At the very start of their existence, Role-Playing Games on computers and video game consoles were designed with one purpose in mind: to emulate and replicate the feeling of playing a traditional tabletop-style game, like Dungeons and Dragons. Many of the earliest examples of the genre- titles like Wizardy, Might and Magic, and Ultima- share similarities in design philosophy and mechanics that made them interpretative and mysterious. As these titles would gain popularity, enter new regions, and progress with the technology of the era, their narratives would deepen in complexity, resulting in a unique “campaign” for each series that was rooted in its own respective universe and lore. In many ways, the RPGs of the modern era are the fantastic interpretation of a team of developers’ own role-playing campaign.
Lore is, at the core, one of the most important elements of an RPG. Though many newer titles boast combat systems that are flashy, challenging, or strategic, we don’t care about the choices we’re making unless we care about the world that informs these choices. This is why, for a spell during the late 90’s and early 2000’s, the isometric-style Role-Playing Game reigned supreme. A series of entries utilizing BioWare’s Infinity Engine in the Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale, Neverwinter Nights, and Planescape mythos dominated the RPG scene with tactical combat, nuanced storytelling, and expanse character-building options.
Though these titles were hardly graphical juggernauts, the engine allowed for the construction of vast worlds inhabited by complex characters, many subject to classic attribute mechanics employed by the developers to enhance decision-based gameplay. Though this style of RPG would eventually give way to more popular and accessible alternatives, the desire to return to these sorts of worlds would remain, and in fact, be given hope with Obsidian’s 2012 Kickstarter campaign for Pillars of Eternity. Meeting and exceeding its goals, Pillars would release in 2015 and receive critical acclaim in many regards, eventually paving the way for a sequel in 2018.
Now, it’s 2019, and this four-year-old RPG has received a port to the Nintendo Switch. Does it live up to the hype? Is it a good entry point into the isometric RPG? Is it suited to the control scheme of the Nintendo Switch? The answer to all of these questions is a resounding “no.”
Pillars of Eternity is a Role-Playing Game focused on the navigation of dialogue options and real-time combat. The game tasks the player with first going through an extremely in-depth character creation process, picking gender, race, class, culture, background, and of course, all of the various aesthetic options one could think of. Though some of these aspects might seem as if they will have a marked effect on dialogue options and the overall narrative, the truth is that attribute statistics, the only unchangeable statistic in the game, will result in the most marked effects.
Even so, each class offers vastly different combat options and initial choices to pursue, so choices pertaining to your role on the battlefield are some of the most expanse you’ll find. This is somewhat strange, as Pillars of Eternity and its fanbase will often tout the game’s ability to be played non-lethally, but that’s beside the point. Upon creating a character, you will be thrust into Eora’s Dyrwood, a mostly hostile realm with little sympathy for newcomers.
Much of a usual Pillars of Eternity playthrough is spent exploring, partly due to the game’s fog of war mechanic present on every map, though map discovery also results in meager experience gains, which are crucial to the playable character’s survival. The fog of war will be cleared upon moving the playable party into an area, but upon leaving previously explored areas, an inactive, field of vision effect will cloak said area in darkness once more. This conceals roaming enemies and potential threats that are just out of viewing distance, which is a polite way of saying that Pillars of Eternity is a game that needs to be explored carefully. Accidentally stumbling into a hostile character’s field of vision will trigger combat, which is why the game’s scouting mode – which causes the entire party to move forward at a less-detectable, but slow pace – should be used as frequently as possible. Likewise, towns present a multitude of possible complications and NPC characters with optional quest lines, so you’ll need to explore thoroughly and make sure your interactions are thorough, as you won’t be able to spot these characters again once you leave that area due to the shroud effect.
Substantial experience is rarely gained from enemy encounters, unless a fight is necessary in order to progress a certain narrative. Quest completion is what causes the highest gains, which is why you’ll want to seek out the routes and objectives for mainline and optional quests as often as possible. This also means that the difficulty and level of stress that combat presents in the early game stays relatively constant as you progress through the narrative, a choice facilitated by the broad distribution of weaponry and equipment that are pretty shoddy, requiring enhancement and optimization to prove truly useful. Pillars of Eternity is not necessarily meant to be played as a merciless killing machine, unless you are very aware of the nuances of combat.
When combat is initiated, it plays out in real time, though the game’s speed can be increased or decreased based on your level of comfort with the combat systems. The player can pause combat at any time and summon the game’s inventory or combat wheels by pressing the left or right trigger respectively. The former won’t be much help during combat, as players can only change equipment and set quick-access items outside of combat, but the latter is used to issue continuous or single-use commands. There are some abilities that can only be triggered a specific number of times during combat or between rests, which resets after visiting an inn or camping pretty much anywhere you want. The game’s auto-pause feature is possibly one of its most complex mechanics, but it is designed to benefit a player who wishes to have the game interrupted during very specific instances.
Pillars’ combat seems far more centered on tactics and an understanding of enemy composition, which isn’t always easy to discern due to the extremely limited amount of information one receives regarding aggravated enemies. Still, positioning your characters in the environment, dividing the attention of enemies, and setting up spells and abilities is crucial to your success. The problem with this is that the game offers very little explanation of the variety of combat options available to the player. If you expect to progress through Pillars of Eternity solo, you’re not going to have much fun, as enemies will consistently overwhelm you. This means you’ll need to invest in recruited party members – which will often be a different class – or encounter the game’s narrative-based party recruits, a colorful lot whose abilities will take just as much time to master as your own. Either way, you’ll spend a great deal of time studying abilities via the extremely rudimentary information Pillars of Eternity offers.
In other words, it’s not beginner-friendly.
Narrative and Aesthetics
While the game’s combat mechanics are extremely uninviting, the world-building and narrative thrust of the game are anything but. I mean, sure, you will need to be careful and navigate dialogue trees with some degree of common sense (unless you want to do that thing called “role-playing” and purposefully be a bumbling idiot) in order for characters to offer up valuable information, but the picture painted by the verbose and detailed dialogue and flavor text creates a colorful portrait. The Dyrwood is a heavily-wooded part of Eora that has recently become an independent nation thanks to the efforts of the settlers. Despite this victory, there are many other elements at play, such as native tribes, a scientific renaissance of animancy, and a mysterious plague that have upset the realm, and it is your job to come to terms with the rich politics of the Dyrwood while trying to cure your own ailment.
Your abilities as Watcher have given you the opportunity to view the echoes of the past lives of souls, as Eora’s people are reincarnated again with new forms throughout their existence. Though this might seem like a neat narrative element, it becomes a meaningful element in the central narrative and many of the optional quests. Developer Obsidian Entertainment has crafted a powerfully nuanced and thoroughly fleshed-out game world, which extends to the dialogue and development of the game’s party recruits, who each change and react to events in different ways. Likewise, the distribution of attribute points as well as culture and background alterations can open up new dialogue choices for the player character, and although the game does allow players to see what traits would offer them new opportunities, it also does feel like a bit of a tease, especially having invested so much into a certain character build.
But role-playing is the name of Pillars’ game, as the variety of abilities and attributes can result in drastically different scenarios during many of its quests. It is commendable to see a world as well-organized as this one, and it feels like one that should be lived within, despite the game’s incessant desire to kill the player. In terms of visuals, there are a number of absolutely stunning pre-rendered backgrounds on display in some areas. If you are looking for games on the cutting edge of visuals, Pillars is very much designed in the style of its past influences, offering little outside of some unique races and more fantastic elements to feast your eyes upon. The forests, though well-illustrated, are a bit muted in their color scheme, and many of the game’s locales can feel drab. But the moments where Pillars does wow – its mechanical devices and godlike statue structures – are a true delight. Spells also look impressive, though hardly anything groundbreaking. The accompanying music is atmospheric, with a few combat themes that stand out as particularly memorable. The term “atmospheric” is the most apt, however, as the game features some tracks that feel strangely generic for a fantasy world so well-realized. That the tracks feel suited for the sort of mythic adventure the player undertakes, rarely did they feel evocative of a completely new and magical place.
Impressions and Conclusions
Though I feel the quality of the game’s writing cannot be understated, there is a great deal about Pillars of Eternity that I found to be less-than-enjoyable. I played a number of isometric titles in my early days on PC, such as Nox, Gauntlet, and Crystal Chronicles, these are all of the action-combat ilk, makiny me a relative newcomer to the style of combat on display in this title and those it draws inspiration from. This is perhaps the second-greatest stumbling point of the game, as it does the player no favors in introducing concepts and mechanics, even with its in-game glossary. There are no examples to be found within, and the game seems to assume that players have experience with the tabletop games that inspired its combat – which still feel incredibly different when rendered within a simulation like this – or that they have previously played other Infinity Engine titles.
Looking back at the promotional material, which seems to emphasize the strengths of Planescape, Baldur’s Gate, and others in order to support this game’s existence, only seems to further emphasize this point. Playing the role of a cautious newcomer was the best I could possibly hope to take on at the start of Pillars of Eternity, as the game world and its enemy and combat design feel as oppressive as possible. Counterbalancing this, of course, is the delightful world-building, but all cozy and engaging feeling is stripped away at the start of any combat exchange.
The more damning critique is the quality of the port to Switch, which has some of the worst loading times I have seen on the console, infrequent but still annoying crashes, and a number of text-rendering issues where dialogue and combat log information appears scrambled and indecipherable. While the last of these sometimes resolves itself, the slow movement speed of the characters in Pillars (even when in fast mode) coupled with its loading times make this campaign feel incredibly tedious, especially during “dungeon dives” designed to test player endurance and minimize dialogue and character interactions.
The game’s cursor options, as well as its inventory and combat wheels, feel extremely non-intuitive, and having to use a separate identification mode in order to notice small details gives a strong case for why this title should stay on PC. While I have simply found combat to be frustrating due to its unfriendly presentation, I have heard complaints of damage being unregistered by the game, prolonging fights and further adding to the tedium. Though I cannot confirm this myself, the game’s decided lack of punch regarding damage connecting, as well as the limited combat log size do not offer the evidence required to acknowledge these claims either way.
There is no doubt a desire for this kind of Role-Playing Game on consoles and the Switch especially. However, my time with Pillars of Eternity has given me extremely mixed feelings on Infinity Engine titles as a whole, to the extent that I am reconsidering picking up the ports of earlier titles coming to Switch later this year. The crashes, slow-pacing, and player investment required to grasp systems that feel as if they should be more intuitive as a core pillar of the game (no pun intended) are everything that I dislike about attempting to pick up a new game, and I say that as an individual with a fairly decent degree of patience. On the other hand, the game is such a storytelling wonder that I feel compelled to suffer through its worst moments in order to learn more about the world and its people.
There is no doubt that Pillars of Eternity offers a sizable amount of content, as this definitive edition comes packaged with both of The White March expansions, the issues with numerous combat engagements and other critiques still exist here. In many ways Pillars of Eternity feels like a love letter to titles from the past without any substantial improvements, resulting in a game that stands toe-to-toe with the other Infinity Engine games, but only as contemporaries, which this title is a bit too late to claim.The Switch port of the game is not serviceable, feeling forced in all the ways that a proper keyboard and mouse feel like they would perfectly accommodate. If some serious improvements were made to make the game more bearable from a technical and accessibility standpoint, I would gladly reconsider my previous claims. For now, Pillars of Eternity deserves a spot alongside all of the other Infinity Engine games you picked up years ago – on your PC.
Versus Evil, the publisher of the Pillars of Eternity port, has recently announced an incoming patch for this version of the game.