Does It Hold Up?
One question that's been on my mind since first hearing about Pillars of Eternity is, "Does the form hold up? Does the classical Infinity Engine RPG still work in an era dominated by open-world RPGs like Skyrim and Dragon Age: Inquisition?"
I'll just go ahead and answer my own question: Yes, it does. Pillars of Eternity is a superbly well-designed RPG, beautifully balancing a perfectly paced quest arc with impactful combat. It is one of the best RPGs that I've played in quite a while.
It begins with an intriguing mystery as your character gains the mysterious power to peer into the past of anyone they want, then rounds into a dark tale of stolen souls and experiments gone wrong, with an immortal antagonist pulling the strings. There's almost no padding to be found as it moves from peaceful forest paths to a horrifying sanitarium, the story moving as fast or as slow as you want. Most every story quest has an interesting hook of some sort, whether it involves figuring out why a village has been overrun by ghouls, or earning the trust of a faction ahead of citywide hearings.
In Axe of the Blood God, our RPG podcast, GamesBeat's Jason Wilson and I compared notes and realized that our experiences had been very different, but also compelling in their own way. Where he dove into every nook and cranny of the world, I opted to mostly stick to the storyline, moving through the quests at a comparatively brisk pace. Impressively, both approaches appear to be balanced and rewarding, and rarely did I feel like I was being forced to take on a quest that I did not want. Jason, meanwhile, found that there was plenty of content to satiate his appetite for exploration, pushing his total playtime well beyond 50 hours. That is some great RPG design right there.
In the meantime, while it does its best to capture a certain period of RPG history, Pillars of Eternity by no means feels dated. Powered by the Unity Engine, its comparatively simple visuals are buoyed by superb art and an outstanding soundtrack, both of which add considerable color to the world while keeping it fresh and interesting. Pillars of Eternity's combat, meanwhile, incorporates a variety of concepts from more modern iterations of Dungeons & Dragons, particularly versions 3.5 and 4.0.
While the A.I. has some issues with pathfinding and getting confused during battle — Jason likened combat to herding cats during our podcast — it is rarely a large issue. Mostly, I found myself enjoyed the varied encounters, which rarely degenerated into the rote slog that can occasionally infect this sort of game, where enemy mobs are mere stumbling blocks. Even on Easy, a mass of bad guys can make for quite a challenge, forcing you to carefully manage your magic and your party formation with the help of the pause function, which can be used to take a breather and take stock of your surroundings.
Magic is quite important in Pillars of Eternity; but happily, it doesn't feel too overpowered here. Rather, its power is balanced by its comparative scarcity, with the best spells only being available twice before having to be recharged around a campfire. Mages are also really squishy, which means they tend to be the definition of glass cannon — as it should it be, I might add. In general, I've really enjoyed Pillars of Eternity's combat. It offers pretty much everything I want in an RPG — it's balanced, it requires a good deal of tactical thinking, and it's fast-paced. And best of all, Pillars of Eternity supports up to six members per party, which is really the optimal number for an RPG such as this, affording maximum flexibility without becoming cumbersome.
Of the recruitable party members themselves, there are comparatively few standouts. You can find a mad priest, a dwarf ranger, and an elf-like mage with a split personality — all with their own individual quests to follow, but none of whom are destined to be fan favorites. Rather, they are mostly solid additions to the party, occasionally contributing a bit of witty banter and otherwise slotting neatly into their individual niches.
In some ways, Pillars of Eternity's available party members reflect the game itself. Though it is a large and well-designed game with a number of good ideas, it mostly sticks to established concepts, tweaking the formula without angering the core fans. Outside of that, it's only real failing is its player Stronghold, which adds a good deal of value but never really reflects the money being poured into it, remaining an old ruin even after multiple upgrades. But while it mostly declines to push the genre's envelope, it is still a damn fine RPG. Competing developers should be taking notes, because it is a master class of balanced combat and progression, with a dark and entertaining story to boot.
If Obsidian is to believed, Pillars of Eternity is the first in what will hopefully be a new series. If that's the case, then we're all richer for it. It's not been an easy road for Obsidian, who have occasionally struggled against the expectations of developing AAA RPGs. But in returning to their roots, they have produced their best RPG to date.
Pillars of Eternity does exactly what it needs to do in terms of graphics, invoking the nostalgia of the Infinity Engine without looking dated. The character models are a little stiff and lack detail, but the environmental art more than makes up for it.
Pillars of Eternity boasts a rich, vibrant soundtrack reminiscent of <em>Lord of the Rings</em>. It is only partially voiced, but what audio is there is generally very good.
An easily accessible stash and crafting menu makes it easy to deal with items while enhancing existing weapons. The UI as a whole is attractive while also serving as a callback to the '90s PC RPGs its meant to represent.
With a large number of quests to complete and areas to explore, Pillars of Eternity can last up to 70 hours. The main quest, by contrast, will probably take about 35 hours to finish.
Pillars of Eternity is more than an appeal to nostalgia; it's a rich RPG in its own right, boasting enjoyable combat, a strong story, and masterfully paced quests. What flaws it has — poor pathfinding A.I. and a Stronghold that feels somewhat derserted — are comparatively minor in the grand scheme of things. Right now, its biggest problem is a surfeit of bugs, which seem endemic to Obsidian's RPGs. Ignoring all that, though, Pillars of Eternity is enormously entertaining, and may end up making a strong claim to being one of the best RPGs of the year.