Pillars of Eternity Review: Obsidian's Best RPG to Date

Pillars of Eternity evokes the halcyon days of isometric RPGs.

Review by Kat Bailey, .

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Editor's note: Our review of Pillars of Eternity is now complete. You can find our score and our final thoughts on Page 2. For even more in-depth analysis, check out Axe of the Blood God — our official RPG podcast.

If you want to glimpse the roots of well-known RPGs like Fallout and Dragon Age, you need only look toward Pillars of Eternity — a kind of living time capsule for '90s PC RPGs.

Based on the Infinity Engine RPGs of the late '90s, Pillars of Eternity evokes Baldur's Gate, Icewind Dale, and Planescape Torment — all franchises Obsidian worked on back when they were still known as Black Isle Studios. For Obsidian, returning to that style is like coming home. They've made some great RPGs over the years, but Infinity Engine RPGs continue to be right in their wheelhouse.

Oh Infinity Engine, how we've missed you.

"Pillars of Eternity was something we knew we could do, and we knew that... you knew... we could do," director Josh Sawyer told me when I previewed Pillars of Eternity last July. "We could pitch an Infinity Engine-style game made by the people who did Neverwinter, Temple of Elemental Evil, and Planescape and have people say, 'Yeah, I think you can do that."

Not surprisingly, despite technically being an original offering by Obsidian, Pillars of Eternity feels a great deal like the Dungeons & Dragons-based RPGs of old. Its rules are reminiscent of those in D&D 4th Edition, with some being available on a per encounter basis, and others only available after resting. As a result, properly rationing camping supplies is a big part of the strategy in Pillars of Eternity.

The flow of the combat should likewise be familiar to longtime PC RPG fans. When an encounter begins, the action pauses so that you can distribute orders to your party, at which point you can un-pause and watch the mayhem begin. Which is not to say that you can brute force your way through encounters. Pillars of Eternity kicks up the difficulty quite early, and if you're not careful, you can find yourself losing your squishy spellcasters early on and being quickly overwhelmed. It's hard enough, in fact, that Obsidian actually recommends that most people start on Easy, with Normal being reserved for veteran fans of the genre.

Character creation determines not just your individual strengths, but how NPCs will react to you.

While occasionally frustrating, though, Pillars of Eternity's world is compelling enough that I've wanted to keep pressing onward. In true D&D fashion, it allows you to paint your own canvas to some extent, with many of the interactions being based on the race, background, and gender that you choose when rolling your character. It doesn't take long for the story to get rolling in earnest, with your character being imbued with the mysterious ability to gain insight into a stranger's past, making them a "Watcher."

The thing I like most about Pillars of Eternity thus far is how expansive it all feels. It isn't long before you reach Defiance Bay — a multi-part city that almost feels like it could be the setting for a game by itself, like Midgar in Final Fantasy VII or Kirkwall in Dragon Age II, but set in a much larger world. You also get your own fortress relatively early on, though unlike in Dragon Age: Inquisition, it's up to you to invest in building it up from scratch. Doing so confers benefits like unlocking bounties and attracting new heroes to your cause.

It's a really interesting game, and thus far, I have few complaints about its execution. The biggest problem I've had thus far has been with a game-breaking bug that I encountered late in Act 1. Playing as a Ranger, my wolf companion unexpectedly disappeared, and I found myself unable to go up stairs. It was bad enough that I actually had to start an entirely new game, which is why I'm only in Act 2 at the moment. Something to remember if you decide to roll up a Ranger.

Outside of that (admittedly rather large) quibble, I find myself intrigued by Pillars of Eternity. As someone who didn't really get into that style of RPG until the release of Dragon Age: Origins — itself a somewhat gimped Baldur's Gate — it's been interesting to go back to the heyday of isometric RPGs.

It's a big world out there. Let's jump right in.

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Comments 18

  • Avatar for brionfoulke91 #1 brionfoulke91 2 years ago
    "Which is not to say that you can brute force your way through encounters."

    You probably can. Does the game have a free save scumming system, like most of the classic versions did? If so, for most people battles are going to devolve into a constant saving/loading war of attrition. Save when the battle is going well, load when anything annoying or bad happens. So yes, you can brute force you way through battles, and that's probably the intended way to play.
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  • Avatar for Kat.Bailey #2 Kat.Bailey 2 years ago
    @brionfoulke91 I mean, yes, you can free save. My point was more that you can't just run in with your party and hope to win. There's an art to managing attacks, buffs, and debuffs, and if you're not smart about keeping your party in formation and using the right abilities at the right times for burst damage, they will die and that will be that.
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  • Avatar for hal9k #3 hal9k 2 years ago
    @Kat.Bailey Sounds just like Baldur's Gate - I never felt like I could brute force encounters in those games, particularly BG2. As it should be.
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  • Avatar for SigurdVolsung #4 SigurdVolsung 2 years ago
    This, Torment, and Mighty Number 9 have been my three kickstarter projects thus far. And I've been very pleased with the results of all three of them thus far. This is the first to be released and I think it turned out even better than I was expecting it to be in the beginning.
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  • Avatar for brionfoulke91 #5 brionfoulke91 2 years ago
    @Kat.Bailey Well I mean, you can literally just run into battles and hope to win. With some saving/reloading brute force, even battles you're not supposed to easily win can be overcome. And if that doesn't work, then just reload your save from before the battle and go a different direction or try something else. The term "trial and error" is overused to describe games, but Baldur's Gate games have always very much been trial and error games.
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  • Avatar for Ralek #6 Ralek 2 years ago
    @brionfoulke91 Well, that is one way to describe "brute force".
    I have a hard time subsuming movement, positioning, formation, stealthing, buffs, debuffs, esp. crowd control, and so and so on under the term "brute force". To me brute force always meant that you can play without anything resembling elegance or planning, just blasting or hack'n'slashing your way through without much thought being put behind your actions. DMG and HP work stuff out, that's about it ^^

    From my time with the game so far, I'd say on highest difficulty, that is not much of an option. As for save scumming, yeah, you can do that, and yeah I agree that might be the way it's actually intended, since often enough, things have to go your way entirely, or you're screwed - simple as that. Sofar I've not gotten the feeling that their is an extensive ammount of wiggle room there.
    The iron man mode they offer could certainly be an interesting challenge, depending what's coming up further in.
    I remember Baldurs Gate ... they had litereally death spells, even aoe death spells, and on top of that goddamn traps casting death spells. You know, where having full HP and auto-pause did you no good at all. Trigger the trap, have a bad roll of the dice, main char dies, greet the game overscreen ... doesn't even take a second. Nothing to brute force there I'd say, at least not in a way that the keeps having any sensible meaning.

    Anyways, I gotta say, I had high hopes for the game, but i stil might end up surpassing my hope. It's an absolute blast, the combat is fun, the writing seems good, there is even a decent amount of okay, if not sensational, voice acting going on and the game is drop dead gorgeous. It feels vibrant, alive and positively fantasy-ish. Basically the exact opposite of what I felt when I first booted up DA:O (the spiritual BG successor ^^), a game so ugly and dead inside, it could cause depression for one of those annoyingly upbeat Care Bears from the 80s.
    If the spins out into a BG-esque epic storyline and keeps the rest of the quality up there, it will be worthy of being considered a REAL spiritual successor to best of the cRPG genre.
    It's actually hard to believe that it's an Obsidian game, since I was never really that much of a fan of their work, and not just because there were some QA issues with many of their works. Kotor 2 and New Vegas were probably the ones I enjoyed most, but KotoR always felt rushed and unfinished and Fallout, well, I've never gotten over the changes the made after the classics 1,2 and even Tactics. That's not really on Obsidian I guess, but still.
    I hope we're looking at the one of first of many great new cRPGs here. /raving done :P
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  • Avatar for brionfoulke91 #7 brionfoulke91 2 years ago
    @Ralek By "brute force" I was talking more about save scumming in general. I agree that it seems like save scumming is the intended way to play, since the highest difficulty seems to basically require it. And that was the case with old Baldur's Gate games as well, with all the death spells you mentioned. There really was nothing else you could do but save constantly, and then load if a death spell landed. Kind of inelegant, but that's just how those games played.

    Iron man modes are always interesting, but I don't think they're very good for these types of games with all of the randomness. Personally, I don't know why it always has to be one extreme or the other with these types of games. It's either total save scumming allowed, or iron man mode with no saving allowed. Give me save points any day of the week... a balanced option that prevents save scumming, and so forces the designers to actually design encounters to be playable without save scumming, but yet isn't so extremely punishing that it makes the game unplayable unless you're the most hardcore of the hardcore.
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  • Avatar for Kat.Bailey #8 Kat.Bailey 2 years ago
  • Avatar for hiptanaka #9 hiptanaka 2 years ago
    Made a character yesterday but didn't have much time to play. I can't wait to properly get into this in the weekend. :)
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  • Avatar for hal9k #10 hal9k 2 years ago
    @Ralek Man, your post made me so excited for this! Hopefully I'll be picking it up soon. I'm also very much looking forward to the podcast about it.
    @brionfoulke91 I understand your post more clearly now. It's a great point that there's a wide gap between save state abuse and iron man mode, and that hadn't occurred to me before. You're right about the advantages of save points - also, save points can usually prevent you from saving in an unwinnable situation (as@jimboton said above, one often learns the hard way to have multiple rotating saves).

    I had just always defined "brute force" differently: as rushing the enemy and fight-fight-fight without a care for positioning and preparation. Probably my favorite aspect of games like Baldur's Gate and Planescape were that they didn't allow you to do that (I was disappointed in Icewind Dale, because I found that I needed to use the same strategy of hanging back and ranging for almost all encounters in both of those games).

    The highlights of those games for me were hiding around a door frame and backstabbing guards, spraying webs and binding spells around a tavern to protect civilians while participating in a brawl, and surrounding and throwing every summon and duplicate I had at an archlich who zapped the closest thing to him permadead every couple of seconds. I'm glad to hear that this game has that sort of depth, although you're right - it definitely leads to trial and error.
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  • Avatar for Ralek #11 Ralek 2 years ago
    @brionfoulke91 I agree some middle-ground-option should be offered as well, with encounters and mechanics designed around them - tough but do-able. But I do see why this is really the hardest option for the devs to implement.
    The two extremes you mentioned basically just rely on the player to either save-scum his way through them (but like I said, this does in no way imply it's an easy or in any mindless form undertakting in this care) or his hardcore'ness, esp. his patience (free time^^) and tolerance for frustration.
    Creating a truely fair and balanced, but still challengingly hard RPG with deep, complex and varied systems, that does not fall into either of those two categories is a real as tall as an order as I can think of, right off the top of my head at least ^^
    But in the end, I didn't mind "brute forcing" in BG/BG2, which are still among my all-time favourite games, so I do not think I will end up minding it with PoE either - but yeah, it's certainly not ideal, that's for sure.
    Maybe that is something Obsidian can focus on with PoE2 :P
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  • Avatar for Ralek #12 Ralek 2 years ago
    @hal9k Judging from your post, I'd say you will not be disappointed, although, like I said I'm not that far in, so I can't vouch for much more than the beginning. The general systems though and the feel of the game, are definitely pretty much spot on.

    I remember doing some crazy antics in BG2. Like throwing (otherwise mostly pointless) summons into a room to draw powerful spells from mindflayers and liches and what have you, before bringing my team in, filling a cavern with traps before engaging a dragon (Firkraag^^), carefully orchestrating various CC's to split up groups of enemies to take them down one by one ... I totally agree, aside from the overall richly detailed world, epic story, and group dynamics/banter, that were the best parts of those games, esp. BG.

    In many ways, these games were puzzles, tactical puzzles, which is basically my most favourite thing ever in videogames, esp. if RPG elements are thrown into the mix along the way. Hence my love for games like FE, Incubation and so on.

    We even played through the BG games on week-long LAN parties, having what amounted to long-winded tactic consultations during "lunch breaks" (read: pizza + cola), to figure out certain encounters. Good times, good times indeed ^^

    And yeah, your definition of "brute force" closely alligns with mine, but@brionfoulke91 certainly has a point and it as legitimate way of looking at it as well, it certainly is an issue worth pointing out, no matter the term used.
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  • Avatar for lobotomy42 #13 lobotomy42 2 years ago
    Have you played more? Are you going to update the review?
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  • Avatar for Kat.Bailey #14 Kat.Bailey 2 years ago
    @lobotomy42 I have! I'm planning to update tomorrow and finish off the review this week!
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  • Avatar for hal9k #15 hal9k 2 years ago
    High praise! I realize I'm a bit behind the times, but can anyone compare this to other modern isometric RPG's like Divinity, Wasteland 2, and Shadowrun? I haven't played any of those yet and I'm not sure where to start.
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  • Avatar for cldmstrsn #16 cldmstrsn 2 years ago
    just bought this game today! So excited to try it out. Obsidian is a great developer and its cool to see them do something they really wanted to.
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  • Avatar for ChairmanYang #17 ChairmanYang 2 years ago
    @hal9k Here's my rundown on the recent isometric RPGs you mentioned:

    Divinity: Original Sin: great combat system, great at letting the player interact with the environment in cool ways, bad at dialogue, story, and quest design. Ultimately this game kind of disappointed me.

    Wasteland 2: in all areas, just good, not great. This may change with some upcoming big patches. I'd wait a while to play this.

    Shadowrun Returns: a good prototype, but lacking when compared to Shadowrun: Dragonfall.

    Shadowrun: Dragonfall: the best starting point if you want to dip into new PC RPGs. It has a great, reactive story with genuinely interesting characters; easy-to-handle but difficult-to-master turn-based combat that's kind of like XCOM; and great pacing. It's like Chrono Trigger in the sense that it's a short, punchy experience that never gets boring, rather than something that drags on.

    Pillars of Eternity: the best of the new batch of isometric RPGs; Kat's review is dead-on. It's top-tier in every area. It's a big, challenging undertaking, though; I'd start with Shadowrun: Dragonfall first to whet your appetite.
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  • Avatar for hal9k #18 hal9k 2 years ago
    @ChairmanYang Very cool, thank you! I've never played a Shadowrun game, but that does sound like an interesting place to start.Edited April 2015 by hal9k
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