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RPG Codex Review: Pillars of Eternity - By Vault Dweller and the Spirit of Grunker

RPG Codex Review: Pillars of Eternity - By Vault Dweller and the Spirit of Grunker

Review - posted by Zed on Sun 21 June 2015, 20:05:37

Tags: Obsidian Entertainment; Pillars of Eternity

'A Requiem for Eternity - By Vault Dweller and the Spirit of Grunker'


A Kiss to Build a Dream RPG on​

A Long Time Ago in a Galaxy Far, Far Away…

A long time ago Black Isle Studios - Interplay's role-playing division responsible for several truly great RPGs - was disbanded and all hope was lost. Fortunately, like an Ochre Jelly Bean it split into two lesser beans: the artistic incarnation, which became known as Troika Games, and the sequel-addicted incarnation, which kept on sucking the publisher’s, uh, tit and went on to make some of the finest sequels known to men.

Their first offering was Knights of the Old Republic 2, a Planescape-lite RPG that explored the Star Wars universe, conjuring depth and philosophy out of very thin Star Wars air. The next 10 years was a bumpy ride, riddled with cancellations, flawed attempts to jump on the overcrowded action games' bandwagon, ‘will work for food’ deals, and occasional greatness that spoke of the untapped potential waiting to be unleashed.

If only Obsidian could make an RPG without those meddling publishers restricting their creativity and telling them what to do. If only…

Even Longer Ago and Further Away…

Way before that, Bioware made Baldur’s Gate and it was pretty and shone like a tinfoil star. Black Isle managed to get their hands on that aesthetically-pleasing engine and made Planescape: Torment, the best game ever written. With like words and stuff.

Like all great RPGs, Torment sold fuck all, while the Baldur’s Gate series went on a world tour, sold millions of copies, and turned Bioware into a powerhouse, EA’s favorite bitch, and a true champion of diversity. Thus, when Obsidian was given a chance to pitch their dream game on Kickstarter, they didn’t hesitate and picked Baldur’s Gate, for a choice between a game that sells and a game that doesn’t is no choice at all.

“Obsidian Entertainment and our legendary game designers Chris Avellone, Tim Cain, and Josh Sawyer are excited to bring you a new role-playing game for the PC. Project Eternity (working title) pays homage to the great Infinity Engine games of years past: Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale, and Planescape: Torment.”​

And pay homage they did, creating the finest BG-clone 4 million dollars can buy, loaded with nostalgia, cute little BG things like the cursor and ‘you must gather the party before venturing forth’, handcrafted 2D background with rare attention to details, and the modern bells-n-whistles we’ve come to expect from Obsidian.

Imagine, if you will, a Baldur’s Gate-like game with a state of the art RTwP combat system, powered up by Josh Sawyer’s version of D&D 4th Edition - reimagined for balance-inclined audience, set in a world that wants to be original but is afraid to let go off the familiar, filled with quests with multiple solutions and occasional consequences.

It’s a better Baldur’s Gate, with more depth and role-playing that goes beyond playing dress up. Still, it’s Baldur’s Gate, not Torment, Fallout, or even Mask of the Betrayer. Presented with the first and possibly the last Great Opportunity to do something memorable, Obsidian did what they’ve always done – played it safe and went after the BG fans, long abandoned by Bioware.

Spiritual Successor

Pillars of Eternity stays true to the spirit of Baldur’s Gate, which is a nice way of saying that it’s a combat heavy game with crappy combat but pretty backgrounds. I’m happy to report that the backgrounds are spectacular and the combat is every bit as crappy as you remember.

You have 6 stats, all influencing combat one way or another, which makes it really hard to make a character that doesn’t excel at combat (very thoughtful of Josh Sawyer – why should the player be punished for making mistakes?). Coincidentally, that’s where it all went horribly wrong and most issues with the game (from the lack of hard counters to steamrolling through the game using the same “tactics”) can be traced to this rather misguided design philosophy.

You also have feats – poorly balanced abilities that make you better at killing things or staying alive long enough to kill more things, and a pitifully small selection of skills.

All this goodness is presented in a classic IWD2-like format, which makes you think of all the cool things IWD2 had (like multi-classing and races with actual disadvantages), which PoE doesn’t have, and wonder if you should replay IWD2 (or MotB) instead.

I’ve read many discussions where people argue to death over things like the engagement system or encounter design, forgetting the bigger picture: RTwP is flawed by default.

As I’ve mentioned in the past, the pause is an honest admission that fast-paced, party vs party, real-time combat is too chaotic to be controlled on the fly and the AI is too retarded to be relied on, and thus you have to pause this interactive movie to issue some basic orders and show the AI how it's done.

Sequential combat is a lot more complex and a turn, yours or the enemy's, isn't a pause - it's a window to plan, respond to what the enemy's up to, execute strategies, and most importantly, ensure that your party members will survive the enemy's turn. In fact, planning for the enemy's turn is what makes TB so engaging. Any idiot can pick some targets to attack during his turn, but making sure that all your men survive the enemy's turn and the battle (like in XCOM, for example) is the real challenge.

To be honest, I think Obsidian did a fantastic job designing the combat mechanics and I couldn’t help but admire some of Sawyer’s design decisions. Had PoE been a challenging TB game, the system would have shone. Sadly, its potential and all the clever ideas are wasted on a game that often plays itself and goes extra mile to ensure that all your choices are totally awesome (because you’re awesome too!).

Still, neither Black Isle nor Obsidian games were known for great combat. In fact, they’ve mastered the art of making great RPGs with Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Combat: PST, KOTOR 2, MotB, New Vegas, so let’s leave the combat talk to people who have nothing better to do than compare one RTwP system to another and debate which one is worse all day.

But wait! I hear the voice of my fallen comrade, speaking from beyond the grave:

Grunker: It is such a wondrous thing, to me, this idea that there is some kind of universal rule that says character systems must include 'wrong' options that punish bad players. I certainly don't mind systems that have this - I am an avid Pathfinder player in my spare time - but I also don't see why it should be a requirement. I appreciate what Sawyer is trying to do with PoE's system, which is to give the player a framework of classes and abilities that they can toy around with to their heart's content. Everything at display here will work – just to varying degrees. The objective when building a character in Pillars of Eternity is not to identify the objectively shitty and overpowered feats, but rather to construct an archetype that fits your playstyle. The character system in Pillars of Eternity is not a mini-game or a persistent meta of pitfalls and "correct" builds like in, for instance, Path of Exile. The challenge in Pillars is, theoretically at least, supposed to come from how you most effectively utilize and optimize certain builds. This is because while no builds are entirely dysfunctional, there are builds that can be used wrongly and builds that are outright overpowered: if you tinker enough with the system, you will find ways to beat the game taking nearly no damage. As such, Pillars of Eternity rewards ingenuity but it doesn't present you with outright useless options. As someone who appreciates finding odd, off-kilter builds in RPGs, I appreciate this.

The system's "flatness" is also its greatest weakness, however. The version of D&D that Sawyer is trying to emulate here is its 4th Edition. This system compromised on the fundamental difference in feel between classes to instead use uniformity and universal rules to provide balance instead: while some builds were better than others, all builds were useful. In contrast, earlier editions of D&D have classes which are so underpowered compared to others that comparisons are meaningless. In many ways, PoE completely succeeds in the objective to shed itself of this problem, but it comes at a price: you consistently feel that the changes you make to the characters are fairly miniscule. A huge part of this is thanks to the universality of the abilities the character system bestows upon you. Because most of your abilities continue to be relevant throughout the game, you are rarely that excited to gain new abilities and spells. You might be exited to get access to a new level of Cipher spells for example, since some of these are certainly a step up in power compared to your earlier abilities, but you have no reason to care when you gain further Cipher spells from that same level. Since the Mass Charm that worked so well for you in the last 20 encounters will work equally as well in the next 20, switching tactics is, for the vast majority of encounters, reduced to a matter of style. In dire cases, even gaining access to high levels of spells will yield no excitement, as you sometimes completely disregard newly learned abilities in favor of spamming that Level 2 AoE immobilize you’ve grown so fond of. In other words: you could switch from the aforementioned Mass Charm to a damaging AoE spell and knockdown... but why would you want to?

This is probably the biggest weakness, bar none, that Pillars of Eternity deals with. It is in no small part due to the complete lack of hard counters in PoE's system. Now, I don't share the narrow-minded pessimism that hard counters are somehow a necessity to facilitate tactical variety in combat. In many ways, there’s a legitimate criticism that hard counters are uninteresting because they simply brute-force the player into switching tactics. Hard counters are the equivalent of simply removing certain powers from the player’s arsenal and forcefully instructing him or her to use something else. Sawyer is right in this criticism, but it is baffling that PoE simply offers no alternatives to incentivize the player to mix things up. I barely, if ever, switched tactics during the second half of PoE. There simply was no reason to. In this way, PoE’s disregard for hard counters is quite like if I criticized bread for being a poor soup container, and then proceeded to attempt to eat soup with a fork.​


Original Generic Fantasy

According to Wiki, “the game takes place in the fantasy world of Eora, mainly inside the nation of Dyrwood. The infants in Dyrwood are plagued by a recent phenomenon in which they become "hollowborn" upon birth, meaning they are born with no soul,” whatever that means.

While it may sound intriguing, the game feels like generic fantasy (Obsidian’s “playing it safe” does go to 11), populated by generic fantasy creatures with fancy names. Occasionally, some NPCs talk about weird things but these weird things, much like the godlike races, aren't really part of the setting and are a figment of your imagination (otherwise someone would have said something).

Arriving to the first village and seeing the tree full of corpses, then talking to the dead woman had a strong PST vibe but then everything quickly settled into a familiar fantasy routine. A dispute over grain, a man lured to the bear cave, an evil lord of a castle where you're attacked on sight, a woman in need of medicine (sure, it's because of the hollowborn thing but it feels like any other fantasy quest), etc.

Take the firearms, for example. Firearms haven’t been invented in this world because it shows no signs of that. They were added to the items database, just another ranged weapon balanced against melee, if you feel that using a bow is so passé. Might as well add machine guns.

Similarly, the godlike races don't really exist in this world because the world never acknowledges them. There are cool looking avatars that only you can see; if you want, you can even have a fancy head of your own. Kickstarter stretch goals at their finest.

Basically, there is a strong disconnect between what you’re told and what you actually see in-game. Perhaps, it's the overload of the familiar aimed to create instant recognition (elves, dwarves, evil lords), perhaps, something else. As Grunker said:

The authors' desire to make something original clashes with their fantasy restrictions. Normally, Obsidian circumvents this via deconstruction (as in KotOR2), but if they don't, their story usually sucks (as in NWN2 and Alpha Protocol, the latter having cool characters but a predictable, boring plot). Unfortunately, Pillars and its setting is the latter, since they cannot deconstruct their own entirely new setting. The souls talk feels tacky and contrived, and the rest of the setting is like Eberron but with less steampunk and jungle (which means it’s essentially boring). By taking a raw high fantasy setting and trying at all costs to avoid having it feel like high fantasy, Obsidian ends up with a bleak middling thing in Pillars.​

Personally, I thought that the soul shtick was interesting and wished there was more of it and more to it, but it felt tacked on, as if Obsidian inserted it into a suitable but generic setting (God forbid it will confuse people for a moment and they’ll have to figure something out) instead of building a unique setting around it.

The Chosen One

It’s not the first time Obsidian casts you in the role of the Chosen One, destined for great things and clearing maps with extreme prejudice. In Neverwinter Nights 2 you had a piece of Githyanki sword stuck in your ass, in Knights of the Old Republic 2 you were the Exile, a Jedi who lost his/her connection to the Force, in Mask of the Betrayer you were cursed with a soul eating disorder.

Out of the three, KOTOR 2 had the most subtle take on the Chosen One cliché, whereas MotB went an extra mile making you feel the pain of your condition. Unfortunately, the feature wasn’t well received, so Pillars of Eternity offers you to try on an affliction that doesn’t inconvenience you in any way.

You’re a Watcher, a person who was Awakened and can now see past lives, read souls, shitty fan-fiction submitted by the backers, and use special abilities in combat. The very first Watcher you see is a man who was driven insane by the multiple personality disorder, yet you’re doing just fine and experience no side effects.

As a result your only motivation to push forward is… Well, I stopped playing at the end of Act 2, so I can’t really tell you what that might be.

I liked the dungeon art but clicking on enemies gets boring fast. The loot isn't really there, so you get a bunch of shit, sell it to pay for the castle improvements because it's the only game in town. Every now and then you get a really cool option (like that thing in that dungeon), but that’s about it.

Quests and Dialogues

It’s the strongest yet most disappointing aspect of the game because it’s been Obsidian’s strongest suit since the Black Isle days. It’s their trump card that could have easily beaten bad combat and generic setting had…

...had they taken the game seriously? What’s a 4 mil game for a company that burns 1 mil a month? A side project?

...had Chris Avellone – the best writer in the entire industry – worked on it instead of doing something more important that resulted in him leaving the company?

...had they had more time? I’d say that a game of this scope needs 3-3.5 years, Obsidian managed to produce it in 2.5 years, which is commendable but not without its cost in cut corners.

...had they not overpromised on Kickstarter? Stretch goals are an important Kickstarter aspect that drives up the pledges and dangles goals in front of the backers. The upside is that you get more money, the downside is that now you have to add another city, a mega-dungeon, and a stronghold, while trying to stick to the original schedule.

The good thing is that most if not all quests have multiple solutions, so at very least you can role-play. Pillars easily beats the crap out of Baldur’s Gate in this department. Sadly, the quest logic is often lacking.

Take the brothel quest, for example. You’re told that someone’s causing troubles. Since you don’t have anything better to do, you agree to look into it, which in this case means walking around until attacked by a trash mob. Then you enter every house until you trigger the right scripting event and talk to the leader who offers a peaceful solution, which seems out of place after being attacked on sight, but whatever. Turns out the leader is upset that the brothel increased the prices and now the commoners can’t get exotic ass and pussy.

Let it sink for a moment. A local faction is attacking people on sight because the prices in a brothel are too high for the common folk. Who writes this shit?

The other problem is wiki-style infodumps. The NPCs don’t talk like human beings; they dump paragraphs of info on you, eager to tell you all there is to know about the setting. I’ll let Grunker take it from here:

A good contrast to this is Durance (one of two characters written by Avellone). He is a passionate, engaged bullshitter whose story tells us everything about the Dyrwood much more engagingly than the rest of the writing. Durance isn't just an infodump doing "then this happened and so Dyrwood is really independent, see cause blablabla." Instead we implicitly learn the lore of the region through his teaching and the trials he has been through. When he tells his stories about building the Godhammer, he is telling us about his passion and ideology, and that's why we listen, that's what’s exciting. In the meantime, we incidentally learn about the history of the Dyrwood and about Waidwen and all these things.

The thing is, some of the lore actually is pretty cool. We just often get it delivered from a Wikipedia page disguised as a character.

Consider how Torment has a much more confusing, lore-heavy world than PoE, yet everything we know of Sigil we’re told though its characters acting, behaving, being. We are told about the Mercykillers not because Vhailor goes on 6-page rant about the structure of the order, but because Vhailor IS the principles, because the philosophic debates with him tells us something about the way he thinks. We know of the Sensates not because we read the Codex-entry in our journal, but because we go to the Sensorium and delve into the orbs. We know that Dak'kon is doubting himself not because he tells us "BY THE WAY I CURRENTLY HAVE A CRISIS OF FAITH" but because we slowly come to that understanding ourselves by talking to him and hearing his doubt in the increasingly fragile way he describes the teachings of Zerthimon.

Pillars of Eternity is a lifeless realm in its text, mostly. The companions are a happy retreat from the way the rest of the world lacks character, IMO.​

There are a LOT of checks but they are mostly cosmetic (let me guess, it’s unfair to punish the player for not having the right skills?) and don’t really alter the way you play the game, which is understandable, considering the focus on combat, yet disappointing at the same time, considering how masterfully Black Isle had weaved the tale of the Nameless One, the first game where having high Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma to experience more of the Planescape world was more important than killing things.

How goes it, Grunker?

Just played through the trial.


(just kidding we're gonna end this trial with a big middle finger, negating every choice and conversation topic you just spent your time on... you're welcome)​

And in Conclusion…

Obsidian is the most experienced and talented RPG developer out there, yet the game doesn’t reflect it at all. I see the effort that went into the setting, quest design, character system, combat, etc, but in each and every case the delivery is lacking.

The setting is well thought through but presented via infodumps and hidden behind the generic familiar. The lore is unique and interesting but disconnected from the gameworld. The story has potential that was never realized. Sawyer put a lot of thoughts and clever things into the combat system but the encounter design is non-existent and 'thou shalt not fail' design fucks up everything. The game has a good item system but most items are crap that clutters the inventory. Quests have multiple solutions and occasional consequences but the premise is often idiotic or downright leftist. As Grunker said, "the strengths of the game are undercut by its own deficiencies."

There isn't much to analyze there (unless one's a rabid RTwP fan which I'm not) or even talk about. The only interesting topic to explore is how promising too much on Kickstarter (another city! a mega dungeon! moar races, classes, companions, moar ziets! stronghold!) can easily result in a very shallow design, but it has nothing to do with the game itself.

Any last words, Grunker, before you leave this mortal world behind?

What is so desperately odd about Pillars of Eternity, is that completing it left me with one feeling blotting out all others: annoyance. Not annoyance in the sense of feeling cheated or having wasted my time. Rather, Pillars of Eternity constantly met me with content, systems and writing which stopped just short of greatness. It has a fantastic character system with an overabundance of diversity, which is marginalized by the fact that most encounters can be handled by applying the first winning strategy you master over and over and over again. Compared to other games of its kind, there's a great reputation system and the dialogue really allows you to express yourself, but it is held back by fairly poor writing for the majority of the game. There are a few great companions who make you question the world you're in and think on the themes the game presents you with, and the ending of the game makes you sympathetic to the villain and his goals and redefines the entire setting. But until then, you're dealing with a game that presents you with Wikipedia articles rather than a plot and characters.

In short, Pillars of Eternity annoys and frustrates me, not because it is mediocre, but because it is anything but. By all standards, it is simply a good RPG. But it also bangs its head against a brick wall that separates it from greatness, and like a retarded baby it has no idea that its head-wound is leaking pus. Pillars of Eternity might very well be the solid foundation upon which Obsidian Entertainment will one day build their Magnum Opus, but as of right now, what we have is "merely" a more than adequate game which is definitively the very best Kickstarted game thus far.​

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