Pillars of Eternity Review

Ragar spends many, many hours with Obsidian's latest RPG.

Over the last few years we’ve seen plenty of game companies go the Kickstarter route: Double Fine Productions with Broken Age, inXile Entertainment with Wasteland 2 and Torment: Tides of Numenera, Harebrained Schemes with Shadowrun Returns, Larian Studios with Divinity Original Sin and many more. There’s been a great deal of success from these early Kickstarter projects, but also some failures along the way. Broken Age had to be split into two halves because there was too much to put into one game and meet their release window. Peter Molyneux’s Godus is pretty much an all-around mess.

That brings us to now with yet another high profile Kickstarter project finally releasing. Obsidian Entertainment’s Pillars of Eternity started as Project Eternity back on September 14, 2012. They were one of the most successful game Kickstarters ever, blowing past their $1.1 million goal in just over 24 hours, passing stretch goal after stretch goal until they finished ahead of Double Fine Adventure’s Kickstarter at $3,986,929 ($4,163,208 with the PayPal pledges). With all of those stretch goals adding to the scope of the game though, plus your typical schedule slips, the game went from an estimated delivery of April 2014 to coming out March 26, 2015, nearly a year later.

So was all that time and money the fans put in worth it? Did Obsidian make a great RPG in the vein of Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale? After 42 hours, the first two acts’ worth of story and a whole lot of sidequesting, I can safely say that I’m absolutely satisfied with my Kickstarter pledge.

40 Hours In, Yet So Much Left to Do

Rather than taking place in one of the Dungeons and Dragons realms like Faerun or Planescape like the old Infinity Engine games, Pillars is an entirely new IP. This means a new world, new creatures and races, new factions, etc. This can be a little daunting at first given how dialogue heavy the game can be, but it’s a fascinating world to learn about that’s quite different from anything I’ve seen in other RPGs. Sure you have your typical RPG tropes like humans, elves and dwarves (with some unique cultural variations between the subraces), but you also have some unique options like the semi-aquatic Aumana and the diminutive and furry Orlans who are often persecuted by the other races. If you want truly different though, you can choose the Godlike: beings born of any of Eora’s races, but blessed (or cursed depending on who you ask) before birth with the physical manifestation of a god’s divine spark. This can mean wings, horns, odd eyes, etc. Between this obvious physical difference and the fact that they cannot reproduce regardless of what gender they appear to be or identify as, they run into problems like being unable to marry in many societies.

Each of those different races grants you some racial traits that you’re familiar with as well as some stat bonuses, but before you go making the D&D assumption of “Okay my Barbarian needs to be whichever races gives the most Strength”, you need to know that stats operate a little differently here. Instead of the D&D-style we’re used to from many other games, Pillars uses something a little different: Might, Constitution, Dexterity, Perception, Intellect and Resolve. That might look like it’s just a rename of the old statistics, but there’s some major differences here.

Instead of having a Strength stat that’s only important to melee characters, Might affects everyone – your Might gives you bonuses to all damage (physical or magical) as well as boosting your Fortitude defense. Dexterity isn’t relegated to rogues and archers in this system – it affects your Action Speed with all attacks, spells and abilities as well as your Reflex defense. Spellcasters don’t have the D&D style “I must stack INT to get more spell slots and boost my save DC” setup here. In Pillars, your Intellect affects the Duration and Area of Effect for all of your abilities and talents, plus it boosts your Will defense. Resolve helps you maintain Concentration if you’re being hit while casting as well as boosting your Will and Deflection. Perception is primarily a tank stat since it gives Deflection and Reflex, but it can also boost your Interrupt chance which would be nice for an anti-caster build. Constitution is pretty much the only stat that works like the old system – it boosts your max HP, Endurance and Fortitude.

So what does all of that mean? There are some stats that are definitely preferred for the different roles and classes, but how much you spend on each depends on the build you’re looking for. Are you trying to build an AoE DPS? You can boost your INT to get more targets per spell, but spending those points on MIG instead would mean hitting even harder on that initial number of targets. If you went the DEX route, then you’d be able to cast spells even faster, potentially doing even more damage but using additional spell slots or resources. To make matters even more complicated, there’s the matter of equipment. Regardless of your race and class, you can wear any armor and wield any weapon and be successful, but there’s tradeoffs. Run around in heavy armor and you’ll take far less damage, but the action speed penalty means that your weapon attacks, spells and other abilities will have much longer delays between each move. On the other hand, you can do a ton of damage/healing/spellcasting by running around in light armor, but a stiff breeze can drop you. For weapons you may find a really nice magic weapon from a dungeon, but if you don’t have anyone who’s specialized in that weapon group, you’ll have to sacrifice accuracy or damage to use it. This means that depending on your team loadout, you may want to shift around who’s running in heavy armor, who gets to specialize in which weapon groups, and so on to make sure you have a well-rounded team that can use everything it finds and survive whatever gets thrown at it.

Aside from the powergamer “how do I max my DPS with this equipment and these stats?” aspects of character creation, there’s also the RP aspects to it as well. With a higher MIG you’ll see options to bruteforce your way through problems that show up during conversations and challenges. A higher INT can let you reason your way through some encounters. PER might let you catch someone in a lie or notice something that’s escaped everyone else’s attention. That’s on top of all the options you get from your class, race, background and faction reputation. In addition, based on the choices you make in other conversations, you’ll start to develop a reputation for different personal qualities (eg Benevolent, Honest, Deceptive, Rational, etc) and those reputations will start giving you new options as well. The only way it could really be improved is if your personal dialogue had voice acting, but given the sheer volume of possible things you could say for every situation and all of the voice choices you get during character creation, I’m not terribly surprised it wasn’t included.

11 Character Classes But I Only Have Six Party Member Slots

For my playthrough of Pillars I opted to go with a Mountain Dwarf Fighter as my main. The Fighter is about what you’d expect from the class in most RPGs: a weapon master who gets more options to specialize with them than other classes. The class has more of a tanky design here, though mine is more of a DPS build with a greatsword in one weapon set and an arquebus (a very slow gun that hits like a truck) in the other, swapping between them depending on the situation. If Fighter doesn’t appeal to you but you still want something familiar to play, there are a few other options that are pretty standard. Barbarian, Druid, Paladin, Priest, Ranger, Rogue and Wizard have some unique touches to fit with the Pillars design like the Fighter does, but for the most part they’re pretty standard RPG fare. The main thing of note for those is that Priests and Paladins have to act in accordance with their god or order’s disposition or face penalties to their abilities.

If you want to get a bit more unique, the Monk is close to how the class works in other RPGs but has a big difference in the Wound mechanic. Wounds operate similar to how Stagger works on Brewmaster Monks in World of Warcraft. When the Monk is hit, only part of that damage is dealt to their Endurance immediately while the rest is turned into a Wound stack which acts as a DoT on the Monk. The Monk can then use different abilities to spend those Wounds on dealing damage, buffing themselves, etc while also cleansing that DoT from the Monk.

Now if you’re looking for very different classes for your main, there are two options for you: the Chanter and the Cipher. At its core the Chanter looks like a Bard, but there’s more to it than that. While you’re in battle, the Chanter will be humming a chant you’ve put together from different musical phrases he’s learned; some of these are party buffs, some are enemy debuffs and you’ll likely need to have different chants to flip between depending on the encounter. Every time you start humming a new phrase, you build up a Phrase charge and these Phrases can be spent on different Invocations, which can do anything from dealing damage to charming enemies to summoning monsters to fight for the party.

Before I talk about the Cipher, I should give you a little bit of spoiler-free info on the world itself. In Eora souls are extremely important. They are a major part of the story, from the cycle of souls being reborn into the world after their body dies to tracing your soul lineage and more. The energy of your soul is what allows people to accomplish all of your amazing tasks, whether arcane, divine or martial. Some people in Eora take matters a step further. There’s animancers who treat the study of souls like a science and do things like moving souls into other bodies or inanimate objects – an oversimplification, but giving any more details would spoil the story. On the other side, there’s the Cipher who use their connection to souls and spiritual energy to serve as a psychic of sorts by reading minds and manipulating other souls. Prior to combat, a Cipher main character (and occasionally the Cipher companion) gives you dialogue options based around reading the mind/soul of someone. In combat the Cipher builds Focus by attacking their enemies with Soul Whip active, then spends that on different powers similar to what Priests and Wizards offer but with a psychic/soul theme: debuffs, damaging attacks, charms, DR/ability drains, etc. The main difference here is that their abilities cannot target empty ground or the Cipher themselves and the range is limited, so you have to keep these factors in mind for what powers to use and where.

Don’t Plan on Outleveling the Content

All of that RP stuff and world/class design stuff sounds great and all, but this is an RPG so some of you are probably curious about the combat and general gameplay. If you’ve ever played Baldur’s Gate or the other Infinity Engine games, then this will be very familiar. Movement is mouse-driven (no WASD controls) and the combat is real time with pause. In theory that sounds like “pause if things get out of hand, but otherwise just act in real time”. In practice you’re going to be pausing multiple times per fight: issuing new commands, moving characters to flank monsters or block off access to your squishier back ranks, using your spells and talent abilities, etc. You can do this in real-time but I was playing on Normal difficulty and it just felt unrealistic to try and control all six party members without pausing the game and still come out of the fight with minimal casualties.

Speaking of casualties, let’s get into the squishy bits of HP and Endurance. In combat you’re actually not dealing in terms of HP – it’s all about your Endurance value. Any damage you take goes against your Endurance and HP and any healing you take goes towards your Endurance. If your Endurance hits zero, that character is knocked unconscious until either combat ends or one of your characters happens to have Revive the Fallen or something similar. When combat’s over, you get your Endurance is back but your HP is still reduced. If your HP ever drops below your max Endurance, your max Endurance is actually reduced to match. If you get reduced to 0 HP, depending on your difficulty setting, either your character dies permanently or they get Maimed, which is a significant penalty to accuracy/defenses and dropping again will kill the character. To get your HP back as well as clear Maimed, your party needs to rest. This can be done either in a room at the inn, which can give bonus stats/skills depending on the room, or by making camp out in the wilderness. The last one may sound familiar to Infinity Engine veterans, but there’s another caveat here: Camping Supplies. Making camp requires using Camping Supplies which are purchased or found, but the amount you can carry at any given time depends on your difficulty setting; I can carry four on Normal, Easy players can run around with 6, but Hard players have to make due with 2. Once you’re out of supplies, that’s the sign you need to head back to the inn to rest and a shop to restock on supplies.

Going back to the combat itself, if you’re looking for a good challenge, you’ll be pleased with Pillars’ combat. Unless you’re fighting something that’s well below your party’s level, you will need to pay attention to your positioning and make use of your “per encounter” abilities in most fights at a minimum. You can fight above your level in some cases, but you need to be very cautious. As an example, I was pushing my way into a keep about 6-8 hours into the game where going in through the front door was a death sentence. I snuck inside using some vines to climb up and made my way as far inside as I could, picking off small groups, using line of sight and door chokepoints to control damage, etc to make as much progress as I could without a full party (point of advice: spend gold on creating some adventurers to fill in your party until you find the real companions). I would reach a point partway in where it was obvious I needed to leave and go do sidequests somewhere else to level up and get better gear before pushing further in.

That keep does point out one other thing that happens with Pillars: this is not Skyrim and the content does not level with you. On the bright side that means you can outlevel some content, but it also means you will quite often run into situations where the game makes it painfully obvious you shouldn’t go there just yet. Sometimes you’ll hit a sidequest where either you’re doing the encounter the wrong way (not everything can or should be solved with violence) or you need to set it aside and hit others until you’re ready to come back.

Some players out there might look at that and assume that I mean you can outlevel the content by always going the combat route and grinding whenever possible. That doesn’t work here for one key reason: your XP doesn’t come from combat. Technically you do get some XP from combat, but that’s from filling out Bestiary entries; if you’ve fought enough of a specific monster that you’ve completed that entry (usually like 6-8 of them), then all you’ll get from fighting those monsters is loot. The vast majority of your XP comes from quest completion, so if you need more power to knock out that tough sidequest, then you need to start knocking out the easier ones or progressing the main story. There are two other important areas of XP as well. Exploration is the obvious one – you get XP from every new zone and named area you visit, encouraging you to run around the whole map, clearing all of the fog of war. The other source of XP isn’t as well advertised, but it’s significant: Mechanics. If you pick a lock or disarm a trap using your Mechanics skill, you get about 100-200 XP, depending on the difficulty. This isn’t a giant amount of XP, but considering how many locked doors and trapped floors/doors/chests these games include, it adds up. Quick word of advice: there is no Rogue companion in the released game, so don’t plan on waiting for them to show up to get you all that bonus XP. You’ll need to pick one of your characters to become your Mechanics expert and dump the majority of their points into it. Rogues and ciphers have the best skill point cost per rank when it comes to Mechanics, but anyone can learn it and when there’s only five skills to put points into, you can afford to have someone else specialize that isn’t an expert like I did with my Fighter. Sure it’s silly to have someone with a greatsword and giant rifle playing the party rogue, but it could mean so much extra loot and XP right from the start.

Conclusion

There’s so much I wish I could talk about with Pillars of Eternity. The story is incredible so far and has some seriously dark themes in it with some decisions that have come up where there wasn’t really a right answer. I love the party members I’ve been playing with (haven’t used the Paladin or Druid enough to develop an opinion) and the writing for their side stories has been quite solid up to this point. The game has done a good job of making my decisions feel meaningful as well as tying them to future decisions with the character reputations. There are certainly areas I’d like to see fixed, like the double-click equip bug, but the vast majority of the things I want tweaked are really just areas I like and would like to see more of. The main examples are enchanting and equipment variety: the equipment and enchant options are perfectly viable and give plenty of options for building and improving your characters, but I always want to see more options. That and I’m just tired of seeing shiny magic loot drops that are just Fine quality – give me more modifiers!

After 40 hours of Pillars I’m still enjoying the game and looking forward to seeing how the story ends. If you were one of the original Kickstarter or PayPal backers, you won’t be disappointed with what you paid for. For everyone else I highly recommend taking a look at the game. If you loved Baldur’s Gate and the other Infinity Engine games, this game is perfect for you.

Michael “Ragar” Branham

Comments

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100% agree with all points
# Apr 07 2015 at 5:31 PM Rating: Excellent
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Great review. Very much enjoying the game on my end.
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