Pillars of Eternity has made the long journey from its native PC to console, to the PlayStation 4, but has it been waylaid?
It’s an odd proposition, really. Given the $4m Kickstarter campaign to make manifest the spirits of Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale, and Planescape: Torment, there was a tangible element of supply-and-demand to Pillars of Eternity when it released on PC in 2015. Obsidian delivered on its promise, developing a game to hang high amidst the banners of Fallout: New Vegas, KOTOR II, and Alpha Protocol. But who asked for this, a PS4 version two years down the line?
Paradox Interactive is happy to oblige whoever did, capturing Pillars of Eternity and its two-part expansion pack in the box below the TV. And it’s no bad thing: a new audience of gamers now has a chance to enjoy one of the better pure RPGs in recent years.
What strikes the eye first is the way you’re presented with the game’s world. An elevated side-on view frames everything with a fixed perspective; you can’t rotate the camera, only rove it around ahead of your party, taking in the layers of detail folded in.
It’s also bolstered by subtle abstraction that affects the way you see the world: it takes eight hours to get to one place, so while you can fast-travel, your character now has fatigue from the trek; they’ll need to camp, but that eats six hours, so now they’re travelling at night – that’s more dangerous. It’s texture achieved in a logistical fashion.
It’s a beautiful world to behold, too. Obsidian leverages graphical fidelity like a ritual, pouring fresh blood on the ossified memories of Amn, The Valley of Tombs, and Cloakwood – invoking your memories and buffing them to mirror sheen. This isn’t a showcase of raw power; it’s coating your rose-tinted memories with a protective film. You remember them all looking this good. They didn’t.
The game delivers you to the Dyrwood, a place of verdant, waning beauty blighted by a curse called Waidwen’s Legacy, causing babies to be born without souls. Enter the Animancers: a group of practitioners of animancy who think they can cure the afflicted by transposing the souls of animals into the children. Naturally, this is seen by many as an affront to the gods.
Your hero (you’ll spend a long time crafting your hero to the precise specs you need on a granular character creation menu) has their soul awakened, turning them into a Watcher – meaning they are able to divine the secrets of people’s past lives. It’s a delicious conceit that colours the world in shades of complexity.
If you throw yourself in and grapple with the text, there are rich pay-offs. Characters’ expressions and movements are described like stage directions wreathing the dialogue – written with warm familiarity by Eric Fenstermaker, Carrie Patel, and Olivia Veras. With that familiarity there is an assured mark of craft; the right decisions are made.
It’s a relief that the world is filled with myriad races and walks of life, but that the tensions between groups aren’t the sole, leaden focus – something which at times hampered The Witcher series. It brings the world of Pillars into a sober focus – one of strife, injustice, cooperation, and realpolitik.
The closest the game comes to cut-scenes are a series of still pages, as if from the learned tome of your adventures. The illustrations that accompany these have the dust-worn look of woodcut reliefs, beautifully and starkly etching the world on your mind. It’s a soft signal of the power of stories, and the craft that brings them to life. There’s the strong suggestion of workmanship about Pillars – of hallmarks of quality, and of sparing no expense. 77,000 backers and a talented studio will guarantee you that.
The scope of the world is vast, too. It’s peopled with characters whose histories are offered as if spoken sotto voce into your hero’s mind; though, in execution, it falls to you to leaf through reams of text. This is why despite the obvious craft and breadth, it will fall to your imagination for depth. The gravitas is punctured at times when detailed text and rich back-stories end with quick, stat-heavy pause-resume battles that can make their conclusions feel perfunctory.
This isn’t to say the battles themselves aren’t accomplished, far from it. On normal difficulty, the game’s attitude to you is one of disregard; it’s your charge to understand the refined nuances of combat, and strategy rules the day. You feel like a chess player – the consequence of your designs playing out in fleeting moments of movement in-between stretches of stillness. Your combat pause dictates the pace of battles, victory often relying on crucial tweaks and touches in the tiniest moments – a support spell here, a unique ability there.
It will appeal to those of meticulous nature, and there’s a purifying sense of accomplishment in beasts bested and bouts brought to a thorough close through forethought and superior planning.
Obsidian has condensed a complex control scheme onto a console pad. A spiralling staircase of radial menus attempt to tuck a volume of functions behind their own D&D click-wheels. It’s a way to parse the multitude of actions and bind them to a controller, but it’s never going to beat a mouse-and-keyboard for this kind of game.
It doesn’t require adroit feats of sleight of hand like Halo: Wars and Command and Conquer: Red Alert 3 at times demanded, but it can be frustrating when there’s latency between your head and your hands. It does help that Pillars opts to freeze the heat of battle with that combat pause and give you an endless hourglass with which to tinker.
There are further teething pains here. If the text in its abundance doesn’t bother you, it might leave your eyes sore having to sit forward on the sofa to read it. There’s no way around it really; it was a PC game, and so it was designed to sit a couple of feet from your eyes.
There is also the punctured lung of clipped expectations: Kickstarter’s knack of cursing people with precisely what they wished for. You can feel the bittersweet pain of this in Tom’s PC review; it’s as true here on console as it was then.
Things fossilise for a reason: we move past them. We can dig them up and adorn them with ornament, or we can clasp them in cases like trophies. But we can’t repeat the past.