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The third RPGCodex review - the best, most accurate review yet

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This time, the authors are PrimeJunta (main body) and FelipePepe (remarks with "FP"). I'm posting it here with the Codex staff's permission:

 

Obsidian's Pillars of Eternity is a significant game. It promised to bring back a sub-genre that died when publishers decided the unique blend of RTS-influenced gameplay, role-playing game systems, and fantasy writing it featured was hopelessly outdated. Together with the likes of Wasteland 2, Shadowrun Returns, and Divinity: Original Sin, it helped carve out a niche somewhere between big-budget AAA titles and creative indie labours of love made on shoestring budgets. The fate of this first generation of big-ticket Kickstarted cRPG's will shape games for years to come. The niche they opened will certainly expand with their success, but new hopefuls will also look to them as models.  Pillars, then, deserves to be taken seriously.
 
Infinity Engine Successor?
 
Pillars' big promise was to bring back
 
"...the central hero, memorable companions and the epic exploration of Baldur’s Gate, add in the fun, intense combat and dungeon diving of Icewind Dale, and tie it all together with the emotional writing and mature thematic exploration of Planescape: Torment."
 
Even though "spiritual successor of the Infinity Engine games" never figured in the pitch in those exact words, it is clear that that's what it was meant to be. These are big boots to step into. To what extent does it succeed?
 
The big-picture similarities between Pillars and the IE games are obvious and easy to list, and many featured already in the Kickstarter pitch. Top-down isometric camera. Six-member party. Real-time-with-pause combat. Class- and attribute-based character system. Swords and sorcery. Elves and dwarves. Dungeons and dragons. A visual style that looks like an organic evolution of Baldur's Gate 2 or Icewind Dale. Pillars also has the feel of selecting and commanding units down well. Selecting a unit or a group, moving, rotating a formation, or picking a target has the same crispness and feel of immediate feedback as in the originals. The user interface features a number of small but subtle improvements, such as better support for quick keys and the ability to shift-queue commands. Switching between Baldur's Gate 2 and Pillars is almost seamless. The characters respond instantly, and there's the same pleasurable and "connected" feeling of direct control.
 
FP: I would say that’s arguably the biggest success of the game. Looking at the big picture, Pillars IS providing a great IE-like experience. Much is said about how nostalgia blinds us, how we don’t get to experience a game (or a concept) for the first time twice and how some of us wouldn’t enjoy some of the classics if they were released today, but at some points while playing the game I genuinely felt that glee of discovery and excitement I had while playing the IE games for the first time.
 
IMHO, that’s where the game shines, and why so many fans and reviewers liked it so much - it was carefully crafted to deliver that unique and charming feel of the IE games. But, as you said, drilling down to the details shows a different beast, and that’s where my problem with Pillars lies - not that it’s different from the classics, but on how it’s different. So let’s delve into it.
 
Engagement, Engaging?
 
The most obvious mechanical difference between IE and Pillars combat is engagement. IE games have unrestricted movement. There are no attacks of opportunity, and a unit only occupies the space its circle covers. With Pillars, whenever a character enters melee with a unit, he engages it, which is indicated by an arrow from the engaging unit's selection circle to the engaged one's. Breaking engagement incurs a disengagement attack.
 
FP: A common criticism here is that these disengagement attacks break the rules of the game. Attacks of opportunity are a turn-based mechanic, to make up for the fact that you can’t otherwise react while it’s the enemy’s turn. Pillars is a real-time game, so having an attack that happens instantly, without recovery time or even animation does clash with the internal logic of the game. After a while you get used to it and it serves the purpose it was designed for, but it’s a big exception to have in your core rules, and I wish they had handled it in a more elegant way.
 
Engagement makes melee combat "sticky." Once units have engaged each other, the battlefield stabilises. Unengaged units become free to move around with impunity, while engaged ones slug it out. If you manage to use your tankier characters to pin down or block enemy units from reaching your squishier ones, you win. If one of your squishier units gets engaged, you need to rescue it. Pillars has lots of ways to do this. Classes get special abilities they can use to break engagement on their own or on another unit. For example, rogues get Escape, fighters get Knockdown, and spellcasters get a range of spells. You can even build around the movement restrictions by picking abilities like the paladin’s Zealous Charge aura or the chanter’s Blessed was Wendgridth chant, making the entire party a great deal more mobile. Without them, where IE combat is based on movement, Pillars' combat is a game of positioning.
 
If all the units could do was slug at each other, this would get old really fast. Pillars however has ways of keeping the player off-balance. Enemies can teleport, burrow, or summon help. Others can knockdown, paralyse, petrify, or charm. There are a lot of different types of enemies in Pillars, even by IE game standards, and they have enough special abilities to make the differences more than just cosmetic.
 
This gives Pillars encounters a different pace than IE encounters. There's an initial scramble for position, then things settle down as each side slugs it out and trades area-damage or crowd-control spells and abilities. You react to units outflanking, teleporting, burrowing, or being summoned to threatening positions. Then one side tips the balance, wins, and the encounter ends. With the IE games, combat pace stays fairly frantic up to the point that the high-value targets are down, at which point it becomes a mop-up. Pillars places more emphasis on selecting active abilities and less on movement and targeting.
 
FP: In theory, I agree. In the game, however, things play a bit differently. Mainly, these tricky monsters are not as common as they should be in a game that puts this much weight into positioning, and they are oddly spread across the game.
 
For example, in Act 1, just as you are beginning to understand the system and build your characters, the game already overwhelms you with phantoms that can and will teleport to your squishy caster and quickly kill him. One would think then that the game will be full of these, but as the game progresses and you equip & master your party, the curve balls and positioning challenges seem only to diminish. By the end game any position-related challenge comes solely from vampires, mushrooms and spider-people casting charm or confusion.
 
For a game where positioning is so important, it’s also a shame that never once the environment around you plays a relevant role. The Engwithan ruins offered a perfect excuse for fights inside elaborate death traps, where the environment is also an enemy, but there’s nothing like that. Even simple things like placing castle archers in higher grounds are missing, and it’s almost comical that the only ambush in the entire game happens in the tutorial. Last year Daedalic used all their puzzle-making savvy to produce some fantastic and exotic encounters in their first RPG, Blackguards, so it’s disappointing to see the veterans at Obsidian failing to better explore their own system.
 
Engagement is central to Pillars combat. To enjoy it, you need to explore the tools the game gives you to use it -- and there are many. There are abilities that let you pin down enemies more effectively. Others let you break engagement safely, on yourself, on a buddy, or an entire group. Yet others boost your defences against disengagement attacks and enhance your mobility, character by character or for the whole party. Switching engagement off with the IE mod will not make Pillars feel like Icewind Dale, not even a second-rate knock-off. Approach it with the tools the game hands you and turn it to your advantage, and you might end up enjoying it a great deal.
 
Bring Your Own Camping Supplies
 
Another material difference between Pillars and the IE games has to do with damage, healing, resting, and death. The originals had a very simple system: if your health bar hits zero, you die. If the dead character is an NPC and she didn't get gibbed, you can trek back to a temple to get her raised, and later on you get access to Raise Dead and Resurrection spells yourself. You get health back by slugging potions, casting spells, or resting, which you can do anywhere, at any time, although you might get interrupted by wandering monsters.
 
This system can be highly enjoyable, provided you adjust your game to suit it. However, it invites simple and rote exploits. Got some damage? Save, rest, and reload until you didn't get jumped by wandering monsters. Tough encounter? Spam healing potions. Somebody die and don't feel like trekking back to the temple? Reload. To make the most of the IE games, you have to choose not to use these types of rote strategies, instead, finding more efficient and enjoyable ways of playing the game.
 
Pillars' designers -- Josh Sawyer in particular -- wanted to block off these degenerate strategies to start with, thereby pushing the player directly into finding the better and more fun ways of playing the game.
 
FP: A noble effort I think we can all get behind. I love the IE games, but that resting mechanic was all kinds of stupid. Anyone who slept for 20 days during their “desperate” escape from Irenicus’s dungeon knows this.
 
This thinking shows especially clearly in Pillars' health, death, and resting mechanics. Instead of health potions and spells, we get two health bars: Endurance that runs down when you get clobbered in combat, and then fills back up after combat ends, and Health which gets whittled down at a slower rate, but only gets replenished by healing. Potions and spells can only restore Endurance, not Health. If Health hits zero, the character is Wounded the next time she gets up, and if she gets hit again before resting, dies. As in, really dies, no resurrection possible.
 
Therefore, one determinant of the length of the "adventuring day" is the health bar: if one of your party is Wounded, you pretty much have to rest immediately, or risk permanently losing him: there is no “party resource” health like AD&D’s cleric heals. Resting is restricted by your Camping Supplies. You get four on easier difficulties, two on harder ones. These are fairly generously distributed around the world, so it's not too hard to find replacements while on the move. If you're out of supplies and have to rest, you face a trek back to the nearest inn where you can rest and fill your camping supply quota.
 
The restricted resting and dual health mechanic pushes inexperienced players who played through the IE games by rest-spamming into managing resources strategically. Little twists like some nice skill, defence, or attribute bonuses for resting in more expensive rooms at inns or your upgraded stronghold further reinforce this; you’ll want to keep them up as long as possible, which discourages unnecessary resting.
 
For IE veterans who already had it figured out, it means less reloading. If you win the encounter, you can keep on truckin' even if some of your party members went down, whereas with the IE games, a dead or gibbed companion is -- for most of us anyway -- a reload trigger, even if most of the party survived. Things can still get tense: there were times an encounter started to go pear-shaped but I managed to squeak through with only one character standing. I found this more satisfying than hitting reload when the first party member disappears in a bloody mist.
 
FP: I agree with the overall sentiment and appreciate Obsidian’s effort here, but Pillars is perhaps too generous with its resources for conservation to be a real issue, at least on lower difficulties. Not only resting supplies are very abundant - I bought perhaps one or two during the entire game -, but most classes rely heavily on per-encounter or at-will abilities. Sure, you’ll have to manage your Vancian-like casters (the Druid, Wizard and Priest) and a few per-day abilities like the Barbarian’s Heart of Fury, but otherwise your party will be fully recharged from one combat to the next, allowing you to open every fight with a very similar salvo of abilities.
 
PJ: True, but Vancian casters are hardly marginal. There are many more spells than abilities the other classes have, and if you just go with the flow and pick up the companions the game offers you, by the time you fill your roster you will have a wizard and a priest in your party. It’s certainly possible to play without any Vancian casters in the party, but it’s no easier. I would sorely miss the priest’s buffs and the wizard’s or druid’s area-effect spells. The cipher, paladin, and chanter are not natural substitutes.
 
Rock, Paper, Fireball
 
The Infinity Engine games made great use of one of D&D’s best features: Magic. By the time BioWare began making its games the ruleset had been played for over 20 years, and it was massive, flexible and polished. It offered plenty of tools, from simply opening locked doors to protecting yourself against the petrifying gaze of a basilisk to preparing contingency spells that automatically release other spells in specific situations.
 
It is not without its flaws, however. In particular, it is extremely limited at low levels, tends to instant-win or instant-lose effects in the mid levels, has a quite a lot of spells which are as good as useless, and only really hits its stride at late mid to high levels, when you have a significant amount of spellcasting oomph available, both in range and sheer quantity. That’s when the famous back-and-forth mage duels start.
 
The growth curve of Pillars magic is the opposite. It is highly useful and has a lot of variety straight out of the gate: level 1 casters are already full participants in encounters. However, by the time IE game magic would start to really hit its stride, towards the end of Pillars, underlying weaknesses start to emerge, and it never develops the depth and emergent complexity of a Baldur's Gate 2. There are four main causes for this: the core resolution mechanic, status effect impact and duration, the inability of the AI to exploit the synergies in the system, and limited counters.
 
All of Pillars' combat is based on the same resolution mechanic: you make an attack with some Accuracy against some Defence, resulting in either a Miss, a Graze, a Hit, or a Crit. The intent is that you figure out which of your enemy's Defences is weakest and then choose a spell that targets it, perhaps to debuff another Defence, which you can then attack to do direct damage, magically or otherwise. If you have two casters, you can do one-two punches, with one debuffing the Defence the second one targets. On their own, many debuffs are rather trivial -- -2 to DEX or Will doesn’t look like it’s a big deal -- but combined with attacks that target the weakened Defence, they can double your party’s damage output, sometimes more. The key to playing Pillars efficiently is to look for and identify these synergies.
 
The flip side is that once you do understand how to find them, you will discover some that are rather too powerful. This is exacerbated by subtle bugs which make some abilities and spells even more powerful than intended. The specifics have already changed a number of times with balance patches and are likely to continue to do so, but with a system like Pillars’, they are unlikely ever to be completely eliminated.
 
This standard resolution mechanic leads to some wonky behaviour. Direct damage spells become as good as ineffective if you're targeting the wrong Defence (or haven't managed to debuff the Defence you're targeting first), which is as it should be, but crowd control spells remain ridiculously effective even if they can only score a Graze.
 
Consider Slicken, a first-level wizard spell. It is an area effect knockdown. Since Accuracy goes up with level, Slicken is  likely to score a Graze even on very high-level enemies, and since the duration is quite short to start with, there's little difference in practical effect between a Graze and a Hit or even a Crit. At comparatively high levels, wizards get to use first-level spells per-encounter. That means they can cast four Slickens in a row. This is ridiculously effective. The same applies to any spells that confer one of the nastier status effects -- Blinded, Paralysed, Petrified, and so on. Creative players can also find ways to break other mechanics in ways that trivialize even the hardest encounters.
 
Being on the receiving end of these status effects is much less punishing, because the AI is not capable of following through with attacks that make use of them. Many of the most common status effects on their own are usually not all that debilitating: if you're Stuck or Hobbled you can switch to a ranged attack, if Blinded you need to stay out of trouble a bit, if Sickened or Terrified you're just a little less effective in combat until it wears off. Charmed just takes a character out of the fight until it wears off. Sickened and Poisoned, like most damage over time effects, are inconveniences rather than the genuine threats they were in the IE games. It would be much nastier if you were hit by a secondary attack targeting the Defences the status effect debuffed, but by and large, you're not. This makes for a significant asymmetry between the player and the AI, making the game a good deal easier than it ought to be.
 
FP: Yes, the AI is severely lacking in this aspect. This is especially visible when a mage charms one of your fighters, and he just stands there
 
Most status effects last a few seconds only, even on a hit rather than a graze, so you can usually just wait them out rather than countering them. If you apply a general buff first, those hits turn into grazes or misses and last a second or so, if that. I fairly rarely even needed to use Suppress Affliction, the second-level priest spell which counters most status effects. In the early game, Stun is nasty, and in the late game, only Petrify is genuinely scary, and that because any damage applied to a Petrified character comes straight from Health. Path of the Damned difficulty changes the picture somewhat due to the enemies’ higher Accuracy, but even there, most status effects are hindrances rather than potent threats.
 
There is a middle ground between Pillars' few second long durations and mild debuffs, and Baldur's Gate 2's instant-death effects and status conditions that may last minutes. Pillars' gameplay--especially the magic--would have been better had it pushed further into that middle ground. This would have required more and more specifically targeted counters: not necessarily dedicated counterspells like Spell Immunity, Negative Plane Protection or what have you, but perhaps counters rolled into spells that also have some positive effect. Spells or abilities that increase movement speed could also counter Hobbled, Stuck, or Paralysed, for example, Divine Radiance could counter Blinded, and so on. This would have introduced a good deal more variety and depth into the magic.
 
A big part of the appeal of the IE magic system is learning how the spells work, and how to counter them. A beginner will get hit by Confusion and instantly lose the encounter; then they will discover items, spells, and scrolls that counter it. With Pillars, most of the status effects can just be shrugged off or countered after the fact with Suppress Affliction, while pre-emptive protection is based on buffing defences with spells or items. Overall, the spells feel subdued and limited, and there's little of the emergent tactics the variety of IE game spells produced.
 
However, the main difficulty in comparing Pillars' magic with the IE games lies in the power curve. Pillars magic is more fun to start with, as low and early mid-level casters have much more stuff to play with and are full participants in encounters right out of the gate. The underlying mechanics and spell designs, however, are shallower, and higher-level magic is not as interesting. Pillars is a low-level game, so this weakness only really starts to manifest towards the end of the game. I hope Obsidian overhauls the magic system for higher-level sequels, as there is a real risk of it becoming rote fireworks rather than a source of emergent tactics and gameplay like it is in Baldur's Gate 2 or Icewind Dale. Sequencers, contingencies, or other ways to combine, modify, or empower spells would make high-level magic a great deal more engaging, as would more impactful status effects and more varied ways to prevent or counter them.
 
The Active, the Passive, and the Modal
 
One way in which Pillars diverges significantly from the IE games -- although less so from D&D 3-based games like Temple of Elemental Evil or the Neverwinter Nights series -- is by giving all classes a big bunch of different things they can do. All an AD&D fighter can do is move, make melee attacks, make ranged attacks, and use magic items. Yet AD&D fighters are enjoyable to play because they're the best at hitting things and surviving being targeted. With the RTS-style combat, even a party full of fighters can be fun just by controlling their movement and what they're attacking.
 
In Pillars, every class has a big selection of abilities which grows as they level up. These can be active, passive, or modal, and they can use them per-encounter or per-rest. Knockdown, for example, is an active per-encounter ability: you select it and pick a target, and the fighter executes it. Paladin auras which buff nearby allies are modal. Things like "Blast" which enhances the wizard's basic attack, weapon focus, and weapon specialisation are passive: they enhance the character's existing abilities. Unless you actively attempt to build a party with mostly passive or modal abilities, you will end up with a fairly hefty selection of active ones for each character. If you have two active per-encounters per character, that’s twelve abilities in an encounter, which adds up to a whole lot of clicking.
 
This gives its own flavour to the gameplay. Where in the IE games you would mostly be controlling movement and targeting while occasionally selecting a spell, in Pillars you're constantly selecting and targeting active per-encounter abilities. It feels a bit like playing Icewind Dale with a party full of casters. With certain abilities this drifts dangerously close to rote: opening up with a barbarian's Frenzy, paladin's Flames of Devotion, or rogue's Crippling Strike is a bit of a no-brainer, and it's easy to end up doing that as a matter of course. At higher levels, the wizard's, priest's, and druids first and then second-level spells become per-encounter, which exacerbates the problem. You want to use them because they're free of strategic cost -- and, due to the issues with Grazes and status effects, many of them remain seriously effective right up to the end boss. There are better and more fun ways to play, but on all but the hardest difficulty, the game doesn’t do much to push you to look for them. It’s easy to get stuck casting Mind Blades with your cipher every battle, or have your high-level wizard keep spamming Slicken.
 
Stealth, Needs Work
 
One area I hope Obsidian revises in the expansion or sequels -- as they have indicated they will -- is stealth. Early on in the development process, they decided to implement stealth as a game state, like combat. This led to some unfortunate consequences: it ruled out re-stealthing in combat, and made stealth full-party only. Stealth is also seriously overpowered. It's possible to scout ahead and get the drop on enemies even with no ranks in the stealth skill at all, but the classic IE tactic of sneaking ahead with the thief to backstab, then running around a corner to re-stealth and do it again is out. Backstab is much weaker than in the IE games as you can only use it in the opening or by expending uses of the two-per-rest Shadowing Beyond ability (if you even took it in the first place). Instead, rogues rely on other talents that strike harder when some relatively lenient conditions are met. Rogues aren’t stealth strikers; they’re intended to synergise with other classes giving them an opening and conferring the status conditions they need for their Sneak Attacks.
 
While stealth is far from perfect in the IE games -- I find having to repeatedly attempt to hide aggravating rather than fun, and therefore only start use stealth tactics at all when I have my scout's stealth skills up near 100% -- Pillars' system is not an improvement. Its failings would be fairly easy to address once the "game state" restriction is removed, and I hope Obsidian's next attempt does just this. At a minimum, effective use of stealth should need a more significant investment in the character build, and you should need a dedicated scout to be able to scout ahead.
 
A Right Turn at Cloakwood
 
The best answer I can give to the big question -- "does it feel like the IE games or not?" -- is that Pillars goes about eight-tenths of the way there, and then takes off at right angles. Whether you like the turn it took or not is a matter of taste. That fans who backed Pillars specifically for the RTS-ey gameplay are upset about it is entirely understandable, and Obsidian would certainly have stirred up less trouble had they not taken that turn. Engagement is a trade-off, but what’s lost in tactical movement is gained in tactical positioning, and the range of tools you can use to turn it to your advantage adds a new dimension to both combat and party-building. Moment-to-moment gameplay is a lot like playing Baldur's Gate 2 with a caster-heavy party: more emphasis on use of active abilities at the expense of movement and targeting.
 
There are a few, but ultimately relatively minor issues marring the core gameplay experience. Due to the lower camera angle and overly flashy FX, sometimes it becomes hard to see what's going on: here, aesthetics took precedence over playability. The largest core gameplay wart still remaining after a few patches, however, is pathfinding. In combat, characters will sometimes bump into each other, start running back and forth, or pick a different target than the one you assigned. This is by no means so bad that it makes things seriously difficult to control, and it is possible to work around it by judicious use of reach or ranged weapons and positioning. It is an irritating flaw nevertheless, and one I hope Obsidian will eventually fix in a patch.
 
h2. Differentiation and Variety
 
Class-based RPG systems must strike a balance between differentiation between classes and variety within them. The original core D&D classes were well differentiated but extremely rigid: fighters can't read scrolls, wizards can't shoot crossbows, clerics can't wield swords. Since then, AD&D and its successors have accumulated mountains of different classes and kits and various ways to combine them. Due to the somewhat chaotic Kickstarter and the way they made up the stretch goals on the fly, the makers of Pillars ended up with a daunting task: make 11 classes that are materially different, yet allow players to make builds "against type." "No bad builds" was to be the lodestar.
 
Over the course of development and the backer beta, the classes underwent a lot of revision, and ended up, on the whole, remarkably good.
 
Pillars' classes are, for the most part, genuinely differentiated, even more so than in the (A)D&D games it uses for inspiration. When built and played "to type," fighters, rangers, barbarians, and paladins all "feel" materially different, with different active, passive, and modal abilities that require different tactics to use effectively in combat. You can build a fighter to engage up to four enemies at a time, thereby becoming a one-man frontline. A paladin built for defence is even more durable, has a nice passive buff aura and some abilities that come in really useful to get a buddy out of trouble, but will only be able to engage one or two enemies at a time. A barbarian will do more damage but is a good deal more fragile than either. Likewise for the caster classes, who are differentiated not only by their spell selection, but by the way they cast them: we have the semi-Vancian wizard, priest, and druid, but also the totes-not-psionicist cipher powering her abilities by accumulating focus in combat, and the chanter whose chants apply buffs or debuffs and who can use dramatic Invocations later in the encounter.
 
There is also more wiggle room within the classes than in AD&D, and arguably more than in D&D3. I finished the game as a fighter built for damage rather than durability, with my paladin and fighter companions skewed the same way. This went "against type," and was not only viable but highly enjoyable: I didn't have the one-man block-of-granite frontline that a purely tanky Edér would have been, but I did have a frontline that put out a lot of hurt, while needing a bit of finesse to stay in the fight to the end. Priests of particular gods can take some special abilities that let you turn them into narrowly-focused but pretty effective melee or ranged combatants rather than pure support spellcasters. Ciphers, rangers, rogues, and chanters can also be skewed towards melee or ranged combat. For wizards and druids, spell selection is more important for party role than talents or attributes. With a grimoire full of self-buffs and summoned weapons, the wizard becomes a murderously effective if strategically costly -- per-rest spells! -- arcane knight; with another, he’s a disabler and debuffer that makes others do the damage, and a third gives him traditional back-row glass cannon abilities. There's a lot of room for creativity and exploration with builds, party compositions, and tactics.
 
Both the IE games -- especially Baldur’s Gate 2 -- and Pillars offer a great deal of build variety. The way they offer it is quite different, however. With BG2, you get to pick from a big menu of predesigned classes and kits, but after that, development is on rails; at most, you get to choose an entrée and a main dish using multi- or dual-classing rules. With Pillars, you cook your own dish from a smaller set of ingredients.
 
Balance In All Attributes
 
Attributes serve a dual purpose in role-playing games. They define character concepts, and produce mechanical effects used to create builds. The former is reflected in the ways attributes are referenced in game content like dialogs and CYOA interludes, and the latter modifies the way the characters behave in combat.
 
In AD&D, each class has an optimal stat distribution. Mechanically, fighters have no use for INT, wizards only use STR to be able to carry more stuff, and only paladins need CHA, and that just because the rules say so. Pillars’ designers wanted to change this. Their goal was to have all stats useful for all classes, with no obvious dump or pump stats.
 
The attributes underwent a lot of iteration over the course of the game development and the backer beta, and the result is a somewhat uncomfortable fit between these two purposes. The effects of the attributes are counterintuitive and hard to remember, the companions' stat distributions don't always reflect the companion concepts very well -- the Grieving Mother, for example, is clearly intended to be more intuitive and perceptive than intellectual, yet her INT is higher than her PER -- and the way they are referenced in dialogs and the CYOA interludes are poor matches for what they’re supposed to mean for various classes. Might -- the general damage stat -- for example, is keyed to feats of physical strength and intimidation, even though mighty wizards aren’t necessarily supposed to be muscular. There also aren’t all that many CYOA’s, and it’s often too easy to bypass any of the skill or attribute checks by using an easily available expendable resource. From the point of view of character concept support, the attributes do markedly worse than D&D’s familiar STR-DEX-CON-INT-WIS-CHA.
 
The attribute system is more successful in achieving its second goal, build diversity. Attribute values do make a big difference: a low-INT spellcaster will be much less effective with those crucial AoE spells. A low-RES frontline fighter will not be able to get much damage done due to being constantly interrupted, while high PER will enhance his damage-soaking capabilities by interrupting enemies so they will be able to get fewer attacks in. DEX and MIG boost damage output for any class, while some, like monks and barbarians, benefit more from a broader range of stats from the start.  Even so, there are a few obvious pump or dump stats: CON is not all that crucial to most classes, while low-INT wizards and druids will be seriously handicapped by having much smaller areas of effect and no “foe only” fringes on their best spells.
 
Something Old, Something New
 
The classes which have direct counterparts in D&D are, generally speaking, relatively close in core design to them. There are differences and twists, to be sure; priests for example are not as robust whereas rogues are much more effective damagers, wizard spell casting mechanics are halfway between D&D 3 sorcerers and wizards, and paladins are not paragons of Lawful Good but members of military orders fanatically dedicated to one of several causes. Still, they're familiar enough that getting to grips with the differences is easy. Pillars, however, adds a couple of new classes to the mix, most notably the cipher and the chante.
 
The cipher is Pillars' take on the psionicist/arcane warrior: someone who takes on foes with combat and arcane powers. The closest counterpart I can think of in older cRPG's is the warlock as present in Neverwinter Nights 2 and its expansions. The cipher, however, is a lot better executed. Ciphers power their abilities with Focus, which they accumulate by hitting enemies with physical attacks; they can, in fact, be built into one of the hardest-hitting classes in the game. They have a much more limited Power selection than wizards, and get to pick new ones as they level up, like D&D3 warlocks or sorcerers, but have no per-rest or per-encounter limits on their use. The Powers are about as punchy as wizard or druid spells of similar levels, and some, notably the Charm/Domination ones have no wizardly counterparts.
 
The cipher's lack of strategic spellcasting limitations is balanced out by the generally smaller areas of effect and, at higher levels, the higher Focus cost of casting the more powerful ones. Ciphers shine in the first half of the game when druids and wizards still need to ration their spells. Towards the late game, the balance shifts as the druid and wizard casting ability grows while the greater variety in their spell list starts to make a difference.
 
The chanter is conceptually modeled on the bard, but plays nothing like one. When combat starts, they start chanting. You construct chants by combining Phrases, which apply group buffs or debuffs. Each Phrase has a particular effect -- party buff or enemy debuff -- which lingers for a bit after it ends, allowing effects to overlap. After chanting a few Phrases, they can use an Invocation -- a spell-like which can summon a phantom, do direct damage in any of a variety of more or less spectacular ways, stun or shove enemies, or any of a number of similar things. Like ciphers, chanters gain their Phrases and Invocations on level-up. Chanters are effective low-maintenance casters who are also capable combatants, ranged or melee. The challenge with chanters is the limited control over timing. You prepare a few chants with combinations of buffs you like, but then have to wait until you can fire off an Invocation. Overall, the class works well and makes for interesting and unique tactics.
 
Spells and caster classes are differentiated as much by the ways spells they target their spells -- single target, foe jump, circle, cone, line, originating from the caster or the target, foe-only or friend-and-fo effect, and so on -- as by the spells’ direct mechanical effects. Each class has a different style. Cipher Powers are always centered on a friend or foe or a line between the cipher and the target, druids and wizards get lots of big circular and cone-shaped area effects, and chanter Invocations are usually smallish foe-only cones. To use them effectively, you need to look at the enemy Defences and the spell/power/invocation descriptions to decide which ones to use and in which order, and the areas of effect often require a certain amount of positioning finesse to use effectively while avoiding friendly fire or getting engaged by enemy melee combatants.
 
Wizards and druids are the exception in Pillars' generally excellent class differentiation. While the aesthetics are different, mechanically they play similarly. Any druid spell would work as a wizard spell, and vice versa, if you changed the icon, name, and flavour description to fit the class's style, and both have a broad-enough selection to fit most situations. Both can even temporarily turn themselves into melee combatants: wizards with self-buffs, druids with Wildshape. There are differences in detail, development, and power curve -- buffed wizards are a great deal stronger than Wildshaped druids, for example -- but they are effectively interchangeable in the party.
 
The be-weaponed classes of Pillars have similar variety as casters. Each has a unique base ability which gives them their flavour, and class abilities which enhance or complement it. Fighters regenerate stamina, paladins gain defences the closer they follow their ethos, rogues do more damage if certain fairly lenient conditions are met, and rangers synergise with their animal companions. Monks are a bit of an oddball class -- their special attacks are powered by Wounds which they accumulate by taking damage. Playing a monk is something of a balancing act: you want to get punched enough to build up some Wounds, but not so much you’re out of the fight or worn down too soon. The abilities themselves are pretty neat, ranging from sped-up attack rates to kicks that send enemies flying halfway across the map. The talents on offer invite you to build each class to follow some archetype -- fighters and paladins are natural tanks, rangers are natural archers, and so on -- but there is no obligation to follow them. Fighters built for attack rather than defence, ranged rogues, and sword-and-board rangers are all not only viable but highly efficient.
 
Lackluster Skills
 
Pillars does not succeed quite as well with non-combat skills. Like the attributes, they went through a lot of iterations over the course of development and the backer beta -- there was even one build where skill points were taken out altogether, and skills were a side-effect of the talents you picked -- and ultimately ended up not contributing all that much to the game. Skill selection just doesn't require all that much thought. You need one character with maxed-out Mechanics for traps and locks, another with high Lore for high-level scrolls and Rituals, and then just spread everything else evenly and enjoy the benefits.
 
One significant and somewhat original mechanical effect non-combat skills have relates to consumables. Pillars has no D&D-style hard restrictions on item use: any class can zap a wand, read a scroll, or wear heavy armour. Scrolls, however, have a Lore requirement. It is quite easy to get every character’s Lore to 4 or so, and scrolls are easy to craft, which gives tactical possibilities for front-liners. Similarly, Survival boosts the effectiveness of potions. You can come up with some quite unusual parties and tactics by building them around production and use of consumables. This becomes more interesting on Path of the Damned, since Hard isn’t really hard enough to require much (if any) use of consumables.
 
Other than eccentric item-based builds and strategies, the non-combat skills don't contribute much to the game, and don't quite achieve the goals Tim Cain set for them in the Kickstarter campaign.
 
Fun: Allowed
 
As a whole, Pillars' character system is really good, despite the weak non-combat skills and perhaps one or two classes too many. All the classes are playable, genuinely different, and fun. Each of them develops in a unique way when leveling up, and allows for meaningful build choices when doing so. Swapping characters in or out of the party forces you to adjust tactics accordingly. You can build hard-hitting fighters, tanky rogues, melee rangers, Interrupt-based frontliners, firearms specialists, master archers, and many others that don’t follow the obvious class template, and combine these to make parties that are far more varied than “tanks up front, damagers in the back.” If you think tank-and-spank is dull, try something else -- there are heaps of possibilities.
 
The broad range of classes and viable builds within classes, with the option to roll your own party, makes for a lot of potential replay value. The class and character development system is the strongest area of Pillars' mechanics and a big part of making the game enjoyable -- and bodes well for expansions and sequels.
 
Items, Crafting, and Enchanting
 
Pillars is a Monty Haul kind of game. There's a lot of junk thrown at you all the time, and you have an unlimited stash where you can dump it before selling it off to obliging merchants who are happy to take fifteen dozen xaurip spears off your hands. The weapon focus/specialisation system, based on weapon groups rather than individual weapons, lets you make the most of the better stuff you find unless you're foolish enough to give everyone the same specialisation. Truly top-tier items are rare, but there's enough stuff in the game that whatever focus you pick, you will find something you can use effectively sooner rather than later. Actively hunting for something good is only a concern early in the game; once past the first chapter, it's a matter of choosing which goodie to use.
 
Pillars attempts to capture the IE magic by having hand-written descriptions and little back-stories on lots of otherwise relatively mundane items, many of which were designed by high-tier backers as rewards. Baldur's Gate made a +2 short sword cooler by giving it a unique model, name, and history, so Pillars does the same. Compared to Baldur's Gate, Pillars has much more, and more varied loot: on the surface, it’s more like Baldur’s Gate 2, and in this comparison, it doesn’t do as well.
 
The main problem is lack of differentiation and sheer quantity. There are so many unique items that they don't feel all that unique anymore, and a lot of backer-created items are just pointless and jarring. While no two uniques are exactly alike, many are interchangeable. Less would have been more. With fewer unique items, finding one would have felt like an occasion rather than something you glance at and throw in the junk pile. Looting just isn’t all that exciting as there’s such a lot of everything.
 
Pillars also has a few extra-special items that you assemble or acquire through questing. Regrettably, they turn out to be just another unique item just like all the other unique items. In Baldur's Gate 2, weapons like Carsomyr, Crom Faeyr, or Celestial Fury are so memorable because they really are unique -- special enough that it's worth building a character just to use them, once you know about them and how to get them. Pillars could have captured some of that magic simply by adjusting the numbers on those extra-special items, making them genuinely covetable. Here, Balance really does step on Fun's toes.
 
These problems are exacerbated by a weak subsystem: crafting and enchantment. The intent is to make it possible to enhance items you like as you go, rather than discarding them for something better. Its problem is that it is too easy and not restrictive enough. Enchanting uses junk you find in the world to apply properties to items. You can do it at any time, anywhere, there are no skill requirements (although there is a level requirement), and you know all the recipes. You can even confer properties like Fine, Exceptional, and Superb, which I would have expected to be base characteristics that determine the degree to which they can accept enchantments.
 
At its best, a good crafting/enchantment system is a driver for self-directed, emergent gameplay -- the hunt for the right component, recipe, or craftsman is a quest in its own right, and you get a massive kick when you finally find that beljuril you need to create the Periapt of Wisdom +8 you want. Pillars' crafting system does not achieve that. There's nothing fundamentally wrong with it. It's a useful subsystem than handily complements your character-building and tactical choices. That, however, is all it is. With a better, more focused, and more restrictive crafting/enchantment system and fewer named items, itemisation could have been much more -- something that in and of itself directs and motivates gameplay. Sometimes more is more, but sometimes less is more, and when it comes to items and crafting, less would have been more.
 
Interplay of Content and Mechanics
 
Even with a few warts, weak subsystems, and bones of contention, Pillars has pretty good mechanics, certainly in comparison to the IE games. The different subsystems -- even the weaker ones -- feed into each other well, and together they have what it takes to make a rich, complex, and enjoyable game. To get there, a game needs content which supports the mechanics and works around their flaws where necessary. Subsystems are only any use if they're referenced in the content, and flaws only become annoyances to the extent the content pushes you into them.
 
Overall, Pillars' content supports the mechanics well. Most spells and special abilities are genuinely useful in combat and there is room for a lot of experimentation with different parties, character builds, and tactics. Outside combat, your choices in character-building and story are acknowledged with unique dialog options or CYOA interactions uncovering more information or alternative ways to solve problems.
 
Combat encounters are thematically consistent but varied, with lots of different types of enemies with distinct special abilities, coming at you in different combinations and letting you make use of all those spells, specials, and gear you've collected on the way. Even “trash” enemies like xaurips come in a range of flavours: ordinary scrubs, skirmishers with a nasty paralysing attack, harder-hitting champions, and priests and high priests bombarding you with area-effect damage. What looks like a group of dumb ogres will include druids casting spells that can effectively silence your spellcasters and doing serious amounts of damage over time. Same for oozes of various sizes and colours, incorporeal undead that range from the somewhat annoying shadows to seriously scary totally-not-banshee cêan gŵla. Undead -- “vessels” in Pillars parlance -- show up in groups which include archers, melee combatants, casters, and fampyrs which not only regenerate fast but are able to charm party members. There are a couple of areas with rather a lot of similar enemies -- a lord’s castle has lots of guards, a cultists’ secret temple has lots of cultists -- but they’re relatively infrequent, and most of the time the objective you’re pursuing requires finding or carving a path through only a part of them, not murdering them all.
 
Some of the most memorable encounters in Baldur’s Gate 2 featured the environment as much as the monsters. Sadly, Pillars has no counterpart for Firkraag’s dungeon with its flanking orc archers, close-quarters ambushes, or wolfweres luring the hapless party into a trap. The best we see are a couple of fights in areas with some nasty traps scattered around, which we can’t disarm during combat, presumably due to the “game state” implementation of stealth. Something of a missed opportunity, there.
 
The one consistently disappointing area with combat encounters are the fights between adventuring parties. These are among the toughest and most varied in Baldur's Gate 2, but in Pillars, with a couple of notable exceptions in the first act when they're between low-level parties, they're too easy. I believe this is due to deficiencies in the AI: the parties just don't manage to support each other with their abilities as efficiently as they should. If you're hoping for Baldur's Gate 2-style mage duels, you're not going to get them.
 
The way you play makes a big difference to your experience. The clueless will get wiped frequently even on Easy, and will complain about restricted resting. Veterans will discover a number of overpowered abilities, synergies, or other mechanics that let them trivialise even the hardest encounters. Between these extremes lies a range of tactics that work well enough that it’s easy to fall into a pattern of repeating them until the game ends, especially on Hard difficulty or lower. It is incorrect to state that Pillars’ combat is inherently rote or repetitive; it is, however, possible to play the game in a rote or repetitive way. Josh Sawyer may have eliminated rote rest-spamming, but other, somewhat subtler but arguably just as degenerate strategies are very much available.
 
Pillars rewards creative play with greater efficiency and more fun, but does not push very hard for players to discover them; that, they have to do on their own initiative. Special attacks and status effects like Poisoned, Stuck, Weakened, or Blinded should bite hard enough that you can’t just shrug them off but need to work to avoid or counter them, at least at harder difficulties. As it is, the difficulty settings just aren’t spread wide enough. Easy mode is too hard for players who just want to admire the scenery and listen to the nice music, and even Path of the Damned tends to become too easy towards the end of the game. A bigger difficulty jump from Normal to Hard would have helped a lot, perhaps by making status effects persist longer and have more immediate impact.
 
Choice and Consequence
 
Instead of a D&D alignment, Pillars tracks your reputation with various factions, and your disposition -- what kind of person people think you are. Disposition is extremely important for paladins and priests, as a disposition which aligns with your ethos strengthens your best special abilities. For everyone else, it's mostly flavour: dialog choices that open up, sometimes offering shortcuts, alternative solutions, or information you would otherwise have missed.
 
Dispositions are not mutually exclusive. If you've hidden the qualifiers so you don't know which dialog options affect which dispositions and are just going with the flow, it's likely you'll accumulate a mixed disposition -- diplomatic and aggressive, honest and deceptive, benevolent and cruel. Attributes, race, class, and culture are acknowledged in similar, small ways, as are non-combat skills, attributes, class, race, and background: a rogue with a high dexterity could pick an antagonist's pocket in a dialog to acquire a quest item, thereby avoiding a fight.
 
Some of the lustre comes off the disposition system if you make the numbers visible and pay close attention to the reputations and dispositions you're acquiring, turning it into a minigame. Playing as a paladin is much more engaging if you have to figure out "blind" how to play to your order's favoured dispositions, rather than just reflexively picking "Diplomatic" and "Honest" whenever they're offered. I tried this a good way into Chapter 2 with a Shieldbearer of St. Elcga, and while I didn’t get a “perfect score,” I did rack up most ranks in the dispositions I was targeting, and none in the ones I was avoiding.
 
There are also missed opportunities. If you play as a priest of one of the gods figuring in the game's story, your status will be acknowledged every now and then, but relatively superficially. If a plotline throws you into conflict with other priests of the god you serve, you won't be able to side with them from the get-go, and there are occasional silly moments like a priest of Eothas offered a dialog line, “Who’s Eothas?”
 
The faction reputation system is based on what you do rather than what you say or how you do it. It is a traditional affair, where you gain reputation with a faction by doing stuff for them, and lose it by aligning with an opposing faction, or doing things that go against their interests. This is only really significant in the mid-game, where you can only progress after deciding which Defiance Bay faction to align with. These choices are also let down by a forced plot twist, although their long-term consequences are explored in the endgame slideshow.
 
The overall effect is nice but fairly subtle. You do feel that the game acknowledges the particular choices and characteristics that make Charname unique, better than in most cRPG's, including the Infinity Engine ones. It makes the world feel alive and that the way you built your character and interact with the world matter. The main narrative, however, is more linear than you might expect, with only some mid-game content locked out by faction choice. This is no Fallout: New Vegas, but nor is it an Icewind Dale.
 
Difficulty Curve
 
The content in Pillars is structured much the same way as in Baldur's Gate: a set of interconnected maps you can travel between, with two plot gates between larger zones. You can beeline for the first plot gate to open up most of the map quite early on. The later zones have higher-level content than the earlier ones.
 
Other than the notably more forgiving death mechanic, overall Pillars is somewhere between the IE games and modern mainstream expectations in difficulty. I was playing Pillars and Baldur's Gate 2 concurrently, spending a few days or a week on one, then the other. I had Pillars on Hard and Baldur's Gate 2 on Core Rules, and the challenge level felt roughly similar; I was winning and losing encounters at about the same frequency, and my "adventuring day" felt about equally long, although Baldur’s Gate 2’s hardest optional encounters were tougher than Pillars’ counterparts, and permadeath meant a good deal more reloading. On Path of the Damned, the harder encounters were Baldur’s Gate 2 hard.
 
The difficulty curve is uneven, however, and it is easy to turn the late game into a cakewalk. This has to do with the level curve and the megadungeon and stronghold added in the Kickstarter as a stretch goal.
 
Any sprawling cRPG with a lot of side content will have to deal with a problematic level curve. The designers can make the side content effectively mandatory by setting endgame difficulty on the assumption that players completed it, they can give completionists the shaft by assuming the opposite, they can set the difficulty somewhere between the two, or they can level scale. None of these solutions is ideal. In Pillars, the problem is particularly bad because of a careless stretch goal Obsidian threw in during the Kickstarter: a gigantic 15-level megadungeon containing piles of XP and some of the best, most powerful gear, and a stronghold providing more of the same.
 
Difficulty swings somewhat through the game; parts of Chapter 1 can be punishingly hard if you go after them early, as can be parts of Chapter 3 if you’ve mostly just followed the main quest’s breadcrumb trail. Apart from a few optional encounters, Chapter 2 becomes rather easy towards the end as you gain levels and items, in whichever order you play it. There is more room to crank up difficulty in the older games, however. By modern mainstream standards Pillars is a pretty hard game; by the standards of 15 years ago, or the likes of Blackguards or Dwarf Fortress, it is on the easy side.
 
Without the Endless Paths of Od Nua, Pillars' difficulty curve isn't half bad. Do the side content everywhere else, and your level will track the difficulty fairly nicely, and you'll hit the endgame with a couple of party members still hungry for another level. Dive into the dungeon, and when you come out, godmode.
 
Path of the Incline
 
Unlike most games these days, difficulty levels up to Hard don’t change the rules or the enemy stats in any way. Instead, you get tougher variants of enemies in bigger groups -- adra beetles in addition to stone and wood beetles, shadows upgraded to shades, shades to phantoms, guls to darguls, darguls to fampyrs, and so on. Only the hardest level, billed as a special challenge for the truly hardcore, adjusts the numbers.
 
That’s a shame, because on Path of the Damned Pillars plays a lot more like it ought to. Status effects start biting. Enemies have hard enough defences that attacking them with the right combinations is a requirement, not an efficiency improvement. They punch hard enough that repeating good-enough tactics won’t cut it anymore, at least not for the boss fights. You start paying serious attention to consumables and crafting. And even so, some of the optional fights are truly punishing, at least if you go into them early.
 
The impact of status effects should still be tuned up, but overall the experience is a good deal more IE-like: you can’t just shrug off things anymore, but have to actually think of how to defend against or counter them.
 
I liked the idea of adjusting difficulty by changing enemy group composition rather than changing the rules, perhaps because so many games these days produce their “Insane” difficulties just by bloating the numbers. Turns out that, too, isn’t so simple. Pillars feels like it wants to be more like it is on Path of the Damned; like that’s more or less where the numbers are supposed to be, but then the easier difficulties were done by nerfing them across the board. I believe the game would have been received a good deal better among the hardcore crowd if Hard had been more or less like Path of the Damned with, perhaps, the mobs a little smaller, and another, even higher difficulty level on top. Perhaps even a second difficulty slider, tuning the numbers, so it would have been possible to play against Hard enemies with Path of the Damned rules.
 
In any case, if you feel that the game is letting you off too easy, do give Path of the Damned a try. It doesn’t quite live up to its intimidating name, but is a highly enjoyable difficulty level in its own right.
 
It's a Big Game
 
Pillars has a lot of content. It's a big game with scads of sidequests, from companions and characters encountered while exploring the Free Palatinate of Dyrwood. All that content is closely tied to the game's systems. Your past choices in story, history, and character-building are distilled into dispositions and reputations which are acknowledged in dialogs and CYOA interludes. It's rich, lush, and varied, with few repetitive trash mobs or pointless busywork. It keeps throwing new things at you right up to the endgame. The whole is somewhat let down by the level curve problems caused by the Endless Paths and the bounty quests on offer at the stronghold; avoid those until the endgame, and it maintains is challenge rather nicely -- no worse than the Baldur’s Gates anyway, which you can also out-level and out-gear in various ways -- and provides a lot of stuff on which to test all those talents, abilities, spells, and items.  
 
Setting, Story, and Characters
 
Writing has always been Obsidian's strong suit, and in Pillars they are true to form. The world of Pillars -- Eora -- is deep, rich, and complex by any measure, and doubly so for having been created from scratch in a matter of months. It reproduces many features familiar from Forgotten Realms and other classic D&D settings: there are your dwarves and elves, dragons and dungeons, restless dead wandering the night, ancient ruins, quaint villages, and even a big city or two.
 
Eora, however, is far more coherent and believable than most similar settings. Wars are fought for understandable and concrete reasons: a culture sending colonists to encroach on another's ancestral land; a religious pogrom; a colony breaking off from a declining empire in a war of independence. The world is dynamic and changing, not eternally frozen in an age of swords and steel, never gunpowder. Traditional fantasy is conservative in outlook, ever looking back to a lost golden age of ancient empires. Eora looks forward, to new discoveries, technologies, and knowledge.
 
Pillars also breaks with some hoary fantasy tropes. Cultures are multiracial, and some have institutionalised forms in which the (mutually infertile) races interact. While bearded blacksmith dwarves are well in evidence, there are also boreal dwarves hailing from a culture modeled on the Inuit. The big burly superficially half-orc-type turns out not to be barbarian -- noble savage or otherwise -- at all, but instead an exuberant scholar from a naval culture inspired by the Polynesians. All these cultures have at least partially-realised constructed languages, with Celtic, Romance, Inuit, Old English, or Polynesian echoes. Being something of a language nerd, I found this delightful. Fare ye well, Drizzt Do'Urden and Fraz-Urb'luu, you will not be missed.
 
Pillars is set in a tiny corner of Eora, the Free Palatinate of Dyrwood, but the surrounding world is very much present as characters, goods, and artefacts originating from all over it. The depth and breadth of the setting bodes well for the future: there is room in the world for settings as different as Chult is from Icewind Dale or Rashemen from the Sword Coast, only in a world far more believable.
 
Obsidian is known for writing strong characters. Pillars has been criticised for only featuring eight recruitable NPC's -- fewer than the number of classes in the game; if you want a rogue, barbarian, or monk in your party, you have to roll one yourself -- and Obsidian have justified this by the extra effort needed to write deep and memorable companions.
 
Each companion comes with an internal conflict and a quest you can pursue to help them resolve it. The companions are written well, thoughtfully characterised, sympathetic, and original. In terms of sheer quantity of writing and character-specific content, they’re somewhere around Baldur’s Gate 2 level—not even close to Planescape: Torment, but a good deal more than Baldur’s Gate 1. Pillars does not feature Baldur’s Gate 2’s complex intra-party interactions, however. Edér and Durance may have serious reasons to hate each other, but neither will walk out on you no matter what you do, Aloth won’t fall in love with Pallegina, and you won’t be able to romance any of them.
 
Particularly worth noting is Pillars' treatment of faith and religion. Gods and their followers feature prominently in the narrative, and each companion serves to reflect and illuminate these themes. I do not remember seeing as nuanced, believable, and sympathetic a portrayal of believers and their crises of faith in a computer game as Edér and Durance: the warrior who fought in a holy war against his god, and the deicide woman-hating priest who despises the goddess he serves.
 
I genuinely liked all of Pillars' NPC's. I didn't just click through their dialog trees to progress the plot; I was interested in what they had to tell me -- unraveling the Grieving Mother’s traumatic past, listening to Sagani’s stories of her boreal homeland and the significance of her vision quest, learning of poor, conflicted Durance’s struggle with his faith, his conscience, and the goddess he serves and hates. Their stories played a big role in propelling me forward and keeping me interested as the main narrative unfolded around me.
 
That main narrative is a more standard affair than the companions. There is the initial catastrophe, the charismatic but elusive antagonist, the plot twist, and the climax, resolved to your taste by your choices. It is not without its problems -- what if I think being a Watcher is just peachy and want to learn to exploit it rather than cure it? -- but it gets the job done, holding together the rich, broad, and varied small stories, quests, and details that make up the game. Also worth noting is the excellent writing and superb voice acting for the main antagonist.
 
Pillars' writing overall is thoughtful, mature, coherent, and of the generally high standard we've come to expect of Obsidian. Better or worse than Knights of the Old Republic 2 or Fallout: New Vegas? Opinions, man. In any case, it is good.
 
Yes It Looks Good (and Sounds Too)
 
A big part of Pillars' appeal comes from the way it looks and sounds. It is a beautiful game, with lush and varied landscapes, detailed architecture, scads of jewel-like item icons to spark the imagination, a soundscape that brings it alive, and a beautiful and largely live-recorded score by Justin Sweet pulling it all together. The budget limits only show up if you look for them: animations are not AAA-level fluid or realistic, the FX are sometimes on the crude side, and zoomed-in the character models are a bit chunky. The overall impression is just plain beautiful; what the IE games could have been had they continued to make them all through the years of Decline.
 
The one exception is in the character art. There's a fairly large selection of character portraits to choose from, but they are of variable and generally not all that high quality. The backer portraits are all-too-obvious overpaints of bad photos, many of the others lack character, and the style is all over the place. Fortunately it's easy to import your own, and there are a quite a few packaged portrait packs available already. Compared to, say, the tight and coherent character art of Shadowrun Returns -- which also includes backer portraits -- Obsidian dropped the ball here. This is no doubt due to the tight schedule and limited resources: Kazunori Aruga's and Polina Hristova's NPC portraits are second to none, and if the character portraits aren't up to the same standard it means they weren't given the opportunity to make it so.
 
The Agony and the Ecstasy of Kickstarter
 
Kickstarter is often touted as freeing studios from publisher tyranny, letting them pitch their games directly to the fans, and make them like they want them. At its best, it can really work this way, as publishers like inXile and Hairbrained Schemes have demonstrated. This first generation of big-ticket Kickstarter role-playing games have already carved out a whole new niche: big, complex games made for RPG fans, with higher production values than indie games made on a shoestring budget. There is a danger, however, of falling into another trap: making promises to the fans which turn out to be difficult to keep, or just plain bad ideas. Pillars is a good illustration of both sides of the Kickstarter coin.
 
The good, obviously, is that the game got made in the first place. According to Obsidian, publishers simply haven't been interested in funding games of this type, scope, and budget range. Kickstarter has brought us games like Wasteland 2, Pillars, Shadowrun Returns, and, soon, Torment: Tides of Numenera. It has been central to this new flowering of cRPG's. Managing Kickstarters is hard, and it's not just about bringing in the money. Many of Pillars' flaws can be traced back to the poorly-planned and largely improvised Kickstarter campaign.
 
The original pitch was simple enough: a real-time-with-pause, top-down, isometric fantasy cRPG, inspired by Baldur's Gate, Icewind Dale, and Planescape: Torment. With its unexpectedly fast success, things got weird with stretch goals and backer rewards. The campaign offered high-ticket backers the possibility to create vanity content: not just easily ignorable tombstones, but NPC's, character portraits, items, and even inns. Almost all of that content is, frankly, garbage, adding nothing of value to the game, and only serving to jolt players out of it (not to mention provoking a hilarious twitterstorm that forced Obsidian to finally nail their colours to the mast in the Great Internet Social Justice War). Worse, however, were some of the stretch goals. In particular, the stronghold, the megadungeon, and the proliferation of classes.
 
The stronghold, designed by Tim Cain, feels unfinished and entirely unnecessary. The mechanics are sound enough, but there's no flesh around those bones. You can park companions there and send them on adventures to gain experience and items, but those adventures have no meat to them at all: they are labeled "Average Adventure" offering rewards like "10% XP and a minor reputation bonus." Periodically the stronghold gets attacked by  generic bandits of unspecified origin. The Baldur's Gate 2 strongholds didn't have Caed Nua's mechanical underpinnings, but they had unique, hand-written quests with characterful rewards. That made them fun, where Caed Nua is lifeless and dull.
 
The megadungeon is much better executed than the stronghold, and it's an enjoyable enough -- if somewhat uneven -- dungeon crawl in its own right. Its problem is that it completely messes up the level curve: play it through, and you'll outlevel and out-gear the rest of the game. The stronghold and megadungeon should have been expansions; a Durlag's Tower or Watcher's Keep, thrown in for players who want to keep playing a bit longer with their high-level characters, and mostly just want some tougher encounters. As it is, they are a big distraction, both for the player and for the game's makers. The weaker subsystems in the game -- crafting and stealth, in particular -- just need more work. Without Caed Nua, Od Nua, and the other distractions introduced as stretch goals and backer rewards, I'm sure they would have been able to bring them to a higher standard.
 
Even with its flaws, Pillars of Eternity is a remarkable game. It was made in a short time with limited resources, yet it is as big, sprawling, complex, and detailed as the games it references. The world is deep, fully-realised, and far more believable than Forgotten Realms or most other swords-and-sorcery settings. The gameplay is rich and varied, with massive scope for experimentation and creativity, and if you crank it up to Path of the Damned, challenging enough to keep you on your toes for most of the ride. The writing is up to Obsidian's usually high standard. And there's a lot of it: masses of quests, monsters, maps, dialogs, items, abilities, and much more.
 
I've enjoyed my time with Pillars immensely: the dozens of hours spent playing with builds in the beta, the times I ran through the first chapter of the game, experimenting with different characters, party compositions, and tactics, the run where I finally settled on something I like and played it to the end, then delving into Path of the Damned. I'm looking forward to a good many more playthroughs with even more builds and party combinations, not to mention the upcoming expansions and sequels. While you can pick holes in any aspect of the game -- just like you could with the IE games -- together they gave me the same huge kick I've gotten from the classics I've loved best. It gelled into something more than the sum of its parts.
 

The mark Pillars will leave on the history of computer role-playing games remains to be seen. Much hangs on the followup. Baldur's Gate would likely have been forgotten had it not been for Baldur's Gate 2 and Planescape: Torment. If Obsidian can build on Pillars' success, improve on the areas that need improvement while maintaining its strengths, fans of real-time-with-pause, top-down isometric fantasy role-playing games are in for good times. If Pillars isn't the perfect fit for your monocled tastes, it's likely that something else emerging out of the niche it has helped carve out will be -- and for a lot of us, Pillars did more than deliver on the big promises it made in its campaign.

Edited by Bubbles
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Bubbles should have noted that this an unfinished WIP (you'll notice that the Felipepepe dialogue parts are only at the beginning)

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Infinitron should have noted that it's an abandoned WIP, which is why he posted it. But hey, it's Bubbles.


I have a project. It's a tabletop RPG. It's free. It's a work in progress. Find it here: www.brikoleur.com

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Pillars is a weird game, compared to other offerings on the market. It's very... workmanlike, in a sense. The sheer scope is incredible, if you compare it to other kickstarted games, but in every other arena, there's a game that beats it. Story? Decently written, with some likeable companions, but it can't hold a candle to Shadowrun: Dragonfall. Combat? It has a few memorable encounters, and there's a staggering variety of viable builds, but it doesn't even come close to the sheer joy of Divinity: Original Sin. Worldbuilding? I can appreciate the effort, I really can, but in the end, it's way too hung up on recreating D&D tropes to be really great. The Banner Saga created ten times as strong an atmosphere with a fraction of the wordcount devoted to detailing the world.

 

I think it's definitely a milestone in the kickstarter renaissance (there's just so much quality content in it), but still one of Obsidian's weakest games.

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"Lulz is not the highest aspiration of art and mankind, no matter what the Encyclopedia Dramatica says."

 

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Wait. I'm confused. So this isn't Vault Dweller's review? 

 

A Long Time Ago in a Galaxy Far, Far Away…

 

A long time ago Black Isle Studios - Interplay's role-playing division responsible for several truly great RPGs - was disbanded and all hope was lost. Fortunately, like an Ochre Jelly Bean it split into two lesser beans: the artistic incarnation, which became known as Troika Games, and the sequel-addicted incarnation, which kept on sucking the publisher’s, uh, tit and went on to make some of the finest sequels known to men.

Their first offering was Knights of the Old Republic 2, a Planescape-lite RPG that explored the Star Wars universe, conjuring depth and philosophy out of very thin Star Wars air. The next 10 years was a bumpy ride, riddled with cancellations, flawed attempts to jump on the overcrowded action games' bandwagon, ‘will work for food’ deals, and occasional greatness that spoke of the untapped potential waiting to be unleashed.

If only Obsidian could make an RPG without those meddling publishers restricting their creativity and telling them what to do. If only…

 

http://www.rpgcodex.net/content.php?id=9952

Edited by Leferd

"Things are funny...are comedic, because they mix the real with the absurd." - Buzz Aldrin.

"P-O-T-A-T-O-E" - Dan Quayle

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"Even though "spiritual successor of the Infinity Engine games" never figured in the pitch in those exact words, it is clear that that's what it was meant to be. These are big boots to step into. To what extent does it succeed?"

 

HA!

 

yeah, obsidian never said the words, and am not sure what "spiritual successor" means to the reviewers as they never define this bit o' nonsense, but that is the standard the reviewers will hold the developers to in the review? based on the quote they lift from the ks pitch, no bg2 comparison should ever be made, yes? is soooo tough to take reviews serious when they start off as this one did.  

 

not wishing to be unfair and dismiss the entirety o' the review 'cause o' an early stumble, we trudged onward, but our patience did not last long.

 

"A visual style that looks like an organic evolution of Baldur's Gate 2 or Icewind Dale."

 

*groan*

 

"The Infinity Engine games made great use of one of D&D’s best features: Magic."

 

okie dokie. am not gonna go further into the multiple problems with identifying magic as "one of" d&d's "best features," but this were the insurmountable fatigue point for Gromnir.

 

perhaps you like the review 'cause you agree with reviewer opinions.  perhaps you hate the review for opposite reasons.  the degree to which a reviewer's conclusions match our own is not how we personal judge a review. this work in progress needs... work. one o' these days we is gonna get past the halfway point o' a codexian review before giving up the ghost, but today ain't that day. 

 

HA! Good Fun!

 

ps the reviewer(s) is unlikely to take any Gromnir suggestion to heart at this point, but we would recommend that in future endeavours, they should exorcise any appearance o' really, very and i believe. those particular adverbs we mention diminish in efficacy each time they is utilized and is glaring beacons o' the author's lack o' imagination. shouldn't need explain why use o' "i believe weakens" a review, yes?  am realizing we sound harsh.  nevertheless, your efforts will be (somewhat) improved by taking the simple measures o' removing the aforementioned feeble language. really.

"If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence."Justice Louis Brandeis, Concurring, Whitney v. California, 274 U.S. 357 (1927)

"Im indifferent to almost any murder as long as it doesn't affect me or mine."--Gfted1 (September 30, 2019)

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Wait. I'm confused. So this isn't Vault Dweller's review? 

 

A Long Time Ago in a Galaxy Far, Far Away…

 

A long time ago Black Isle Studios - Interplay's role-playing division responsible for several truly great RPGs - was disbanded and all hope was lost. Fortunately, like an Ochre Jelly Bean it split into two lesser beans: the artistic incarnation, which became known as Troika Games, and the sequel-addicted incarnation, which kept on sucking the publisher’s, uh, tit and went on to make some of the finest sequels known to men.

Their first offering was Knights of the Old Republic 2, a Planescape-lite RPG that explored the Star Wars universe, conjuring depth and philosophy out of very thin Star Wars air. The next 10 years was a bumpy ride, riddled with cancellations, flawed attempts to jump on the overcrowded action games' bandwagon, ‘will work for food’ deals, and occasional greatness that spoke of the untapped potential waiting to be unleashed.

If only Obsidian could make an RPG without those meddling publishers restricting their creativity and telling them what to do. If only…

 

http://www.rpgcodex.net/content.php?id=9952

a vd review? how amusing. am gonna pass on clicky o' the link.  however, is worth noting that the first game made by black isle after losing the "artistic" troika talents was planescape:torment. 

 

HA! Good Fun!


"If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence."Justice Louis Brandeis, Concurring, Whitney v. California, 274 U.S. 357 (1927)

"Im indifferent to almost any murder as long as it doesn't affect me or mine."--Gfted1 (September 30, 2019)

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You wish it was the third RPGCodex Review, Bubbles and Shevek icon_lol.gif

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Kudos to you. Hey, you couldnt get the devs to cave to you but you sure taught them. You foiled a review! :clap:

Edited by Shevek
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Doubtless we'll see a dreary point by point as to why the game is wretched.

 

This was thoughtful and well written. And it was refreshing to see some perspective, as opposed to being filtered through a powergaming angle.

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In case you're wondering why it's here, the story in brief is that I asked a bunch of people including Sensuki for input on the review; Sensuki didn't want it published at all so in true Codexian fashion he pasted the rough first draft on the forums under the title 'The Shill Brigade Pillars of Eternity Propaganda "Review"'. Twenty-odd pages of concentrated bile ensued. I eventually couldn't take it and threw in the towel.

 

This is why I don't post at the Codex much. I can't cope with their "you gotta be THIS tough to play" mentality.

 

The people actually collaborating on it were cool though and I feel bad about letting them down. I called it quits the first time Sensuki blabbed about another review being in the works, but they talked me into continuing a week later. I don't handle drama very well, and the cumulative effect was that I couldn't stand to look at it anymore. But eh, so it goes. At least I finally managed to try Path of the Damned. 

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I have a project. It's a tabletop RPG. It's free. It's a work in progress. Find it here: www.brikoleur.com

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In case you're wondering why it's here, the story in brief is that I asked a bunch of people including Sensuki for input on the review; Sensuki didn't want it published at all so in true Codexian fashion he pasted the rough first draft on the forums under the title 'The Shill Brigade Pillars of Eternity Propaganda "Review"'. Twenty-odd pages of concentrated bile ensued. I eventually couldn't take it and threw in the towel.

 

This is why I don't post at the Codex much. I can't cope with their "you gotta be THIS tough to play" mentality.

 

The people actually collaborating on it were cool though and I feel bad about letting them down. I called it quits the first time Sensuki blabbed about another review being in the works, but they talked me into continuing a week later. I don't handle drama very well, and the cumulative effect was that I couldn't stand to look at it anymore. But eh, so it goes. At least I finally managed to try Path of the Damned.

 

That's not cool.

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"Things are funny...are comedic, because they mix the real with the absurd." - Buzz Aldrin.

"P-O-T-A-T-O-E" - Dan Quayle

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In case you're wondering why it's here, the story in brief is that I asked a bunch of people including Sensuki for input on the review; Sensuki didn't want it published at all so in true Codexian fashion he pasted the rough first draft on the forums under the title 'The Shill Brigade Pillars of Eternity Propaganda "Review"'. 

 

given our already low opinion o' the codex, and sensuki in particular, am gonna admit to nevertheless being surprised that he would resort to such a petty and spiteful action.  even protected by the anonymity o' the internet, it takes courage to share an essay, story or review.  is going naked.  go to folks for honest help and then have those same folks post your early efforts w/o permission is bordering on sacrilege-- writers and editors don't do that... evar. 

 

sensuki put much effort into his poe feedback, and he were mostly ignored save for bug identification and minor ui suggestions.  that sensuki has not handled his impotence with grace comes as no surprise, but even so, am admitting that we would not have predicted that he would post pj efforts w/o permission. is something that ain't done.  

 

well, live and learn, eh? next time you want harsh criticism, ask Gromnir to take a look.

 

HA! Good Fun!

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"If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence."Justice Louis Brandeis, Concurring, Whitney v. California, 274 U.S. 357 (1927)

"Im indifferent to almost any murder as long as it doesn't affect me or mine."--Gfted1 (September 30, 2019)

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He did ask the site admin (who wasn't in on the convo) for permission first, to make sure he wouldn't get sanctioned I guess. So on the Codex, that unspoken rule clearly does not hold.

 

(I also reviewed Sensuki and matt's essay on the attribute system, and when he asked me to keep mum about it, I did. That's one reason I figured I'd ask him for feedback, to return the favor as it were. Yes, before you ask, I am somewhat bitter.)

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I have a project. It's a tabletop RPG. It's free. It's a work in progress. Find it here: www.brikoleur.com

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I don't fully understand. This review was going to be posted on the Codex but since Sensuki "leaked" it now its being posted here? To avoid "drama"?

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image,Gfted1,black,red.png

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I don't get it either. If this were to published as a review on the codex, and someone leaked it to foil an official release for what ever reason of disagreement, they're pathetic.

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I don't fully understand. This review was going to be posted on the Codex but since Sensuki "leaked" it now its being posted here? To avoid "drama"?

our understanding, based on nothing more than what we read here, is that pj went to sensuki for feedback on a review pj were cooking.   for reasons known only to him, sensuki, w/o permission from pj, posted pj's rough first efforts on the codex boards with a rather colorful thread title to boot. am not knowing when this all occurred at codex, but the drama already happened at codex in "Twenty-odd pages of concentrated bile" and possible a few pms and/or emails.  unfortunate, pj gets a shot to endure the insult anew 'cause bubbles reposted the "review" in this place.

 

not actual fun at all.

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"If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence."Justice Louis Brandeis, Concurring, Whitney v. California, 274 U.S. 357 (1927)

"Im indifferent to almost any murder as long as it doesn't affect me or mine."--Gfted1 (September 30, 2019)

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Something like that, yes.

 

Bubbles did have permission though, I released it into the public domain when I quit. Thought I'd leave my collaborators the option to finish it as they had contributed some work to it.

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I have a project. It's a tabletop RPG. It's free. It's a work in progress. Find it here: www.brikoleur.com

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In case you're wondering why it's here, the story in brief is that I asked a bunch of people including Sensuki for input on the review; Sensuki didn't want it published at all so in true Codexian fashion he pasted the rough first draft on the forums under the title 'The Shill Brigade Pillars of Eternity Propaganda "Review"'. 

 

Wow. Just... wow.

 

Ethics!

Edited by aluminiumtrioxid

"Lulz is not the highest aspiration of art and mankind, no matter what the Encyclopedia Dramatica says."

 

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