I love Pillars of Eternity for what it gets right

Pillars of Eternity 01

And a great job of it you’re doing there.

It’s been a while since I wrote anything for you, my lovely Arcadians; almost a month in fact! In truth, I’ve been busy ordering parts for a new PC, preparing to go on holiday, going on holiday, getting back, building a new PC, and then catching up on all the stuff I ignored whilst I was on holiday / building a new PC. As it turns out, two things is sufficient to take the wind from your sails.

Happily I’ve been able to find a few hours to spare in the time since all that. Approximately twenty hours, in fact, the majority of which I have gleefully invested in Obsidian’s new school take on old school CRPGs, Pillars of Eternity.

It’s easy to get a little burned out on games when you’ve constantly played them, written about them and even earned part of your income off the back of them for years. Fortunately, every so often something really special comes along that pours quick-dry cement into the ruts ahead of you, then kicks your metaphorical cart downhill, leaving you hanging on for dear life but somehow loving every second of it despite how terrible I am just now realising this metaphor is.

For some people right now that game is Bloodborne. I’ve played about half an hour of it and I can see why: from that fleeting taste of its brooding atmosphere, claustrophobic environments and quick yet thoughtful combat it seems like a wonderful thing indeed. I don’t own a PS4, though, so fortunately nothing is distracting me from Pillars of Eternity.

This self-indulgent blogvomit intro has already dragged on quite long enough so I shan’t fanny about introducing Pillars of Eternity – just click those links if you’re unfamiliar with it. Also, this isn’t a review. Whilst I probably could offer up an overarching assessment of the entire game at about a third in, I don’t want to. Instead I just want to acknowledge where Pillars has genuinely impressed me.

 

Worldbuilding

I have a love-hate relationship with worldbuilding in fantasy games. When I wrote about The Old City last year I mentioned “the clomping foot of nerdism”, a somewhat notorious criticism of worldbuilding for worldbuilding’s sake. There was a little subsequent discussion around what this actually meant in the comments on that piece, so they may be worth skimming over as well, but if you want the shorthand then we can turn once more to the source of the quote itself, the author M. John Harrison: “Worldbuilt fantasy is over-engineered & under-designed”. The criticism is directed at the construction of vast edifices of interlocking pieces of meaningless context purportedly in the service of a narrative, which instead choke it.

This criticism is depressingly applicable to many video games, particularly CRPGs. The attitude seems to be that players will like it and read it, or hate it and not read it. Such care!

Can you count the number of times you’ve played a game that has been rammed to the gills with readable books, flavour text, exposition and journal entries all designed to explain, in painstaking and excruciating detail, the philosophy or religion of X fictional kingdom or Y fictional faction? Or perhaps the history of the squabbling empires and fiefdoms of region Z? I can’t count the number of times because it is too many times.

Pillars of Eternity does have a lot of worldbuilding text, as usual bound up in suspiciously short books, and in the first few hours of the game this worried me. “Oh God,” I thought. “It’s going to be Dragon Age all over again, full of endless texts on the bloody Chantry.” I don’t remember anything significant about the Chantry one year on from my last playthrough of Origins. Nor does that matter. They play a minor role in the game; the social and cultural roles that we’re told they play in the DA world have no bearing whatsoever on its story or systems. But, fortunately, through accident or design – and I lean toward the latter – Pillars avoids this pitfall.

In Pillars of Eternity the history of the Dyrwood – the region in which the game takes place – is inextricably entwined with the lives of the characters you meet, with the politicking and conflict between the region’s factions and powers, and with the simmering hatred and prejudice of its peoples. The tidbits concerning present and historical Dyrwood – the Saint’s War, the Hollowborn, the Salvation, the Glynfandling, Aedyran colonialism – all matter to some degree because they compose a relevant part of why the world you’re exploring is as it is.

This all sounds obvious when I write it down – well, obviously! That’s what comprehensive worldbuilding should be for! Yet all too often it isn’t. Games that are written as intelligently as Pillars of Eternity are few and far between. Its integration of setting and story, of culture and character, its coherence of narrative and economy of worldbuilding, should be celebrated.

Look, I don’t really want to mention Dark Souls here [ed: lies!] because the two games are not at all alike, but they both get worldbuilding right and that is rare.

 

Accessibility

I love having things at my fingertips. Right now I’m typing these words with a keyboard that is literally, Chris Traeger, literally at my fingertips.

Pillars of Eternity does a great job of putting all sorts of information right where I need it: unobtrusively on-screen, available via a tool tip, or at worst a couple of clicks away in a journal that is also a concise encyclopedia.

Some may be wondering why I’m singling out having information as a particularly great thing. Well: CRPGs are all about the choices that you make. In terms of combat, which is what I want to focus on right now, this means the abilities you give a character, where you invest stats boosts, the types of attack enemies are vulnerable to, what the myriad terms drawn from the game’s interlocking systems actually refer to… there’s a lot to remember and most people, like me, won’t internalise it all immediately or ever. For whatever reason, the classic Black Isle games assumed you would or ignored that you wouldn’t. Possibly it was the AD&D source of their combat systems. I don’t know.

What I do know is that I never understood much beyond the basics of those systems: a low Armour Class is good, most other numbers should be nice and high, there are different damage types but I don’t much care. Now I watch little men waving at each other in looping animations until some blood comes out of one of them – hopefully the one I’m not controlling.

In Pillars simple, discrete explanations for game concepts and terminology are slotted in everywhere. Can’t remember what damage types the Reflex defence sub-stat relates to? Hover over the word wherever it appears. Not sure which damage types an enemy is vulnerable to? Click the bestiary progress indicator in your combat log and see if that information has been unlocked. Trying to understand how a spell or effect actually works because it draws on lots of different stats? Open up the spell description and hover over each stat or concept in turn to refresh your memory on what they are and how they interact. Etcetera!

These aren’t the best examples, really, because I’m trying to come up with specific ones but largely I don’t remember any because I’ve gotten so accustomed to being able to refresh my memory and work stuff out on the fly. Which I think supports my argument for why Pillars is great here pretty well. It either helps me when I don’t know, or helps get me to the point where I do know and I don’t need its thoughtful, inobtrusive, optional crutches any more.

 

Combat

Related to the above: the combat is great and I actually care about it.

I need to unpack this a bit because I imagine that last sentence might lead people to look askance at me. “So you don’t care about the combat in most RPGs?” they might reasonably ask.

Look, I do enjoy the combat in most RPGs… but I’m rarely engaged to the level that the game’s designers presumably want me to be. A lot of CRPGs rely on big setpiece fights or memorable bosses to lodge in player memory, and cram the in between with largely repetitive fights against generic enemies. The big fights I enjoy, because they’re tough and chaotic and you often need to pull everything out of your bag of tricks in order to win. But the little fights are usually a chore, because it’s just another few giant spiders or orcs or god whatever who cares, April Ludgate. Don’t bother with spells unless they’re unlimited, don’t use the fancy arrows or consumables, just let the damage dealers whomp them until they go away. Dull.

In Pillars, almost every fight is fun and there are many reasons why this is so. One is that the game’s fairly complex combat and character building systems, whilst not entirely transparent, have a reasonable degree of translucency and like to make themselves comprehensible: see previous section. Understanding what’s going on under the hood is a big help in terms of engagement with what’s happening, er, over the hood (it’s been a while since I drove, can I borrow your car, etc).

Another reason concerns some of the clever ideas Pillars has brought to the table. Stuff that isn’t revolutionary but represents thoughtful, incremental improvements or embellishments on the accepted design of CRPGs. This includes the area of effect markers for spells having an inner ring (hits everyone within it) and an outer ring (only hits enemies), and the splitting of Health into two stats, Health and Endurance. Endurance is the traditional health bar whilst Health is an overall pool from which Endurance is replenished between fights, meaning that your party getting hurt in a scrap doesn’t immediately require you to (A) go and lie down for eight hours, or (B) waste lots of healing items and spells. Then there’s the distinction between spells and abilities that have use limits per encounter and per rest (see previous note on Health and Endurance, and imagine how distinguishing between such limitations affects the pacing of play).

I’m even considering, when my characters have more equipped weapon slots available, setting them up with weapon sets of different types. Everyone has, say, a crushing weapon, and everyone has a piercing weapon, or whatever. I can honestly say I’ve never bothered with such distinctions before. I just gave everyone the best gear I had, checked there were a mix of damage types in there so ‘everything was covered’, and went for it. This approach generally works, for the record. It works in Pillars too, but here I’m enjoying the combat so much that I actually want to optimise my party and seek out tougher fights and man this is the bread and butter of CRPGs and I can’t believe it’s been dead to me for so long.

 

Honourable mentions

This post is much too long already, so despite there being lots more I’d like to mention I’ll keep it brief.

There are some great characters in Pillars. Durance, for example, is a priest who follows a goddess of war and fire (consumption and purification). He’s a misanthropic, misogynistic and damaged man, remote and aloof, who describes his goddess as a whore and tailors his faith as such. He’s not a likeable character but he’s certainly memorable – particularly when you begin to pry apart his defences and learn about his past. At the other end of the scale is Eder, a laid-back, easygoing farmer and soldier who faces adversity and loss with sardonic humour and stoicism. Another favourite is Kana Rua, a towering explorer and scholar with an love of learning and experience that is so innocent he quickly becomes a tremendously endearing member of the party.

A short piece went up on RPS earlier this week that explicates some of the design philosophy behind Pillars of Eternity: it’s worth a read. I can’t speak with authority on how well Pillars allows a multitude of approaches, having played a third of the game through once, but the description of a game with hugely complex webs of scripting allowing for diverging approaches to any situation resulting in something that feels organic rings true for me. I don’t think that I have at any point paused and thought “gosh, what just happened was both not what I wanted and felt really out of place.” Strike one for massively authored content over procedural generation, eh?

I’m also liking the Stronghold. You get it early on and I’ve not been able to do huge amounts with it yet, but I’m sure that as I continue to repair and expand it, my options will correspondingly expand. It’s long enough since I played Neverwinter Nights 2 that I don’t remember how its stronghold worked, but I remember really enjoying it. Here’s hoping that Pillars’ stronghold manages to put some interesting spins on the lategame experience. I’m already liking that it’s a part of the game early on so it won’t feel like an awkward addition towards the end: “Surprise! You were getting bored so here’s your own magic castle.”

That’s enough words. Time for more Pillars. Byeee!


 

P.S. look I’m sorry okay I’ve also been watching loads of Parks and Recreation.