For a very long time, I have doubted the truth of my golden years in terms of cRPGs. I have long heralded Planescape: Torment as one of my favorite games of all time, but was that a mere mirage? I prefer Fallout 1 and 2 to anything Bethesda has ever done with the series and I think New Vegas is the best thing to come from the series new ownership. Am I saw kind of RPG hipster?
It hasn’t been easy answering these questions. Anytime I’ve tried to go back, I have been greeted with clunky gameplay and dated graphics. While some cherish the combat of those older RPGs, I only wanted the story. Compared to today’s games though, it makes even harder to go back to games like Baldur’s Gate where my joy rests in reading lengthy, lengthy text to soak up all of the lore and characterization I can.
When Obsidian and inXile started making Kickstarters for spiritual successors to classic titles, I had to be apart of it, even if those kinds of games had long been absent from my life. And, as excited as I was, that excitement was put aside when the final products were released. I was nervous things would not pan out, that I would hate these kinds of games, and that my past might be misremembered.
I finally had a chance to sink some time into Pillars of Eternity. This is what I thought of the game:
This game was ripped out of an alternate dimension where Black Isle did not die an ignoble death.
Pillars of Eternity looks and plays exactly like I remember all cRPGs of the mid-to-late 1990s playing. It has the same click-and-drag, click to move, hotbar centric gameplay. The screen is covered almost as much by UI as it is viewable playing area. There’s even things like narrated chapter openings and “you must gather your party to venture forth” error messages.
Oh and a ton of load times.
While the me that Kickstarted this game would’ve preferred the authentic experience delivered, I am not so sure copying a sub-genre down to a microscopic level short only of lifting the original Infinity Engine’s code is the best use of anyone’s time. For all its recreations of a bygone age, Pillars of Eternity never tries to fix any of the things I still loathe about these kinds of RPGs.
Combat is a clunky blend of real time and pause, with the latter being necessary though rarely any more entertaining. The load times make going in and out of buildings/areas a choice . And as happy as I am that they captured the look, the fact that none of my character faces in the character creation screen really line up with the portrait options is a bit disconcerting.
Pillars of Eternity was instantly improved the moment I decided to go with the easiest difficulty and steamroll through as little of the game’s combat scenarios as possible. Fallout 1 & 2 were fun to fight in. Everything else from that era or its Kickstarter renaissance? Not so much. Load me up with exploration and dialogue options please!
The story has interesting themes, but man do I really, really, really hate fantasy stories that constantly throw unpronounceable names of people/gods/places/events at me.
I won’t spoil it here, but Pillars of Eternity’s main plot revolves around concepts of reincarnation and godhood. I am a sucker for stories about either, but I felt more lost than anything else.
I knew coming into this game that I should be prepared to read many novels worth of text to follow along, but that doesn’t excuse a lazy habit of fantasy writers to confuse quantity with scope and scale. There’s more to being an epic than name dropping a checklist of past moments in history that changed the world as our characters used to know it. This is a video game after all: I need short bursts of flavor, not lengthy diatribes against <insert morally dubious faction here>.
I did like most of the encounters, however, and far all its over-written bloat, there were a ton of really interest philo-fanta-fictional ideas/plot devices in the narrative. Some of the big reveals held back for the late game would’ve been absolutely fantastic if they had been expanded to be the main thrust of the plot. The pseudo-mysterious rediscover main character’s past life angle did almost nothing for me.
Overall I thought Pillars of Eternity was a weak game but I loved it for other reasons.
I doubt I’d force on anyone else, but I am pretty grateful after having completed a run of the game. I no longer doubt the legitimacy of cRPGs or my memories of them. While this game was not a particularly strong one for me, it reminded me of why I enjoyed these kinds of games in the first place. When the storytelling does work, nothing else matters, and few other video games come close to stories of similar depth. I love the Elder Scrolls series, but rarely does its main quest have me thinking deeply of theology and mythology (Morrowind the exception).
I most likely will not return to Pillars of Eternity again, despite the huge amount of content I could still do. I am however looking forward to playing other cRPGs again, such as Torment, Wasteland 2, and Obsidian’s next cRPG title, Tyranny.
Pillars of Eternity was not a revelation itself but playing it gave me one.