It would be easy to assume that, given the isometric viewpoint and the meticulously rendered backgrounds, Pillars of Eternity would be content to tread in the footsteps of those games that went before. The classic Infinity Engine games like Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale certainly serve as points of inspiration, and this tie was part of what helped the game to do so well on Kickstarter, but as it heads to PC later this year, Pillars of Eternity is aiming to be far more ambitious than that.
It’s quite apparent right from the character creation screens which, although it has similarities to the aforementioned Infinity Engine games, goes beyond them in certain ways. It starts with the additions of the new and unique races, the Godlike, Orlan and Aumaua, alongside the more traditional Human, Dwarf and Elf trio – and aside from the Humans, each have internal ethnicities or factions that can affect the way they play.
However, it then continues to the 11 classes that you can choose from, ranging from the likes of Barbarians and Paladins to the Fighter, who would compliment the Barbarian well by being able to defend a position, and the Cipher, a class built around the idea of manipulating the souls of others.
Speaking to Josh Sawyer, the game’s Project Lead, he said of the need to add to the traditional fantasy settings, “I’d say it was pretty important. […] I guess what it comes down to is when you see it, you’ve got to say ‘Oh, that’s interesting, that’s fun to play with.’
“On some games you can do it by simple inversion, where you’re just like, ‘Now, this ain’t your daddy’s elf, they’re completely different!’, or you can think about different ways to build their societies that’s not the way that you’ve seen before, just because that’s fantastic.
“When something fantastic becomes the same for a long time, it’s now mundane, so it’s not even fantasy. So I think it’s important to look at those conventions and find a way to interpret them where people will say, ‘Oh, that’s kind of interesting and it makes me think about different ways to interpret this group in a different setting.'”
With such a plethora of choices open to you, a touchstone for the character creation system seems to be coming up with a character concept and then implementing it. The six primary attributes have various knock on effects, so that Intellect affects Will, area of effect and ability durations and Might influences your Damage – regardless of how you are dealing damage – Healing and Fortitude, making it an important attribute for not just melee focussed characters, but supporting healers as well. Important, but far from vital.
“You’re going to have to try and find a way to play to the strength of a build,” Josh explained. “For example, with a weak Barbarian that’s a genius [laughs], you know that, per hit, you’re not going to be doing a ton of damage, but you’re going to hit a ton of guys in the area. So you have to realise that one on one, you’re really not very good.”
When I asked about the most outlandish character concept he’d seen created so far, he said “I don’t know. I think the idiot muscle Wizards are pretty funny, because they have the minimum radius for a spell, so all the spell radii are really small, but they do a ton of damage. Then in conversations, they don’t get any of the intelligence options, so it’s all like bullying and might. So, I like that.”
While your created character is a major point of divergence at the start of the game, your conversations with the other characters in the game are what will define you. There will often be myriad options open to you, depending on your stats and previous actions, with each showing how it will affect your reputation and personality, whether it’s honest and diplomatic or aggressive and cruel. As your reputation starts to precede you, other characters in the world will start to react to you differently, but it’s something that seems to go far beyond the rather binary morality systems that are commonly seen.
“As you make those choices,” Josh explained, “you’re just slightly incrementing your presence on that scale as a person of that type. So passionate, and passionate doesn’t actually come up that often, but it’s when you’re really like, ‘Please! C’mon, just do it!’ You’re just exhorting people like, ‘You gotta believe me!’ So you get a reputation as a person who has a lot of cares.
“Some people think that’s great, that you’re really passionate and really driven, and other people are like, ‘Dude, you gotta chill out. You’re really hyper and crazy.’ And that’s the idea, that each of those reps can be interpreted in a different way.”
With ten fairly distinct personality types, the various effects of character design and the branching nature of the story, I wondered how it is that every option is catered for and managed. Josh replied that “There’s a person on the team who we call the Karma Police, and their job is to make sure there are enough options of any given personality type and enough reactions to each type throughout the game. We have done stuff like this in a lot of our games, so it’s really just building on our previous experience with it.
“The way I talk about the system with the narrative designers is to say not to try and force options of every type in every conversation. I tell them to just look at the conversation, look at the circumstance the player is in and then think about the things that players would naturally want to do, and then map personalities to them.”
The world of Eora is a fantasy one, but the time period quite intriguingly takes inspiration from 16th century Europe, with expansionist colonial powers and the tensions that result from this. For example, The Free Palatinate of Dyrwood was once a part of the Aedyr Empire – a union of elves and humans – but the mixture of humans, elves and dwarves that colonised the land rebelled, with the help of the indigenous and still maltreated orlans, to gain independence.
Across the whole world that Obsidian have created, these tensions between nations will play out in front of you. At the start of the game, you’re quickly embroiled in the squabbles over the ruins of an ancient empire, which locals seek to protect from looters. As your caravan stops nearby, due to a felled tree, the locals attack the group for trespassing, with your impromptu party then made up of the survivors.
Combat is handled in real time, but with the ability to pause the action to issue commands. It steps away from the modified Dungeons & Dragons base of the Infinity Engine games, shifting to a system more suitable for real time combat, with ability cool downs and effect lengths measured in seconds rather than trying to translate player turns into real time.
With the battle won, however, a soul wind quite ominously kicks up, as a portent of the mysterious dangers of the ruins of the fallen empire. It forces you to actually enter the ruins and triggers a simplistic and rather classically styled moment of storytelling, with writing and hand drawings combining with audio effects, building up to the need to pick between actions at a crucial moment. At first blush, it appears to be quite an odd inclusion in the game, likely coming as an inventive way to work within the Kickstarted budget, but it’s one that could have merits and add a certain charm to the storytelling.
Going off the game’s initial pitch on Kickstarter, of revisiting the popular classic RPGs of the Infinity Engine, what Pillars of Eternity has actually come to be surpasses what I would have expected. It’s instead aiming for an expansive richness and depth to practically every facet of the game, whether it’s the new fantasy setting and time period or the breadth of playable possibilities which the character creation tools can create.
Oh, and then there’s the fact that the game has a big head mode. It’s as brilliant as it sounds.