Sunday, December 20, 2015

Review: Pillars of Eternity

What's this contraption?  Mechanical-magic structures
play an important part in this game world.
While it wasn't the first RPG that I ever played, Baldur's Gate was my introduction to DnD.  It, and frankly all of the Infinity Engine games, were terrific.  They combined diverse character options, party-based gamemplay, a fun, strategic "realtime with pause" combat system, and an engrossing story.  That's a formula that was forgotten for a while as games transitioned to 3D.  And while there have been some phenomenal games that have come out using other paradigms, to be sure, the success of the Enhanced Edition games has demonstrated that the Baldur's Gate formula is still popular and desirable.

Seeing this opening, Obsidian kickstarted Pillars of Eternity, a Baldur's Gate-style isometric game designed for modern PC's.  The interface, graphics style, etc, were all built directly upon the principles of the Infinity Engine games, and the story was designed for a mature audience.  While they did not have a DnD license, the style of the mechanics are largely inspired by DnD.  And the result?  It's a really good game.

Lots of great times exploring large wilderness maps,
just like in Baldur's Gate.
The world the game is set in feels like someone's home-brew campaign world, in a good way.  It's full of mystery and therefore a few layers of history beyond the ones that the modern-day people of the gameworld still know.  Somewhat reminiscent to Baldur's Gate (although only in the loosest sense), the story begins as a personal mystery that ends up being intertwined with a local political crisis, and ultimately has ramifications for the gods themselves.  The pacing, in my experience, wasn't the best.  The first half of the tale plays out pretty slowly, but it picks up good speed in the second half of the game and has a terrific finish.  The story does a good job of stressing gray, rather than black and white: you are often faced with decisions without a clear best answer, and I enjoyed the opportunity actually roleplay a character rather than just stick to the designer's preconceived "good" or "bad" responses.

Some towns, like this one, are struggling just to survive
The graphics are fine.  They used the paradigm of what were effectively sprites (though 3D-rendered ones) moving about on a pre-painted background, a la Infinity Engine.  It worked then, and works now.  Some parts are genuinely pretty, though occasionally some of the painted backgrounds got busy enough that, along with the use of a black-out fog of war in unexplored areas, I had trouble interpreting what I was seeing.

The combat engine felt familiar, but was definitely its own animal.  Like DnD, there's an attack roll and a damage roll.  Unlike DnD, there are a number of things that can happen on a hit.  Miss the target's defense by even a decent amount and you can "graze" them, inflicting a small amount of damage.  Hit them easily and you crit.  Furthermore, again unlike DnD, damage resistance (i.e. soaking damage) plays a big role in this game.  By the end of the game, even decent 1-handed melee weapons inflicted only a pittance of damage; most damage output occurred via the slow, heavy-damage ranged weapons like arbalests and rifles, as well as spells.  This actually got pretty annoying, as some characters became almost useless when monsters had damage reduction against certain damage types.  Thankfully, I opted to play a cipher, which consistently manages superb damage throughout the game with both spells and his ranged weapon.

It's a drake, not a dragon.  But there are dragons.
While there are AI options for combat, I found that these rarely did what I want and was compelled to micro-manage all combat in the game.  It was tolerable, but sometimes felt like a grind because most fights worked the same way: open with my cipher's paralyze ability, make sure the tank aggros everyone else, and then start picking foes off one-by-one.  90% of the time, that's the solution throughout most of the game.  Combat difficulty did not progress smoothly. Early on, it was pretty challenging, though usually in a good way.  Later, it became a cake-walk, except for a handful of key foes that seemed designed to test one's mettle.  Those were so much more powerful than anything else I'd encountered that it was bewildering.

In any case, despite the nitpicks, this is a really fun game with a neat story.  It's a long game that can be very engrossing.  I enjoyed the strategy in the combat (despite the grindy nature of it at times), and really enjoyed the emphasis on quests that require the player to make hard, imperfect choices.  It felt like a game targeted at adults, which is exactly the target audience of a title like this.  I give it a solid and warm 4 out of 5.

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