America - Front
America - Back
By Evan Norris 03rd Sep 2019 | 3,146 views
Playing through Pillars of Eternity: Complete Edition is like participating in an especially good Dungeons & Dragons campaign. It's complex and thoughtful, and filled with a thousand small tactical and ethical decisions that will determine the composition and moral make-up of your party by the end. Furthermore, thanks to the technicians and artists at developer Obsidian, it's all brought to life via beautiful art and music and amazing attention to detail. The game's heavy focus on micromanagement and mythological minutiae (and a few technical hitches) are roadblocks toward greatness, but for the most part Pillars of Eternity: Complete Edition delivers what one would expect from a spiritual successor to isometric computer RPGs like Baldur's Gate and Icewind Dale.
As the Complete Edition, this version of Pillars of Eternity comes complete with the 2015 base game plus all major post-launch updates and downloadable content. That includes a raised level cap, new difficulty levels, expanded party AI options—a true blessing in a game where managing the movement and actions of each individual party member can be a chore—and the expanded world and content of the two-part expansion The White March.
Consistent throughout Pillars of Eternity, mechanical revisions and content updates notwithstanding, is spectacular worldbuilding. The land of Eora, in which the game takes place, has a historical, cultural, and racial identity that's completely organic and believable. When you walk through the streets of Dyrford Village or roam the archives in Defiance Bay—the capital of a colony that won its independence in a bloody civil war—there is a sense that, despite their obvious electronic origins, the homes, citizens, and institutions of power therein have lingered for generations. Eora, and Pillars of Eternity in general, feels lived-in.
Storytelling is equally impressive. The scribes at Obsidian have not only crafted an absorbing plotline—an awakened "Watcher", a person who can peer into the souls of others, seeks the truth about soul manipulation in a country on the edge of civil war—but have authored hundreds of character backstories, dialogue options, bestiary entries, and historical indexes that grant Pillars of Eternity an amazing narrative richness. One could become lost in its mythology.
This extraordinary attention to detail, which infiltrates everything from conversations to battle commands, is, to lean on a fittingly martial metaphor, a double-edged sword. The game hosts a staggering amount of historical, societal, and mercantile information that fleshes out Eora and its peoples, but also at times buries the main quest in exposition and mythological minutiae. Ultimately, it is as much The Silmarillion as The Lord of the Rings.
Pillars of Eternity features a tactical battle framework that's as involving as its mythos. It's a real-time-with-pause system that allows players to suspend battle in order to issue commands to party members. If you notice your wizard the target of an opposing archer's arrows, you can pause and order your spellcaster to target the enemy with a fireball, for example. If a monster breaks free from the front line and threatens to flank your formation, you're allowed to halt the action and send one of your soldiers to intercept. The system allows a great deal of tactical flexibility and freedom, but, like the double-edged sword that is the game's mythology, it can also cause some headaches.
The real-time-with-pause method, sitting halfway between strategic turn-based commands and real-time action, provides neither the deliberate, thoughtful gameplay of the former nor the visceral, reflex-based thrills of the latter. Moreover, depending on the difficulty setting, it may require an obscene amount of micromanagement. You'll need to move party members into position, manage buffs and debuffs, keep monsters and enemies from breaking formation, cast spells (being careful not to catch allies in the area of effect), monitor endurance levels, and keep a watchful eye on the dotted lines between characters that show who is engaged to whom. For fans who love the tactical intensity of managing small details in the heat of battle, this is probably a dream come true. For others who crave either a straightforward hack-and-slash or a leisurely turn-based role-playing game, it will feel like a half measure.
Gratefully, the game offers several AI scripts that allow at least a portion of combat to run on auto-pilot. Players can program party members to act aggressively or defensively, target nearby enemies or only those who pick a fight, and deploy per-rest abilities, powerful commands and spells that can be used only a few times between rests at camps and inns. Pro-tip: if your wizards and priests have run out of spells halfway into a dungeon, be sure to uncheck the per-rest abilities check box.
Despite these scripts, direct involvement will become necessary, either due to the unanticipated behavior of monsters in a given skirmish, the unusual layout of a battlefield, or the insufficient pathfinding skills of AI team members.
While the combat system in Pillars of Eternity is a weak link, its quest structure is a great asset. In addition to the main story and White March quests, the game offers up unique quests for each scripted companion, plus dozens of side quests and tasks. Where a lot of role-playing games settle for repetitive fetch quests, Pillars invents detailed, different side missions with characters, situations, and challenges as thoughtful as those from the central campaign. The hunt for a missing noblewoman might send you to an ogre's cave, or a town's grain supply shortage might force you into the role of mediator.
Better still, most quests and missions involve complicated moral decisions with plenty of ethical gray area. Don't expect any simple binary choices here. How you resolve these difficult questions will alter your standing within the immediate district and in Eora at large, and flavor your conversations with NPCs moving forward.
In addition to scores of quests, tasks, and other errands, the game provides a small collection of fascinating text-based adventures at certain junctures. These Choose Your Own Adventure-style interludes allow players to make several choices which will fail or succeed based on party stats.
The opportunities to make the game your own don't stop there. Toward the end of Act I, you and your ensemble inherit a derelict fortress, which opens up new avenues for party recruitment, commerce, and light simulation gameplay. You're able to use money to rebuild areas of the stronghold, hire mercenaries to patrol its grounds, collect taxes, and interact with NPCs who arrive looking for work, shelter, or aid for more nefarious goals.
Tying all of these histories, combat scenarios, side quests, ethical quandaries, and housekeeping demands together are outstanding art direction and music. From the cobblestone streets of Defiance Bay to the knotted trees of Gilded Vale, the game displays incredibly detailed and realistic environments which, combined with its dense mythology, grant Pillars of Eternity a sense of wear and continuous habitation. The soundtrack by composer Justin Bell is stellar. The sweeping, triumphant "Title Theme" introduces you to a world of medieval heroics, the wistful music box tones of "Defiance Bay" belie a city on the edge of self-destruction, and the chilly chimes of "Oldsong" conjure up something ancient and unknowable.
For all its artistic merits, Pillars of Eternity suffers a few technical problems. Load times are, on occasion, overlong, and game crashes a bit too frequent (luckily you can save as early and often as you please). In addition, there are a handful of graphical glitches. Sometimes the circle that follows individual characters will "stick" to the dungeon floor, as if a character was still left standing there. Stranger still is an all-too-common bug that converts on-screen text to an indecipherable, broken font; fortunately this is always temporary.
The good news for Switch handheld players is that, despite these hitches, the game plays and looks great on the system's built-in screen. In handheld position, text boxes take up a larger portion of the total screen area, so that players can read every line clearly. Moreover, the UI is modified in portable mode to leave less empty space. Console controls, whether docked or undocked are fine, although inferior to a mouse and keyboard setup.
Pillars of Eternity is a worthy successor to the computer RPGs of the late 90s and early 00s, and a fine example of an electronic Dungeons & Dragons campaign. Its digressions into the trivial details of Eora can overwhelm and distract from the central narrative and its battle system depends too much time on tedious micromanagement, but successes in storytelling, worldbuilding, quest design, art, and music soften these flaws. Switch owners looking for a hands-on, customizable role-playing campaign with lots of content and a deep mythology will surely enjoy this throwback title from Obsidian.