Thursday, September 10, 2015

An overview of Pillars of Eternity - The White March Part I

                Pillars of Eternity is one of my favorite games of 2015 and a RPG that I’m quite fond of, due to its memorable characters – especially the ones written by Chris Avellone –, old school atmosphere and intriguing story. After finishing it, I was excited to find out that Obsidian were working on an expansion for it, even though it was to be divided in two parts. A rather odd decision, given the fact that the game does not fit into the category of recent adventure games split into episodes, such as The Walking Dead or The Wolf Among Us. Nonetheless, I was eager to dive into some more Pillars of Eternity and see if Obsidian had listened to the feedback of the players and improved the game.
                The first part of The White March offers 10 to 15 hours of gameplay and tells a rather self-contained story that does not end on a major cliffhanger, but manages to arouse the curiosity of the players regarding the events that will transpire in the second part. It also raises the level cap up to 14, contains five new maps and two dungeons, two new companions and several soulbound weapons that can be bound only to certain classes and party members. This new content becomes available after discovering the stronghold of Caed Nua, but cannot be played through after the ending of the game.
Durgan's Battery awaits..

                The expansion starts with the Watcher receiving a message from the elder of Stalwart, a village in a snowy northern region known as the White March. The elder asks for help with opening Durgan’s Battery, a legendary dwarven fortress that has become abandoned over the years. During the story, the Watcher and his companions uncover the secrets of the Battery, of how it came to be abandoned, and of the Durgan steel, an exceptional type of steel created by the dwarves through their magical forge, The White Forge.
                There is also an additional substory, separated from the one in Durgan’s Battery. The Watcher receives news that a group of mercenaries has laid siege to the Cragholdt, a keep controlled by a powerful mage. Since Cragholdt’s location is close to Caed Nua, the siege and the mercenaries represent a possible threat that the player must investigate.
                Exploring Durgan’s Battery helps the player understand what has happened with the White Forge and the dwarves that used to live there, crafting their legendary weapons and armors. Moreover, there is a big decision to be made which hopefully will have impact on the events in the second part. As for Cragholdt, there is more to the siege than it initially appears and the player has to go through a series of fights and trials to get his hands on a powerful trinket. Despite the fact that both these stories are interesting, they did not manage to capture my attention as the one from the core game. The plots are quite straightforward and they lack any strong antagonist such as Thaos. I thought they are good for what they are, but I have to say that I expected more after the story of the Watcher and of the Leaden Key.
                Regarding quests, there are about a dozen of side quests and tasks that encourage the player to explore every corner of the areas. Most of the quests involve a choice and different outcomes, just like the ones in the base game, and there are also four bounties to be claimed which lead to encounters that are somewhat challenging.
All the secrets are about to be uncovered.

                Moving onto the combat side of the expansion, The White March was launched alongside patch 2.0, which improves the enemy AI and provides AI behaviors to party members. Enemies behave smarter now, often trying to break away from your engagers and to attack your back line, formed by your ranged and the more squishy characters. Moreover, the party AI behaviors, while a bit rudimentary, offer the useful option to avoid micromanaging every character.
                My adventure in the expansion areas started with a team of maximum level members which were geared fairly well, after loading a save previous to the ending zone in the main story. I made the mistake of visiting Cragholdt first, since the premise of its story appealed to me more. The zone was crawling with huge packs of mercenary warriors, priests and mages in a setting that was quite open and did not present the opportunity of any choke points. Most of the time my party was outnumbered, heavy CC was required since the enemies could easily outheal my damage output and I had to find ways to deal with the pesky warriors that kept going around my engagers and focusing on the casters. Clearing the map took more than I expected and once I got to the entrance to the dungeon in the area, I decided I would head to Stalwart village and see what the difficulty of the combat would be there. Word of advice: go to Stalwart first. Leave Cragholdt for later!
                Generally, the encounters in the areas around Stalwart and Durgan’s Battery – and inside it – are not too hard, with the exception of two boss fights which are on the level of the Master Below and should prove a challenge even to the most experienced players. Most encounters are poorly designed, with packs of enemies being randomly positioned on the map, which doesn’t allow for many tactical options. I’ve only run into a single encounter which was designed very well, with a line of enemy warriors holding a bridge and a group of archers and mages attacking my party from an unreachable balcony nearby. Additionally, the engagement system hasn’t been tweaked and still leads to confusing situations during combat.
                Overall, the difficulty is higher than the one in the core game, mainly due to enemies that tend to teleport or charge the frail members of the party. This wouldn’t be such a bad thing if the engagement system had been fixed or eliminated, since it still does more harm than good. As such, I felt that the expansion is way too focused on combat, with not enough story or rewards to support the unending packs of enemies that populate each map.
There should have been more encounters like this.
Looks like an easy fight.. not.

                With such challenging adventures ahead, the Watcher can enlist the help of two new companions. The first one is Zahua, a male human warrior-monk whose body is covered in mostly self-inflicted scars, attained on his path to enlightenment. The second companion is the Devil of Caroc, a bronze golem which fits the role of a rogue and is inhabited by the soul of a murderer. The addition of these characters is a welcomed one, since the base game did not offer any monk, rogue or barbarian companions, and thus the player had to rely on the custom created adventurers to experience these classes. However, Zahua’s and the Devil’s personality and character building fails to reach the greatness of those such as Durance, Grieving Mother or Hiravias, at least in this first part of the expansion. They are interesting on their own and their stories are worth reading, but sadly they are not remarkable. Perhaps one of the reasons for this is the fact that the base game lasted a lot longer than the expansion, and the personal quests of a few companions took place over the course of almost the entire story – I’m looking at you, Durance! -, which helped create more powerful bonds between them and the player. Speaking of the original companions, they intervene quite often during the dialogues of The White March, and it was nice to see that they were not forgotten.

                One of the most criticized aspects of the original game was the lack of any special weapons or armors that would make the player feel more powerful. I remember that Baldur’s Gate 2 was quite good with this. For example, after a fierce battle with Firkraag, I obtained Carsomyr, The Holy Avenger, and gave it to my paladin. The weapon had a special artwork and great stats and I felt rewarded for my victory. With The White March, Obsidian have listened to the complaints regarding the itemization and introduced soulbound weapons, special weapons that can be bound to only one character of your choice. Moreover, they can be upgraded by completing certain tasks, and even though some of these tasks are quite repetitive – defeat a set number of enemies or deal this amount of damage to a specific type of mob -, there is a two-handed estoc which has verses engraved on its blade, verses that the player must decipher in order to find out the locations where the weapon will grow in power. In my playthrough, I’ve only discovered five soulbound weapons, out of which only three have special artwork. All in all, although this addition improves the game, I feel that Obsidian could have done better: the weapon affiliated tasks could have been more diverse and less repetitive and they could have added soulbound armors as well.
Awakening a soulbound weapon.
Pretty cool.

                The playground for the expansion’s main story is heavily inspired from Icewind Dale, featuring snowy plains and villages and icy mountains. It is a successful change from the green scenery in the original game and I was impressed with how good the new maps looked from a graphical and artistic point of view. There’s even some great attention to details, as the party sometimes moves a bit slower through the snow and leaves tracks through it. Moreover, the maps are larger than the ones from the base game, showing that Obsidian listened to player feedback. The soundtrack of the game is also lovely and greatly fits the scenery. I would often take a break while walking through the village of Stalwart to listen to its theme for a few times. It is also worth noting that I haven’t run into any bugs during my playthrough, which is impressive considering how Obsidian games are usually launched.

                Unfortunately, there are also a few more issues that I have come across. The loading screens last forever, even though I made a backup for my saves and emptied the save folder, a tweak which used to work in the past. It is rather annoying and has made me less eager to play at times. Also, the stronghold has received no updates and is still devoid of life and activity. From what I know, Obsidian are planning to do something about it in the second part of the expansion and I do hope they will, because so far it has been a missed opportunity. Lastly, the new areas lack any interesting characters beside the new companions. There are a few villagers who serve the role of quest givers and have some small stories, but otherwise Stalwart feels empty.
The hardest boss fights in the game.. loading screens.

                Looking back, it seems like I have complained a lot about the first part of The White March. The game only improves in a few areas, such as combat mechanics and items, while being a more combat oriented experience with a less interesting story and companions that leaves unresolved a couple of issues from the core game. During my playthrough and after the ending I kept wondering what Obsidian’s goal was with this expansion and what they wanted to achieve. I still haven’t found an answer to this, since my expectations for this expansion were high and thus I’ve found it to be quite.. banal and unimpressive in scope. However, saying that I didn’t enjoy playing it would be a lie. It felt good to be reunited with my old companions and go on a new adventure with them, and despite the fact that I wasn’t overjoyed with the story, it ended with a promise of interesting things to come in the second part.  If you enjoyed your time with Pillars of Eternity and were left with a craving for more, then you’ll probably enjoy this too, even though you may feel that it doesn’t rise up to the quality of the base game and it isn’t what Throne of Bhaal was for Baldur’s Gate 2.

Written by Wolfe for The Game Slashers.

1 comment:

  1. Finally someone who actually took the time to finish the expansion part 1 and write about it. There are some reviews in the first day with the same screenshots showed by Obsidian before launch and no new info about the gameplay. I really enjoyed part 1 and can't wait for more.