It’s hard to believe, but based on Pillars of Eternity’s beta, Obsidian Entertainment have not only delivered on their nearly $4 million USD Kickstarter promise to just shy of 80,000 backers, but have also revived a form of role-playing narrative that has been slowly evolving into something more akin to the third-person action genre.
Pillars of Eternity is a party-based, real-time-with-pause, role-playing game (RPG), with lovingly crafted, pre-rendered backdrops, and an isometric view not really seen since the games that inspired it. Although it uses a completely custom engine and RPG ruleset, Pillars of Eternity is in many ways a spiritual successor to the Infinity Engine titles: Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale, and Planescape: Torment - games that put Bioware and Black Isle Studios on the map.
When I first attempted to load up the Pillars of Eternity beta, I only made it to the first loading screen before it crashed. The 2.2GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T6600, 4Gb Ram (3.1Gb usable) HP dv6-1336TX laptop with a 1Gb Radeon HD4650 I had attempted to play it on couldn’t seem to handle even the character creator - which was not entirely unexpected, but still surprising. Luckily I also had my main machine; a 3.4GHz i7-2600k, with 8GB of RAM and a 2GB Radeon R7 250 (temporary card, I promise). Nothing fancy, but it got the job done. With this, the game looked and ran quite nicely at a 1080p resolution.
Unlike many single-player betas I’ve participated in over the years, I was please to see we were playing a completely out-of-context selection of maps, with only a few side-quests. I’ve found there’s nothing worse than testing a game, and playing through a sizable portion of the main campaign while it’s rife with bugs, crashes, and missing data, only to have the memory of those glitches impact the experience of the released version. Instead, this was a beta designed to test gameplay, mechanics, and tightening of the overall experience; for which I am immensely thankful - because there were errors galore.
Before I get to what I enjoyed about my time with the beta, I’d like to get the negatives out of the way. I knew going in that there was the chance of things not going entirely right, so when I found items that were merely called "Missing Item" with a number, I took it with a grain of salt. This is an unfinished product, after all.
It did, however, begin to get a little annoying when after loading a quicksave, a previously eviscerated character (and reason for the reload) would suddenly fall down dead resulting in a total party wipe, and a "The Party has Died" screen. This happened multiple times, seemingly all because a few minutes after creating said quicksave that companion had been completely removed from life, and my party - oh yeah, companion permadeath is real, should make the multiple playthroughs interesting. The only apparent solution to this was to either load a save from hours beforehand, or completely start over from the character creation screen - which I had to do several times. Again, this was an unfinished version, but it was the experience I had.
These last few gripes weren’t bugs or glitches, but still began to get on my nerves. Moving and looking around the map takes a long time. Despite being able to zoom in and out, I kept feeling like I couldn’t zoom out far enough, or get as close to the action as I would have liked. It’s a little silly, but it just goes to show how used to the modern types of RPGs I’ve become, and how the classic isometric style takes a bit of getting used to. In saying that, I often I lost party member's positions amongst the action and backgrounds, and wasn’t able to maneuver them to where I wanted because of invisible walls blocking their path.
Now, on to the fun stuff. This is classic video game role playing at it’s finest. Even with no major story points in the short 7-9 hour slice that I had, there was still plenty of this world to get lost in. Every item has some sort of written history. Character classes, skills, and backgrounds have details galore. Books and notes are full of backstory, and despite not seeing any full cutscenes, conversations have the sort of descriptive writing you’d expect from a novel, or a particularly good tabletop dungeon master. The only negative I took away from the amazing amount of lore and dialogue, was that not every conversation is voiced.
This is classic video game role playing at it’s finest.
It seems that although there may very well be hundreds of missions, quests, and tasks to perform in the final game, only the most important story based missions will have spoken dialogue for non-playable characters. This isn’t by any means a deal breaker, it’s merely a sign of how spoilt we have been in recent years with games like Mass Effect and Dragon Age which have budgets nearly 10 times that which Obsidian raised in their initial Kickstarter.
Something that I initially found to be quite surprising was that even on the normal difficulty setting, every enemy encounter required my full attention. The first battle my group of stalwart adventurers partook in resulted in a complete party wipe - more than once I’m sad to say. It took a good hour before I was happy with how to go about preparing, then micromanaging even the simplest fight.
Laying physical and magical traps; ensuring party members had defensive modes activated; getting people into the right positions so that when the battle began they weren’t getting in each others way - the path finding wasn’t the greatest, and sometimes it was difficult to see where the edge of a walkable area ended. These were all things you had to think about before taking your first swing.
During skirmishes, I found myself pausing after every hit in order to ensure the next magical spell was being cast, or that certain members were focusing on a particular enemy. Dragon Age: Inquisition came close to this level of micromanagement, but I was never as afraid to take on beetles in that as I was in my short time with the Pillars of Eternity beta.
With regard to what little storytelling there was, I quite enjoyed the pick-you-own-adventure style of page-turning narrative for what seemed to pass as interactable cutscenes. They brought an old-timey feeling to the world that I liked, especially considering that for some, how you had boosted your stats or what equipment you had on you played a vital role in the outcome.
There was so much to taste and try in this beta, but I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface; which I obviously haven’t considering the size of the map, number of spells and abilities, and the number of additions the team added because of their Kickstarter milestones. It was a great look at what we should expect from Pillars of Eternity come the official release on March 27 here in New Zealand.
Even after all of this though, I still have no idea what the actual campaign is going to be about. But, from what I’ve experienced with the gameplay and mechanics so far, I’m incredibly eager to dive into the story, excitement, romance, action, and adventures that will be waiting for us when we are finally able to jump into this world - and I think you should be too.
Update: Fixed a few grammatical errors.