First Impressions – Pillars of Eternity

Oh Baldur’s Gate!  It’s been too long!

I sometimes feel that a particular genre or type of game falls out of fashion because someone decided it wasn’t worth doing any more.  2D platformers, JRPGs, and turn based strategies are all enjoying a renaissance due to smaller developers taking a gamble on the idea that these games aren’t outdated, just under appreciated.  Pillars of Eternity joins that crowded field by reviving Black Isle style CRPGs like Baldur’s Gate and Planescape Torment.  From the first few hours playing it, I can say that Pillars of Eternity is a solid revival of the great CRPGs of yore.

For the uninitiated, the CRPG is the spiritual predecessor to Bioware’s Dragon Age.  Most CRPGs were made using the Infinity Engine which allowed for pausible, three quarter view combat relying heavily on position, line of sight, and party composition.  When not killing all manner of fantasy beast, CRPGs had branching dialogue paths and wide open worlds to explore.  The combination of a deep combat system, interesting quests, and unique settings carved a special place for CRPGs in the greatest games of all time.  That being said, they weren’t without their flaws.  CRPGs were notoriously difficult, dialogue heavy to the point of being pedantic, and stapled to the Dungeons and Dragons systems, with warts intact.  This genre was undoubtedly a fun one, but it needed an update before making its way into the modern world.

Pillars of Eternity appears to be that update.  The first and most welcome change is freeing the CRPG from the confines of the D&D universes.  The D&D license imposed arcane rules that allowed for incredible flexibility assuming the player could ever figure out what was going on.  Pillars of Eternity developer Obsidian Entertainment simplifies the interactions and battle rules into something far more approachable than Baldur’s Gate’s old “do I want this number to be higher or lower?” game.  This includes the welcome addition of a stash that allows for the infinite accumulation of items without having to manage an ever shrinking number of spaces. Overall, Pillars of Eternity takes better advantage of the video game medium.  Unfortunately, that doesn’t extend to the game world.    The world of Pillars of Eternity feels very similar to the fantasy worlds of old school CRPGs.  Replete with distant gods, wizards, and old wars, this is a world we’ve seen before.  Even the playable races are pulled from the Star Trek “Every alien is just a human with different skin color and a horn” school of creativity.  Of course, I haven’t gotten too far into the game, but what I’ve seen doesn’t impress.

On the other hand, combat remains a highlight by pulling in the old system wholesale.  Party composition and management are vital with success hinging on clever use of terrain.  Fights are pleasantly difficult, though unwelcome difficulty spikes crop up around boss characters.  Players will likely need to level up specifically for bosses or else repeat fights over and over again until they get a lucky roll.  Party members cover the usual professions with two new additions.  I haven’t had a chance to play the Cipher, a psychic, but I have enjoyed my time with the Chanter.  Chanters fill the bard role of buffing the team while still being able to fight.  The player can craft the Chanter’s songs allowing for interesting combinations of supporting songs and debuffs that lend the class a high degree of flexibility.  For my part, I’m just glad druids aren’t weak priests as they were in the previous generation.

There’s a lot to love in Pillars of Eternity.  I’m hoping to see more development out of the world, but the game already feels like a worthy purchase.  For players jonsing for that old Infinity Engine style game, this will be a welcome update to their favorite genre.  For new players, it’s hard to gauge how they’ll react to the complexity and difficulty.  Still, I’m glad to see this kind of game return.  Thanks Oblivion.

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