Release Date: March 26, 2015Platform: PCDeveloper: Obsidian EntertainmentPublisher: Paradox InteractiveGenre: CRPG
For those of us who grew up playing RPGs, there was one type of single-player RPG that often held a special place in our hearts. One that felt awesomely close to a tabletop RPG—filled with detailed text descriptions, visual and sensual cues, room for plenty of exploration, complex skill interactions, detailed character attributes, and a touch of humor in the best places. As you may have already guessed, I’m speaking of the D&D-like computer RPG, often known as the CRPG.
Most fans of CRPGs found their way into the genre with games like the Zork series, Fallout, and Baldur’s Gate. These games gave headway to a myriad of party-based CRPGs that followed the same rulesets that tabletop RPGs tend to follow: Icewind Dale, Baldur’s Gate II, Arcanuum, Planescape: Torment, and more.
In 2012, Obsidian Entertainment, the same creators of Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic 2, Neverwinter Nights 2, and South Park: The Stick of Truth, chose to bring Pillars of Eternity to life via Kickstarter. The single-player fantasy RPG saw a ton of support, raising over $4 million. There’s a certain power to nostalgia-filled gaming,it seems, and starting today, Pillars of Eternity is now available for purchase on Steam.
Pillars of Eternity, as one would hope, is very much in the same vein as Baldur’s Gate and other similar party-based CRPGs. Story is brought to the game’s forefront, along with customized party control, detailed character customization, and plenty of deep, immersion-filled tidbits that will keep many a CRPG fan content for a long while.
For many RPG fans, these games defined our love for deep roleplaying games that encouraged us to roleplay. To create a character with a unique history, backstory, and personality. To meet friends and foes alike with that persona in mind. To make decisions based off that persona.
Finding a random NPC out in the middle of a forest meant we’d have to weigh the pros and cons of taking him in and possibly pissing off the rest of our crew. Stumbling into a cozy inn raised an important question: Do I risk stealing shinies from that cabinet or do I play it safe? (Note: it’s always about the shinies.)
Today’s computer RPGs—and console RPGs for that matter—have been missing out on most of the above features and characteristics for a while now. Sure, they’ll have their snazzy cinematics, awesome voice acting, and twisting storylines that attempt to give players a choice as to their outcome. But thanks to that expensive voice acting and cinematics, today’s RPGs tend to dilute the roleplaying adventures of yore and the pure, simple experience that one generally associates with meeting your buddies over the weekend with a bag full of dice and a pile of papers.
But Pillars of Eternity is a welcome return for the classic genre. The game is packed with everything we loved about CRPGs—plenty of dungeons to explore, an emphasis on fog-of-war based map exploration that means danger can be hidden anywhere, multiple difficulties, party-based combat that can be paused at any time to issue commands, plenty of ways to customize combat, and a deep attribute/skill system that is very true to Dungeons & Dragons. This system encourages planning ahead, carrying multiple types of weapons/spell grimoires, and always, always having a few torches, campfires, lockpicks, and grappling hooks on hand.
One of the game’s strongest features is its character creation options. 6 races and 11 classes are offered upfront, followed by lore-based cultural choices, appearance choices, voice choices, and “subrace” choices based upon your character’s origin in the world. Where your origin is located will dictate your character’s skin color, although you’re still able to adjust the hue slightly in the appearance options. This small, extra choice gives the game a lot of cultural depth, and is a smart way of handling skin color within the confines of a fantasy game.
You’re also given options to customize your stats and attributes, choose from a couple starter skills, and choose a background for your character. Being a Laborer, for example, gives you an extra point in both Mechanics and Athletics while being an Aristocrat gives you two extra points in Lore. This is a smart way of handling societal backgrounds within a game while encouraging players to think about their character from a unique standpoint.
Players are also able to recruit completely customized party members (yes, using all of the same customization options as noted above) from inns for a bit of coin. This small, yet impactful addition gives players more options when it comes to party composition, and it also lets players fill in gaps if need be in order to take on the next dungeon. When not in the current party, recruited companions can be utilized in the stronghold, which is the group’s upgradeable fortress and rally point of sorts that gets unlocked fairly early in the game. This fortress also serves as an arena for dynamic-like battles and an “endless” dungeon that can be delved into.
Without going into story spoilers, the story behind Pillars of Eternity is 100% high fantasy and 100% intriguing for those who enjoy the genre. The main character is placed in a predicament early on that forces the player to look at the world a new way and unravel more than a couple mysteries. The search for companions is a large part of the game, of course, and while Pillars of Eternity lacks a bit of the in-party character interaction I loved from most older CRPGS, the NPCs themselves are interesting and largely well-developed.
Like classic CRPGs, optional side quests and hidden NPCs often have the most interesting stories to tell. The overall story certainly has a driving arc, but the myriad of side quests and maps awaiting exploration help deter the player from constantly following a linear path.
Many of the coolest scenes in the game take place when other larger-budget games would have opted for a cutscene. Obsidian instead goes all-in with the tabletop-like experience during action-packed moments. The screen will cut to a parchment-covered window that prompts the reader to find out what’s going on via highly-detailed text. Rough ink drawings depict the action, and sound effects accompany the text, as the player reads the text and clicks through to the next window.
Choices are frequently offered that govern what happens next in these mini-cutscenes. Reputation, inventory options, character background choices, and personality traits give way to optional dialog options and actions. It’s all very nostalgia-inducing, but it doesn’t feel cheap at all. Instead, it feels in-tune to the game’s close embrace of the tabletop genre. It’s a comforting sort of embrace. Just be sure to save often if you’re feeling ballsy.
The game’s filled with text-based descriptions everywhere, although it does have partial voice acting. From well-written dialog and the action sequences described above to environmental details that can be read throughout the world and lore journals awaiting discovery, there’s never a lack of things to read in Pillars of Eternity. This is, of course, another nudge to tabletop RPGs, but it’s also just good storytelling. Not every game needs to have fancy explosions to create a sense of immersion. Often, describing that same explosion using sensory details (including details of smell, sight, touch, and sound) does the job just as well. The included voice acting is well done, as is the game’s music, interface, and overall graphical look.
And there’s plenty more to love: lootable objects in the environment aren’t always constricted to chests, levers, and dead bodies. They take on a broad variety of cubbies, hidden corners, and goodies that keep the player exploring eagerly and mousing over all the things.
The game’s difficulty also helps deter the player from following a set, linear path most of the time. In many of the early player-shot videos that have debuted this week, players have wildly varying opinions regarding the difficulty of Pillars of Eternity. Some have said the game’s Easy difficulty is too challenging while others have said the Normal difficulty is far too easy. This type of feedback, to me, proves that the game’s difficulty is actually extremely solid. Why’s that? Because in this type of RPG, difficulty is very much what you make of it.
When you reach the first major town in Pillars of Eternity, for example, you’re given a few options—continue with the main story by making your way through a couple maps, quickly sticking to the road, or delve off the beaten path and take care of a couple side quests along the way. The linear main story option, naturally, is the quickest way to see what happens next, but the side quests will give you new equipment, extra coin, and a level or two for you and your companions. These extra levels make further exploration extremely profitable, since you can easily take on packs of enemies that might have been slightly out of your reach without those levels.
If you’re the type of person who wants to dive through the main story ASAP and skip the side quests, you may find that some fights are slightly difficult (also depending on the difficulty chosen and your experience with CRPGs, of course). If you’re a natural explorer and completionist, on the other hand, you may find that the difficulty’s just right. It’s much better to scale an RPG’s difficulty around explorer-types of gamers, however, especially since this is the genre for those types of players. It’s also better to have a game be too difficult rather than be too easy. Players naturally become better at games in time, and CRPGs are no exception.
In today’s gaming world where most RPGs tend to tell instead of show, Pillars of Eternity feels like a breath of fresh air. We’re encouraged to read, explore, and experience stories that are shown in a sensory manner instead of forcefully smashed over our heads. With the multiple difficulty levels and the interesting array of character customization options, build options, and exploration channels, Pillars of Eternity is a very solid game that will undoubtedly be enjoyed by CRPG fans for quite a while.