The modern BioWare RPG shares its roots, much like the studio, with the first Baldur’s Gate. Released in 1998, Baldur’s Gate was developed alongside and released on what was dubbed the Infinity Engine. Although based in the sort of high-fantasy Dungeons & Dragons world filled with wizards and spells and elves and trolls, Baldur’s Gate and the Infinity Engine introduced numerous role-playing mechanics and a sense of thoughtfulness to the genre. Not that thoughtfulness is quantifiable by any real measure. Outside of a L. Ron Hubbard style e-meter of course.
In fact, the sort of things that Baldur’s Gate brought to the RPG genre can still be seen today, in titles like Mass Effect and Dragon Age. Like the ability to choose your companions, make choices that could have a meaningful impact on how the overall story or various plot-lines pan out, and a focus on rich skill-based tactical battles. Now, playing Mass Effect 3: Shepard’s Gambit is a far cry from playing a game like Baldur’s Gate. At a glance it probably has more in common with a modern day shooter. A Gearings of Wartime, if you will.
But, if you take away the isometric viewpoints, screens filled with detailed character stat sheets, scrolling dice-roll information that would only make sense to a Will Hunting-type, Baldur’s Gate does feel like Commander Shepard’s predecessor. In fact, many prominent western action-RPGs from the last decade owe a lot to the period of 1998-2002. A time when developers BioWare and Black Isle Studios perfected the party-based fantasy RPG, all published by Interplay and developed with the Infinity Engine.
Games like the aforementioned Baldur’s Gate, and Planescape Torment, and Icewind Dale. All of which strove to tell rich character driven stories on a foundation of rich, detailed, pen and paper role-playing. Games where players were not only invested in their own avatar and the amount of damage reduction (DR) their boots were providing, but also in the fates of the fleshed out companions that accompanied them on their adventures. And thanks to the very specific isometric viewpoint of the Infinity Engine games, over the years they have not only grown in stature but have become quickly regarded as the
classic series of computer RPGs.
So yeah, not exactly easy shoes to fill. Or more aptly, Leather Boots of Protection to fill.
Which brings us to Pillars of Eternity, a wildly successful crowdfunded RPG that aims to capture the look and feel of the Infinity Engine games with the added bonus of modern design; lessons-learnt, and all that other good stuff. Coming from Obsidian Entertainment, a studio founded and run by the very people who worked on the games that Pillars of Eternity is looking to spiritually succeed, it’s no wonder that many RPG fans have been waiting anxiously to get their hands on the final product.
So, is it any good? Does it feel like it could sit alongside other classic Infinity Engine games? Is the story any good? Are the party mechanics fleshed out? Is the battle system robust and deep? Is it as buggy and unpolished as the last, who knows how many RPGs from Obsidian? For the most part, sure. Pillars of Eternity is a great old-school RPG. Also it’s the most polished Obsidian game in a long time. Even if it still has a number of issues.
And by that token Pillars of Eternity is a success, but more importantly, it feels very much like an Infinity Engine game. And hey, that was the aim all along. And with the market today being as diverse and fractured as it is, a game like Pillars of Eternity doesn’t need to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. It provides a thoughtful and detailed world in which to build a character and embark on a sprawling high-fantasy quest to uncover an ancient truth that could alter the fate of numerous nations and the entire world. Albeit, an ancient truth running at a much higher resolution than ever before. And one with the foresight to include the option to alter the game speed, giving people the ability to basically fast-forward through boring stuff. Like long walks from one side of the map to the other.
That’s not to say that if you’ve never played a game like Baldure’s Gate you’d be at a loss here. No, Pillars of Eternity is pretty good at slowly introducing or re-introducing players into a world where numbers and skill descriptions are as important to read as major plot points. It makes no attempt to hide the fact that this is a serious RPG. Issuing commands for each of your four additional companions is not just a way to interrupt the AI from doing its thing, but a way in which to avoid certain death.
Because essentially there is no real companion AI, battle tactics and party strategy are left entirely to the player. Meaning that even if you chose a melee character, let’s say on the basis that magic is for wusses who wear pointy hats, you’ll still need to come to grips with learning the ins-and-outs of a gazillion different spells. That also goes for learning the different ways that a crossbow can be used, what exactly a chanter does, if barbarians are more than giant tanks with massive swords (turns out they aren’t), and exactly how important priests are (turns out, extremely). Being in control of a number of different classes is naturally a lot more involved than being in control of just the one, so the learning curve is definitely steeper than most games, but not overly so.
So each encounter with a large enemy group, made up of more than a couple of tiny hobgoblin things, basically turns into this. Pause the game (which is done automatically), map out where each companion needs to stand, what initial skills or buffs to use, which spells to cast, who to heal, what potion to drink, and what weapon or item to use. From there you un-pause the game, let the first move or two play out, watch what your enemies do, and then pause the game again (this time manually) to set-up the next batch of moves. Now that may sound daunting, but again Pillars of Eternity is wise to ease players into or back-into this stuff. And a big credit goes to Obsidian for it never really feeling overwhelming in the slightest. As your party grows so do your battle strategies, and before long facing off against certain enemy types will result in a measured response that you’ve shaped over a few hours into a finely tuned and coordinated attack.
Which results in a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction after each big battle that is a reward in and of itself.
There’s no denying that Pillars of Eternity is a great game to play in terms of the role-playing mechanics, and the issues with the battle system are minor. Stuff like your party getting stuck trying to walk through a door so they end up dying one after another, or losing badly to a group of enemies that are just way too overpowered for your current party level. And that second one’s only annoying because the only way to learn that lesson is through trial by fire. And getting burnt.
Even though Pillars of Eternity raised a few million dollars in its crowdfunding campaign, the amount of content in the actual game is still remarkable. The campaign is not only lengthy, but super-duper long. Like, over 40 hours or so. The presentation of the story is also a slow burn, revealing itself gradually over the course of the game, with the major plot points not really becoming apparent until about halfway through. There’s a sense of confidence in how it all plays out, which is commendable.
The other big draw of a game like Pillars of Eternity is with the different personalities of your companions, and choosing who to take based on whether you like them as opposed to what class-type they may be. Pillars doesn’t disappoint in this regard either, but even so there’s a sense when playing the game that your companions are merely just along for the ride. They never really feel like part of the team. Which is a shame, because this sort of subtlety does have its drawbacks. And narratively speaking Pillars of Eternity probably should have taken a figurative page out of the Dragon Age storybook, and opted for more moments of heightened tension and drama.
In the end there’s no doubt that Pillars of Eternity is a success. Playing the game is not an entirely nostalgic experience. It conjures up a genuine need for this style of RPG -- isometric, hand-drawn, party-driven, stat-heavy, and a whole lot of fun.
Kosta Andreadis remembers a time when in order to get the best out of a console game you had to blow gently into it and whisper sweet nothings like "please work, I’m up to World 8-3, for fudgcicles sake". Situated in Melbourne, Kosta is a freelancer who enjoys playing RPGs, strategy, adventure, and action games. Apart from investing well over 200 hours into The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim he’s also an electronic musician with an album recently released
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