Pillars of Eternity: The Kickstarted RPG that may stand forever

A Kickstarter is not a guarantee. Many of us learned that the hard way. Looking at the list of games we’ve backed, it ranges from the disappointing (Fist of Awesome) to the misleading (Godus) to the never-appearing (Clang!). And if you backed the Project Eternity Kickstarter, which promised a return to the days of Baldur’s Gate,  you did so with the full knowledge that the developer Obsidian had a string of wonderful but mostly buggy projects to its name, so you shouldn’t expect too much.

Perhaps the company’s reputation for unfinished games was due to publisher pressure to finish on time. Because here, working at its own pace, Obsidian has excelled. Pillars of Eternity is a perfect recreation of that Baldur’s Gate era. There’s the mysterious plot and the character-soaked exploration team faced with endless side quests. There’s the glorious city of Defiance, the subterranean crystals of Od Nua and the dragonbone-strewn woods of Crossing. And then there’s the chords of battle, swelling to Durante’s sonorous fanatical ranting against the dull hum of a city centre.

Crucially, though, it’s been brought up to date, learning particularly from the more recent Bioware titles. Early in the game, for example, you acquire an abandoned  castle, Caer Nua, which is in ruins. Much like Mass Effect or Dragon Age, you can upgrade it, acquire troops to guard it, and gain an income from it. The dungeon underneath it, Od Nua, feels almost as big as the rest of the game put together.

But you might never go down into Od Nua. The main quest, following your ability to speak to the dead and the mystery of children born without souls, is long enough. Even finishing the game, you could never explore half the side quests that Pillars has to offer. You may never find out what the priest Durante’s involvement in the death of a god was, or why the elf wizard Aloth breaks into Gaelic dialect when he gets angry, or what the soldier Eider’s brother did in the Godhammer war.

Bioware Aware
That’s just your party. You may never encounter the forlorn wraith in the lighthouse,  find the rebellion-god Skaen’s hidden temple, or any of a hundred other side quests.  And the storyline is mature, too. The sadness of families at their doomed Hollowborn children, plus the desperation of leaders and individuals to find explanations and solutions, is both believable and sad, as are those taking advantage of the panic.

That complexity extends to the look. You’ll probably play much of the game at maximum view distance, but it’s well worth diving in to take in the detail of the world. Though isometric, it’s like looking at a painting. Not the greatest painting, but  almost as good as the stylings of Planescape: Torment. And the UI has learned much from the more modern Bioware games, while still retaining that stat-heavy appearance, all of which can be turned on or off. You can even have the game auto-pause when, for example, you encounter an enemy or a character nears death.

Oh, and did we mention it’s long, in a way modern games just aren’t, save for the Elder Scrolls series? Even focusing on only the main quest, you’ll take several days to get through it. Do all the side quests and a hundred hours could easily disappear.  If you’re an obsessive-compulsive hoarder, you may never stop playing.

And it’s heavy on the words, too. The language may occasionally spill into overly wrought fantasy babble, but that’s rare. It’s mostly plainly written, but there are novels of evocative language that fill in the descriptive gaps between the delightful art. Sometimes it’s spoken, sometimes it’s not (with no reasoning why). Every character has, well, character. Carefully sketched stories drag you from one hand-crafted location to another.

Realtime Combat
Though you can talk your way through many situations,  sometimes you can choose to or be forced to fight. Like Icewind Dale of yore, the combat system is, by default, fairly brutal not at the Dark Souls level, but harder fights will require your absolute attention and use of the pause menu.

Luckily, the five difficulty levels, plus the Ironman option, can be changed on the fly,  allowing you to tweak your experience. Combat is played out through a realtime system, where you can pause at any time to issue orders exactly the classic Infinity Engine system from the old Baldur’s Gate games. Characters can, if you’re not careful, die permanently which means an end to any associated quests but you can create more generic adventurers to replace them, albeit without the unique story.

It’s not perfect, mind. For example, it’s hard to be aware of the various types of damage and their particular defences such as crushing, slashing, piercing, burning and freezing while in the middle of a fight. Unless you’ve lost a fight 10 times in a row or are playing on the hardest difficulty level, you can muddle through most combats. And the variety of spell options with a wizard, a priest or an overpowered druid is frankly bewildering, even before your wizard starts swapping grimoires but you’ll persist all the same, mainly because the spell effects are so cool.

Pillars of Eternity has taken so much from Baldur’s Gate, but most of all it’s taken the spirit of the Infinity Engine games, which had barely felt the touch of age, and applied modern polish.  A Kickstarter appeal is certainly not to be seen as a guarantee, but an isometric Obsidian RPG, on the other hand, is a guarantee of thoughtfulness and quality, it seems. 

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