I never played either of the Baldur’s Gate games when they first came out, but having seen my girlfriend play the recent re-releases on Mac I was quite excited to try Pillars of Eternity. By all accounts, it was conceived as a spiritual successor to that series and to similar games; and it does seem to have been quite successful in living up to expectations. The first expansion came out recently and other spin-offs and expansions are in the works, so the franchise looks like it is here to stay.
I must say, though, that overall I was somewhat disappointed by Pillars. I was expecting a dark and immersive storyline with black and grey morality and difficult combat, and I got all that… to an extent. The game is very text-heavy and most of the exposition and dialogue is well-written. The universe and in-game lore is quite deep, but confusing at first, and the main storyline only really succeeded in drawing me in towards the end. That felt like a shame as by the time I started to care about the main characters and the machinations of the various Gods it was all coming rapidly to an end. Similarly, the various party members are acceptable company but only one or two feel at all memorable. Durance was the only one who really had an interesting storyline and more companion quests would have been appreciated.
After playing Pillars I’m not at all sold on the Kickstarter model for funding games, particularly RPGs. Pillars had a hugely successful kickstarter campaign but I’m not convinced the end product was better than if it had come from a traditional publishing relationship. Developer Obsidian insist that the chosen model gave them more creative freedom, and I can see that; parts of the story and certain sidequests were very well-written and contained distinctly morbid subject matter. But at the same time, crowdfunding has its own problems, and various in-game kickstarter rewards really felt out of place. There are various markers in the world you can interact with to get messages from backers which often break the fourth wall. More annoyingly, there are also a great number of NPCs who you can interact with by ‘reaching out to their soul’ to get their backstory, which consist of long and boring walls of texts that are just there to satisfy a kickstarter target. After interacting with a few of these I stopped bothering; it adds nothing to the player’s experience and just feels odd. You start to feel wary about approaching NPCs for a chat which is not what you want in a game like this.
Combat is tactical and challenging so long as you are not over-levelled. The levelling process is very slow once you get past the first few levels, which is a shame if you like levelling (the cap is 12). The environments are well-designed from an artistic point of view with muted colours which suits the tone of the game, and the soundtrack is quite atmospheric and pleasing although perhaps lacks variety. The voice acting is decent but felt a little inconsistent to me. Still, most major characters and lines are voiced which is impressive as there are a lot of them.
The strongest section of the game is probably its second Act, which takes place in the well-realized city of Defiance Bay. The pacing is a little awkward after this as the story seems to gather pace and there are fewer of the interesting sidequests. Perhaps, though, it was partly that after a certain point I started to get bored and just wanted to blow through the main story. I think I made a mistake in trying to complete the optional mega dungeon, the Endless Paths of Od Nua (another kickstarter bonus feature). Although it sounds cool to have all this ‘extra’ content, getting through it was a pretty big chore which took me hours. I couldn’t defeat the bosses at the end of it due to being under-levelled and it felt a bit unsatisfying after struggling through it for hour after hour. Again, I totally understand this is optional content and it was my fault for tackling the content in the order I did. But it just didn’t feel like the game hangs together as well as it could, and certainly for me it lacks the cohesion of the best RPGs.
In conclusion, I think Pillars is a good game; it clearly has its fans and caters well to a certain audience. But considering the hype I found it a little underwhelming and don’t think this is an RPG I will be returning to in years to come.