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Pillars of Eternity – Nostalgia Gaming: Slog or Bliss?

Pillars of Eternity – Nostalgia Gaming: Slog or Bliss?

So should you play this game?


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As Peter Allen sang, “Everything Old is New Again.” I realize he wasn’t singing about top-down, isometric, party-based RPGs, but whatever. He was right. In the last couple of years, this old-fashioned kind of RPG that was so immensely popular in the late 90s and early 2000s has been making a comeback in a big way.

I played so many of those Infinity Engine games when they were new. Baldurs Gate and its sequels and add-ons, Icewind Dale, Planescape Torment… Oh, I loved them all. I also played many of the games that capitalized on Bioware and Black Isle’s success with games like Lionheart, Arcanum, and Divine Divinity.

The last game in that list, Divine Divinity, had a very successful reboot last year with Divinity: Original Sin. It got many great reviews, and got an enormous boost from the celebrity nerd community, most notably Felicia Day, who loved the game more than a warm puppy.

And I was so excited about it! I leaped into the game with all the good will in the world, and … just. Hated. It. I found the interface brutally clunky, the stories uninteresting, the quests herky-jerky, and the party members very boring. I gave up trying to convince myself I was having a good time after about twenty hours of gameplay.

Next, I crossed my fingers for Wasteland 2, another attempt to recreate the top-down RPG. But I was scared away by the reviews that chirped that it was “just like Divinity: Original Sin!” Uh, no, thanks.

Fast-forward a year. Pillars of Eternity is released with a stunning pedigree: It was made by Obsidian, a studio filled with creative maniacs who used to work for Black Isle, which designed or helped design those early, great RPGs listed above.1 Almost as impressive as that pedigree were the reviews the game began to get.

As eager as I was to jump into the isometric RPG merriment, I had to wait two months because of some work travel. My first order of business when I got home, after unpacking, was firing up Pillars and rolling my main character.

As I sat down to examine the choices I had for my main character, I was pleasantly overwhelmed.

First of all, there are six races: Human, Aumaua (huge bruisers), Dwarves, Elves, Orlan (gnome-sized) and “Godlike” (wild appearance and a variety of cool magic bonuses). Each of these races has several sub-races to make things even more interesting.

Then there’s class. In addition to the traditional Rogue, Ranger, Fighter, Priest, Paladin, Druid, Monk and Wizard, there are the Chanters – sort of bard-like with buffs, debuffs and summons, and finally Ciphers, a complex class mixing magic and fighting abilities.

I settled on a Fire Godlike Barbarian. It was my plan to make him my second tank, and he had lots of qualities that looked promising in that regard.

I named him Kosmo and was pleased that he even looked a bit like my original World of Warcraft character.

Character creation done, I fired up a new game, and for the first few hours, it was like sinking back in to a friendly old easy chair.2 Here indeed was that top-down, isometric, story-driven RPG I was hoping for.

The art style is extremely pleasing. The water effects in particular are lovely. The palette is rich and vibrant, and the environments are varied and intriguing.

One of the main pleasures of these types of games is opening up the fog of war. When you enter into a new map, it’s all black except for the little area around you and your characters. As you move through the map you open up more and more of it, until you eventually have the entire map revealed. I never get tired of the simple sense of progression this mechanic brings.

Story-wise, the setup is thin but intriguing. The character you play is part of a caravan of immigrants moving into a troubled land. A nice touch is that the game gives you a lot of freedom to decide what your reasons are for this journey. Your choices are affected by your race and background, which, again, you chose yourself. Any time an RPG can make you feel like the story is your story, that’s a good thing.

The combat is real-time but you may pause the action at any time to issue commands to your party. In addition, in the Options menu you can instruct the game to auto-pause whenever a host of events trigger: enemy sighted, enemy engaged, weapon being non-effective, etc. You can fine-tune these notifications until you are getting just what you want and no more.

Speaking of party. In this game you can travel with a party of your main character and up to five other characters. You can either recruit adventurers from inns, or you can ask any of the eight characters you meet along your travels to join you.

I, of course, chose the latter route, as I wanted to play the game for story, and the hired mercenaries are more generic placeholders rather than rich characters with a backstory, voiced dialog, and agendas and missions of their own.

One very interesting element of the game is that you aren’t necessarily rewarded experience points for just killing everything you come across. You do get XP the first several times you defeat a particular type of enemy – the idea is that you are filling out a bestiary of knowledge of how to deal with this enemy better. But once you’ve filled in the details on a particular type of enemy, you no longer receive any XP from simply defeating more of them. You get large XP rewards for completing quests, however. This balance keeps you focused on the story elements of the game.

The game does a good job of getting you invested in the characters really early. About an hour into the game, a bad event happens that has surprising impact. Among other things, you learn that there are dark and complex things in your past, and you realize you’ll probably spend the bulk of the game exploring and resolving those mysteries.

Then you hit your first town and the game really becomes what it is. Veterans of these types of games will be instantly at home. Everyone in town is chatty, and everyone in town has a problem that, seemingly, only you can solve. These are mostly story-driven quests and are, for the most part, well done.

Rest is an important component of Pillars of Eternity. Most spellcasters are limited by the number of spells they can cast by rest period. Also, paying extra for special rooms at inns can give your team stat bonuses which can help you in combat.

A word about combat. It’s surprisingly difficult on the Normal setting. Much has been written about this, and so I was prepared for it. From the very beginning the encounters are challenging. I could handle it (mostly), but eventually I became impatient with it for two reasons:

First of all, the game is quite long. The painstaking combat really made me feel like my progress was slower than it should be. Second, remember that after a few encounters with any given type of enemy, you stop getting any experience points from the encounters. Sure, you get loot and money, but after about halfway through the game you have way more money than you know what to do with.

So about halfway through the game I turned the difficulty setting down to Easy. I felt a little guilty about it, but not too guilty. My gaming time is limited, after all!

Faction is also theoretically an important part of the game, particularly in Defiance Bay, the game’s largest town. The vast city has several different factions and you built reputation with them based on your actions. However, this system doesn’t work very well. Again, there are two reasons for this:

First, rarely do your alignments feel like they have any meaningful impact on the world or the story. Worse, it’s way too easy to cross thresholds of no return. I accidentally said yes to a group of assassins and found myself locked out of progressing my friendships with other groups I was far more interested in. Any RPG such as this needs to let you feel you are telling your version of the story, and to have these points of no return is disheartening and makes you feel less invested in your playthrough. At least it did for me.

Finally, in the third act, the game really begins to lose steam. I’m approaching the end game now and I admit I’m just slogging through to get the damned thing finished. Part of the reason for this is the Wall of Text problem. There’s a LOT of reading in this game and while, of course, I like reading, it gets to be overwhelming in Pillars of Eternity. Maybe I’m spoiled by more modern games which are more fully voiced (though there’s a good deal of high-quality voice work in Pillars, to be fair). Or maybe the endless text streams in the game just aren’t telling stories that are interesting enough. For whatever reason, my investment in the story has grown more and more thin.

So should you play this game? I’m not sure what to tell you. It does have a very good nostalgia appeal and pedigree, and it’s mostly quite well-built. It’s pretty to look at, has some nice voice acting and some interesting race and class ideas. And your mileage could certainly vary regarding your involvement with the (long!) story.

If you’re a fan of the old late 90s RPGs, give this a try and let me know what you think!



Not to mention last year’s spectacular South Park: The Stick of Truth.
Metaphor shamelessly stolen from Stephen King.
If ONLY I had this problem in real life.


Ray Ivey

Ray Ivey

A gaming freakazoid, Ray enjoys games on all platforms. Also loves board games, mind games, and all puzzles. Co-wrote the Entertainment Tonight trivia game and designed puzzles for two Law & Order PC games. Also a movie freak, bookworm, and travel bug. Thinks games of all kinds are a highly underappreciated force for social good, not to mention mental and psychological health.   Ray's favorite adventures include the "Broken Sword" and "Journeyman Project" franchises, "The Dark Eye," "The Feeble Files," "Sanitarium," "Limbo," "Machinarium," "Riven," "The Neverhood," and "Azrael's Tear." His favorite non-adventures include the "Thief," "Uncharted," and "Ratchet & Clank" franchises, all of the Bioware RPGs, Skyrim, and Final Fantasy XII.   Ray writes about the movies for the Bryan/College Station Daily Eagle, which is the old-fashioned thing called a "newspaper." He's been on eight game shows. He's taught in seven countries and has visited twenty-one. His favorite classic movie star is Barbara Stanwyck and his favorite novel is "The Hotel New Hampshire" by John Irving.

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