Pillars of Eternity: A Review

Sometimes you think you know what you want but once you get it, you realize you never wanted it in the first place. That was my feeling about Pillars of Eternity. In the mood for a big sweeping RPG, I booted it up ready to be taken back to the old school days of computer RPGs. Then I quit in frustration. It took two tries for me to get into Pillars of Eternity. I had played the games which inspired it – Baldur’s Gate I and II, Planescape: Torment, Dragon Age: Origins. I really liked those games and was able to really immerse myself in those worlds. However, it didn’t quite work with this game.

The first time I played it, the combat frustrated me and I did not understand why. I found it really hard and I was struggling with even the simplest fights. With my experience in the previous games, which have the same type of combat, I did not expect combat to be the thing which made me give up. Enemies didn’t seem to take a lot of damage, my characters seemed to take too much. It was just a miserable time.

The second time I tried to get into the game went much better. I paid more attention to character creation and the original roleplaying system. I had breezed past it before, wanting to figure it out as I went. I also found Durance, a recruit-able companion – a healer – who I had somehow missed on my first time through. With these changes, the combat was still challenging but now manageable, and I was able to progress. Despite being able to win fights, the game was still a struggle for me to get through.

Set in a world of Obsidian’s own making where souls are a resource, Pillars of Eternity is a dark, grim game that is a relic of its past inspirations. In this world, a mysterious event leaves the main protagonist damaged but transformed into a Watcher – someone who has a special affinity for seeing and interacting with the souls of the dead. The price of this ability is having the memories of past souls haunt you, which will end in your character going insane handling all the souls inside you. Deciding this is a bad thing, the main quest of the game is you searching for the person responsible for giving you this condition so it can be reversed.

Creating your own world is both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, it casts off the shackles of well-worn fantasy tropes. On the other, it can be very difficult to introduce people to the world you are building. From the very beginning of the game, proper nouns are thrown at you without any explanation of what they mean. Fantasy tropes are exhausting, but the one benefit of them is that it is easy to familiarize yourself with the world. Instead, Pillars of Eternity have Engwithans, Glenfathans, and tens of other names of things which could have been simplified. The game’s lore codex gets filled out as you play and is an almost exhaustive book covering much more than you need to know. Lore fiends will probably love this but for people who want to jump into the game without reading a book, it is very jarring. Strangely, the lore codex’s thoroughness is not mirrored in the game control description, where some functions are not even presented as options.

This isn’t helped by how overwritten the entire game is. Across the Internet, critics and fans have been praising Pillars of Eternity’s writing, probably because most videogame writing is awful. Pillars of Eternity reads like someone using a thesaurus for every word on a typewriter with a broken punctuation key. Tighter text doesn’t mean dumbed down but entire paragraphs of text shouldn’t be skippable either.

Pillar of Eternity’s combat is very similar, if not identical, to the games it draws inspiration from. I would have liked to see some improvement here as the combat in Pillars has the same issues as combat in Baldur’s Gate, Dragon Age: Origins, and similar games. Namely, even with the constant pausing, it is sometimes impossible to tell what is happening, or why your characters are suddenly all lying sprawled on the ground. Some spells still need a rest to recharge, while others can be reused multiple times between rests or in one encounter. It was nice that my wizards weren’t useless after one encounter but I also don’t understand why they kept the rest mechanic. In Dungeons and Dragons (in the older versions at least) spells were only castable once or a few times a day. To recharge your spells, you had to go to sleep or rest. When translated to CRPGs, this became an immersion breaking mechanic where a party could “rest” just outside of the big bad boss’s room. To make the game more immersive, Pillars of Eternity requires the party to have firewood to rest – which makes sense – but only allows the party to carry a max of three stacks. This means that while going through a dungeon, you can only rest your party to heal and reset your spells three times. For a game that tries to be immersive, it is a very odd mechanic to have kept.

The last gripe about combat is that there is a spell you can get about midway through the game which trivializes most encounters. It stops enemies from taking any action for around 13 seconds, and during that time, they take double damage. If your party is an efficient killing machine, some of the hardest bosses in the game will be cakewalks.

Two running themes in Pillars is how the past comes to haunt us (literally) and that the world does not always have conclusions. It’s grim, it’s dark, and when the game tries to throw in humour, it feels out of place. Most of the companions you recruit join you for no real reason except the company, and their quests involve reconciling something about their past. Eder is looking for his brother. Durance survived his god’s wrath when his fellow followers didn’t, and he doesn’t know why. Kana is looking for historic lore that might make his people’s culture more accepting. Following these quests to completion usually doesn’t change anything about the character’s situation, and sometimes makes it even worse. Compared to your companions in Dragon’s Age or Baldur’s Gate, the companions of Pillars feel like afterthoughts. They are not fleshed out characters with developed backgrounds, save for one or two, and there is no rational reason why they would travel with you. In contrast, the characters of Dragon Age had clear motivations, affected the world, and over time, revealed themselves to be deep characters with clear motivations for tagging along. Instead, the cast of Pillars generally have nothing better to do than to follow you around in hopes that they will stumble across the thing they seek.

The game lacks warmth and dramatic highs and lows to add some humanity to the grim world. Some warmth even, to draw people in. Too many quests in the game feel unimportant even though they are well designed. They should feel interesting but often just fall flat, despite giving the player a choice in how to resolve and presenting some difficult situations. In the end, the game feels like a presentation of this new world Obsidian has created rather than a story that takes place in it.

For a game that talks a lot about souls, Pillars of Eternity lacks one. It’s not a bad game by any means, but like its characters, it is stuck fighting the past, and it prevents it from doing something else, something new, in the present. 

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