It’s a brave studio that decides to bring classic literature to life within a game. Braver still when the book they’re working from is the iconic but punishing The Pillars of the Earth, a historical piece of fiction set in the 12th Century that centres around the building of a cathedral in the fictional town of Kingsbridge.
Part of the allure of the book is how it focuses on the struggles of the common man, rather than the nobility and the circles they move in, and Daedalic have clearly put their heart and soul into making this an authentic take on both the characters and settings that have enthralled readers for the past twenty years. It’s a shame that the gameplay itself doesn’t always attain the same heights as the fiction.
Whatever faults it may have, Daedalic have crafted a very attractive game, with hand-drawn artwork bringing the era and the characters to life. The animation is occasionally a bit wooden, but on the whole it’s a living, breathing world which is begging to be experienced.
Early impressions from the prologue are good; it matches the beginning of the book, and the painterly visuals, awash with white from the steadily falling snow, match perfectly with the delicate traditional music in what is a heart-rending, forlorn scene. The voice acting is also of a very high quality – even including Ken Follett himself – and you’ll be immediately drawn to the gentle but committed Tom Builder and his small family, before meeting monk Philip of Gwynedd, and the rest of the Kingsbridge cell.
Daedalic have split the hefty novel into three parts, with seven chapters making up this first release. Sadly it’s in chapter one that you hit the first stumbling block, with Philip wandering about the Kingsbridge priory unknowingly gaining support for a future bid for the role of Prior. Every single time you move from one area to the next the game has to load, and they’re frequent enough to break your concentration. Though they become less obvious across the rest of book one, they definitely detract from the storytelling, and as with so many narrative-driven point and click games you’ll find yourself having to cycle through these areas a number of times in order to solve the light puzzles put in your way. A step in the wrong direction and the resultant load will slow you even further.
I say light puzzles, but realistically it’s just about finding the next correct move or conversation to advance events, and there are a few too many times in this first book where you’ll likely tire of meandering through an area looking for them. A pull on the left trigger will highlight items or people of importance and you’ll come to rely heavily on it, but while it’ll save you from some unnecessary searching, it just becomes an exercise in clicking on things until something happens.
Having said that, it’s the nature of the genre these days for very little to stand in the way of the narrative, and rather than causing you headaches trying to work out what combination of items will succeed in a particular situation it flows fairly easily once you’re in the right spot. As with Telltale’s recent output, this is a story to be experienced rather than be challenged by, and the quality of the narrative and its presentation does a good job of papering over some of the annoyances that the game itself throws up at you.
I was easily caught up with the worries and heartfelt beliefs of Philip, as he became embroiled in the politics of the time and searched for the right course of action, and genuinely wanted Tom Builder and his family, joined by the young Jack and his mother, to find the comfort and safety that seemed within grasp at various points, only to be taken away again. The way things are presented to you, and the visuals and audio, really are amongst the best in the genre, so it’s just a shame that sometimes the mechanics don’t hold up quite as well.
Besides the load times there are a couple of bugs as well, from the animation occasionally hanging – in one case so badly that a monk’s head simply came off – to some stuttering as your characters walk around the larger areas. They’re only mild blemishes, and hopefully something that a patch will fix, but they do break the overall effect.
Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth sets a fantastic tone, and does an admirable job of capturing the era, setting and the characters of this iconic piece of fiction. It’s a shame that at various points the game puts you off, whether through multiple loading screens, obtuse exploration, or a few other technical distractions. That being said, I can’t wait to see how Book Two unfolds, and can only hope Daedalic find a way for the gameplay to match the presentation.
Version Tested: Xbox One