Pillars of Eternity Review - IGN (2024)

Just half an hour after Pillars of Eternity introduced a character whose wanderlust backstory was so eloquently told that I was sure she’d be at my side for the rest of the campaign, I found her dead in a tragic mishap she’d brought on herself. That was the moment when I knew I'd love this fantasy story and world: it’s so rich, it can afford to kill a promising adventurer just to set a mood. It’s a bold move that could’ve backfired, but developer Obsidian’s latest roleplaying game keeps the story momentum and awesome old-school tactical combat going for an impressive 70-hour running time.

Countless other characters crossed my path in the coming days, each with their own stories and personalities and each usually (but not always) voiced by a competent actor. Pillars of Eternity is something of a welcome novelty, in that such elaborate characterizations aren't just reserved for main characters; they extend to everyone, even random folks found on cobblestones of Defiance Bay or dozing drunkenly in the corners of weathered taverns. Reach out to their soul, and you're slapped with a personal story that spills out over fascinating walls of text but has nothing to do with the main story, and the quality of writing involved is such that these moments never entirely lose their appeal. It'd be a roleplayer's dream come true, if it weren't for the slight annoyance that some of the characters are voiced and others aren’t.

That "reaching out to their soul" bit isn't stylistic cheesiness. Pillars of Eternity casts you in the reluctant role of a Watcher – essentially someone who can "read" the souls of those around him or her (living or dead) for insights into their past lives or motives. The formula works well here because it helps Pillars avoid falling entirely into the cliché trap of the predictable Western fantasy RPG, in which a co*cky young hero arises from humble origins and kills whatever dragons and bandits need killing.

Rest assured, there's still plenty of that. But the appeal here is that the Watcher's accidentally obtained ability (not unlike the Inquisitor in Dragon Age: Inquisition) allows him to see through the lies of the people around him, and that's a handy skill in a world where people openly hang soulless children from trees like Christmas ornaments. At times, that ability pushes what appears to be a humdrum side quest to greatness. Murder mysteries, for example, become much more interesting when the victim can show up to testify posthumously.

Lesser RPGs would stop at this and let such a quest devolve into a simple revenge and bribery scenario. Pillars's narrative greatness, however, is that it makes you question even this normally cut-and-dried situation by giving the killer a powerful and borderline justified motive. What then? You’re constantly presented with this kind of choice, and they seldom get easier.


And yet Pillars's roleplaying strengths go deeper still. Much like many other contemporary story-driven RPGs, new conversation options unlock depending on whether you have, say, seven points in Lore or 14 in Might, but it radically turns the concept on its head by sometimes making these special options the wrong ones. A reputation system enlivens the options further, but even it sometimes tempts you into to the same traps. In some cases, you're better off sticking with the stock responses, meaning each must be read and considered carefully regardless of what kind of character you’re playing.

The upshot of all this is that Pillars isn't a game for folks who don't like to read. A good chunk of its 70 hours is made up of absorbing at least a couple of lengthy novels’ worth of text. It makes up for the absence of flashy cutscenes with rich pen-and-ink illustrated storyboards covered with rich descriptions that convey nuances no animation could. Time and time again, Pillars shows that it's less interested in the content of the story (although that's wonderful) than it is in how the story is told. For the most part, the approach works.

All that focus on tough choices might lead you to wonder if Pillars is all talk, but in fact, it's intensely difficult and tactical. Combat, which draws heavily from the Baldur’s Gate tradition, is the same kind of pausable real-time squad battle that BioWare made famous, but don't expect a Dragon Age-type experience where you can get away with effectively ignoring tactics. Neglect the pause button here, even for seconds, and you die - even on easy difficulty. I once let my party of six adventurers auto-attack (and there is that feature, at least) a group of ghouls in the woods on the easiest mode, and all except the tank died in the 10 seconds it took to glance at new emails on my phone. Pillars itself makes no secret of this brutality, as a descriptor for the Normal mode screams that it "is NOT recommended for newcomers to real-time party-based RPGs." Not hard enough? Try the Trial of Iron mode, which allows only one save file that automatically deletes if you die.

The good thing is that this challenge is rarely a problem because the UI is astonishingly intuitive, and Obsidian doesn't clutter the screen with elements that have nothing to do with the act of kicking butt. Assigning actions for each hero mercifully takes mere seconds, though very occasionally I’d find that I had to re-issue orders I thought I’d already given (either a bug or an easy mistake to make; I’m still not certain). A comparatively open stat-allocation system ensures that there's almost always someone around who can pick locks or use scrolls while still carrying their weight in a fight, and a comparatively low level cap ensures the heroes seldom run the danger of out-leveling the content.


I confess that the heavy micromanagement involved does grow a tad dull over time when spread across the maximum of six heroes – inevitable, perhaps, given the epic length. As a Ranger, for instance, I usually had to give separate orders to both my avatar and my pet in every situation. Worse, pathfinding glitches sometimes cause heroes to get caught on their allies when moving to their assigned spots.

But these are mild and infrequent annoyances in Pillars of Eternity's grand scheme. It's a world that's almost absurdly detailed, and it reveals careful thought in virtually every element and landscape placement. Consider the fallen beams of an otherwise-unimportant abandoned house, where we're told through a mouseover popup that a family of birds rests inside. Consider its simple but effective crafting system, which lets you concoct potions and scrolls, or influence day or night circles might have on conversation options. Extra touches abound, such as the more non-traditional of its 11 classes like ciphers and chanters who fight alongside stalwart but predictable warriors and priests, or the playable “godlike” race that walks the world with grotesque and sometimes vaguely phallic mutations of skin enveloping their faces. (This also means they can't wear helmets, poor things.)

Sometimes, and only sometimes, I got the impression that Obsidian tried to cram a bit too much into this game, as in the case of a personal stronghold you expand chiefly by tossing money at it in the manner of Ezio Auditore's villa in Assassin's Creed II. The resulting bonuses and missions for inactive party members are nice (along with a sprawling dungeon waiting below), but the concept rarely feels like more than Kickstarter stretch-goal fluff.

If it isn't already clear, Pillars of Eternity was created out of a desire to resurrect the experiences of beloved, seminal RPGs like Baldur's Gate and Planescape: Torment, and for the most part it succeeds fantastically. Yes, you're even pestered to "gather your party before venturing forth," and reaching a point where you can travel to a new zone often requires lengthy jogs across a map.

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But if it clings to the stylings of the old Infinity Engine games in any one area too tightly, it's easily in the graphics. Having the benefit of hindsight, it’s surprising that Obsidian decided to build an isometric-perspective game without taking pains to correct the shortcomings of the setup, such as a rotating camera. As a result, on rare occasions shrubbery and walls obscure the action and make it difficult to issue commands.

To be sure, moments of stylistic beauty pop up often such as when you discover a skyscraper-sized jade statue under your keep, but the presentation itself always looks as though it were upsampled from some game created in the late '90s. This is obviously intentional, but it's also unnecessary. Just last year, Divinity: Original Sin proved that you could recapture those wondrous early years of computer RPGs but coat them in landscapes and models that look every bit like they belong in the present. Other drawbacks spring from efforts to honor the backers of the hugely successful Kickstarter campaign. Much credit is due to those who helped Obsidian create such a wonderful game, but it's hard to take the outstanding story’s heady proceedings seriously when you're constantly running across memorials to "Boobplate" and "Bursk Awesomesauce." Obsessive clicker that I am, I had to learn to ignore those.


Pillars of Eternity embodies nearly everything that’s great about old-school RPG experiences. and the quality of its writing and the attention given to every little detail of its world is such that it sometimes feels like Neil Gaiman is playing dungeon master here. Most importantly, Pillars of Eternity paves the way for what should become a landmark RPG series in its own right. It honors the classics, brings great ideas of its own, and in the process it emerges as a classic itself. Games like this are always about the journey, and it's sure as hell a journey worth taking.

Pillars of Eternity Review - IGN (2024)
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