Deep into a battle against a group of inexplicable temperate-forest-dwelling lions, I have my party’s Chanter cast a spell. I click open the menu and look over my available options. Do I choose “Thrice Was She Wronged, And Thrice Justly Avenged” or “If Their Bones Sleep Still Under That Hill, None Can Say”?
Those verbose titles represent a lightning bolt and summon skeleton spells, respectively. But a Chanter’s magic comes from music—from poems and history and the curated wisdom of countless generations. A term as utilitarian as “lightning bolt” hardly does that idea justice. It may be a little frustrating to not know a spell’s function at a glance, but the song titles provide a clever human dimension. That humanity at the expense of brevity summarizes the whole of Pillars Of Eternity. There is a lot of swollen mythology and grand history dumped on the player in apostrophe-riddled fantasy-speak, but it works because it’s presented in service of telling engrossing and surprisingly modest stories.
Pillars Of Eternity is the product of a very successful Kickstarter campaign by Obsidian Entertainment to create a spiritual successor to the beloved Baldur’s Gate series. Obsidian did one better and created a veritable clone. The tilted overhead view, clay-like architecture, and complex battle systems are all nearly identical to its 17-year-old predecessor. The attention to replication extends to fonts and even the little circles around your characters when they’re in combat. Only the chromosome containing the official Dungeons & Dragons license has been extracted before the Baldur’s Gate DNA was spliced to create Pillars.
Starting off, you have your choice of the standard fantasy stock races, like elf and dwarf, along with a few unique to Pillars. There’s the Orlan, which look like halflings in Michael Jackson’s werecat mask from the “Thriller” video, and the Aumaua, semi-aquatic giants that read as fantasy Pacific Islanders. The most evocative by far, though, are the Godlike. Supposedly touched by various divine forces, the Godlike come with a wide range of distinctive qualities, like the elk horns and mossy skin of Nature Godlike or the soft glow of Moon Godlike. They’re viewed with suspicion, and understandably so. My character is a Death Godlike, born with a caul of black energy shrouding his face and a pitted and horned steel helm welded over his eyes. He’s also a Paladin who’s way into helping people. It’s important not to let the stereotypes define you. Your character doesn’t start with any great prophecy or even much of a purpose. An accident imbues you with the power to speak with dead souls, kicking off the central storyline to uncover a massive plot centered on the cult of a dead god.
Your non-epic character origins are reflected in the combat. Fights are challenging. Even the simplest encounters can be lethal if you place a member of your party in the wrong spot. Fights are also frequent. In the areas where your characters are a match for the enemies, the constant combat is like hacking away with a machete just to clear a path forward. When your characters are no match for the enemies, it’s like a tree falling on your head. There are a lot of areas immediately available where your party will be completely outmatched. Following the arc of a quest you come across is no guarantee that you’re ready, either. Someone may tell you to go and check out this rad cave full of treasure, and you do so, thinking that the game presents quests suited to your level. Not so. There are plenty of instances where my party entered an area and was immediately slaughtered. I’d poke at the place a few times to see if I was just managing my battles poorly, but multiple party kills convinced me to shelve a particular quest until another time. Leveling up occurs sparingly, so a backlog of idle missions is almost inevitable.
The challenging combat contributes to Pillars’ most compelling quality, albeit indirectly. It’s the stories of the companions you pick up along the way. If someone in your party dies, they die for good; there’s no coming back. Pillars, like its classic ancestors, allows you to constantly save your game and restart the second a battle goes sour. There’s rarely a risk of losing a team member for good. Even so, a companion can’t be too instrumental to the main storyline if there’s any risk they will disappear from the game completely. So their stories take a smaller, more personal approach. One may be sent on a journey by his college to find a book thought to have some cultural importance for his people. Another may be looking for the stray spirit of a tribal elder to ensure good hunting in the upcoming season. These relatively humble goals give purpose to the world’s grand lore.
The other great element of Pillars occurs early on when the game introduces a task lifted directly from a horror movie. You’re given a castle. It’s a little run down, but it’s free! Also, it’s built on the tomb of a mad king, and you will go insane if you stay there. It’s a deft combination of two satisfying role-playing-game staples. You get to rebuild the keep, restoring such amenities as a library and various shops, fending off brigands, and hosting noble guests. You also get to crawl into the dungeons below your property to collect treasures and unravel the mystery of the jealous spirit who will reach up from beneath the earth to destroy you. The labyrinth is one of the game’s best settings. The descending floors of the dungeon are bisected by a massive carved statue of a titan. Walking across a hand the size of a room or finding the statue’s head half-buried in rock and framed by abandoned scaffolding provides the proper note of neglected glory.
Still, it’s in the smallest moments where Pillars is most fascinating. Stories of dead gods resurrected, of divine plagues and magical obelisks jutting from the earth like broken bones, are the easy stories for fantasy games to tell. It’s in the simple stories where they often falter. Pillars Of Eternity deserves credit not just for telling those stories but telling them well.
Pillars Of Eternity
Developer: Obsidian Entertainment
Publisher: Paradox Interactive
Platforms: Linux, Mac, PC
Reviewed on: PC