Thursday, May 14, 2015

Pillars of Eternity: Review

Version Reviewed: (steam)
What I like: Story and dialog. Attractive world. Some aspects of combat.
Not So Much: Combat has too many mobs. Pretty easy on hard difficulty. Not all features fleshed out.
Other Stuff You May Like: Lots of options to tweak how much info is presented.
The Verdict: A RPG worth playing due to the world building and story. Should appeal to fans of Bioware's Infinity Engine games such as Baldur's Gate. Combat can be enjoyable and tactical, but difficulty is uneven.
About my reviews

Official site: Pillars of Eternity

Disclaimer: No disclaimer. My copy was purchased for me by Desslock. Thanks!

This review was written by myself and first published on


RPG fans have been eagerly awaiting Pillars of Eternity's (PoE) release since its successful Kickstarter campaign. It's familiarity to Bioware games, such as Baldur's Gate is unmistakable and not accidental. Obsidian Entertainment made it clear from the get go that those games were a huge inspiration for PoE. Back in the day some of those games were among my favorites, combining interesting stories, characters and fantasy combat. Obsidian took that formula and added some modern sensibilities. Did it capture the same magic, or did it roll a 1 on the ol' 20 sided die?

Birth of a Hero

Like most games of its ilk, PoE starts the player off giving birth to the persona they will be channeling as they explore the new world. There are many ways to tailor your character right from the start. Each of the 6 races have various strengths and weaknesses and also grant perks - such as wood elves' affinity for ranged attacks, or the death godlikes' ability to ratchet up the pain on wounded foes. Selecting one of the 11 classes has the largest influence on how your character will perform in combat, providing an assortment of abilities. For some reason I always feel the need to play as a fighter in most RPGs, even though some of the other options are more interesting. Since your party can also contain up to 5 supporting characters, getting to experience other classes isn't a problem. Control freaks can hand craft each companion, or you can invite some of the people you'll meet on your journey to join your party. Even though I tend to be a control freak, I went the latter route and wasn't disappointed, as Obsidian did a great job imbuing them with personality and their own interesting quests to complete.

Flog the First, pensively considering what may lie ahead.

This Ain't Your Grandpa's RPG

For better or worse, PoE is based on a brand new system created by Obsidian. Those familiar with games based on Dungeons and Dragons will have some learning and unlearning to do. The in-game information is a pretty reliable source. Many elements have tool tips, open information windows when clicked, or are covered in the Cyclopedia. The manual however was out of date. Is it really that hard to provide up to date digital manuals? 

I think the system works well enough and provides several areas for tactical consideration. Create tanks with high constitution and deflection to weather attacks, a squishy wizard with high intelligence to lob spells from the back lines when not firing his pistol, or a chanter who buffs your party constantly while gaining access to spells over time. There really is a lot of variety between classes. At times I had the feeling that the effects of attributes in combat were too small, and the random number generator too large. Just a feeling I had.

Beginning Your Journey

Obsidian makes their world come alive with beautifully detailed environments and music. The story is told through narrative, rich conversations, and detailed lore found throughout your travels. There is a lot of reading for those who want it, but most of the detailed descriptions and background lore can be skipped if you'd like. Still, there is a lot of dialog, some voiced and some not. While the majority of the voiced dialog was done well enough, it was awkward to follow along with the text at times. The text often contained unvoiced descriptions, so you'd either have to skip them to keep up, or try and read them as the speaker moved on without you. It's a small problem, but was annoying. At times I found the writing a little too flowery, but in general it did a great job of building up the world and history. I'm not qualified to critique the technical aspects of the writing, but I consider it one of the game's strengths.

Slash, Crush, and Pierce Your Way to Victory

Combat is typically one of the major aspects of a computer RPG and it won't be long before your first encounter. Like the games that inspired it, PoE offers real time pausable combat. Even with the many options to automatically pause the game during combat, I felt it was too fast paced - and yes I did turn on the option to automatically slow down the game's speed while in combat. Sometimes attacks are going on simultaneously. I frequently wanted to examine the results of each attack. The combat log (which can be turned off) shows quite a bit of information, but unless you're pausing frequently you won't have time to examine it.

The combat log is a great tool to analyze your performance. Utilizing the tool tips it's easy to see if your fighter is missing because his accuracy is less than his target's deflection. Maybe your rogue is connecting with his bow, but not causing much damage because that skeleton is resistant to piercing damage.

One nice touch is that as you defeat more of a particular enemy, information is added to your bestiary. This can be consulted before a battle to try and plan for the strengths and weaknesses of your enemies. These enemies don't scale with your party, so the information is always applicable for that particular creature.

A lot of skeletons fell before my party, so the bestiary contained complete information.

Greater flame blights weren't so common my bestiary is sparse.

Much of combat is about controlling the battlefield. Fighters excel at engaging multiple enemies, preventing them from doing an end run around your front lines and getting to the squishy types in the back. Some of their special abilities allow them to occupy more enemies, which is useful against the large groups you'll encounter. When fighting indoors it is much easier to retain control, choosing to engage in a narrow doorway. It can be more difficult outdoors where spaces tend to be wide open. Some spells and abilities need a clear shot to the enemy, so working your wizard around to the flank is necessary to avoid blasting your front line. Others can be lobbed over the top. The UI works well for managing these attacks.

That's not to say there aren't some frustrations. Sometimes units can't reach their target and it isn't obvious that the space is too small to navigate through. At times characters don't respond to commands and it isn't obvious why. In general these don't happen so frequently that they spoil combat. Since there isn't any scripting, battles do tend to require a fair amount of micromanagement - if the encounter isn't easy.
An opening volley against a large group of undead

Things start to deteriorate when the enemy wizard charms my priest and wizard.

As I lose my squishier allies and my fighter moves to take care of the enemy wizard, the battlefield becomes more chaotic. Note the combat log tool tip showing attack rolls.
In the battle above, my plans became disrupted when my 2 party members were charmed. Most abilities and spells can't be cast out of combat. My priest has a spell that helps protect against being charmed, but I have to wait until combat begins to use it. This limits what can be handled during pre battle planning. You could try to fire your spell of quickly to protect the party in time once hostilities commence.

Other than the positional challenges, the main focus is deciding who to target and bringing attacks to bear on the enemy that will be effective. A heavily armored enemy might be very resistant to slashing damage, but weak against lightning. Some abilities can be used a number of times per combat, while others can be used a number of times per rest. This system is supposed to force the player to make tough choices. Do I need to use this ability for my current fight, or should I save it for a more difficult one? I feel that this is really only a convenience tax because the player can rest anywhere (if they have the camping supplies). If they don't it just means a trip back to a store to buy some, or a rest in the tavern. It is only slightly tedious to make runs back to an inn since travel can be accomplished pretty quickly. I don't know what a good solution to this problem is, other than balance the game so abilities can be used a number of times per combat.

For me the biggest problem with combat is the uneven difficulty. I completed the game on Hard (only Path of the Damned is more difficult). While the early game provided frequent challenges (the first 5 out of 12 levels or so), most battles became a cakewalk where I could just group select my characters and target an enemy. Once they go down, click on the next one. I don't envy Obsidian, because it has to be a difficult thing to balance. Maybe Path of the Damned would have been a better choice for me, but I didn't want to switch it mid review. Another option could have been to only use 4 characters in my party instead of 6, but I wanted to hear what the other characters had to say as I progressed through the game. So, with some experimentation perhaps a better balance could have been found. If you're a veteran of this type of game and like more of a challenge, I'd recommend trying Path of the Damned.

I actually preferred the action point system in Divinity Original Sin, but didn't like Divinity's over reliance on environmental effects and exploding barrels. So while I think Divinity's system is better, I feel PoE's actual content was more enjoyable.

Practically all experience points came from completing quests, so there is no need to grind through combat just to gain skills. Once an enemy is cleared it doesn't re spawn.

Let's Talk it Over

The dialog system is another area that shines. I've already mentioned how it is well-written, but it also adapts to your main character. Some dialog choices are only present based on meeting some attribute or skill value. Sometimes it may be your race or class that provides more choices. It's hard to tell on a single play through how much it actually affects the game, but it sure feels like it is personal. Dialog choices can even affect how people perceive you - such as being honest or aggressive. You can even configure whether you see dialog choices your main character doesn't qualify for - and yes, it does only consider your main character. At first I was a bit disappointed the entire party wasn't considered, but I decided having this limitation makes your choices more meaningful. There were many conversations where I agonized over what choice to make.

Some Other Minor Complaints

In general I found weapons and equipment to be too similar to each other. It was rare that I got excited for a new find. Also ranged weapons seemed pretty powerful, where a single volley from my back row would turn an enemy into bloody bits. Many times I didn't even bother casting spells or using abilities since the ranged weapons were so effective. Maybe this is related to how easy much of the combat became on Hard and spells and abilities would be more important on Path of the Damned. Don't get me wrong, there were still difficult battles, but much of it was trivial.

This isn't really a criticism, but more of a preference. After playing games such as Dragon Age: Inquisition, which I loved despite the weak combat, exploration from an isometric perspective just doesn't have the same impact as being immersed in a beautiful 3D environment. While Obsidian did a great job with the artwork, I wasn't wowed, like I was exploring in Inquisition. Exploring a map in Pillars is kind of like scratching off a lottery ticket. I slowly move back and forth across the map, revealing interesting locations along the way until the entire contents are revealed.

Some of the systems didn't seem fully fleshed out. The stronghold you acquire is essentially a money sink. There is a long list of improvements that are essentially meaningless. You can build upgrades that give perks when resting there, but the paid rooms at inns offer better bonuses. Shops can also be added to provide more options for buying equipment, but I never found them to be worth visiting. It felt like a feature that was added because they had to, but didn't have the time or resources to put a lot of effort into.

The enchantment system was also pretty limited. It could have been more interesting had there been more choices, if some of the equipment varied in the amount of enchantments it could hold, or allowed multiple enchantments from one of the three categories. 

Technical Performance

I had one freeze when a new map was loading, but no other big problems. Even on a SSD drive, loading times were a little annoying, especially since it occurs whenever a building is entered and exited.

My specs: Windows 7 64-bit. Intel Core i& 860 @ 2.80 GHz. 8 Gig RAM. ATI Radeon HD 7870.


Despite some of the issues I had with the combat and other features, Pillars of Eternity is well-worth playing. It would be hard not to recommend it to fans of the old Bioware games. The primary strengths are the story and dialog, allowing the player to put their own stamp on how it plays out - or at least giving the appearance of doing so.

I feel the combat shined in the early game. There was a particular encounter when I was still a party of one where I had to scrape by, by using some consumables. Without them I would have lost, but I was rewarded with victory by intelligently using the resources at my disposal. These types of occasions were more common in the early game. I'd also prefer fewer, but more powerful enemies then the hoard of creatures frequently encountered. The details of the combat system get lost when the battlefield is too chaotic. If you can find the right level of challenge by adjusting the difficult level or the number of members in your party, combat is a rewarding part of the experience.

The  isometric presentation feels limiting after playing a game such as Dragon Age: Inquisition, but the environments were attractive to discover. I think many RPG fans would find aspects of Pillars of Eternity to enjoy and the strengths outweigh some of the weaker elements. Pillars of Eternity isn't game of the year material in my estimation, but it doesn't need to be to enjoy it.

A big thank you to Desslock for providing me with a copy!