Demonstrating the depth and breadth of a video game is always difficult to do, and this is particularly true of RPGs, as the way in which characters develop and grow over the course of the game is impossible to show within a short space of time.
So it is as Pillars of Eternity heads towards release at the end of next month, with Obsidian’s Kickstarted game promising a return to the style of RPG gameplay that was at the core of the classic Infinity Engine RPGs. Yet, while the likes of Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale and Planescape: Torment are held in such high esteem by long-term fans of the genre, they were not without their flaws.
Using the revised second edition of Dungeons & Dragons rules as their basis, some things simply didn’t translate very well from playing D&D in real life to video games. The Rogue class, for example, found their abilities neutered somewhat by a more real time system than the abstractions of speech, turns and rolling dice. In Pillars, the Rogue now has abilities that lets them create the sneak attack situations on which they thrive, while their low tolerance for damage is helped with escape and evasion abilities. It’s these kinds of things that the team at Obsidian have concerned themselves with as they endeavoured to create a new ruleset and the fantasy world of Eora from the ground up.
“In the previous Infinity Engine games, Rogues could sometimes do a lot of damage,” explained Josh Sawyer, the game’s Project Lead during a round table discussion, “but it was under very specific circumstances like backstabbing or sneak attacking. Rogues in Pillars of Eternity also sneak attack, but the conditions under which that happens are very large and they can make those conditions happen. They can inflict a lot of the conditions that allow them to use sneak attack automatically, so they are easily the highest damage output characters for single targets, but they’re very vulnerable and usually need to get into melee range to do that.”
Though the backer beta will have helped to reveal some of the nuances of the combat, here the demonstration was played out with a party of high level characters, to really show off the more advanced combat mechanics. Wading into battles at the gates of Raedric’s Hold, an impressive Gothic-styled castle, it’s a huge pyrotechnic display as spells are unleashed in rapid succession and the two hapless guards are quickly killed.
Sneaking into the castle is another option that might be preferable, and a simple athleticism check – one of five core skills in the game – allowed the party to clamber up the ivy that draped down the side of a tower. Once inside, finding and equipping the robes of monks gives you a chance of sneaking past the wandering Paladins that guard the area, but bluffing your way out of this predicament will depend on the numerous dialogue options that are open to your character, available depending on which traits have been built up over the course of the game.
The larger and more involved battles helped to show off some of the finer details of Obsidian’s combat system. Though still based on some of the principles of the Infinity Engine games, this play-pause combat has some rather nice new ideas added to it. There’s the addition of a grazing hit, so that there is a halfway house between hitting and missing, while using area of effect attacks, for example, the fringes of the circle will only damage enemies and not allies, which offers up new tactical avenues during battle.
Those are expanded upon exponentially when you take into account the variety of rather unique classes in the game. You have familiar archetypes, like the Rogue and the Barbarian, but these have been twisted to feature new ideas and mechanics, as new classes have been added to the mix. Monks, for example, take damage to collect wounds which can then be used to power their special abilities, while the Chanter’s attacks and powers come from chaining together shorter phrases over time, which add up to a single invocation. The Cipher meanwhile must build up their Focus over time, but gains additional damage via Soul Whip whenever their Focus is not full. It’s a fascinating mosaic of contrasting character styles.
It’s only through a series of iteration and testing that some classes like the Cipher transformed from a concept that wasn’t fun to use to one that encourages interesting play styles, and as Josh recalled, “When we first started the Kickstarter campaign, it was five classes and three races or something, and we had to keep growing the Kickstarter with stretch goals. So I’m like, ‘How many classes? I don’t even know what we’re making now.’ So I had to make up a lot of that stuff as I went along, and over the course of development we would find stuff like, ‘Oh, this class concept is bad!’ and so we had to revise it.”
Later in the discussion, he added, “We’ve tried to look at every class and [find] the essence that people are going to gravitate towards. What sort of character are they going to want to make when they say ‘I want to be a Barbarian,’ or ‘I want to be a Monk’? And then we capture that.”
“There’s a range in there too, so sometimes I want to be a Fighter, because I want to be able to stand here and weather the storm; everyone comes and attacks me and nothing gets through. Some people want that, some people want them to just be really reliable damage dealers or crowd controllers, so we have to think about that range and try to support it.”
With the roots in a Kickstarter campaign, and still one of the most successful to date, there’s a large degree of wish fulfilment in some of the world’s areas. The whole game takes place in some simply gorgeous 2D landscapes, with all of the locations tallying to the creation of around 150 maps through which to play – this pegs it somewhere between the two Baldur’s Gate games in size, with plenty to explore.
“We tried to strike a nice middle ground, where it didn’t feel like we were just having maps for the sake of having them,” Josh said. “You have a lot cool exploration in there, but there’s a good content density, so you don’t just feel like, ‘I spent 10 minutes wandering all over this map and I didn’t find anything!'”
The Endless Paths of Od Nua might not exactly be endless, but does feature a quite vast 15 levels to the dungeon which reside right below your stronghold base, with a huge statue stretching the levels within its depths. It’s not designed to be tackled in one go, and is in fact an almost entirely optional part of the game that’s best dealt with piecemeal as you level up, but represents a quite impressive setting in and of itself.
It’s one part of a large amount of side quests and hidden content, with the main story thread, the critical path if you will, at roughly a third of what’s there to be sampled. Whether you partake is up to you, and without auto-adjusting enemy levels, you could go into an area for which you’re rather outmatched and create a more difficult situation for yourself even beyond the difficulty options. The most challenging content in the game is tucked away off the beaten path, either way.
Another aspect that should appeal greatly to the more discerning player is just how wide a variety of customisation options there are for the game and its interface. You can put a big tick next to colour blindness support, but there are also options to automatically pause the combat if it meets certain conditions, to have the combat play out at slower speeds in combat and avoid endless pausing and un-pausing, combat HUDs that display cool downs above each character’s head, and more. You can even, if you dislike their character, replace the game’s staple party members with custom creations of your own – though this means you miss out on their side missions and stories.
When asked if this was a tricky endeavour, Josh replied, “It is difficult, but it is very important. We have a lot of passionate fans and it’s not their job to have one single vision and desire. They’re all going to have their own preferences, and as long as us supporting those different options doesn’t make the game fundamentally worse by supporting them, we try to do it whenever we can.”
“So whether it’s combat HUD positioning or colourblind mode, or anything like that, we want to put it in there so people can feel that they can play the way they want to play. And it is a single player game, so if something makes the game a little bit easier for someone and they like that, that’s totally fine!”
Project Eternity started off as an attempt to recapture the essence of a set of classic games, but in some ways, I feel it’s actually aiming for what people might now wish them to be. There’s a huge open world in which you can explore or follow the main path, you can customise many aspects of how the game plays to suit your tastes, and it’s all set atop a ruleset, characters and systems that feature a remarkable number of clever and nuanced ideas to improve upon what went before.
At the very least, it’s a ruleset which Josh would like to use again and improve upon. The first order of business then would surely be to name it. “Oh yeah, I haven’t thought of [a name] right now. Maybe someday. If it’s successful, then I’ll make a name for it,” Josh chuckled in reply, though I’m quite taken with his first suggestion: “The Fun Game System.”
This article came through attending PDXCon 2015 in Stockholm, Sweden, for which travel and accommodation provided by Paradox Interactive.