Back in September of 2012, when I first heard that Obsidian was launching a Kickstarter for a spiritual successor to Baldur's Gate, I got a little... uh... too excited.
I was ecstatic. I called it my dream RPG. In retrospect that was a bit premature, especially as the years went by and we saw a decent number of successful Kickstarters either disappoint fans or disappear entirely. But the prospect was just so damn exciting. A new isometric RPG in the style of all those old Infinity Engine games I had spent hundreds of hours living in back in the early 2000s? Yes. Please.
Today, having spent the past week sinking my teeth into the game now called Pillars of Eternity, it's safe to say that I was right. This is my dream RPG. The developers at Obsidian have successfully emulated the atmosphere and top-notch writing that so many people loved in those old D&D games, adding their own unique systems and rules to make an RPG that feels both delightfully old-school and quite thoroughly modern. If they launch a Kickstarter for another one, they have got my money.
I've spent about 25 hours with Pillars so far, and although that's not enough time to give it an Official Kotaku Review, I feel quite comfortable saying that it's a stellar game, one I'd recommend to anyone who likes RPGs in any way.
Let me give you a quick breakdown.
Are you a fan of old Infinity Engine games like Icewind Dale and Baldur's Gate? You should play Pillars of Eternity.
Are you a fan of RPGs at all? You should play Pillars of Eternity.
Do you like exploring a fascinating brand new fantasy world with its own lore and history? You should play Pillars of Eternity.
Do you like interesting, flawed character companions? You should play Pillars of Eternity.
Do you like questing, adventuring, and romping around having a grand ol' time? You should play Pillars of Eternity.
Do you like video games? You should play Pillars of Eternity.
Do you hate reading? You probably shouldn't play Pillars of Eternity.
If video games were sandwiches, Pillars of Eternity would be a 12-foot party sub, with vinegar and oil and all sorts of meats and cheeses. This is not a game you can swallow in one night — it's one you'll want to savour for days, weeks, maybe months. It's an RPG for RPG nerds, for those of us who love discovering new items, reading lore books, and exploring every building for new treasure and quests. Like Baldur's Gate before it, Pillars drops you into a strange fantasy world and lets you do what you want, nudging you along the way with quests and a main plot that you can follow or avoid at your own discretion. Also like Baldur's Gate before it, Pillars has such good writing, it's tough to resist talking to every NPC and going through every dialogue option, while stopping every few minutes to see if any of your party members has something new to say.
In case for some reason you haven't played Baldur's Gate or other Infinity Engine games, let me give you a quick breakdown. Games in that style, which sort of faded out after Interplay closed Black Isle Studios back in 2003 (which led founder Feargus Urquhart and crew to found Obsidian), were hardcore RPGs that revolved around building a balanced party, collecting equipment, and powering your way through all sorts of interesting quests. There was Icewind Dale, for hardcore dungeon-crawling; Planescape: Torment, a narrative designer's wet dream; and Baldur's Gate, which struck a balance between the two. (Pillars is closest to the latter.)
These Infinity Engine games all followed strict D&D rulesets, slamming players over the head with systems like THAC0, which was dated even back then. But still, playing them was a pleasure. IE games offered big, sprawling worlds that could be explored over and over again. They had interesting stories, characters, settings. They used a fixed camera with an isometric viewpoint and pre-rendered backgrounds, creating some beautiful visual effects that could make for richer environments than even the most realistic 3D graphics engine.
Pillars of Eternity tries its absolute hardest to re-create these old-school RPGs in a lot of ways, from the major (the cursor, interface, and dialogue options look exactly like an IE game) to the minor (enemy health stats are assigned brief descriptions like "near death" and "badly injured" — the same ones used for Baldur's Gate and its kin). There are some significant changes, though. Anyone used to resting their way through dungeons might be shocked to find that Pillars of Eternity has a hard limit on how often you can recharge your party — resting now requires an item called "camping supplies" that's capped out based on your difficulty setting. (On Normal, you can only carry four at once.)
There's also no D&D in Pillars of Eternity, so you'll have to wrap your head around a whole new set of stats, spells, and skills, which might seem overwhelming but is totally worth it if you have the time and inclination to dig in. Gone are traditional elves and orcs, replaced by new races like "orlan" and "aumaua". The Forgotten Realms have been replaced by a surreal new world in which soul reincarnation is an Accepted Thing and gods sometimes hang out and walk among the humans (at least until they're blown up).
Really, there'd be nothing worth discussing here if not for the writing, which is stellar both on a macro and micro level. The lore is fascinating, the main story is intriguing, and it's always a lovely little surprise to click on a new object and discover yourself in a text-based cut-scene where you'll have to decide how you want to proceed, choose-your-own-adventure style.
Individual dialogue is enhanced by sharp, vivid character descriptions, some of which have actually made me pause and think "wow, that's really good writing," which is a rare if not extinct trait for a video game in 2015. Playing Pillars of Eternity is in many ways like playing through an interactive fantasy novel — not Yet Another Tolkien Ripoff but a great fantasy novel, like Game of Thrones or Locke Lamora, one where you'll feel like investing in unfamiliar lore and proper nouns is worth the effort.
So if you're in the mood for a big ol' RPG, one that will convince you that learning words like "anamfath" and "estramorek" is a valuable use of your time, check out Pillars of Eternity. It's quite good.