This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
It was 1998 and it was a heady time. Geri Halliwell had packed her Union Jack dress and had two feet out the door of the Spice Girls. John Glenn blasted off into space for the second time. Viagra had just been approved by the FDA, inspiring penises across America. And gamers everywhere were getting their first taste of a fantasy role-playing game that would come to define the genre. Amid the likes of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Pokémon Red, and Banjo-Kazooie, Baldur's Gate was king.
It would take 17 years before its heir, Pillars of Eternity, would make its way into a new generation of gamer's bedrooms. But now that it's here young gamers around the world are twirling wands, sharpening axes, and marauding through the fan-funded, zombie-cat-rich land of Eora, where the game is set.
Pillars of Eternity is a fantasy role-playing game developed by Obsidian Entertainment. Which is interesting in itself, because not long ago the studio looked like it was going under. Until, that is, they began a Kickstarter. It ended up being the 10th most successful campaign on the crowd-sourcing site, ever. Just what made so many people chip into the cause, keeping Obsidian active and (relatively) blindly paying for a game, then called Project Eternity, that didn't yet exist?
The short answer: because Baldur's Gate was a landmark in gaming, and the people at Obsidian were largely responsible for it, the company having been born from the ashes of Baldur developers Black Isle Studios. So yes, each dollar contributed was a gamble—but a gamble that's paid off, because Pillars of Eternity is seriously good,
Here are six reasons why.
THE CHARACTER-CREATION SCREEN
It took me an hour to get through the first character creation screen. Not content to rely on typical fantasy tropes such as dwarves and elves, the world's filled with other races from as far away as the Winding White—basically Eora's version of Antarctica. You can play as the expected races, including humans, but you can also play as the Aumaua—imagine if you spliced a Na'vi from Avatar with a Viking warrior—and the Orlan, small and furry fighters who aren't to be underestimated.
Each race has yet more sub-races, such as the coastal and island Aumaua, who differ in the bonuses you get from them. My Kelly's a Fire Godlike. Her skin resembles metal and burnt glass. Flames erupt from her head. She can't wear helmets or hats because they'll burn off. She's seen as a sign—a blessing of Magran, goddess of war and fire.
THE WORLD BUILDING DOESN'T FEEL FORCED
The game doesn't shy away from its world-building, but equally it never feels like it's too much. In the opening ten hours you visit "the capital of a country that had not long ago incinerated a god." You find out about who that god was— St. Waidwen, a reincarnation of the god Eothas, the god of renewal and light, who was destroyed by a group of men and women known as the Dozen, who detonated a bomb called the "Godhammer" on the Evon Dewr Bridge.
Still with me? OK.
You quickly learn that people are reincarnated after death and have multiple lives, and some carry the knowledge of their previous lives with them. As the game goes on things spin further and further—you investigate the roots of something called Waidwen's Legacy, which is causing babies to be born without souls, resulting in beings known as the Hollowborn. If you liked the endless tomes that littered the bookshelves of Skyrim or Dragon Age, you'll be delighted here.
THE WRITING IS SOME OF THE BEST I'VE EVER SEEN IN A GAME
Though this shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone who's played other games by Obsidian, such as the hilarious South Park: The Stick of Truth or the gritty Fallout: New Vegas, it's still refreshing for the genre. Fed up with Dragon Age's endless essays? Pillars of Eternity makes you care rather than feeling like you're running through the lines for a bit-part role in a soap opera. You'll be reading a lot, but it's never a bore. The developers have made a concerted effort to describe little things like the asides during dialogue, such as the characters spitting on the floor.
There was a moment early in the game where Kelly, dressed in just a wisp of a robe, stumbled across a massacre. The bodies were "splayed and bug-eyed," and enemies were "jerking their axes from bodies as if from half-split logs." It's harrowing, and the type of writing that usually appears in dark fantasy novels instead of games.
Amusingly peppered throughout the game are choose-your-own adventure scenes. After the wildly successful 80 Days, which was nominated for Best British Game at the BAFTAs, it's great that games are embracing this visual novel approach. At one point I was swimming through a submerged tunnel and sent my Barbarian, Bruce, down to investigate between the ribs of a sunken skeleton. Bruce drowned.
I wrote this in my notebook yesterday: "I'm halfway through the game and I've just found out that my mate has stabbed me in the back. I am GENUINELY HURT. I want to lift him up and chuck him at a tree but my 'might' attribute isn't high enough. What do I do?"
By this point Kelly had a half-dead pet cat wandering around with her as well as a bunch of witty NPCs who I'm not going to name here in case of spoilers. The thing is, after the climax of the mid-game event, I genuinely did feel hurt. Why? Because the developers had actually made me care for these petite bundles of pixels. And beware, for anyone who can't play Fire Emblem in case you get too invested in your characters: your pack of thieves and ne'er-do-wellers can permanently die. I reloaded one save file four times because my pal Durance kicked the bucket. It adds another layer of strategy to the decision-making.
Something that's relevant here is the game's approach to stats. That "might" attribute mentioned above? Instead of the old RPGs where gamers would notch up points in things like "strength," "charisma," and so on, here "might" means, basically, "strength of attack." This opens up a bonkers amount of options. Wizards can kick ass and Barbarians can finally be clever.
YOU CAN PLAY THE GAME AS A GROUP OF BEARS
Over at PC Gamer, Christopher Livingstone discovered you can play the game as a pack of bears because of the fantastic mercenary features. Basically, you can hire adventurers that you then tailor, just like in the character creation screen. Fed up of dying? Hire a Barbarian to pummel your enemies to mush.
A particularly fun way of doing things is to have six wizards at once. The key thing here is that the game doesn't hang itself by its predecessor's rope—Obsidian haven't been shy about revitalizing the dryer parts of the genre. Better yet, when you finally decide your pack of bears probably won't work in the long run, you can store them in your stronghold—essentially a big castle—for later use. There's also a bunch of new classes available, from the Chanter—a bard who can sing songs that empower the rest of the group—to the Cipher, who can attack the souls of people.
IT'S SURPRISINGLY TOPICAL
We're not talking references to the awful cutting situation surrounding Zayn's flight, but the main plot involves discovering what's at the root of these Hollowborn. It circles around issues of ethics and morality as the player finds out that Animancers have been manipulating souls. Kelly has to decide what to do about it. I can't help but think that if she shuts down what they're doing, her cat companion might, well, die. I'm sure this is all in my head—I'm sure that if I do actually shut it down the cat won't strip off its remaining fur and convulse on the path, retching up its bones like some sort of necrotic fur ball. But the brilliance of RPGs like this is that they at least make you think it might happen.
It's become an ongoing joke that Obsidian doesn't check games for bugs. South Park: The Stick of Truth was allegedly plagued by them, but I never experienced any. If you're worried about that, don't be. Paradox, the game's publishers, have allegedly helped with that process and so far it's got less problems than Skyrim, though there is one game-breaking bug. Ultimately, the thing that makes a good RPG is when there's no gimmick to them. No single feature battles for your attention. They're sandboxes of storytelling. And Pillars of Eternity is a shining example of one.
All screens except "Kelly" via Obsidian.
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