Obsidian has invented a time machine and it's called Pillars of Eternity. As soon as we start playing, we leave 2015 and head back to circa 2000, the golden era of PC RPGs, when Bioware and Black Isle delighted us with one brilliant experience after another. We're back to the times of pre-rendered environments, isometric viewpoints and intricate stories with tons of text.
Obsidian have always felt like Bioware's little brother, developing sequels (Neverwinter Nights 2, KOTOR 2, Fallout: New Vegas...), specialising in RPG games and their heritage is that of Black Isle, with several key members having been part of Interplay's legendary RPG division. It speaks to the significance of this project. It has been made with respect and love - tons of love. This game has its own flair, but it also pays homage to that generation of titles that revolutionised the genre back in the late 90's.
Pillars of Eternity is a homage in the sense that it tries to imitate (at times quite blatantly), those games with its isometric perspective, character portraits, the party system, dialogue options and a "real-time with pause" battle system. Even the mouse pointer is identical to the one in the Infinity Engine. However, the game is not a complete throwback; you can find unique and innovative elements within.
Of course, fifteen years is a very long time when talking about technology. But this title offers a counter argument to higher resolutions and FPS, in that they don't matter, when you have a talented art team. And the art in Pillars of Eternity is absolutely jaw-dropping.
The visuals aren't realistic. You won't see the wind sweeping up a cloud of dust, nor flames coming to life and billowing around you. You won't see real-time light effects or characters with a 4K moustache. But the game still manages to convincingly immerse the player into a fantasy world.
From the very first minute, you feel that you've been pulled into the fiction, and you begin to discover the unique elements of the world created by Obsidian. Some simple animation techniques breathe life and dynamics into a static image by simulating water flow or introducing a group of animals running around and some basic weather effects.
The game also takes a different approach to telling its story. For example, at the beginning of the adventure you arrive at a town where a dozen bodies hang from a huge tree. This is indeed a brutal image, but the game doesn't relish in the morbidity of the situation. Instead, it uses dialogue, music and the animation of those hanging bodies to create a unique atmosphere.
This is also a great way to arouse the player's curiosity, because you instantly want to know what's going on in the town. Of course, the main way to interact with people in Pillars of Eternity is through dialogue (no, really, there are tons of conversations). And your conversation choices are dependent on what skills you've decided to upgrade.
If you're intelligent enough, your conversations will open up a variety of daring options; if you're perceptive, you'll be able to guess things and establish connections, and if you're an expert in Lore, you might get a piece of information that strengthens your understanding of the world. These expanded dialogue options are sometimes related to the skills and abilities that you have upgraded, to previous dialogues or even to the race, job and origin that you chose when you created your character.
The way you develop your character will also have an influence on other aspects, like the way you solve certain puzzles or deal with some situations in your adventure. Other skills, like Athletic or Survival, might also play a role. Even some of the objects in your inventory can be important.
Sometimes, parchment scrolls with text and simple illustrations appear on the screen to explain certain special moments in our adventure. These narrative events are brilliant because they allow the player to explore the story in a more involving way. You might have to solve a puzzle by touching a number of bells or simply reaching a ledge with climbing gear. These events are dynamic and pop in to great effect; they keep the pace fresh and don't clash with the rest of the game.
The battles and the character development at times mirror those of Dungeons and Dragons. In many aspects, Pillars of Eternity reminds us of the fourth edition of that role-playing game's rules due to the daily powers, the dowry system and even the jobs that we can choose, but fortunately, those are the only similarities. (Well, actually the spells resemble those in D&D too. In fact, you could easily mistake some of them have been taken from the Players Handbook.)
You will also be able to cast enchantments on your weapons, armour, and shields, cook, write scrolls and craft potions using some money and ingredients that you can get by killing enemies or exploring the world. At some point, you will even get your own stronghold, and you will go from hero to feudal lord.
Certain mechanics are a little odd, though. For example, once you've learnt everything about an enemy (and thereby filled their page on your bestiary), you no longer earn XP off defeating them, though XP also comes from completing missions, finding traps, opening locks and discovering new places.
For this reason, you're not able to freely take on any task you wish; you have to be of a certain level. In that respect, Pillars of Eternity is more challenging than other games.
The way the party is formed is a bit strange as well. Basically you can travel alongside some strong personalities, big on talk and well-defined, or just round out your free slots with some hired adventurers from a local inn.
The best thing about Pillars of Eternity is that it has come just at the right time. We've missed these kind of games and some titles released last year, like Wasteland 2 or Divinity: Original Sin, have acted as an appetiser that has fed our cravings for old-school RPGs.
The only negative thing about this game is the fact that it doesn't take risks and the homages can run too deep at times, making it too similar to the games that run on the Infinity Engine.
Apart from that though, this an excellent RPG, with a thrilling story and it certainly makes us believe again in a rebirth of the PC RPG genre.