We’re Really Digging Pillars Of Eternity

We’re Really Digging Pillars Of Eternity

A few of us have been playing Pillars of Eternity, the lovely new crowdfunded PC role-playing game that sets out to re-create the vibe of old Infinity Engine games like Baldur’s Gate.

Safe to say we love it so far. I’ve got many more hours to play before I feel comfortable writing a full, thorough review for Pillars, which comes out Thursday, but Kirk and I took some time last night to have a broad chat about what we like and don’t like about Obsidian’s latest. You can read it all right here.

Jason Schreier: Let’s get this started: Pillars of Eternity is a stellar video game. Anyone who liked Baldur’s Gate, Planescape Torment, Icewind Dale, or any of those other old isometric PC role-playing games will absolutely love Pillars… and anyone who hasn’t played those old games owes it to themselves to dig into PoE nonetheless.

Kirk Hamilton: Right to it! Yeah, I like it a lot. I’ll admit that you and I are both kinda in the tank for this kind of game, since we both grew up playing CRPGs like the ones Pillars is (wonderfully) channeling. But I am enjoying the heck out of it. How much have you played at this point?

Jason Schreier: I think my clock is at around 13 hours, but that doesn’t count the few hours on my first character (you know it’s a good RPG when you feel compelled to start over after three hours just to try a new class) and it definitely doesn’t count the time I’ve spent dying against particularly tough encounters. Hardcore RPG fans will rejoice to know that this is a very challenging game, even on Normal difficulty.

I think I’m in act two. What about you?

Kirk Hamilton: I’ve played about 8 hours, I’d say. I’m a bit behind you in the story, because I sense I was doing more sidequests, at least at first. I’m currently exploring the first big town, have a full party of six, and I’ve gotten my head around combat. It was a bit of an adjustment — like you said, this game can have teeth! Incautious adventurers will get wiped out more than a couple times at the start.

Jason Schreier: That first big town, it’s worth noting, is nearly as big as the city of Baldur’s Gate (from BG1). Defiance Bay, as it’s called, has got five districts, a whole lot of buildings, tons of quests, an obligatory sewer/catacomb system, and like four different Kickstarter-backer-named inns. It’s not quite as huge as Athkatla, the main city in BG2, but it’s a substantial, interesting city, with tons and tons to see and do. And apparently there’s another one that’s just as big!

Kirk Hamilton: Oh, nice. Yeah, I’m still getting my bearings in Defiance Bay. I walked in on some thieves planning a heist and killed them all. Then I went to the library. Just another day in Dyrwood.

So, let’s think… what do people want to know about this game? We’re just supposed to be writing “impressions” of it, and neither of us has played enough to say anything SUPER authoritative, but clearly we both feel confident saying this is a good game. What do you like about it?

Jason Schreier: When I first loaded up Pillars, I was bouncing around a few questions: 1) Will this feel like old Infinity Engine games? 2) How deep and interesting are the progression and combat systems? 3) Are the quests going to be more interesting than your average “go kill some rats and deliver this package”? And finally, 4) This is an Obsidian game — is it going to be super buggy?

So let me try to tackle those, after ~13 hours of playing.

1) Yes, in every possible way, from the size and shape of the cursor to the way enemy health displays phrases like “Injured” and “Near death.”

2) They definitely take some getting used to, since Pillars of Eternity has replaced the familiarities of D&D with its own set of rules and systems. Gone are +2 weapons and Magic Missiles, replaced by a whole host of unique yet somewhat similar weapons, spells, and mechanics. Let’s touch upon all that more in a bit.

3) Sort of. Some of the quests have felt rote; others are really interesting, enhanced by the story and setting, which revolves around souls. Again, more on that in a bit.

4) Surprisingly not buggy! I’ve seen some typos, and once in a while the game will screw up a script trigger and I’ll have to reload an auto-save, but everything’s mostly stable, which is lovely.

Whew. OK, lots to talk about there.

Kirk Hamilton: I’m with you on most of that. What’s struck me as remarkable about this game is how effectively it demonstrates the potency of a lot of storytelling techniques — writing, in particular — that video game RPGs have “evolved beyond” over the intervening decade and a half. The writing is the most obvious thing — dialogue boxes don’t just contain dialogue, they contain descriptions of how the character said what they just said. That’s because the characters themselves are tiny little figures viewed from on high — you can’t see their faces, let alone their body language — but it’s surprisingly, almost startlingly evocative.

At one point early on in the story, the character Edér makes a short joke, which is followed by: “He smiles at this, but it is the smile of one recounting a joke for effect rather than enjoyment.” That bit of writing is so effortlessly potent, when it’d take a crew of well-paid animators and mo-cap artists to capture such a thing visually.

Of course, text-based games didn’t just stop doing this sort of thing even as big-budget RPGs moved more toward representative animation. Hell, the whole Twine-game resurgence is based on the ideas that 1) Simple writing can more easily capture the imagination than complicated animations and 2) It’s much more cost-effective to favour writing over graphics, meaning the games about more things can be made by more people. Back in 2000, the tech limited people and forced game designers to rely on text as a means to convey nuance. Now, it’s more optional, but in channeling the vibe and approach of those older games, Pillars is a good reminder that simple writing can be a wonderful thing in a video game.

That was kind of a whole digression, but you know what I’m saying? For all the thoughts I have about the combat design, the quests, and all that, the writing is the thing that really sticks out to me so far, both in quantity and in quality.

Jason Schreier: Yeah, I mean that’s been one of Obsidian’s finest skills as a developer for years now, from Fallout: New Vegas to Alpha Protocol to Knights of the Old Republic II. They have got some of the most talented writers and narrative designers out there, and that’s clear in Pillars, both through the big themes and the little character moments. One thing that’s unique to this game is that rather than just striking up random conversations with an NPC, your character can go up to them and look at their soul, which tells you a short story about who they are and where they came from. I haven’t done this with every single NPC — there are points where I just want to get on with the story — but the ones that I have read are lovely little bursts of story and flavour.

Kirk Hamilton: I’m amazed that they made so many of those! I’ve stopped doing them all because there are like five or six in every area I visit, and each one is such a mini-emotional-journey. But while I do like the writing, I guess the specific thing I’m talking about is how the game uses… “every part of the language buffalo,” maybe. It uses writing in a way that modern big-budget RPGs rarely do, at least outside of the codex. I can’t even remember the last time I played an RPG and the game TOLD me the character’s eyes were downcast as he spoke, rather than trying to show me. Like… the “cutscenes” in this game are just text, with music, sound effects, and black and white illustrations. I have to imagine everything. It makes me feel less like I’m playing a modern CRPG and more like I’m doing a pen and paper D&D campaign.

Jason Schreier: Which is awesome! Maybe not for everyone. Maybe Pillars won’t sell 40 billion copies like, say, Skyrim has. But if you can appreciate what it’s doing, and you don’t mind reading a lot, this is something special — an RPG that is OK giving you mini-choose-your-own-adventures where you can decide whether to climb up those vines or throw a grappling hook at the window, all in text. I love that sometimes I’ll talk to an NPC and see them lost in thought rather than just cutting straight to dialogue. Or how sometimes I’ll try to open a chest and find myself suddenly participating in a text adventure, where I can examine the chest more closely, or try to force it open, or walk away and hunt down the key. It’s really rad.

Kirk Hamilton: It really is. It’s funny — as much as text-based games have been the province of more experimental indie games over the last few years, this is a good reminder that a lot of that stuff has its roots in more conventional (or, “conventional”) PC gaming. Fantasy, dragons, dungeons, the sort of stuff so many big-budget games these days still focus on. Text-based gaming has something to offer everyone! And hey, speaking of conventions — what do you think of the world Avellone & company have built here? I like some aspects, but some of it hasn’t quite drawn me in yet.

Jason Schreier: I love it to death. I want to play 5-10 more games in different parts of Eora. (Although I hope they stop putting random Kickstarter backer text in the next ones.) There are so many cool concepts — people constantly reincarnating after death thanks to something they call The Wheel; souls being an integral part of the body that can be manipulated by savvy wizards called animancers; gods walking among humans and waging war… have you read about the Dozens? And how they built the Godhammer? I won’t spoil anything here, but man, even without reading the bazillion tomes of lore and history, I’m totally attached to this world, like I am to Westeros or Camorr.

Kirk Hamilton: Yeah, a lot of that stuff is really cool, especially that there was something called “the Godhammer bomb.” (It’s almost JRPG-ish?) And I like how the game treats souls, and “the wheel,” and how we carry these echoes of our past selves around.

I guess something that’s turned me off a bit is how… well, how “basic fantasy” a lot of it still feels. It’s funny you mention Camorr. You and I are both big fans of the Locke Lamora books, and in re-reading the first one, I’m struck by how Camorr is such a distinctive place because it channels specific cultural touchstones to create a cultural tapestry. Most of the terms and names are vaguely Italian, and the whole thing has this Mediterranean vibe. It helps me see it as a real place, as opposed to a kinda-sorta European land with forests and castles and barbarians and dragons. I think that a lot of my favourite fantastical worlds — like, say, the ones in later Quest for Glory games, or in Grim Fandango — have some sort of specificity to them. By way of comparison, a lot of Eora feels fairly routine. At least so far.

Jason Schreier: Well, this is meant to be the Baldur’s Gate successor, not the Planescape Torment successor. But I see your point.

Kirk Hamilton: Hahaha yeah, the Planescape Torment successor is still in development!

Jason Schreier: We should remember, again, that we’re still early. It took a large chunk of hours in BG2 before you started getting to the craziest parts of the game, like the Underdark — I imagine that Pillars will have some exotic stuff in its endgame, too.

Kirk Hamilton: For sure. And as Game of Thrones has demonstrated over and over again, it’s certainly possible to take a world that seems like Generic Euro-Fantasy and turn it on its head. So, speaking of castles and stuff… I didn’t realise that there would be castle customisation in this game. You get a whole castle! It’s like an Assassin’s Creed homestead, only it’s a castle.

Jason Schreier: Disappointing amount of customisation so far, though. I expected a lot more interesting choices and random events than what I’ve seen so far, which is basically just “hey go build something new every couple of in-game days.” Sometimes we’ll get attacked by bandits or whatever, but it feels more like busy-work than actual strategy, which is a shame. I’m spoiled by Suikoden.

Kirk Hamilton: It does feel a liiiittle bit like a mobile tie-in game right now, or something. (Can I say that without sounding like I hate it? I like it!) I got an update that bandits had taken all my earnings, and now I want to build up my walls to keep them out, even if it was just a pop-up that told me.

Also, there’s a dungeon under my castle, which apparently goes on… forever? For a long time? What’s the deal with this dungeon.

Jason Schreier: So apparently this was promised in the Kickstarter!

Hold up.

Jason Schreier: lol

Kirk Hamilton: holy shit

Jason Schreier: “The Endless Paths started with three subterranean levels, but it can grow larger with your help. For every 2,500 additional backers, the depths of Od Nua’s castle become deeper, which means one additional level will be added to the vaults. Continue to spread the word about Project Eternity, and let’s see how big we can make The Endless Paths!”

Kirk Hamilton: Ha, so it’s like a playable representation of crowdfunding. Yesterday you posted about how some of the ways Pillars’ Kickstarter-ness manifests itself in the game can be distracting (I agree), but that strikes me as a pretty good/funny one. Want more levels? Cool, give us more money!

Jason Schreier: Yeah, the stronghold itself was also a Kickstarter stretch goal, hilariously. (Kickstarter stretch goals are ridiculous in general — as if money can directly translate to new features. Money means you can keep people working on a project for more time, which CAN mean more features, but it’s silly when Kickstarter creators act as if you can, like, pour $US100,000 into a vat and suddenly get a stronghold out of it.)

So, OK, let’s talk about the combat. I remember you texting me that you were overwhelmed at first — still feeling that way? It’s both similar to and different than old IE games in a lot of ways.

Kirk Hamilton: It’s a lot to keep track of, but I’ve gotten into the groove. I think my issue is that a lot of the combat encounters I’ve had so far don’t quite seem to fit in the rooms where they take place. I’ve got six characters in my party, and we’ll be taking on another six baddies, and the screen winds up looking like this:

It can be hard to figure out basic stuff like who’s doing what, who I’m up against and how many of them there are, what their positioning is relative to one another, etc. Pathfinding can be an issue, too — we’re not on a grid (I don’t think?) but sometimes characters will take weird routes to get to where I asked them to go. When there’s enough space to manoeuvre, things work well and I feel able to play strategically. But in a lot of the indoor areas, things still feel awfully cramped. I’m sure that’s at least partly on me, though, and will change as I learn how to better manage my party and formation.

Jason Schreier: Actually, I feel like a big part of strategy is drawing your enemies to the ideal place for positioning your dudes/dudettes. Going into cramped areas is usually a recipe for disaster; I try to send out my ranger’s pet to scout and draw enemies to where my party can flank and deal with them.

Kirk Hamilton: But if, say, you walk into a room full of thieves and have to fight them right there, there’s no way to do that. That’s not always a workable strategy.

Jason Schreier: Right, sure, sometimes you can’t get away from a claustrophobic environment, which is Not Great if you want to, say, cast a giant fireball that would also inadvertently blow up your own party members if they were in the area of effect. (edited)

Kirk Hamilton: Yeah, that’s definitely true — you have to take your environment into account. Sometimes that feels by design, like with the fireball example you cited. I guess that for me, sometimes it still feels like the areas are just too cramped and, maybe more importantly, the game itself can be too difficult to read once the fur starts flying. Still, like I said, it’s something I’m sure I’ll get better at as I go.

Jason Schreier: Also something we’ll hopefully get better at: sorting through armour and weapons, which can be really overwhelming. It’s nice that you have an apparently unlimited Stash for storing goods so you don’t have to worry much about inventory management, but Pillars doesn’t make it very easy to sort through which items are worth using and which you should just ditch.

Kirk Hamilton: I like that there’s so much stuff, since I kinda love sorting inventory items in games like this. But it’s already getting a bit beyond my grasp, especially with so many party members and different loadouts.

Jason Schreier: Right, don’t get me wrong, I also get a kick out of inventory sorting (which I like to do when my inventory is basically overflowing with shit). It’s just going to take a long time before I get the hang of how many grappling hooks to keep around or whether my cipher would do best with a cape that boosts her perception. Pillars isn’t afraid to barrage you with unfamiliar systems and information — I’m still not 100% sure how my chanter’s songs work — and unlike those old D&D-based games, there’s no frame of reference here, you know?

Kirk Hamilton: It’s definitely going to take some doing before a lot of this stuff is clear. I trust in the Internet’s ability to parse and re-explain dense RPG systems — the wiki for this game should be a pretty killer resource in a week or two — but here at at the start, at least, it can all be pretty confusing and under-explained. I could use a Player’s Handbook!

Jason Schreier: Yeah, but also, it’s getting me so psyched for this to be an ongoing thing — imagine if there’s a Pillars 2 that’s as transcendental as the Baldur’s Gate sequel was? I’m already stoked to go visit other regions of the world, like the Vailian Republics, which I’m guessing we’ll see in an expansion or sequel soon.

Kirk Hamilton: The islands my character hails from sound pretty nifty, too. It’s weird to be playing a game and already daydreaming about sequels — I guess that’s as good a sign as any that we like it, eh?

Jason Schreier: I mean, I’m also daydreaming about leaving this office and going home so I can play more. Which I am going to do right now.

Kirk Hamilton: Nice, and I’ll do the same. Let’s maybe re-convene when we’ve gotten farther into it? And in the meantime, I’m sure I’ll be texting you for tips.


  • Just to be clear here – the People who backed the game – spending money for them to build this game from scratch have not been allowed access to the game or even the ability to Download the game prior to release date.

    The Beta access we had was to a vertical slice that had no introduction to the mechanics or storyline.

    This was by far the worst Kickstarter experience I’ve been a part of – knowing next to nothing about what was happening with the game. And treated like an ATM with media getting first play of a game that people backed.

    This compared to Star Citizen – I would say Obsidian should be taken to task for their treatment of backers and fans – not praised for their actions.

    • Not having followed this one fill me in.

      Did they set your expectations and not meet them? Or: Did you set your expectations and they not meet them?

      It’s only a pronoun but makes a big difference.

      • No Chris Roberts set my expectations – when he put the backers first – these guys just took the money and basically said cheers guys.

        Their attitude shows that they just expected to be given the money and not that they appreciate the backers who took a risk on them.

        Conversely Star Citizen – creates events to show the backers what they’re doing and makes sure they’re involved every step of the way. I never felt that way about Obsidian and I will treat them warily from now on.

        • I find it hard to read your comments as anything other than deep-seated entitlement. I felt the many backer updates during development were great, and gave really clear overviews of the systems and features in the game. And to describe this as a bad kickstarter is experience is laughable. They have delivered the game and all the promised features on the date they announced (yeah yeah i know they pushed the release date a few months), and people like you are shrieking and screaming over a delay of one day for preloading etc. ONE DAY. This is a damn video game, not urgent blood for christ’s sake.

        • I empathise with you, understand the disappointment and frustration- however, I disagree.
          I’m an original backer of both star citizen and poe.

          From the start poe’s beta offering was substandard so I chose only to back and get a digital copy of the game instead of beta access.

          I never expected them to exceed this and therefore have no buyer’s remorse.

          They own the game, we don’t. They can provide it to whomever they like before release. I’m glad they did because it will give the game more publicity and increase likelihood of commercial success.

    • If I recall something vague about what they handed out any form of early access is because the game is very very story driven, if you start giving out huge chunks of the game you spoil a core component of what the game is about not to mention giving people burn out as a result of playing the same bits of the story over and over again. As it’s an RPG, it makes it very difficult to give people a taste of what is happening without spoiling things. Star Citizen (or Scope Creep: The Game as I call it), can release things in a nice modular fashion because the game isn’t all about story. You can dump ship combat on people and anybody can muck around with it because you’re playing against other people and there isn’t a need for a story at that point. You are sampling a component of mechanics.

      If you provided assets and content for people to stuff around with with an RPG without any story, people tend to dig and see what they can find and anything cool you have hidden gets dug up and spoils things for everybody. My greatest fear at this point having investigated a chunk of time in to Satellite Reign is that the game isn’t going to be as exciting due to fiddling and playing already, sure there is not story so far, but I know how to power through missions now. I’ve already ruined a degree of excitement for myself and this is the risk of access to early content.

      EDIT: And not knowing what is happening with the game? My damn kickstarter folder in my email is full of progress updates on what they are working on and how things are progressing but as stated above, they’re limited in what they can show due to the nature of the game.

      tl;dr. An RPG is about story, it’s damn hard to release anything meaningful to the public to test without spoiling story which is what the games are all about.

      • The Media got the full game a week before backers – they were allowed to stream 15 hours of the first act.

        I know they couldnt give sections of the game out – but they could have given backers access at the same time they gave out Media Review copies.

        • Yeah dude… you’ve been making the same comments on the Eternity forums, and people are calling you entitled over there also. People are calling you the same thing over here. Maybe you should stop being the literal definition of the Dunning-Kruger effect and realize you’re just being dumb.

    • Yes, frustrating to say the least. Cannot even pre-install, I thought pre-install was the norm, I guess not. So in 1 day (my time) instead of enjoying the game I’ll be downloading it.. Oh well. Hopefully it won’t take too long to download…. who am I kidding..

    • LOL. You love Scope Creep Citizen but not Pillars? So… you prefer small tidbits of functionality with promises of the world, sorry, galaxy, no wait, 60 procedurally generated galaxies, no, make that 60 hand crafted galaxies with fully explorable planets, and an fps, and a …. It’s ridiculous.

      Obsidian said “give us money, we’ll make a game and you’ll get it when it’s done.” The beta was never going to be a “hey, here’s the full game”, and expecting that from an RPG is ridiculous. Obsidian kept backers in the loop about progress and design plans and what was going on – basically an excellent kickstarter when they are promising a FINISHED PRODUCT rather than an ongoing alpha test for people to play in tiny chunks.

      I think you need a bit of reality check in terms of your expectations given the type of game Pillars is versus Star Citizen. And I’ll take a game released in the next week over the continued promises of our PC MASTER RACE Lord and Almighty Saviour Christ Roberts (lead us not into Elite Dangerous, but deliver us from EA-vil) for the next 10 years and 100Gb downloads.

  • Lol these two DO NOT sound like they played any of the games they just name dropped (BG2, IWD etc).
    I’m pumped for this but this preview just tells me “console players struggle with actual PC game”.

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