When the review code came through for Pillars of Eternity, it’s fair to say I was more than a little excited.
While some sites will go out of their way to review everything that lands on their doorstep (in an admirable attempt to catalogue everything under the sun) at Thumbsticks we take a somewhat different, more feature-like approach. You won’t find any percentages or marks out of ten here – we dropped review scores before it was cool – but you might find a qualitative assessment of the title’s place in the world, why it’s important, and if you’re really lucky we might even tell you if (in our humble opinion) it’s worth playing.
That also means we do get plenty of review codes through that we unfortunately don’t get around to playing, or if we do, we don’t get around to featuring on the site because we simply don’t have enough to say on the matter without resorting to quantitative assessments of graphics and sound and lifespan and…
Pillars of Eternity is very different. Where ordinarily Daniel and I will offer review codes up to the rest of the team first, by way of a small reward for writing for Thumbsticks, on this occasion you couldn’t have prised the Pillars of Eternity code from me if you were pointing a crossbow to my head. Ordinarily a professional sort, I was snarling ferociously and swinging a flail around my head (metaphorically speaking) and the team knew very well to step back, because this one was visibly important to me – I’ve been waiting a long time for a spiritual successor to the remarkable Infinity Engine role-playing games from the turn of the century – and now here it is.
Not your average review
Full disclosure: I haven’t yet finished Pillars of Eternity. Ordinarily that would be a capital offence, admitting that you were reviewing a game without finishing it, but we’re not indexing every game under the sun and this isn’t your average review. Do keep up.
Right about now, I can see from Twitter that other journos have been scrambling furiously to complete Pillars of Eternity before the review embargo is lifted at 13:00 GMT today (the day of release). I see triumphant messages that some of them have done so, cramming sixty plus hours of a monster title into less than a week, which is no mean feat and I heartily commend them for their efforts. Unfortunately I don’t have the time available to dedicate to such an almighty undertaking, with other projects and responsibilities to juggle – especially when the review code only lands a week before release – but I’ve done my best to get through as much as I physically could, so I’ve at least got plenty to talk about.
Interestingly, there are also nearly a hundred user ratings on Metacritic and the game doesn’t unlock for another four hours at the time of writing. I’m not exactly sure what that tells us about the gaming public and the incessant need to score and rank everything, but I certainly find it strange to say the least.
So in summary:
- If you do want a traditional review of Pillars of Eternity then head over to somewhere like PC Gamer or Rock Paper Shotgun – I know I will do when their reviews drop – but there’s always room for a little bit of extra analysis.
- You can’t always believe what you read on Metacritic.
The foundations of Pillars of Eternity
Baldur’s Gate was something of a big deal in my life, and in the computer role-playing game world on the whole. There had been great role-playing games for PC before, and there had been Advanced Dungeons & Dragons games too, but Baldur’s Gate was the first legitimately massive smash hit in the centre of that venn diagram. Role-playing games were always my jam, and I would seek out any variant I could lay my hands on – J-RPG, Action, Tactical – it didn’t matter; but as a table-top gamer in my youth I was always partial to a spot of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, and Baldur’s Gate was the first time I felt it had really been done right.
And I played it a lot. I played it to absolute death, in fact, and I still loved every second of it. Sure, I knew when the bandit attacks and the double-crosses were coming, and I wasn’t in the least bit surprised by the developments of the frankly excellent plot after the first playthrough, but that’s the beauty of a game where your character is a blank canvas – if you get tired of where you’re up to, or you just fancy trying it again from a different angle, with an alternate skillset or siding with a different faction – then just hit ‘new game’ and roll right through it.
Sometimes you needed to do that. One of the biggest issues with Dungeons & Dragons as a whole, and therefore role-playing games with rulesets derived from it, is that it’s incredibly easy to back yourself into a corner from whence you can’t escape. You might have chosen to play through the title as a warrior, for example, and have a party built around you with other skillsets – healing, archery, offensive magic, lockpicking – but the party member resource is a finite thing and permadeath in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons is a very real threat. If there are only three rogues in the entire world who can join your party and you’ve lost them all to permadeath just before you really need one to be able to unlock something/pickpocket someone/sneak past a near-unbeatable monster, then you could be a bit stuffed. You may well have other options – perhaps you can teach your mage a spell to overcome the issue, or you can grind to absurdly level your character against their own skill tree and traits to achieve the thing you need – but more often than not, you’ll throw your hands in the air and start again as a rogue yourself.
Sometimes you don’t mind, if you really love a game and are happy to play through every moment again, but sometimes it’s just a painful nuisance and can lead to games remaining unfinished in backlogs. Obsidian, the developers behind Pillars of Eternity, told Polygon how they’d rewritten the ruleset to prevent this from happening, which is remarkably bold for a development ambition. Pillars of Eternity is unequivocally not a Dungeons & Dragons title, then. It might look like one, and feel like one, and most of the rules and mechanics and background lore may be derived from it, but Obsidian have been very careful to rewrite the machinations of the entire universe from the ground up based on decades of experience.
A question of timeliness
The time is 13:00 GMT. Everyone else’s reviews of Pillars of Eternity are about to drop, and not only did I not finish the game before writing about it, I also haven’t finished my article before the embargo lifted. Oh well.
I’m currently trying very hard to resist the temptation to read the reviews that are springing up around me, as I don’t want to interfere with my own judgement by reading the opinions of people of whom I greatly admire and respect the judgment. Luckily I rolled higher than a nineteen on two D12s, which was a saving roll against my concentration statistic, and the article continues unfettered.
Let’s get back to what’s changed, and perhaps more importantly, what hasn’t.
Casting a resurrection spell on a genre
When Pillars of Eternity was crowdfunded on Kickstarter – where over seventy thousand backers pledged just shy of four million US dollars – the message from the backing public was apparently very clear: we very much love this style of role-playing game (that has inexplicably been somewhat out of fashion for almost fifteen years) and we’d like to see the genre come back, please. Obsidian understandably heard that as ‘we would like Baldur’s Gate 3, please’ and they kindly obliged.
There’s a lot of conflict in my mind when I think of Kickstarter as a medium for funding the development and (hopefully) eventual release of games. Quite aside of the risk of paying upfront for vapourware (or even sliding deadlines and partial completion as we saw with Broken Age) there is a reliance on a mutual understanding between developer and backer. Developers will of course produce videos and promotional material to support their case, engender themselves to the potential backing public, and ultimately try to raise as much cash as possible for their cause. The backing public have to make their assessment of whether to back a project or not based on this information. Sometimes, this doesn’t always play out as it should.
More disclosure: I didn’t actually back Pillars of Eternity on Kickstarter, either. As much as I love the genre and wanted to see it revived, and have adored the work of the team behind Pillars of Eternity in the past, for some reason I couldn’t bring myself to get behind the project. That doesn’t mean I was any less excited that it did smash its funding targets and the game was being made, but when the stretch goals started to appear for ‘bottomless dungeons’ and ‘bigger cities’ I had some niggling doubts creep in about what the title would turn into. Judging by my excitement when the review code came through, I had successfully buried these concerns deep down in the anticipation, but they are now resurfacing as I play through the game (slower than everyone else, it seems).
So how does it play?
One thing that was always going to be assured, with the team behind Pillars of Eternity, is that it would be an amazing story. It starts off in traditional Infinity Engine style, with a ‘hot’ start – an unsuspecting young person is minding their own business, on a journey somewhere, then all hell breaks loose and you’re thrown into a dangerous situation with a few helpers as a bit of a tutorial – before you know it you’re caught up in a twisty plot with multiple factions and a weird prophecy you seem to be at the centre of. No complaints there – the writing is sublime.
At the risk of straying into ‘actual review’ territory here, the game also looks and sounds fantastic, and the team have essentially brought the original Infinity Engine – with all its hand drawn storybook charm and atmospheric audio qualities – into a more modern era. It’s as simple as that. Resolutions are better than they ever were, the locales look fantastic and the textures are superb. Imagine following Peter Jackson’s The Fellowship of the Ring from about a hundred yards overhead by a drone for the duration of the movie, and you’ll get an idea of the effect.
Combat looks amazing too and the bigger monsters, frenetic crowd-control moments and higher-level spells really take your breath away, but It’s not perfect. I have witnessed a few strange artefacts and animations during combat for example, where one of my characters is attacking a monster at range, but the blood and gore effects from the monster are appearing directly in front of the character, as if they were fighting toe-to-toe. Another example would be when one of my characters can’t quite decide what final direction it wants to face, so flits about like its suffering some sort of seizure, until I move it an extra step or two and it settles down.
These are minor irritations, and while graphical imperfections aren’t specifically what I was worried about when I didn’t back the Kickstarter, they did get the gears in my mind working back to those niggles. I fear some of them may have come to pass, in some form or another.
The risk of the spiritual successor
When you think back about the effort the team were going to, to rewrite the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons ruleset to make it the very best mechanism it can be for a computer role-playing game in addition to actually developing the game itself, you can see where the time and effort has gone. Building a role-playing game is a mammoth undertaking at the best of times, even if you are working atop a pre-existing framework and prescribed lore, but to do the whole thing from scratch? The mind boggles as to how they did it. That’s why it was an unprecedented financial ask for a video game project on Kickstarter (at the time) and the team were acutely aware of that that fact – they even highlighted it themselves during their original pitch:
“We need to raise $1.1 million to fund an experienced team to do this right. We are asking for more than a lot of the other Kickstarter projects and that’s because we are not only making a game, we are creating a whole new world. That means a new RPG system, entirely new art, new characters and animation and whole lot of lore and dialogue.”
So what we have – as a result of the Kickstarter – is a backing public who want a role-playing game the way mamma used to make, and a development team who want to move heaven and earth to do that in the cleverest way possible. I cannot argue with the logic, and I can in no way dispute that what Obsidian have delivered with Pillars of Eternity meets this fundamental pitch with style and aplomb. They have delivered a truly great game, to the specifications outlined above, and if we’re measuring it as a successor to Baldur’s Gate based on that criteria alone then it’s a massive win.
But that’s not what I wanted from a spiritual successor to Baldur’s Gate – I didn’t back it, precisely because of these concerns – and I’m sure there must be other people out there who feel the same way; that nagging sense of disappointment that while it is great, it could have been so much more.
Take, for example, how Fallout became the spiritual successor to Wasteland. Wasteland was a wonderful game (and you could reasonably argue it was superior to Fallout in many ways) but it was very much of its time, and in 1997 Interplay made every effort to not only produce a great game in their own right, but to move the genre forward in a productive and forward-thinking manner for the greater good of the genre. Look at where the Fallout series has travelled, and what it has become as a result of being brave.
System Shock is another great example. You won’t find me advocating that BioShock is in any way superior to the original System Shock, as they are very different games that simply share a common spirit – and Beta Grove still gives me far more nightmares than Rapture ever could – but as a spiritual successor and an evolution in the storytelling medium BioShock was a revelation, and totally worthy of carrying System Shock’s legacy forward.