On paper, Pillars of Eternity is fraught with danger. It's a product of the Kickstarter boom that happened a few years back, a fad which has seen more than a few reckonings since. Its stated goal is to revisit a distant past where, before your KOTORs and your Dragon Ages, cRPGs were rickety, glacial affairs composed of 2D backdrops, awful sub-Babylon 5 CGI cutscenes, and rulesets lifted wholesale from tabletop games (which work fine on tabletops, but computer screens aren't tabletops). Beloved as they are, the Infinity Engine titles of old - Baldur's Gate etcetera - are very much products of their time.
We've come a long way since then. Or so I resolutely believed, until I got a few hours into PoE and started wondering if the genre has evolved to a point where it has lost something vital.
It's arguably the most pure cRPG of the last fifteen years. It immediately hits you with a character creation screen so brimming with possibilities that it's perfectly possible to notch up two hours of playtime before ever setting foot in its world. For those who take the "role-playing" part of RPG seriously, this is a rare treat in 2015. Numbers fans are well catered for; there are six races to choose from, all with at least two variants, offering alternate stat-boosts and skin colour. Then, there's a selection of homelands and backgrounds, again coming with lore-specific stats for each. By the time you actually pick your character class, you'll have already made half-a-dozen agonising choices about your character's mind, body and upbringing.
It's daunting at first. Exciting, if you're anything like me. But one thing is immediately apparent - there's a lot of reading to do. It's part video game, part choose-your-own-adventure novel, where the extensive lore not only provides background colour, but gives context to the minute-to-minute proceedings. You'll be disappointed if you're hoping for significant deviation from the standard Tolkien-esque bullshit, but Obsidian's strength has always been in its writing, and PoE exemplifies that.
Y'see, Pillars tells its many stories with a most humble box of tricks. It makes no attempt to be cinematic, in stark contrast to that other grand reinvention of Baldur's Gate, Dragon Age. It has a tiny set of components - scenery, combat, and prose. What it cannot show, it must tell, and it can't show a great deal. Thus, PoE is almost completely dependent on its writing to paint its pictures, imbue its characters with life, and keep its players engaged. It succeeds.
One of its most charming features is that, where other games would have cinematics, PoE has multiple-choice text adventure. It's a little jarring at first, coming in at points where you would expect to be able to have a bite of that egg burrito or whatever it is you have on hand to gorge on during the talky bits, but then you'll be expected to make a decision. It's frightfully effective. The choices available to you are often determined by your character sheet, your inventory, or decisions you've made elsewhere. They can be some of the tensest moments, as having removed most of your control, it is forcing you to throw the dice.
Of course, there's plenty of real-time action too. Its interface and combat system will feel instantly familiar to anyone who has played an Infinity Engine game. The real-time (with pause) swashbuckling can get frantic, particularly indoors. You'll regularly find yourself getting to fights with gangs that match your number, having to deal with the sometimes comical spectacle of a dozen little computer people beating the shit out of each other in doorways and broom cupboards. This demands a rudimentary sense of strategy to succeed.
You will learn quickly how to use the space available, luring enemies into fighting on your terms, positioning your party on the field to take full advantage of their talents. Custom formations help, allowing you to keep your team battle ready, ensuring that the ranged stay at the back, that the tanks stay at the front. A basic stealth system allows you, if you're careful, to take enemy forces by surprise, taking out their biggest damage-dealer before the fight even starts, and getting your posse into their optimum twatting positions. Every character class has a specific use - your standard warriors, rogues and archers are supported by a long list of magic types, and no two mystics are the same. There are specific mages for area-effect, buffs, mind-control and damage dealing, and it's with these that you will form your individual play style. Taking care of your brutes is essential - without the stat-massaging powers of a priest or a chanter, for example, it becomes extremely difficult to tip the balance in your favour.
You can't have everything in your party, so everything has to be useful. There are no "dud" classes, nothing feels significantly under or over-powered - aside from animal companions, which are a bit crap, and tend to die first. PoE pulls off a deft balancing act; this is most evident when you consider where and when the encounters occur. So far, I have yet to encounter a fight that is too high-level, or too easy, and considering that this is done without level-scaling, it's an impressive feat. You will die a fair bit, but the toughest barneys rarely feel like they're getting the better of you through stats alone. Usually, after a few tweaks to your strategy, you will win the day, and doing so is enormously satisfying.
Satisfying too is the fact that combat doesn't hog your time. As you would expect, the enormous main story is supported (and often expanded upon) by a plethora of sidequests. Most of these you will pick up on your travels, but some are specific to a party member, leading to revelations about their past and yours in the process. Often, fighting will take a back seat to investigation, exploration, and diplomacy. You don't have to kill every ogre you come across, and you don't have to take every quest-giver's word at face value. There's nearly always another side to a story, and it will be left up to you to decide who to believe. From mediating petty disputes to solving murders or infiltrating cults - there's plenty to do outside of saving the world, and/or killing the things in it.
And that world is gorgeous. Despite existing in just two dimensions, it is an impressive visual achievement. The landscapes and interiors are filled with sumptuous detail. It is a land that feels occupied and infused with history, however imagined. Every brick is cracked and flaking, every tree gnarled, every rock weathered. Until you see it in action it's almost difficult to believe that a visual style borne of 90s technical limitations, however spruced up, can hold its own in 2015, but damn, this is a beautiful game. As long as you keep the camera off the ground - it doesn't stand up to the scrutiny of maximum zoom.
Pillars is remarkable. It achieves and surpasses its mission to be a 'refresh' of a style of game which died out long-ago, shortly after providing a blueprint for those which superseded it. Had the men and women at Obsidian succeeded only in making something which appealed to old-time fans of the genre, they could have called it a job well done. But they've gone one better - Pillars of Eternity is modern, while evoking the past. It's accessible, but satisfyingly complex. Its quality is undeniable, and it's particularly heartening to see Obsidian, the underdog RPG studio with a string of thrown-bones and rough diamonds behind it, pour its sweat and passion into something they obviously love - and utterly nail it. Barring disaster, I've no doubt this will hold up until the end. I'll let you know in about 200 years.
Editor's Note: Despite playing Pillars of Eternity for 26 hours, and despite loving it like his own, Jim's not ready to put a score on his review just yet, as he hasn't finished the game. When he finally does so, sometime in 2143, we will update accordingly.
Second Opinion - Steve Burns: What Pillars of Eternity taught me about parenting
Well, nothing, really. I don't have a kid, and nor do I want one. But if I did have a child, I certainly wouldn't be taking any advice on how to look after my terrible sequel from Pillars of Eternity. It's just not that sort of game.