The older I’ve gotten, the more discerning I’ve become. Gaming as an adult means finding time in the spaces between work, meals, the gym, curling into a ball and crying, and other responsibilities. You have to scrape in the couch for time to game, reach underneath cupboards, sometimes claw it back from your mates. Time is of the essence, and it’s for that reason that up until last week, I hadn’t really invested in an oldschool fantasy RPG like Pillars of Eternity.
Baldur’s Gate is one friends have been begging me to play, and in truth, it’s been sitting on my PC for a good year untouched. (I’m a sucker for a good Steam sale.) But I’ve never had the time or the urge to open it up and start a new journey. I know that the moment I venture forth, I’ll be sucked into a 50+ hour commitment and will likely never see the sun again.
But I’m an absolute sucker for immersive fantasy games. I sunk 200+ hours into The Witcher III. I own Skyrim on four consoles (PS3, PS4, PC and Switch). The Elder Scrolls Online is one of my happy places. But I’ve never touched the more traditional games of the fantasy RPG genre.
Baldur’s Gate, Neverwinter Nights, Planescape: Torment and Icewind Dale are just a few of the iconic titles that are considered the ‘granddaddies’ of the D&D-inspired fantasy RPG genre. They’re some of gaming’s greats. They’re also all on my very long list of games I will likely never have time to play, but still desperately want to.
After diving into Pillars of Eternity on Switch this week, they all shuffled a little bit higher up in the order of my ever-growing list.
Taking inspiration from all of the above games, Pillars was released in 2015 to rapturous applause. It was one of the most successful games funded on Kickstarter, racking up around $5.9 million (not adjusted for inflation).
Pillars of Eternity is by design, a lot like Dungeons & Dungeons. You choose your character, their backstory, class and allegiance — even what armour they wear (which is clearly the most important part of any game). When the game opens, your character is part of a band of travellers in Dyrwood, a fantasy land where everything goes bump in the night. Things go awry almost immediately.
After introducing you to each and every member of your caravan, and encouraging you to form bonds with your companions, they all die horrible deaths. Surprisingly, even after a scant 20 minute journey, the impact … hurts. And that’s thanks to Pillars‘ story-heavy plot and brilliant choice-based dialogue.
As someone who’s also currently neck-deep in mindless Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey side quests and exploration, where choices rarely mean anything, suddenly having a game with an intensely-layered plot where I took an active role in guiding choices, dialogue and character journeys was a blessing. It was particularly refreshing when a whole branch of new exploration options open up simply because I chose to loot a wayward corpse and discovered the means to knock down a cracked wall.
Choice is a defining feature of Pillars of Eternity, and it’s equal parts fulfilling and frustrating to discover that you’ve locked yourself off from a whole bunch of story options because you couldn’t be bothered cutting into a cave and killing a bear. You only have yourself to blame, and that’s great.
Again, I compare Pillars to Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey — not to dunk on the game, because I thoroughly enjoyed it — but only to highlight the value of agency. Allowing relative autonomy within a rigidly structured game is difficult, but Pillars works because outside of particular story beats, I was never cut off from exploration, or forced to operate on a deadline. It’s not quite freedom, but it feels enough like it to make exploration genuinely rewarding and mostly pressure-free.
It does come with a small caveat that exploring every choice takes time, and as we all know, time is the enemy of the adult. Playing Pillars meant I wanted to explore every choice. I wanted to know every piece of lore about the game. I wanted to hear every story and loot every corpse (sorry, rest in peace, hand me your wallet).
I just want more time with the game.
Pillars is fantastic, and it was the first game in a long time to really suck me in and make me feel something, anything for my hapless crew of characters. In playing it, I realised that I’d cut myself off from an entire genre because I’d assumed it wasn’t worth my precious time. But that was a mistake, and it’s one I hope to rectify soon. 50 hour is a massive commitment, but now, I’m ready to make it.
Chewing through the line-up of fantasy RPGs that I missed out on will take time, I know that much, but Pillars of Eternity made me see exactly what I’ve been missing. All I’m thinking about now is how much I want to dive right in.
After I’m done, I have one target in mind. Baldur’s Gate … come at me.