Released in 2015, Pillars of Eternity was inspired by Bioware’s classic Baldur’s Gate games which revived isometric RPGs in a pausable real-time format, followed by other Black Isle Studios titles based on the same Infinity Engine, in particular Planescape: Torment. For lack of a willing publisher Pillars of Eternity was originally crowdfunded on Kickstarter. Its success allowed the production of a two-part expansion and a once more crowdfunded sequel released this year. I was one of the original funders but knowing Obsidian’s notoriety for buggy releases, decided to wait until the final patch to play.
That may have been a wise decision, as I indeed encountered only a single crash and no other bugs. Pillars of Eternity is otherwise technically solid as well. The isometric graphics engine uses 3D models rather than pixel sprites and scales beautifully to 4K resolution, with properly sized objects in game world and user interface.
The latter is a refined Infinity Engine UI that generally works well, with two exceptions. One is trying to figure out what potions do. While other item types show a summary tooltip, potions only show the name — you must right-click on every single potion to learn what they actually do! This makes them close to useless, unless you decide to use them up quickly as you acquire them.
The other UI problem is that too little dialog information is recorded in the journal. Exploring the rich history and interactions of the game’s numerous characters and factions is a major part of the plot, but only terse fragments of this are automatically recorded, and then perhaps in a collapsed paragraph under some obscure quest title. As a result I was often surprised or puzzled by new revelations since I had simply forgotten relevant details of earlier dialogs. Fortunately online game guides exist by now to fill in some of the gaps.
As for the rest of technical issues, the music and partial voice acting are quite good. Voice acting is not exhaustive due to the sheer amount of text, and does not exist at all for the main character to allow for free character design, so these aren’t really defects. I had the game installed to a spinny disk where initial load times were pretty bad but level transitions and game saves were fast enough.
The game system is an original design reminiscent of Infinity Engine’s Dungeons & Dragons adaptation: you control a party of up to six characters from an isometric perspective, running in real time but with automatic pausing during combat. There are some curious twists, such as a distinction between health and endurance. Taking damage depletes both, but health pools are much larger and endurance replenishes automatically outside of combat. (It seems the sequel has removed this distinction and reverted to a single health statistic, also automatically replenishing.) Health and any received injuries are healed through rest and only rest — not spells nor potions.
Crafting and enchanting are also rather unusual, as they do not require any particular skills or characters nor the acquisition of recipes. If you have the required ingredients you just click a button and it’s done. Lastly, two curious classes are chanters and ciphers (both available as companion NPCs by the way). They are basically fighters with a twist. Chanters continually chant a chain of magical phrases during combat, granting increasingly powerful bonuses to allies and/or penalties to enemies. Ciphers cast wizard-like spells, but rather than having a set number of casts their spells are powered by a focus resource gained through regular weapon damage.
Setting and Quests
While you can set the difficulty high enough to put a focus on battles, skills, loot and so on, the real draw is the inventive setting and story, much as in Planescape: Torment. Indeed there are entire gameplay sequences that are written as multiple choice questionnaires modified by your statistics and equipment, as in old game books. The plot begins after a new self-declared god was destroyed in a major war with the aid of the old gods. Now many children are born as mindless zombies without souls. Nobody knows exactly why, but the experimental soul scientists known as animancers are widely suspected.
As for your own character, he/she/it begins as a caravan guard trekking through land dotted with ancient ruins and guarded by hostile tribes. Suddenly a soul storm appears and transforms the character into a watcher of souls, meaning you can commune with the recently departed and see fragments of past lives of living souls. (Yes, there’s a cycle of rebirths in this world.) While deceased souls often have gameplay importance, the historical soul chatter is curiously random and irrelevant. It does flesh out the game world but feels like throwaway content, adding unique NPCs but no actual dialogs and quest lines for which perhaps resources were lacking.
There also seems to be a plot hole regarding the watcher’s condition. An often mentioned motivation to look into the affairs of gods and souls in the first place is the watcher slowly going crazy, with visions of strange souls coming into his mind unbidden. Not only is this never apparent during gameplay (for pragmatic reasons I guess), it is also never actually healed upon successful completion of the game. Did I overlook something, or did the writers just forget about that part? Regardless, you might as well ignore it since other important motivations appear along the way.
That aside, the design of game world, plot points, and most side quests are magnificent and expertly interwoven. Do recall to talk to every one of your companions if they don’t talk to you first — all their personal quests are well worth exploring! One qualification: Obsidian couldn’t resist throwing in that old Bioware staple, your own personal keep. You must take it and do some initial dungeon crawling for the main plot, but after that keep management and full exploration of its enormous dungeon are just a time sink of no story relevance, so honestly you should just ignore that.
White March Expansion
Speaking of the keep, another qualification concerns the two-part White March expansion. It adds new areas to explore as well as other game content — and its integration with the main plot is very poor. Obsidian recommends getting the expansion at around character level seven. I recommend you don’t get them at all until you’re done with the base game and decide you really want to go back for more, as it was very obviously designed for that audience and not for level seven characters still on the main plot.
With the expansion, you get one quest that actually leads to White March; one battle at your keep that requires completing White March to find two required armies; and one quest that copies another Bioware staple, an idiotically difficult fight against a lich. I unsuccessfully wasted an hour on that one. All the solutions I found on the Internet relied on the cheese tactics of drawing out one enemy at a time, same as in the infamous Bioware lich fight. Since the main quest was easy enough for me at that point, I decided to return to it and had no desire to revisit the expansion after completing the game. In other words, waste of money.
If this review sounds oddly negative overall, that’s because the good stuff is either well known to the target audience (the grand old Infinity Engine gameplay) or else constitutes plot spoilers (the excellent dialogs and quest design). Rest assured that if you ever liked Infinity Engine games in general and Planescape: Torment in particular, you’ll greatly enjoy Pillars of Eternity. For my part I’ve just bought the sequel, but this time without any expansions. Bolted-on content not involved with the main quest line is really not in the spirit of such games.