If I didn’t know better, I’d never have guessed that The Pillars of the Earth was based on a decades-old novel of the same name. It’s an adventure game with a heavy focus on dialogue trees and branching stories, but it’s also a retelling of a book that – as most books are – is strictly linear. How do you faithfully recreate such a story while still injecting a sense of player agency and direction?
The approach taken by Daedalic Entertainment is to put a greater focus on things that the book doesn’t go into much detail on. The story follows the same trajectory and key plot points, but it dedicates a lot more time to the little things that add flavour and meaning to those bigger events. Much of the first chapter of the game is spent walking around a monastery, speaking with the monks, getting to know them, and influencing their opinions of Brother Phillip (one of the main characters in both the game and the story). The overarching story trucks along more or less as it will, but simple adventure game mechanics allow you a more personal perspective on it.
It’s a clever way to balance the dilemma inherent in adapting a novel to a game: juggling authenticity with making a game that’s interesting in its own right, and creating something that can appeal to long-time fans and newcomers alike. It’s a balance that The Pillars of the Earth seems to have got just right, too. Having never read the book (everything I know of it comes courtesy of Wikipedia), I never felt like I was left out the loop, and like I said, I’d never have guessed it was an adaptation if I didn’t already know that to be the case. On the other hand, I’ve spoken to a few people who love the original novel, and all of them found the game living up to their expectations, at least as far as authenticity and respect for the source material goes.
The Pillars of the Earth takes place in 12th century England, in a fictitious town called Kingsbridge. It’s a time of turmoil, after the death of King Henry I with no legitimate heir sparked a feud over the throne. Through a handful of characters, the game offers a look into the society of the time, from the poverty-stricken lives of peasants, to the role and impact of religion, to the political machinations of nobility and how that influences everyone else. It’s a bleak tale – and rightfully so – but it has its moments of warmth and humanity too.
That’s reflected in the beautiful art direction. The whole game has that hand-painted feeling, captured wonderfully through the use of earthy tones and deliberately rough brushwork. Subtle animations in each backdrop – the rustling of trees in the wind, snow slowly falling to the ground – bring each scene to life. Character designs are muted and simple, but the breadth and subtlety of their animations bring out their humanity. As cliche as it sounds, The Pillars of the Earth looks like a living, moving painting in the most literal sense. There’s an appropriately sombre score to go with all that, and some stellar voice acting.
Where it does fall a bit short is in the implementation of some of the more game-like elements. This is a classically-styled point-and-click adventure game, with as much focus on puzzles and item collection as on narrative choices, and these often overstay their welcome. In one part of the game, there’s a good deal of time spent wandering around a castle town looking for structural damage, so that Tom Builder can make a case for the earl hiring him. There’s a lot of to-ing and fro-ing necessary before you can actually find the relevant things and drive the story forward, and each such scene grows tiresome long before its end. That said, The Pillars of the Earth does, thankfully, avoid the sort of nonsense puzzles that plagued adventure games of old, while the puzzles here are logical and easily solved with a bit of thought and legwork.
I also had trouble with a game-breaking bug that forced me to restart a few hours in. I’m not sure what triggered it, but somehow I lost the entire UI, rendering the game unplayable. Upon restarting and loading my save, I found that this bug had been attached to the save file, so the only option was to delete it and start again. As with any bug, your mileage will vary, and this doesn’t seem too common, but considering its game-breaking nature I thought it worth mentioning.
Still, the story that The Pillars of the Earth tells makes it worth sitting through a few tedious puzzles and the odd bug. This is just the first part of three planned, and I can’t wait to see how the rest of the game plays out.
Matt received a digital copy of The Pillars of the Earth from Daedalic for review.