Libra: Pillars of Eternity: Complete Edition (Switch)
Libra is a series which provides first impressions of games before their full review. These are generally spoiler free, however, some base plot points – as well as some mechanic/system reveals – could lurk ahead.
Have you ever wanted to play a Dungeons and Dragons campaign by a crack team of storytellers who have a bit of experience with this sort of thing? What if it gave you the freedom to play in any way you possibly want, as long as “any way” is either a non-lethal thief, a headstrong, murder-happy psycho, a total scumbag, or a generally decent human being? Well then, do I have the game for you.
Pillars of Eternity is an isometric Role-Playing Game with a real-time combat system that can be paused at any point, giving the player an opportunity to issue commands and tactics. While that might seem simple by design, the end result is anything but, as buffs, skills, items, and the like all use time-based queues, so syncing up actions requires a good understanding of your characters’ qualities and mechanics. Spells can be a bit of a toss-up, as the player must confirm their position with an extra layer of prediction, as enemies can move while you are casting. The system is complex, and might be the closest you could possibly get to replicating Dungeons and Dragons tactical gameplay in a video game. Yes, you can lure that enemy into a horde of spiders, because they don’t share an allegiance. Yes, you can still stealth around enemies in combat and attempt to deliver killing blows, but if one of your party members clumsily paths in your way, you’ll go nowhere fast, and might even be spotted, to boot.
The problem is, the game throws a monumental amount of mechanics and tutorials that broadly explain the basics of each element, but never really go into specifics regarding their execution. This nondescript approach simultaneously keeps a newcomer in the dark, but allows a more seasoned veteran (or maybe an anarchist) the room to imagine ridiculous combinations and neat builds.
Pillars of Eternity doesn’t give high rewards for slaying enemies, instead offering massive, stacking gains based on quest progress. This is why, despite the main narrative giving hefty rewards for completing objectives, it’s often beneficial to explore areas and take on side quests in order to net a bit more experience. Equipment comes in a wide variety, but you’ll need to spend a great deal of time gathering materials in order to upgrade the somewhat disappointing amount of basic weaponry and armor that drops from enemies. Items with expert craftsmanship are, unsurprisingly, locked away in chests, or even in view of others, so it takes an individual with exceptionally high stealth and technical skill to snatch things away.
Also impressively detailed are the game’s environments, which suffer from the standard isometric pitfalls (there’s a big thing in your way, so it turns transparent so you can see behind it… maybe), but present a compelling, if not harrowing, land of opportunity. There are a plethora of colors used to vary each map location, as well as general environmental cues, though the most impressive part of these environments are their gradual day-to-night cycle that can occur when you quick travel from one place to the next, or even when you’ve spent a sufficient amount of time at a location.
The game is, at its core, a more traditional Role-Playing experience, meaning that the dialogue, lore, and world-building featured in almost every quest is rich and multifaceted. Though repeat playthroughs will likely be more for experimenting with character builds, the world of Pillars of Eternity feels extremely fleshed-out. You have the opportunity to choose a backstory for your character that involves locales referenced, yet are never seen. Journals, textbooks, and other tidbits of conversation are strewn throughout the world, and the unique traits that the player is gifted allow insight to the distant past in vivid and fascinating detail. In the Eastern Reach, you are a drifter who has been granted the abilities of the Watcher, which means you can interact with the echoes of souls as they linger in new bodies and just after death. Animancy, the study of souls and their manipulation, is what many Easterners feel is a scientific perversion of the natural balance of life, and its increasing proliferation throughout the region causes all sorts of crazy shenanigans with various factions. It’s a good thing that you’re around to set the record straight, and that this business with the soul has so much to do with your own semi-blessing, part-worrisome curse.
- Classic and nuanced tactical role-playing combat
- Freedom of morality, allegiance, and combat roles
- Excellent- if not somewhat classic- presentation
- Lore. And lots of it.
- Worrisome performance issues that can result in a loss of progress or a lack of understanding
- Slow default movement and combat speed
- Overwhelming tutorials
- PC controls and hotkeys don’t transfer over without a hitch
It’s because of the extensive lore, complex mechanics, and somewhat slow pacing of the game that makes a single playthrough a hefty time commitment. There are additional mechanics that add more of a level of investment, but the overall progression from being a drifter in a caravan to a major player in the Eastern Reach does feel gradual and logical. It is perhaps the tentative nature of being a newcomer that makes the game world feel like a high-stakes balancing act of delicate materials, though the often confusing combat mechanics and slow travel speed (even when speeding the game up) also add to this. What hurts progress a bit more are the game’s loading times, which seem a bit out of place for a relatively simplistic-looking game such as this, though what’s worse are the number of crashes and instances of garbled text I’ve encountered. While the crashes seem to have sloped off a bit as I’ve ventured further into the game, I will continue to report whether this Switch port does justice to an ambitious title, one that ultimately does more by emulating the classics beloved by fans. For now, however, my tentative feelings towards the game are of overwhelming excitement in regards to storytelling, and lukewarm to cold reception based on the technical performance.