Thursday, April 9, 2015

Pillars of Eternity Review!

                In 1996, under Interplay Entertainment, a subsidiary division was formed which later became known as Black Isles Studios. With Feargus Urquhart as founder, Black Isle gathered some of the people that worked on the original Fallout game and continued with its sequel. During the development stages of Fallout 2, three members of the studio left to form their own company, Troika Games, which gave us three of the most memorable (and buggy) RPGs of all times: Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura, The Temple of Elemental Evil and the highly acclaimed (and buggy) Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines.
During their work on Fallout 2, Black Isle Studios also helped Bioware release Baldur’s Gate, the first game made using the Infinity Engine. Because of the success Bioware’s game had, the Infinity Engine was used to power even more games like Planescape: Torment, the Icewind Dale series and the expansion and sequel of Baldur’s Gate.
                In 2003, due to serious financial issues, Interplay laid off the Black Isle Studios staff. Following these events, some of the former members of the studio formed Obsidian Entertainment. With Fergus Urquhart as CEO and other key people like Chris Avellone, Chris Jones, Chris Parker, Darren Monahan, Josh Sawyer and even Tim Cain joining in 2011, Obsidian Entertainment continued their previous RPG legacy with games like Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords, Neverwinter Nights 2 and its amazing expansion Mask of the Betrayer, Fallout: New Vegas and now Pillars of Eternity.
                Black Isle Studios should always be remembered for working on some of the best RPGs ever made and their work with Infinity Engine is so memorable and unique that people always wanted more.  This brings me to the subject of this review: Pillars of Eternity.

                Initially known as Project Eternity, Pillars of Eternity is an RPG developed by Obsidian Entertainment which was made possible through a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign that raised over 4 million dollars with the help of over 77,000 fans, being the highest funded video game campaign at that time. This project and the funding campaign saved Obsidian from a dire financial situation and gave the studio the opportunity to create a game that stands as a tribute for their work in the past.
The aim with Pillars of Eternity was to recreate the feeling of the old Infinity Engine RPGs through similar graphics, art style and gameplay and oh boy did they manage to do that. With the power of Unity Engine, Pillars of Eternity looks like the reimagining of a 2000s game in the year 2015.
I couldn't find my name in the credits! :(

                Set in the new world of Eora, the events in Pillars of Eternity take place in the Eastern Reach region, more specifically in the lands known as Dyrwood and Eir Glanfath, populated by two distinct civilizations which have been at war with each other many times throughout their shared history. As peace reigns now between the two nations, the land is tormented by the deeds of the past. Fifteen years ago a holy war erupted as a farmer by the name of Waiden, presumably, became the vessel of Eothas, the god of light, and began a purging of the heretics. Waiden led the northern nation of Readceras into a war with Dyrwood known as the Saint’s War. Despite many dyrwoodans worshipping the same god as Readceras, they went to fight in order to defend their lands and with the help of technology and the blessing of the other gods, Waiden was stopped with the power of flames, purging a god from existence and putting an end to the war. But peace wasn’t obtained, as dyrwoodans sought vengeance and started another purge.
                After the Saint’s War a curse has spread throughout the lands, which became known as Waiden’s Legacy. Children were born without a soul, Hollowborn, and despite the prayers of the people in Dyrwood, nothing changed. Practitioners of animancy, a field that studies the essence of souls, have been brought to the country to help and despite their efforts people started to despise them as it seemed like they were doing more evil than good. It is during these apocalyptic times that our hero arrives and goes through a series of unfortunate incidents that put him on the track to find out what’s going on in these lands.
                The story is at a large scale but relates to the main character personally, the player is not the chosen one but merely someone tied to the situation in a mysterious way. The adventures in the game lead to interesting situations that allow the player to define his own past while shaping the present.
The villain plays his role in a great fashion, as a mysterious figure from an unknown time or place. His machinations twist the story in unexpected ways and his true goals intersect with some of the existential concepts behind this universe.
                This fantasy universe full of what seem like powerful gods has a scientific perspective to many of the more mystical things present in this world. The essence of life in Eora is part of what seems like a never-ending cycle, where souls are never lost unless on purpose. The souls of the dead go back into The Wheel and return to the world as newborns with the memory of their past lives erased. Animancy is a discipline dedicated to study the essence of souls and is able to read into the past of one’s soul and even cure a soul sickness. This practice, in my eye, resembled a lot with the genetics science of today as it looks and treat life from a controversial perspective that many people consider as playing God.
The adventure begins!
What is this device?!

                 Being set in a new universe the lore in Pillars of Eternity is delivered at a pace as slow as possible, but even so, there is a lot to take in, especially at the beginning of the game. This is normal for a new and complex universe, but becomes exhausting. There are dozens of books presenting the history of the Gods and the lands with various interpretations. While some of the books are just enriching the lore, many contain information that is quite relevant to the story ahead.
Being a fantasy RPG, Pillars of Eternity is not free of clichés as the world of Eora bears a resemblance to other universes and also takes inspiration from human history, but it does stand tall on its own with its unique elements and a captivating lore that can be expanded.
                The writing in this game is magnificent and sucks you in this universe from the first couple of hours. It is not only at dialogues that this game excels, but also the sheer amount of awesomely written text that presents in detail everything that is happening around creating a unique atmosphere. The text is clearly the most powerful tool Obsidian had at its disposal and is used to describe the face reactions of characters engaged in dialogues and even the surroundings.  
The main character can read into other people’s souls, which is something important in this universe, and you can get an idea quite fast of what this power really means. This opens up a lot of flavor text as events from the past of many NPCs can be read like a book and while the amount of text involved in this might be upsetting for some, for me it was quite the opposite. I found the souls reading deliciously immersive and some of the events from other people’s past were quite captivating, leaving me wanting to know more.
                The writing in Pillars of Eternity is a feast for the imagination, it presents just the right amount information and from there you can let your imagination go loose and you should, because this game will take it far.
There is something wrong with these gods!
Always funny!

                There are eight recruitable companions in the game and while all of them are well written, most are not as memorable as I was expecting from an Obsidian RPG. A few hours into the game I was worried that this could be an issue, but then I found Durance, a mad priest worshipping the goddess Magran and Chris Avellone’s work gave me hope. Later on I found Hiravias and Grieving Mother and the game was fully redeemed. While these three characters are part of some over used archetypes, they are unique in their own way and complex enough to make me follow their story progression with interest. The game doesn’t have characters presented in a cinematic way, neither does it have full voice acting or a romance, which are things that can make the attachment to characters more impactful. Instead, the descriptions of the companions’ behavior made through dialogue panels add a level of depth to them that even fully animated sequences could not do. Characters are described from a narrative perspective and this knowledge is given to the player (and the protagonist) providing a tremendous power over the companions with the hero perceiving their emotions as read from a book.
                The outcome of the companions’ quests comes closer to reality and it is something different than what it is usually seen in other RPGs. The game underlines the humanity of the characters as their struggles not always bear fruit and not everything ends up as it should, life can be cruel and the revelation of such quests redefine the personality and goal of these companions.
I must say that the ending dialogues of Durance’s quests gave me goose bumps and Grieving Mother’s description when I first met her gave me chills. It is something rare in a video game and I think it stands as a praise of just how good the writing in this game really is.
That level of faith! 
Not crazy at all!

                As a game that attempts to recreate the magic of the old Infinity Engine RPGs, Pillars of Eternity is mostly focused on storytelling, dialogue and choices, but between those there are moments of fighting and struggle.
                This game is an adventure that can’t really stay locked in the boundaries of the screen, forcing the players to imagine more instead of offering detailed cutscenes of what happens when the player is not fully in control. A good example of this are the narrating screens which presents dangerous actions like jumping over a huge gap or running from enemies using text and a series of 2D images influenced by the player decisions. Some would say that the cause for this might be the fact that the game didn’t have the budget for a higher production value, which is probably true, but I think that this feature complements the entire design of the game. While going through these screens and choosing what my party should do next I felt like a pen and paper RPG adventure and this is something I haven’t felt in a lo(ooooo)ng while. The things that I could imagine and the impact of my actions during these moments might surpass what the commonly used cutscenes can do.
                During the first narrating screen I threw my weapon to save someone, and when I was past that moment and I found myself in a cave full of dangerous creatures I was pleasantly surprised by the fact that my character didn’t have a weapon anymore. There is logic behind this game more than I would have expected and the more I looked for it the more I could see it. It was everywhere, from world design, to choices, in the loot system (this is quite rare) and in every little action. Pillars of Eternity doesn’t take the players by the hand and lead them through its world, instead it allows them to explore a world based on common sense and this felt great because here was a game that validated the fact that gamers can think for themselves.
Pack up your imagination for this adventure...
Wizards can't jump!

                Pillars of Eternity provides a multitude of maps and the exploration is extremely immersive and it can take hours to discover every corner of every map and search for secrets everywhere. While this sounds good, the feeling is quite diminished by the small size of the majority of the maps. The areas designed to serve as a connection between important places like cities or other settlements can be crossed from one place to another in less than 1 minute at normal speed. These small maps don’t really do justice to the game and become frustrating when having to go from one loading screen to another every few minutes. I feel like Obsidian could have done more when it comes to this matter.
I'm going to freak out if those eyes open!

                The questing is a thing of beauty. Supported by the great writing, the quests are varied and most of them can be solved in multiple ways with different outcomes that might impact the future actions and even the story. I haven’t noticed any pointless or filler quests and I have looked a lot for them. Even the bounties, which require killing a group of enemies and their leader, don’t feel like menial tasks as they add challenge to the game and have quite good loot.
I completed every single quest in this game and the only thing that bothered me about them is the fact that I wanted more, but even so, the multitude of ways in which many of the important quests can be solved adds up to the game’s replay value.

                A stronghold was promised by Obsidian as part of the reward for the 3 millions tier in the Kickstarter campaign. The stronghold goes by the name of Caed Nua and is an area that can be found quite early in the main quest. The zone looks amazing and the music for it is as good as it gets. The stronghold takes the role of the camp fire and for the random encounters that are usually seen in this kind of RPGs.  
                Caed Nua was built over some old ruins of the first race that inhabited these lands and seems to be cursed because of this. Generations over generations of its owners lost control of the area because they were always attacked from the ruins below. This story of the stronghold leads the player into the Endless Paths, a progressively dungeon (not so endless) that keeps going down and increases in difficulty with each level. The Endless Paths tie nicely with the main story of the game and offer some of the most challenging fights in the game and the best designed areas. At the bottom of the dungeon, the Master Below awaits, and be prepared because he is extremely difficult and as buggy as a fight can get.
                Despite the nice story and the Endless Paths, much of the potential for this area was wasted. Like in Dragon Age: Inquisition, there is no moment when everything that the player constructed is put to a real test. While raising the prestige can bring special NPCs to visit the keep, the area feels dead with so many buildings and yet nobody in sight. The forum lies empty with no one arguing there and the chapel has no people coming to pray.
I wish more time and resources where invested in this feature, more varied and interesting encounters and even a better incorporation into the main story could have made the area have a bigger purpose. After buying all the upgrades, this feature falls short and serves mostly as the place where you come to continue the Endless Paths and a passive money maker.
Money exploit!
I'm going to get to the bottom of this thing!

                This game doesn’t lack variety when it comes to almost anything and such is the case with the creatures. Pillars of Eternity has every kind of creature a fantasy universe consumer would want to see: zombies and ghosts, trolls and ogres, bandits and of course the always present dragons!
Each creature has to be approached differently in combat, as they have different powers and are resilient to some types of damage. Adjusting to the situation is part of the game, especially early in the playthrough and switching between weapons with different type of damage is how battles are won (or use guns to faceroll everything).  
The loot system behind these creatures adds up a lot to the already sky high attention to details. The items dropped by the creatures killed are not randomly generated, instead they are a realistic representation of what that enemy could provide. An ogre will drop his gigantic bat or a bandit will have as loot his equipment. Realistic and logical loot is something quite rare nowadays, since this genre has taken a heavy inspiration from MMOs when it comes to this matter and more often than not we see wolves dropping gold instead of pelts.
                The experience system is something unusual compared with other RPGs and while I had no problems with it, it can certainly be annoying for others. The experience required to level up is mostly obtained from exploring new areas and completing quests. At first the enemies killed grant experience, but there is a progression system for each type of enemy which unveils their strengths and weaknesses as the players’ party kills more of the same type, when the progression is finished, that particular enemy won’t grant any more experience (a realistic system). This can lead to many battles awarding no experience, but considering the low level cap, this doesn’t affect the gameplay too much.
A dragon! How unusual!

                The items are in abundance and vary from common equipment to unique and powerful weapons and armors. The crafting materials share the same rarity system as the equipment with one important material type that can be found in only two copies. Loot in industrial quantities is always nice in an RPG, but Obsidian didn’t implement a weight system for items which would force the player to constantly manage the inventory and throw away what is not worth carrying. Instead, there is a bottomless stash implemented where all the loot can be sent for storage thus eliminating the need to manage the inventory (not the wisest choice). Because of this feature and the stronghold taxes income, the economic balance is broken. Early in the game it seems that money will be an issue, but it becomes obvious quite fast that everyone will end up being rich. This problem could have been avoided by adding more ways of spending the money.
Equipment for an entire army!

                The character progression is heavily inspired by older editions of Dungeons and Dragons and has enough depth to make the players think twice about their choices. There are eleven classes in the game, most of them being standard for a fantasy setting with the Cipher being specifically designed to fit the universe. Each class has a unique set of skills and plays differently enough from the others to tempt the player enough to test all of them.
The multitude of classes and possible builds adds quite a lot of replay value. Still, I felt that the game could have benefited more from the complexity of DnD rules, sadly that wasn’t possible. The level cap of 12 might feel a bit short for many people and I understand why. Since it can be reached before starting the 3rd act of the game it might affect the motivation for some players.
DnD spin-off.

                Now it is time to talk about the controversial combat system. Pillars of Eternity’s combat is extremely similar with the older Infinity engine RPGs and at the same time it isn’t. While the real time combat system with pause brings back memories and can be quite tactical and fun, there are moments when it made me go crazy, due in part to the new game mechanics added to the system.
The engagement system is designed to make tanking more reliable and get rid of some of the older problems (ranged characters kiting), but in reality this mechanic doesn’t work that well. Sometimes, despite doing everything by the book, the enemy’s AI goes crazy and ignores the tanks completely, this can turn into frustration during battles like the Master Below where my tank was constantly ignored and the boss kept attacking my priest. It also works against the party when characters get stuck in each other and in order to make space for one character, half of the party has to be moved (this is always fun when engaging with a ranged character). If this was the only issue, it would have been excusable, but the list goes on.  
The pathfinding does its best to increase difficulty during combat when characters fail to follow their movement command and go in a completely opposite direction.
The stealth system is a nice addition that has been excluded from the latest RPGs. But even if it has its pluses it doesn’t work as it should. When a character is discovered in stealth it reveals the entire party, no matter the party’s position, which is probably the most illogical design choice in a game that does its best to follow the common sense.
And finally, the range of most of the spells in the game is extremely short, forcing the caster to come almost in melee range to use a spell.
                Many of these mechanics are designed to get rid of older exploits and problems, but in reality they bring new problems and damage what should have been a smooth, tactical and challenging combat experience. Reading all these things it might look like the combat system is terrible, which is an understatement, the combat is good, but it is not as good as it should have been and I wonder how some of these problems got past the testing phase of the game and the backers’ beta.
                Despite its problems, Pillars of Eternity is challenging enough with moments of absolute pain on higher difficulties. Even if it doesn’t have the torturous feeling of The Temple of Elemental Evil, mostly because the difficulty is quite unstable, there are encounters where the combat feels like a puzzle and pausing the game is required every second in order to micromanage each character. The fight with the Master Below stole a scream of joy and relief from me after many hours of horrendous attempts (he’s a little glitchy and cheats!).
Don’t go hasty into this game, at start, the combat can be hard to handle even for a veteran. It has been a long time since a game like this was made and it can take a few hours to get used with it and be completely aware of every detail that is important during fights.
Tactical engagement. 

                I’ve seen reviews taking points of this game final score because of its graphics and I found that extremely odd. It is true that this game doesn’t use the top notch tech of today (but what game does?!) and aimed for something else entirely. From the moment it was announced, Pillars of Eternity promised to bring back the feeling of Infinity Engine games and while the whole UI and even the loading screens pictures resemble those games, it is the graphics that bring back the nostalgic feeling of that time.
Pillars of Eternity blends 2D graphics with 3D characters impeccably. The vivid pallet and the amazing artistic design make for breath taking landscapes. I could stare for hours at some of the locations and still not get bored. And in five years or more from now, the graphics will feel the same as 2D graphics age much better. The one thing that bothers me is the vegetation animations, which were present in early concepts for the graphics and they were later removed. Troika Games pulled this off in 2003 with The Temple of Elemental Evil and Pillars of Eternity doesn’t have it in 2015.  
Something went wrong here.

                The sound in this game is a work of art. The music is fantastic and chosen perfectly for each area and there are enough tracks to avoid repetition. The combat music is engaging and gives a moral boost during each fight. The overall sound design and sound effects are incredibly immersive with clutter sounds in crowded areas and all kind of wild sounds while exploring the world.
The voice acting shows the game budget limitations, even if it is welcomed and some of the characters sound great, the way the voicing is done is questionable. It is understandable why only companions and the important characters are voiced, but it is hard to get used with the fact that the voice acting feels random at times. The voice work starts sometimes in the middle of the conversation after the character said quite a lot but his sound was mute. At first I felt that the voice acting emphasizes the most important dialogues, but as the game moved on I realized that wasn’t truly the case.
One thing that this game lacks, compared to its predecessors is a variety of sounds for each companion during combat. Baldur’s Gate series did an excellent job at this with characters having something to say based on the combat situation. It was a nice little touch that I would have liked to see (hear) in this game as well.

Icewind Dale?!?!
Good leadership!

                Pillars of Eternity is a reminder of a different time and not only because it tries to recreate the atmosphere of the immortal classics, but because it treats the player the same way the games a decade ago did. It doesn’t straightly assume that the players are clueless (can be read as stupid) and doesn’t hold their hands in everything they do, instead it gives the players the opportunity to learn through trial and error and discover the game by themselves. Difficulty and logic are notions almost lost to this new generation of games and with some producers saying that their games are more difficult than they should be (when it is quite the opposite), the future doesn’t look so bright. Games like this one come to stand against the current trend and their success show that there is still hope.
                Pillars of Eternity is not a flawless game and knowing Obsidian’s work, that was never going to happen, as the people working there have a huge history with bugs dating before the existence of this studio. The game makes an appeal to nostalgia for a time that is never coming back, but it stands on its own and shines like a diamond, a little rough on the edges, in a sea of carbon, yet failing to be masterpiece of this age.
This title also stands as proof that Kickstarter crowdfunding is not a way of just cashing on the hopes the fans, redeeming this concept from the latest mishaps.
                If I can let my suppressed subjective side speak freely for a short passage during this review, I want to say that I enjoyed this game immensely, more than most of the games in the last couple of years. It was a heart breaking moment for me when I heard that Obsidian Entertainment was so close to bankruptcy and I’m glad that the fans of this genre and of this studio made their continued existence possible. By the time I write this review, Pillars of Eternity is a known success, it has an expansion in works (already announced during Kickstarter) and this can only make me happier.  
Obsidian Entertainment (inXile and some other smaller studios), don’t ever leave us, because without you and your games, the PC gaming industry and the RPG genre will be much bleaker.
                As an ending note I would like to say this: The Witcher 3, Shadowrun: Hong Kong and Torment: Tides of Numenera, come and challenge Pillars of Eternity if you can, because this RPG is high up there!

+ Perfect combination of artistic and painted-like 2D graphics with 3D characters
+ Epic soundtrack
+ A story full of adventure, mystery and choices
+ Extremely well written dialogues and some captivating characters
+ Tactical combat with many challenging fights
+ The DnD vibe
+ The Endless Paths
+ Loot system and the itemization
+ 60-70+ hours of gameplay and enough replay value
+ Infinity engine games feeling

- Enough game breaking bugs and lots of other glitches at launch
- Some of the combat mechanics don’t work too well
- The skills system is an underwhelming copy of DnD
- Many small maps
- The stronghold is nothing more than a money spender/maker
- The big number of loading screens can become a nuisance
- No vegetation animations


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