With just a few minor tweaks, Pillars of Eternity could be a sibling of Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale and Planescape Torment - western role-playing games released 17 years ago that borrowed the rich lore and the stodgy, indecipherable combat mechanics of 2nd Edition Dungeons & Dragons.
A suffocating density of imagination characterised the dungeons, towns and wilds of those adventures. In Baldur’s Gate II withered men beg for the sweet release of death in rows of test-tubes just down the hall from sightless behemoths of clay. A pier juts out over the churning air dimension and a draft can be felt in the immaculately preserved bedroom of the dungeon overlord’s departed lover.
Mods quickly emerged allowing players to skip that particular subterranean complex, the first in the game, because exploring it wasn’t compelling enough to postpone the ensuing adventure.
Beat back the nostalgia and the games that inspired Pillars of Eternity continue to better today’s RPGs in a number of very obvious ways. Side by side comparisons of those turn-of-the-century dungeons with today's dank caverns packed with concentric-circle rune puzzles make the latter look like a bit of a joke.
Pillars is the antithesis of the modern, boiler room, built-for-trailers school of game design. There are no uncanny-valley character models scrutinised by “cinematic” camera angles and no pre-rendered cutscenes to devour a limited budget. Guards don’t recycle the same three lines of dialogue over and over in every single town. Instead, simple 3D sprites roam static, pre-drawn backgrounds. Conversations usually have no voice-acting. Environmental interactions play out as choose-your-own-adventure choice trees. It’s all palpably resource sparing. It’s cheap. But it’s reliable, old-school and undeniably effective.
Obsidian was blessed with the opportunity to channel its considerable creative energy into the core of Pillars of Eternity with the goal of broadening, refining and enriching the game. The product grips the imagination like a forest troll.
You play a traveller who is aiming to settle down in a remote, nondescript area. Running afoul of a magical wind, you develop a power that is a curse as much as it is a boon. We can't go any further without spoiling the plot, but suffice to say, the writing in Pillars of Eternity is terrific. It needs to be. Character models are tiny action figures on a vast painted canvas. Their costume, manner and behaviour are all expressed through text boxes. Every character, be it a greasy bartender with only a few lines of dialogue or an entity of immense magical power, is described with attention and care. Grimy, neglected benchtops or reliefs carved into dungeon walls bear charming, brief descriptions that develop the character of the area and the lore of the wider world.
It’s corny to say so, but the imagery a player can conjure based on a few carefully chosen words can easily rival the unconvincing in-engine conversations found in other games. One isn’t inherently better or worse than the other, but it’s weirdly refreshing to consume a story this way.
Recruitable characters, too, are universally interesting. They aren’t your typical pantheon of cookie-cutter comic book badasses. Few are on grand quests and none have any pre-baked investment in furthering the main plot. Mostly, these are farmers and hunters. Scholars and Priests. Everyday inhabitants of Eora with rudimentary skills suited to fighting and adventuring that develop as your party gain experience and grow into seasoned warriors sharing hard-earned friendships. This isn’t like Skyrim or Mass Effect, with a tediously generic threat looming on the whole of reality. Pillars of Eternity is an epic, lengthy game, but one that thrives on quiet moments of contemplation. Brief conversations. One party member admiring another’s pet outside of a blacksmith’s.
Voice-acting is used sparingly, but is excellent throughout - there is none of the over-acting or conspicuously recycled voice actors that commonly plague fantasy RPGs. As a general rule, companions are usually fully voiced, while most other characters usually are not.
All this isn’t to say that Pillars of Eternity is a slouch visually. The exact same principle applies. Every new area is a painted landscape, with few repeated textures. 70 hours of gameplay, without more than a handful of duplicated visual motifs, is unheard of in modern fantasy RPGs. Here, every new area feels truly fantastical, because each is so unpredictable.
74,000 Kickstarter backers came together to fund the creation of Pillars of Eternity (disclosure: including this writer), so it’s rather fitting that the finished product is characterised, more than anything else, by a respect for its players. If you have no interest in the companions Obsidian has so lovingly crafted, that isn’t a problem. Pillars allows you to populate your six-hero party with characters that you create from scratch. Becoming over encumbered and prioritising loot to carry out is an incredibly uninteresting mechanic. Instead, you have a bottomless stash accessible from anywhere, though purists are able to disable it. Pressing “D” greatly speeds up the game. There are little nods and subtle touches littered throughout Pillars of Eternity to make the experience as friendly as possible to western RPG veterans and new players alike. There’s even a permadeath mode.
If you chose to strip away all the lore, much of the overworld and all of the characters, making Pillars a combat game purely about slogging through hordes of skeletons and mushroom-people while amassing loot and improving the stats of your party, Pillars would still remain a competitor for best of the year. The game even includes a vast, seemingly endless dungeon for players wishing to delve into the minutia of the combat for hours at a time.
Pillars of Eternity is a proudly old-school game at its heart, but one that has learned the lessons of two decades of frustrating RPG mechanics. It’s defiantly economical in the face of the 2015 industry. A large, established developer choosing 2D worlds with text-based conversations not because it needs to, but because creative and financial resources can be focussed on distilling the essence of why we spend years of our lives engrossed in these virtual toys in the first place. It’s a gargantuan, cohesive, unforgettable adventure.