In truth, Obsidian's crowd-funded spectacular Pillars of Eternity arrived at PCGamers.net.au headquarters some time ago. The pre-release press only code was enough to get my hands dirty on the game, but I was reluctant to rush a review out as I felt it would not do this game justice.
The game is immensely complex in its mechanics and so I wanted to spend some more time with it, to try and understand its nuances, and appreciate the fact that its roots are deeply embedded in an RPG era now largely left behind, but thankfully not forgotten. Whilst the Witcher's and Dark Souls of the world capture the imagination from a mostly graphical perspective, the niche of the isometric turn based RPG is more story-oriented. If Diablo 3 in it's purely action RPG machination can be considered the Cheeseburger of the RPG genre, Pillars of Eternity is the Fillet Mignon. The thinking man's (or woman's) RPG.
The game is intended for fans of the original Infinity Engine games such as Baldur's Gate, Icewind Dale, and Planescape: Torment. Obsidian started a Kickstarter campaign in September 2012 and have since raised $4.1 million (amazing considering that the initial target was $1.1 million, which it raised in 1 day!)
So can we expect a quality product from a crowd-funded campaign? I wasn't sure, but thinking about it there is so much to like about this approach. Consider that it is the fans of the genre that are driving the direction of the game. As they donate to the cause, stretch targets are met and the developers are able to add more and more content to their liking.
A new level of collaboration exists now with developer diaries within social media circles discussing game direction, allowing feedback to be sought at a very early stage from the fans. This can only result in a better product right? Well thankfully yes, I can say that Pillars of Eternity has been a success.
Once you jump into a new game you are presented with 4 levels of difficulty: Easy, Normal, Hard and "Path of the Damned". Path of the Damned difficulty means enemies have bonuses to most stats and encounters have many more enemies.
Figure 1. Are you a glutton for pain? Do you like slamming your squashy bits in car doors? If so then "Trial of Iron" mode is for you!
When generating your first character you firstly select a Male or Female, then a Race. Race can be Human, Aumaua (water residing human-like creatures), Dwarf, Elf, Orlan (ugly little impey things) and Godlike.
Figure 2. Bringing back the punk rocker era with dat hair!
Not all your typical D&D races make a showing in Pillars of Eternity, however there is some carry over. Where the divergence really takes place is in the Subrace. After selecting a Race, you select a Subrace from a list specific to that Race. For example, if you select a Godlike Race, you are then presented with a choice of "Death", "Fire", "Moon" and "Nature" Subrace, each with their own backstory and perks. Death gives the player a bonus when an opponent has low Endurance. Fire buffs you with damage reduction and fire damage when you are weak, Moon provides healing for yourself and your allies under duress and Nature provides buffs to multiple attributes when you your Endurance is low.
After this you select a Class, most of which should be pretty self-explanatory, out of Barbarian, Chanter, Cipher, Druid, Fighter, Monk, Paladin, Priest, Ranger, Rogue and Wizard. The two classes I hadn't seen before are Chanter – basically a caster who cast offensive magical spells after reciting a bunch of phrases, and Cipher – a caster who targets the enemies mind and soul.
Then customise your face from some very Eye of the Beholder like portraits (there's 67 of them and they are all awesome), select a character voice and voila, you're done!
The game begins with a dialogue explaining that you have fallen unwell on your journey to "look for a fresh start". Your party pulls over and makes camp for the night.
The Caravan Master reckons he is too busy to go looking for the healing salve that you need, so he beckons for the rather attractive "Calisca" to take you through the forest to look for the components you need to get better.
She reluctantly agrees, and immediately you start to feel better. Your first party is formed!
The first thing to strike me with this game is the music. It's beautiful and moody and perfect for setting the scene. I recommend playing this game with a good set of headphones.
Careful attention has been paid to the storytelling in this game and it is absolutely first class. The game conveys your surroundings and new events to you in vivid detail, both on the isometric player field of view, and the narrative which appears is timely and adds to the intrigue....
Any form of conversation or negotiation involves choices, as it would in real life. These choices can be influenced based on the characters propensity for a particular attribute. For example, if your character is well versed in the Lore of the world, extra options may appear that may be more desirable than the others. Likewise if your character is a brute with an abundance of Might, he or she might have extra options of to, shall we say, exert considerable pressure on your target!
Negotiation tactics come in to play early with some Lore and Might dialogue options. This is one game you must be prepared to read and understand the dialogue before acting.
Actions can have a big flow on effect to. When I was faced with a choice early in the game to stop and allow an injured party member to rest, or heed the warnings of my guide and push on, risking the injured one, was stressful to say the least! Was it the choice I made that caused my party member to do a runner in the night with all our water supplies?
Do you have skillz?
Stealth, Athletics, Lore, Mechanics and Survival are the 5 core Skills in Pillars. Unlike Abilities and Talents which are used mostly in combat, Skills are leveraged often in a non-combat situation, for example when negotiating with an NPC, or trying to manipulate the world around you.
At the heart of Pillars is a fairly familiar combat system which despite looking complex is actually pretty simple. It really comes down to a comparison of some core attributes between the party member and the enemy, and an "attack roll" component to add the dynamics.
Figure 3. I can't tell what on earth is going on here either. Suffice to say I think someone has got a pretty bad headcold.
The success of an attack is based on the attacker Accuracy rating versus the target's defense rating with an attack roll modifier. Each attack can result in a Critical Hit, Hit, Graze, or Miss, each affecting the amount of attack damage and/or duration.
Accuracy and Defense can be improved through better gear, levelling up, new abilities and talents. Damage amount can be reduced via the DR (Damage Reduction) modifier which is applied to armor. Consider it the difference between a suit of armor made out of aluminium foil versus kevlar!
Like all good hack and slash RPG's, critical strikes can be dealt which give a 50% damage multiplier.
There are 8 types of damage that can be dealt in Pillars. Slashing, Crushing, Piercing, Freezing, Shocking, Burning, Corrosion or Raw damage. Raw damage is not affected by armor and is usually associated with poison or bleeding attacks.
An interesting mechanic in the game is Endurance, and it is separate to your run of the mill Health. Endurance plays an important part in Pillars of Eternity. It is consumed when your opponent hits you successfully. If you character loses all of their endurance they are effectively KO'd rendering them useless in the fight. If remaining party members die then the KO'd character will die also. Unlike Health, Endurance will auto-regenerate quickly after a battle. Health can only be regenerated through rest. This makes it important to carefully pick when and where you make camp. Camp supplies are consumed when you make camp, so this is always a consideration. On resting, magical members relearn spells.
There is a massive array of magical attack spells in the game, some dealing direct damage such as the lovely Necrotic Lance, some AOE (Area of Effect) or are DOT's (Damage over time) like Malignant Cloud.
The game has an interesting stealth mechanic whereby your party can sneak around an enemy avoiding a potentially messy confrontation. Or, it can be used to allow you to set your party up in the most optimal manner to engage. Pop a caster or ranged party member at the back or flanks, and get your tanks ready to roll in for melee! Invest in the Mechanics skill if this sounds like something you are interested in.
Anyone who has seen the South Park parody of World of Warcraft will remember the boys having to defeat boars to level up their characters enough to take on the high level meanie who was ganking them at every opportunity. Boars are a bit of a running joke in World of Warcraft. I know I myself have killed many of them. Repeatedly killing something basic for the sole reason of levelling up is known as "grinding". Well the boars in the world of Pillars of Eternity will breathe a collective sigh of relief to find that they are safe from grinding, the Experience mechanic in the game does not reward Monster kills. Instead, party members are rewarded with XP through progression through quests in the game, whether they be main or side quests.
I am not sure how I feel about that; I think you should be rewarded for taking on monsters around your level, if you don't feel like questing. That being said, I prefer the no reward mechanic in Pillars to the ridiculous "monsters auto-level with you" mechanic in Oblivion / Skyrim.
Is it fun?
Well, yes! Mind you, this game is not for everyone. It's a game that truly respects the genre, but if you are a diehard Call of Duty fan then perhaps this isn't for you. Be prepared to do lots of reading and to have some quiet moments wandering across a map.
This is a great game which has been lovingly crafted and gives me real hope for the Kickstarter approach to games in future. It has been created by fans of the genre for fans of old school RPG's and if you ever found yourself lost in hours of party customisation in Baldur's Gate, or laughing at your sidekick Morte in Planescape Torment then this one is for you.