Perhaps best described as an interactive novel that follows the main plotline of the novel while the player is able to gently influence the events, but not alter things greatly, The Pillars of the Earth, based on Ken Follett's massively successful historical drama, has made its transition to video games courtesy of German adventure game specialists Daedalic Entertainment. It offers Telltale's formula of conversation choice, but without the often far-reaching consequences Telltale are known for in their games, while adding more of a traditional point and click touch to the puzzles players have to solve.
The Pillars of the Earth is a massive work, a real brick of a book, and it was brought to television in the beginning of this decade through nine hour-long episodes (starring Ian McShane and Eddie Redmayne among others). It's no surprise then that Daedalic opted for an episodic format, breaking it down into three books, and the first book, From the Ashes, is just about to be launched, which we've played it from start to finish (prologue and seven chapters). It's a lengthy experience for an episodic release, clocking in at just over 6 hours of playtime, so multiply that by three and you'll have an approximate length of the full game.
The novel focuses on a small town called Kingsbridge and the building of a cathedral, but in a way the cathedral only serves as a backdrop to the political drama that unfolds as factions fight for control of Britain and for personal gain. It also focuses on some lesser players, Prior Philip and the young Jack (later a builder), who find themselves at the centre of the power play. Philip and Jack are two of the playable characters in book one, and you also briefly play as Tom the Builder, who joins with Jack and his mother forming a makeshift family after losing his wife through childbirth and giving up his newborn son at the very start of things.
As a video game The Pillars of the Earth is limited by the constraints on the narrative. It feels a bit strange to make choices only to experience them being made for you, and one such example is when Philip is being nominated for prior of Kingsbridge; you cannot accept or refuse this as it was likely deemed too inconsistent with the source material to allow Philip to turn down the nomination. However, you do have an influence on how things happen and your words and action influence relationships, presumably colouring and tweaking them for events to come.
In terms of its presentation The Pillars of the Earth is something of a mixed bag. Daedalic has opted to go for a painterly look that is quite nice to look at - certain scenes look amazing while others fail to inspire the same feelings. The excellent voice acting helps mask the fairly modest animation work, but there are certain areas that stand out as eye sores. In particular one overview map of Kingsbridge where you move your character at incredible speed without much animation work at all feels like a poor design choice. As it's not much of a hub (it has three exits pretty much) it just doesn't feel like it serves much purpose as it breaks the style of the more intimate scenes elsewhere in the game. Meanwhile, the orchestral music provides a background much like you'd expect from a game based on a novel set during the 12th century and it does a good job of setting the mood.
Unlike recent Telltale titles, The Pillars of the Earth does offer secrets to discover and things to the side of the main plotline. You do collect items that you can learn more of by reading, for example, and while the puzzles are fairly light in difficulty compared to the point and click greats of yesteryear, you'll still have to think once or twice and maybe even lose yourself for a minute or two walking back and forth between rooms as you ponder a solution. To help players who perhaps don't have the patience you can bring up all things you can interact with via the left trigger.
Apart from conversations and light puzzles there are some quick time events that all use the same mechanics where you need to time a button press as a marker moves along a line - not the most inspired of designs, but it does the job. One thing we found playing with a controller (not really an issue with mouse and keyboard) is that you don't automatically move from room to room by walking through a door. Instead you have highlight an arrow and push your A-button (Xbox controller), which is again not an optimal design choice when using a controller. Little things such as this one add up over the course of a playthrough, even if it is still a minor complaint.
There is certainly promise here and the narrative and drama itself are of such high quality that you can overlook that lack of actual consequence to your choices. It's off to a promising start, and hopefully we will feel more consequences of our actions later on in the story as Jack grows up and we also get to play as the disgraced noblewoman Aliena. We're particularly interested in knowing how our deception, and the way it was presented to Bishop Waleron Bigod, will influence future events.
As is our practice with episodic games we will return with our verdict on the full game as soon as Book Two and Three have been released.