includes everything from Planescape: Torment and Fallout to Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II and South Park: Stick of Truth, a lot of hype spun around it when it debuted as Project Eternity. It garnered nearly $4 million in donations on Kickstarter nearly three years ago during a year that brought the crowdfunding outlet into view with a number of other high profile campaigns.
This time, Obsidian intoduces Eora, a place of medieval fantasy where the discussion and concept of the soul is as much a part of life as a warrior’s sword or a mage’s tome of spells. Here, the soul isn’t an abstract “thing” – it’s something that can be fractured, treated, even stolen away by powerful spells or unnatural forces, and where souls go to be part of the Wheel. As it turns, so souls return to life on Eora, reborn for another go in whatever vessel they may find themselves in. Its world blends together a unique and effective hybrid of mystic reincarnation and medieval pragmatism that ultimately creates a number of interesting philosophical queries, musings, and quest-related challenges along the way.
As you can probably guess, storytelling plays an exceptionally huge factor in Pillars alongside the fantastic visuals with Justin Bell’s epic soundtrack keeping pace. There are even a number of backer-written ‘stories’ in the form of NPCs found throughout the game that are optional but act as living books for those that aren’t afraid of reading.
And yes, there are actual books, too, found on shelves, in desks, or moldering in some cave with their own angles on Eora’s history. It’s also a lot of teasing since many of these pieces feel like plot hooks that could lead into bigger adventures instead of voyeuristic looks into someone’s soul though there’s plenty else crammed into the game outside of these vignettes.
Character creation is straightforward with a lot of statistical knobs and levers to pick through after settling on a class and race. The digital manual has an old school vibe with tables of statistics in the back and paragraphs of descriptive (and practical) prose peppered throughout its pages. Players can opt to be standbys like a Fighter or a Rogue, or they can choose one of the more exotic classes like a Cipher (which I picked) whose abilities rely on the use of a “Soul Whip” to generate points that can be pooled and then used in combat to cast powerful spells that can debilitate, possess, command, or utterly destroy enemies from the inside out. And then there are the races ranging from your typical Humans to the Godlike whose physical form has been altered by the divine in some way (such as having a burning head). And depending on what race, or class, you choose, certain dialogue in the game will recognize that creating something of a unique experience for each player.
You only get to create one character, your main, with the other five slots of your six person party filled out by whoever you find and befriend along the way. Each one even has their own story to tell and depending on your actions and how involved you choose to be, can even be influenced in subtle ways that can dictate how their particular story ties together at the end.
As for you, you start out as a traveler accompanying a caravan on its way to Gilded Vale. This acts as a tutorial to the game’s mechanics and despite the huge amount of information the manual throws at you, its pieces intuitively come together. You can opt to issue commands in real time, or pause the action to queue up instructions for your main character and whoever else is in your party, moving them about the battlefield to flank, get out of trouble, or focus on the enemies ahead. Veteran’s of BioWare’s Baldur’s Gate series will find themselves at home here while newcomers shouldn’t have any trouble getting used to Pillars’ mix of real-time and user-paused combat. Difficulty options can also be altered in-game so if your uber party of well equipped characters are having too easy a time, you can always crank things up.
Before long, things go very wrong very quickly and suddenly you’re thrust into a conspiracy that literally spans ages. The good news is that the Dyrwood region is huge – it’s a massive place with areas filled with both monsters, dungeons, and the occasional NPC that may or may not want to rob you blind so there’s plenty to prepare with. It won’t block you from traveling about and ignoring the main story – which I did a lot of – but it won’t hold your hand, either, for when you get into a scrap with something significantly more powerful than you. In addition to the small towns, woods, swamps, and caverns, there’s a huge city to explore with its own challenges along with Eir Glanfath where elves aren’t particularly fond of outsiders.
The game handles damage differently than what CRPG veterans may be used to. Endurance is essentially what you’ll be paying the most attention to with health (HP) a close second. Think of endurance as a huge outer blanket of hit points that most damage will hit (with a bit of that shaving off health beneath that, too). From my playthrough, characters will typically run out of endurance first in combat at which point they’ll fall unconscious. Running out of health, on the other hand, is death, and resurrections only bring characters that have lost all endurance back. Dead is pretty much dead in Pillars but not quite as scary as it could be.
Camping (resting for eight hours in an inn or in the wild if you have camping supplies) restores both health and endurance, though endurance restores itself to full after combat depending on whether they also have enough health. One gripe I have with the camping mechanic is that it can be abused like crazy. In one instance, I was exploring a temple teeming with enemies but after finding a nice, quiet spot, I was able to rest for eight hours without worry or posting a watch (you can’t really post a watch).
Experience is capped at level 12. Like a few others games that use a hard limit, there is often a lot more experience points found in the wild, even though enemies and critters don’t ‘respawn’, than what is required to actually hit the maximum level enabling players to reasonably keep up without having to find “everything”. At least when it comes to the more “normal” levels of play. Pillars also offers no respecs – every choice you make hearkens back to the old school methodology of developing your characters. Whatever you invest points into are forever etched in their stats as permanent consequences giving an added and refreshing weight to managing your team.
A huge batch of skills are made available for your main character as well as for who you get to tag along with. There’s a small bag of class-specific unlocks that you can choose from plus three more expansive categories replete with minutiae ranging from offensive specialization talents (make your character better at certain weapons) to defensive and utilitarian ones (added resistance to being charmed, for example). Players can pick one skill from this huge catalog every other level – core stats like strength and intelligence are frozen from character creation and improved only through other means like potions, a picked skill during level-up, or gear of which there’s a lot of in-game.
Defiance Bay and the surrounding area are littered with a vast amount of equipment to find tucked away in dungeons, chests, and extremely well stocked vendors who sometimes carry “legendary” pieces of named and lore-covered equipment and characters aren’t restricted from using any of it.
If you want your wizard to dual wield swords, go to it – just don’t expect him to fare as well in melee as a tank like Eder. Pillars doesn’t go overboard with its weapon stats the way some games do to turn players into walking juggernauts – most weapons give one or two solid buffs that can help in battle, but there are truly powerful pieces that are tucked away in the darker corners of the game encouraging exploration. These sometimes specialize in overlapping with other members’ actions, increasing damage done to the same foe if party members attack it, for example, or ignoring degrees of damage resistance. As connected as some vendors in the game were, I’d say most if not all of the gear my party used was found from simply exploring and taking on different quests outside of the main story.
Defeated foes will drop something from armor to fancy weapons that look good but probably pale to that magic crossbow you found after nearly dying in that last dungeon. As a result, I started hoarding stuff – a lot of it. Having a stash chest I didn’t have to jump all over creation for was also a nice to have. It could also get a little weird carrying it around with enough goods inside of it without requiring a caravan that would have made Marco Polo green with envy. There’s no weight to consider, just inventory slots, which I didn’t mind though some players that are sticklers for detail may be a little disturbed at how many suits of full plate the party mage can carry in his pockets.
The pathfinding isn’t always at its best, either. Bottlenecked party members focused on melee stuck behind others tend to “jostle” around until you manually move them to that small opening in the ranks that they seem to keep missing. Enemies tend to do the same thing, too, though that kind of confusion often works to your advantage.
Another slight gripe I had was with the Keep you earn fairly early in the game. This was a Kickstarter milestone and I’m glad it’s in there to give players a personal space that they can call home for their intrepid party of crafted killers. On the other hand, other than a warm bed, I didn’t find too much use for it outside of what I could improve to make it look nicer or in exploring the mega dungeon beneath it for juicy loot, experience, and added challenges. It was also a bit odd that I was suddenly getting tax revenue from subjects that I had never met (Pillars is quite generous with loose change in the world), or visitors with unscrupulous reputations dropping by even after hiring guards, too.
There’s also a missed opportunity for multiplayer of the co-op kind. Pillars doesn’t really need it, there’s already plenty of content here to occupy players, though it would have been a nice feature to just have around.
Finishing Pillars was the end of an epic journey that took me roughly 90 hours to get through, a lot of that from trial and error, exploration, and simply trying out different decisions to witness the results across its myriad number of side quests. It also has an ending worthy of the time spent thanks to the way the game handles its epilogue – something of a trademark with Obsidian’s veteran designers ensuring that the end was as rewarding as the journey to get there. As an armchair explorer, this was more than a nostalgic trip back into a great moment in CRPGs. It’s an amazingly solid adventure that I genuinely enjoyed from start to finish.
As a backer, I’m also particularly impressed by the quality of the extras for my tier such as the PDF almanac and world book, both of which are separated by mere degrees from being PnP campaign material much like what the extras of SSI’s Gold Box series had as physical swag. The campaign also earns high marks thanks to the informative, and timely, updates in engaging the community which is a lot more than I can say about one or two other projects I’ve backed. Obsidian set out to build a world and introduce players to its myths and realities in grand style. To that end, they’ve succeeded.