I’m not big on pre-ordering via Kickstarter. Sorry, guys. It’s just not my thing. When I give money to Steam or a retail game shop, I’d like a product in my hands or on my PC in return, not a promise that a product might one day exist. That doesn’t mean I dislike Kickstarter itself, of course; plenty of people are willing to cough up the cash to make games that I can one day purchase, so that’s fine with me! One of the results of the crowdfunding fad is Pillars of Eternity, a new CRPG in the style of the classic Infinity Engine titles like Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale and Planescape: Torment. It’s crowdfunded, yes…but even I have to admit that it’s magnificent.
With Pillars of Eternity you’re getting the closest possible thing to a Baldur’s Gate sequel. That means reading. Lots and lots of reading. Pillars of Eternity is an insanely expansive game. There’s so much going on that it feels kind of overwhelming, and this sentiment extends to every aspect of things from your party selection to the sidequests you’ll pursue to your own character build. Quests are often vastly complex in terms of how they can play out based on your reputation, previous actions, class and race. This is a game that really begs for replay, much like the classic Infinity Engine titles it plays homage to.
As usual with this sort of game, you can expect to start over at least once since you’re not given a huge amount of information on the kind of challenges you’ll face during creation. It’s not a huge deal, and classes play differently enough that it’s worth trying several. My favorite ended up being the Cipher, a psionicist class that can be worked into a decent support unit and fighter; other interesting choices include the bardlike Chanter and the unique masochistic interpretation of the Monk. Regardless of what you choose there are plenty of interesting NPC companions to fill any gaps in your party composition – and if you don’t like them, you can just design more characters of your own.
Pillars of Eternity runs on an original rules system that’s pretty similar to third edition Dungeons and Dragons, which is unsurprising given its pedigree. Characters gain levels and such as you might expect (no multiclassing, though) and there are skills, feats and spells to manage. Spells and abilities run on a system similar to fourth edition D&D, where they can be used a limited number of times per battle or per rest, and some classes have special resources to manage. Ciphers use Focus, which is built through basic attacks and spent on Cipher spells, while Monks use Wounds accumulated through taking damage to power their martial arts.
The health system bears particular mention; characters have an Endurance score and a Health score. The easiest way to explain this is that the former represents short-term HP and the latter is long-term. While running out of Endurance will simply knock a character out and leave them open to greater Health damage, running out of Health kills them with no recourse. This is much more forgiving than D&D, particularly early on and particularly regarding squishy caster characters, but it’s not enough to keep the game from kicking your butt. Cautious play and judicious use of the resources you have available are musts, especially since resting is limited to the amount of campfire supply items you’re carrying with you.
Graphically and aurally there’s not much to complain about. The character models are fairly simple, but they definitely beat Baldur’s Gate, so. The music is the real standout here, it’s exceptionally well done. As for voice acting, it’s a bit limited given the enormous amount of dialogue, but it’s certainly acceptable – not the amateur hour level of work you might expect from a crowdfunded project.
My complaints about Pillars of Eternity are fairly minor; first, the game is tough, particularly since its rules are original and have a bit of a learning curve. Saving often is important because you can expect to get murdered, and I was playing on Normal mode so it can certainly get harder. Some battles can seem practically unwinnable and you’ll need to leave, power up and come back some other time. Still, the rules make sense and the health system is vastly more forgiving than the early D&D we saw in Baldur’s Gate, so it’s hard to complain too much.
The other bit is almost more of a weird quibble: the writing is generally pretty good, but you’ll periodically come across immersion-ruining tombstone memorials from Kickstarter backers. They serve largely as a reminder that while you may have purchased the game, you didn’t purchase it early enough or pay as much as the developers would have liked. While all animals are equal, some are more equal than others, etcetera. Certainly not something you’d have seen in the original Infinity games. This sort of thing was irritating when it happened in Shovel Knight, another crowdfunded darling that was otherwise an excellent title, and it’s irritating here. Fortunately it’s easy enough to just pass these by and it doesn’t sink the entire game, assuming the vast majority of gamers even care about the memorials being there at all.
Really, if silly memorials and high difficulty are all I can complain about, it’s easy to say that Pillars of Eternity is a fantastic game. There’s a staggering amount of content here, a new setting to immerse yourself in and plenty of tactical combat in which to indulge. The first time I booted this one up, I lost four hours to it in the blink of an eye. I’m sure it’ll do the same for anyone else who enjoys CRPGs.