So there’s roleplaying, and there’s roleplaying. For every million phone games with cartoon barbarians and experience points that tout themselves as RPGs, there are countless now-married couples who met in-character in World of Warcraft, LARPers who spend months researching medieval Scandinavian buckle-smithing to perfect their outfits, and tabletop geeks who put the workaday drudgery of the modern world out of mind each week to gather and just believe in magic and heroes for a few hours.
Pillars of Eternity couldn’t be a more apt name. A herculean effort of construction to build something miraculous, on the shoulders of the classics of yesterday. Magic and heroes. Without the power of the RPG and fans who believe in Obsidian and in their own power to make things happen, there would be no Pillars of Eternity – and no Obsidian, for that matter. But swooping in like the Eagles of Manwë rescuing the beleaguered hobbits on Mount Doom, four million dollars’ worth of Kickstarter backers drove this project forward and made Obsidian a success story rather than a fondly-remembered casualty.
Games can reflect their times. This is the era of nostalgia in the RPG. The Fifth Edition of tabletop classic Dungeons and Dragons pointedly nods to its 1st and 2nd Edition roots. Its rival, Pathfinder, is releasing an adventure series that is homage to old-school giant-killing scenarios of the early eighties. And on the screen, Shadowrun Returns, Wasteland 2, Divinity: Original Sin and Torment: Tides of Numenera are showing that the ‘Infinity Engine’ model of isometric RPGs are able to stand on their own feet in today’s marketplace, providing the writing is tight and the world well-realised.
Nostalgia alone isn’t enough to deliver a solid game. Even in a fantasy world it takes more than just genre touchstones to make a game really stand out. So what is it about Pillars of Eternity that makes it so obviously the 2015 game of the year?
So many things. But probably first and foremost is the care and understanding with which the RPG genre is treated. These guys just get it. Because in the olden days it wasn’t all leveling up three times an hour and all-you-can-eat magic sword buffets. Character creation was more about your history and personality than getting the 3D dimensions of your elbows right. Stats were fixed, not endlessly re-specable, but you didn’t mind because you had a character concept in mind and were prepared to stick at it. Patience was a thing, and the rewards it could yield were worth pursuing.
Now, it’s true that Pillars of Eternity bears more than a passing resemblance to Baldur’s Gate and the like. Much more than a passing resemblance. Short wordless animations of a crackling fire whenever you rest. Day-long journeys broken only by your hero inexplicably exploring every single square-inch of a three-hundred-metre-square section of woodland before carrying on for another twelve hours. Those sternly-intoned words: “You must gather your party before venturing forth”. All of these – and many, many more Baldurisms – will all bring the nostalgia flooding palpably back to old-timers. Intentional homage, certainly, and reminiscent of slipping on a pair of time-worn slippers you’d almost forgotten you loved.
You know those football games that can’t afford the licensing and therefore have commentaries peppered with phrases like “Oh! That was a RESOUNDING cross from Fteven Blerrard!”? That’s how I felt about the rules system that drives Pillars of Eternity. It bears enough of a resemblance to the more recent iterations of the tabletop rules system its forebears used. Combat is built around a 1-100 random number rather than a 1-20, but many of the concepts come wholesale from tabletop games they’re probably not allowed to mention in their marketing material.
While there are classes such as the Cipher that allow for exploration of something new, for the most part a paladin does what a paladin ought to do, and anyone with any RPG chops at all will be able to launch right in with the minimum of fuss. This accessibility permeates Pillars’ entire ethos. From translation into multiple languages and a colour-blindness mode, through to easy-to-use help files and a world background that lends richness while never bogging the story down. Kill a monster and it gets its own page in your Bestiary, although most of its stats will be unknown until you kill a few more, at which point you’ll get a grasp on its strengths and weaknesses as well as a little expository fluff for good measure. Even this facet of the game seems to respect its old-school tabletop roots.
Combat is delivered in the traditional pausable model. As soon as a fight breaks out, the game auto-pauses to allow you as much time as you need to assign detailed instructions to each of your characters, who will then run around fighting and screaming as soon as you un-pause the game. Magic words are chanted, arrows fly, and chaos ensues until you pause once again to reissue instructions. Sometimes a forgotten character will just stand around like a lemon, waiting for instructions, but instructing your characters is the game, so you’ll be wanting to micromanage every battle anyway. Different classes play in genuinely different ways – clerics typically heal and remove negative effects, and rogues get in quick and deliver massive sneak attack damage. More characters in your party, therefore, don’t just offer more in the way of manpower. They offer completely new options and tactics that synch up in actually interesting ways with the skills and weaknesses of others.
Let’s just get it said – the writing is exquisite and the voice acting both supremely talented and pitched just right for a high-fantasy RPG. Like Baldur’s Gate and – most memorably – Planescape: Torment, you can delve into the backgrounds of your companions as much or as little as you please. There is a major sub-game which I’m going to resist explaining in detail for the sake of no spoilers, and while the mechanics are light, the way it incorporates into the game and offers choice and a feeling of progression as well as a springboard for further adventures is something missed in so many games.
Criticisms are unavoidable, but mercifully few. Sometimes in combat it can be a little hard to tell what’s going on when you’re in six-vs-six melee with huge foes and glittery buffs and debuffs are swinging through the air. Even when paused it can be nigh-on impossible to identify who is stood where exactly. A few of the story elements were not precisely what I would have chosen; I prefer an RPG where you’re not the ‘chosen one’, and have to make your own glory tooth-and-nail. But that’s personal preference and as you can see by the score I’ve given Pillars o Eternity, a very minor detail in what is, for the most part, a terrifically told story.
Aside from personal equipment, your party has a stash – a kind of bottomless supply crate where you can throw any equipment you don’t need to immediately use, maybe to sell or just keep from cluttering your inventory. But how can our heroes believably carry thirty greatswords out from the dungeon? The slightly snarky answer is “How much of your leisure time do you want to spend ferrying imaginary medieval hardware backward and forward through empty passages?”
I feel that there’s an assumption that many of the core market for Pillars of Eternity will be gamers in their thirties and forties who remember Baldur’s Gate, and maybe even 2nd Edition Dungeons & Dragons. But there’s so obviously been a push for accessibility; the game never feels cliquey or impenetrable to the uninitiated. Visually it’s stunning (with the bewildering exception of the world map screen) and there is always plenty to do. While acquiring levels is slow (experience points-per-character being awarded in a way I never fully understood) and powerful magic items few and far between, this has the effect of returning some mystique to their acquisition. A fifth-level fighter with a single magical weapon feels like a skilled adventurer, and every magical item save for the most minor comes with a little backstory to flesh it out.
From the start, I knew they had me. When I chose my character class, and was then faced with a choice of three sub-classes, each with rich story elements (which crop up in-game from time to time), and then realizing that every class and race in the game gets a similar level of detail, they had me on the hook. But to be then presented with such a powerful world, so easy to get into and so familiar yet fresh and new at the same time...
The fantasy genre is always one of nostalgia for a world long gone, the vague, wistful ancestral memory of weary travelers and simple taverns, of brooding castles and dark-blooded wars. But also nostalgia for a real-life youth spent whispering about orcs at the back of geography class. Somehow, Pillars of Eternity captures this personal emotion with flair and empathy.