(Full disclosure: I was a backer on Pillars of Eternity)
This is part one of the expansion to Pillars of Eternity paying tribute to Icewind Dale’s combat-heavy setting and snowy landscape. It’s not perfect, but it’s perfectly fine for players that can’t get enough of the world that Obsidian has established as its own fantasy playground. It’s also aimed at parties that already have a bit (but not quite too much) of experience under their belt. My party had hit the max level in Pillars before taking on this adventure, so your mileage may vary depending on which quests you want to take on first.
Things start off with not one, but two requests for help — one to deal with mysterious forces gathering for a potential attack on your keep, Caed Nua, that will be a brutal test of your tactical savvy — and the big one taking you to the village of Stalwart in the far north region of White Run.
The actual White March campaign feels set up to be the “default” difficulty for the expansion with assumptions made on who might be brave enough to try it. Players that have gotten to around level 8 or 9 should feel fine here where my party at level 12 felt utterly overpowered without raising the difficulty.
The relatively short side campaign, against that mysterious mercenary force, is pure combat. If you wanted more of that, this is the quest that delivers it.
It can be a brutal affair depending on your choices (though the big angry foozle at the end of that journey is still going to want to kill you). Even at max level, mistakes turned my seasoned party of ardra-dragon killing badasses into pulped mail and stained robes thanks to clever mixes of brutal monk halflings, new undead slayers, and savage magic. The prize at the end, however, was worth the struggle — and the reloads — as a neat companion pet bringing back memories of Morte (though without the silver tongue) who also doubled as a summonable creature in battle.
In the White March itself, there’s also a new dragon in the region along with a new dungeon, Durgan’s Battery, filled with its own riddles, traps, and dangerous encounters along with a few wilderness side areas. See, decades ago, Durgan’s Battery used to be the source of Durgan Steel, a wonder metal prized for its extremely high quality. The village of Stalwart wasn’t always a dying husk when trade flowed between the Battery and the merchants of the region.
Then, suddenly, the Battery shut its gates and no one ever heard from the dwarves inside again. Adventurers have tried to pry their way in to no avail and over the years, Stalwart soon withered down into a fishing hole on the edge of the frontier beset by ogres, wolves, and the elements. But that hasn’t stopped others from trying and that’s where our intrepid party comes in.
The mayor of Stalwart wants the party to check things out in the hopes that it will help inject new life into the collection of ratty huts and half-burned down hovels scattered about. There’s also the matter of the ogres attacking the village when you first arrived. Something will need to be done with them, too. And then there are the occasional miscreants wandering around this snowy wilderness along with a few local quests to tackle.
There’s about ten or so hours of additional questing material here based on how long it took me to find most if not all of the neat things to do. There are also two new companions that can join your party, a rogue and a monk, that have their own short side stories to take part in. And of course, new loot with a few choice pieces in the form of soulbound weapons that bind to those that equip them empowering them with new attributes but not overwhelmingly overpowered ones. I still preferred a few pieces from the vanilla campaign over those, though if you like questing, unlocking the soulbound weapons by figuring out their requirements is something extra to do.
The new level cap at 14 also allows your characters to acquire one or two more skills to add to their repertoire and there is enough experience for maxed characters to top themselves off with here with a little extra. This is especially true with characters like magic users, priests, and ciphers that can unlock access to level 7 spells and new powers. Having Durance cast down an explosive Storm of Holy Fire AOE on groups of foes with my wiz (Aloth) stacking more AOE with scrolls or spells was a fun combo, though definitely overkill for most encounters.
On the downside, there are still a few issues that persist such as the agonizingly long load times. Researching solutions meant paring down how many saves I had in my directory (apparently it’s a thing with Unity) for the game, so I pulled out all but a tiny few that I needed to continue with and it felt as if it ran slightly better. But with the harrowing nature of some battles that had me tapping that reload key, the waiting just felt like it was piling on. Having to reload anything became a bigger impetus to do better in battles than in facing the actual battle again to try something new.
Inventory still could’ve used a bit more polish, especially with all of the similar loot that doesn’t stack (armor and weapons come to mind). Not unmanageable, but still, it would’ve been nice to see a bit more organization here.
Story-wise, this is only the first part of the expansion but it does a decent job in setting up the next part with an ending foreshadowing what might be next. Plumbing the forgotten halls and mines of Durgan’s Battery and “listening” to its history as a Watcher to unravel the mysteries buried there is the kind of stuff lore hounds devour — it was easily the strongest part of the collection of tales included here adding to the overall flavor of the world.
On the other hand, many of the side quests weren’t quite as deep as those found in the main campaign and the White March itself seemed a tad small likely owing to the fact that this is only the first part of what is intended to be a larger expansion.
Some of the additional things — unlocking a forge to refine a finite amount of Durgan Steel for use in enchanting your weapons — were nice to have outside of being the main quest. But if you used a save late in the main campaign for Pillars, the improved enchantments might not matter as much if you’ve nearly covered everything there, at least until the next part drops which might make those enhancements more important. If you’re already rocking dragons in the vanilla campaign and taking down bounties without breaking much of a sweat, the new toys might not make that much of a difference other than in cosmetic looks.
The companions weren’t bad, either, though if you already have a certain party rotation that has given you a lot of tactical success, they might not make as huge an impact on how you approach battle making them more useful as questing companions in figuring out their own (albeit very short but interesting) stories. Having a rogue and a monk in my party was neat for awhile though I mostly kept everyone I had played through Pillars with.
For players that haven’t yet finished Pillars (and as long as they’ve progressed far enough in the main campaign to unlock the way to the White March), they might get a lot more out of the extras that Part I has to offer, especially if they still have a ton of side quests to complete or haven’t yet plumbed the deepest depths of the huge dungeon beneath Caed Nua. There’s still a lot to like here, though, for returning veterans (who might want to crank the difficulty up a notch) eager simply to dive back into Obsidian’s world, especially if they’re looking to feast on a bit of lore served with a side of intriguing side quests with a smidgen of choice and consequence. Some may choose to wait until the next part drops for a more complete experience, but for those that dive into it now, and haven’t muscled their way through most of Pillars yet, the White March is a side trip that can be worth taking.