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RPG Codex Review: Pillars of Eternity, by Decado

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RPG Codex Review: Pillars of Eternity, by Decado

Review - posted by Crooked Bee on Tue 2 June 2015, 17:20:20

Tags: Obsidian Entertainment; Pillars of Eternity

June 2, 2015: Bard's Tale IV Kickstarter launched, taking inspiration from Hearthstone. Larian's composer Kirill Pokrovsky dies at the age of 50. Fallout 4 is teased by Bethesda, with Chris Avellone siding with the latter against the Codex.

Last but not least: RPG Codex publishes a second, positive Pillars of Eternity review submitted by esteemed community member Decado. (Check out the negative review by Darth Roxor here.)

Have a snippet:

PoE is more than the mechanic it uses, and in this regard it exists as more than just a cheap appeal to nostalgia. A lot of people were worried about this project because of Obsidian's (unfairly bestowed, in my opinion) reputation for buggy game play. Apart from some ridiculously silly bugs in the first few days of the game’s rollout, the experience is mega solid and highly polished. I run a custom rig with a lot of silly nonsense running in the background and the worst bug I ever had was the loading problem at Raedric's Hold which was fixed within two days. I am not exaggerating when I say Fallout 3 and Skyrim were more buggy in their initial releases than this game. Solid work on that, Obsidian.

I also need to qualify this review slightly, which is something I almost never do. Playing through the game it seems like, for better or worse, it will appeal to the above-mentioned separate demographics in different ways. To the battle-hardened CRPG nerd there are parts of the game that will no doubt disappoint. And indeed, Darth Roxor's review pretty much covers those complaints in detail. I disagree with many of his points, and I disagree with his final conclusion that the game is a let-down, but some of his criticism are spot on.

[...] When I first started PoE I made some comments in the various threads about the game being at least as good as -- if not better than -- the original IE games. I still stand by that. This review is filled with nitpicking, with only very few heavy-duty complaints that make the gameplay suffer. And if I could summarize my demands into one coherent sentence it would be this: Give me more, and make the complexity count.

There is some brilliant stuff in this game. The setting is familiar enough to conjure memories of other games, but it is just weird enough to feel unique. Many of the characters are gems, with terrific writing and voice acting. Whatever my gripes with encounter designs and/or combat difficulty, most of the time I was having fun, which is really the best way to judge if the combat is any good. Rolling a Monk and changing the difficulty level have both contributed to creating a different experience this second time around, which tells me that the game has replay value (though how much, I am not sure. We'll see). The scripted interactions are a cool addition that could stand to see more implementations, and I think Obsidian needs to bite the bullet and be willing to start gating content ala Wasteland 2, so that player choices feel a bit more hefty. But again, these are minor nitpicks. Overall, I had a really good time.

It is a testament to what Obsidian has made that most of the time, I’m playing a game I really like, sometimes in spite of itself. I spent a good portion of this review complaining, but I still like the game, and am playing it again. Which, if you really think about it, mirrors the experience of playing IE games almost perfectly. All of the IE games had problems, some of them glaring: Torment had lousy combat; BGII had a goofy combination of DnD rules, was often too easy, and the rest mechanic allowed for unlimited cheese; IWD could be underwhelming or even boring at spots, etc. I said before that going nostalgic, as Obsidian has done here, often results in friendly fire, that whatever was good in the old games could be better, but whatever is bad could be worse. With that in mind, one thing you cannot say about PoE is that it fails to accurately mimic playing an IE game back in the late 1990s. If you think PoE isn't a real spiritual successor to the IE games, there is a good chance you are misremembering how the IE games actually played.​

Read the full article: RPG Codex Review: Pillars of Eternity, by Decado



[Review by Decado]

Pillars of Eternity (PoE) is very much a calculation based on nostalgia, in many ways a manipulative shot to the pleasure center of the CRPG nerd's brain, but carefully curated to be approachable by a larger audience. I don't know how successful the latter has been, and unless Obsidian is willing to release sales numbers I don't know that we'll ever find out. But it was obvious what they were trying to do and -- if the mainstream reviews of the game are any indication -- they’ve done well. A bunch of video game reviewers appear to be very happy with themselves for liking such a niche product, which should clue us in.

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A fight with some oozes in Od Nua -- notice the party formation? Get used to it, you'll use it everywhere.

If you don't like the Real-time-with-pause (RTWP) mechanic, you will not like this game. Or rather, it is more accurate to say that PoE won’t really do anything to change your mind on whether or not the mechanic is any good. The fundamental aspects of the RTWP setup are all here, and in fact they are even more numerous than they are in the original IE games. RTWP seeks to create a middle ground between turn based combat and real time combat and it has survived -- if not necessarily thrived -- in this chapter of computer gaming because, if you know what you're doing, it really is a neat mechanic from which you can squeeze a lot of fun.

But PoE is more than the mechanic it uses, and in this regard it exists as more than just a cheap appeal to nostalgia. A lot of people were worried about this project because of Obsidian's (unfairly bestowed, in my opinion) reputation for buggy game play. Apart from some ridiculously silly bugs in the first few days of the game’s rollout, the experience is mega solid and highly polished. I run a custom rig with a lot of silly nonsense running in the background and the worst bug I ever had was the loading problem at Raedric's Hold which was fixed within two days. I am not exaggerating when I say Fallout 3 and Skyrim were more buggy in their initial releases than this game. Solid work on that, Obsidian.

I also need to qualify this review slightly, which is something I almost never do. Playing through the game it seems like, for better or worse, it will appeal to the above-mentioned separate demographics in different ways. To the battle-hardened CRPG nerd there are parts of the game that will no doubt disappoint. And indeed, Darth Roxor's review pretty much covers those complaints in detail. I disagree with many of his points, and I disagree with his final conclusion that the game is a let-down, but some of his criticism are spot on.

But to the larger audience -- perhaps the group of players who played BGII years ago and never picked it up again, or the FPS player who is trying something new -- many of the criticisms of I can offer of the game will simply make no sense. To these people, PoE will likely be a revelation. I'll try to address both groups.

In The Beginning . . .

When the game starts, you are dropped into the world and immediately assailed by funny sounding words and phrases from multiple made up languages. Very often this kind of world-building ends up both looking and sounding clumsy, at least in the world of fantasy fiction. It is a well-known fact that if you are writing a fantasy novel and you want to add depth to your made up world, just sprinkle some apostrophes here and there (Robert Jordan, God help us), use a few "y"s when you really mean "I" and never stray too far from established, European-sounding patterns of speech. I am pleased to say that some of this happens in PoE, but for whatever reason(s) I was not bothered by most it. And this would be my first compliment offered towards the game: the setting is damn good. There has been a lot of talk over the last few years about the long-in-the-tooth approach to fantasy reflexively cribbing from established European motifs, and while PoE does this in spades, it manages to do so without being annoying.

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Durance is a terrifically written lunatic.

The introduction of souls as a well-established property of creatures creates an entirely different tone to this story and the world, something which is hard to overstate. Much of the religious strife in human history has been caused by the simple fact that people really don't know what the hell they're talking about -- everyone is just guessing or full of shit -- but with the certainty of souls, religious discourse in PoE is grounded in (at least some) facts. Souls are real, and so is reincarnation of a sort, so these concrete facts inform much of the discourse about the gods, fate, and the value of human life.

PoE's discourse on gods and divinity is similarly grounded in "reality" insofar as nobody really doubts the existence of gods. Take Durance, arguably the best NPC in the game. Here's a guy who really hates his god, but she is still his god. It never dawns on him to stop believing in her, because that's not really a thing he can do, anymore than you can stop believing in your boss even though he is a dickhead and you hate your job. I'll get more into Durance later on, but in the meantime we should consider how much this approach opens up the discussion on gods, faith, and the role of humanity in all of those things. This all comes down to good, solid narrative writing, of which PoE has plenty.

The beginning of the game is, in much the same way as the opening content, a chance for Obsidian to introduce familiar concepts with a different stamp. There is none of this "chosen one" nonsense in the beginning, and instead you are sent off exploring with a curt, grumpy Calisca . . . oh Calisca, what you might have been! It takes big brass balls to make the obvious investment in this character and then kill her 30 minutes into the game but Obsidian isn't horsing around. I was momentarily upset, especially when I realized I would have to finish the dungeon with Heodan, but thankfully he also gets brutally murdered. Anyway, it is this kind of commitment that makes PoE stand out from a lot of other games: the willingness to go all George RR Martin on your ass and kill a character you actually like, in a pretty petty and meaningless way. Anyway, let's talk mechanics.

Mechanics

On my first playthrough I rolled a human Paladin with a good spread between Might and Resolve, so we might as well start with the stats. A lot of people were skeptical of Obsidian's from-scratch implementation of a DnD-esque game system, but it turns out alright. Might, for example, is the damage and healing stat, regardless of what kind of damage or healing you're talking about. If you're using a great sword, a pistol, or a wand, your Might score is the stat that determines starting damage. If you've ever played practically any other CRPG, this is a fairly radical departure from tradition and it caused a bit of a stir when they rolled out the idea. But I have to say -- and here let me offer a criticism that I will expound upon later -- that the stat system sort of fades into the background of this game. You might be morally offended that the "Might" stat is influencing your Wizard's wand damage, or powering your Lay On Hands, but don't worry. It ends up not mattering a damn.

Obsidian made a lot of hay over the idea that there would be no "bad" builds in PoE. There would be sub-optimal ones, sure, but there would be no way to build a character that was fundamentally unable to finish the game. I did not test this proposition per se, but I did glean some insight into what they were thinking, and on a very basic level their design philosophy is sound. It appears that you can roll a wizard who uses rapiers, and you can -- provided you pay attention -- survive and thrive in various combat encounters. In my particular Paladin build, I ended up unintentionally creating a facsimile of Pallegina: a support-oriented, classic Paladin with decent damage output, focused on great swords and front-line combat.

PoE offers a bevy of customization options for your character, to include race, culture and, in cases like Paladin's, the ability to choose an order. I went with the Shieldbearers of St. Elcga, which favors the more benevolent problem-solving methods. Had I been paying attention, I would have realized my Paladin was a more tankish class than I would have otherwise picked. Considering that by the end game Eder is a near unkillable block of granite, two tanks is really a waste of time and space.

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Eder is basically the tank to end all tanks. He makes Alistair look like a loser.

On top of of all of this customization, the game mechanics feature four different types of defenses, three different types of physical damage, four types of elemental damage, raw damage, mental attacks, and a bevy of status conditions (poisoned, prone, etc). Really, there is a ton of stuff going on, and this is a great spot to talk what I mentioned above. It is very likely that a casual, non-insane computer gamer who liked BGII and IWD will find this variety staggering and wonderful, the very essence of depth in a video game. To the jaded grognard who is suspicious of everything made after 1989, some disconcerting cracks may begin to appear.

Chief among them is that all of this complexity and variety doesn't feel like it changes things very much. I played the game on the default "Normal" mode, which is something I always do when playing a game for the first time , especially if I think I'm going to end up writing about it. Just considering the range of damage types, I never felt like I needed to change a weapon mid-combat because it never seemed to make much of a difference; fighting a creature strong against slashing attacks was never enough of a problem to where I needed to switch from a great sword to a morningstar. It always made more sense to just keep chipping away, because the penalties were so small as to be meaningless.

This feeling feeds a larger sense that your choices in character design don't do much after you've picked a class. Or to put it another way, class is the most important factor, to a degree that makes all other choices minimally relevant (at best). Now in some ways this is the classic DnD problem all over again, and if you like that style (and plenty of CRPG fans do) this might not bother you. But I feel like even BGII, with its kits and decades of class refinement behind them, did a better job of differentiating between a varied types of fighters, or paladins, or wizards. You don't really get that feeling in PoE. This is not to say the classes don't play different, because that is probably the most notable way in which differences manifest themselves in the game. But specializations within class feels a little bit underwhelming. Improving your Lay On Hands, as opposed to improving your Flames of Devotion, doesn’t spell a new way for you to play the class. You might like this limitation, or you might not, but I had to chuckle in watching Obsidian wade into this fray. Ain't no war like class war.

Attributes feel even less important, if you can believe that. I set my Might and Resolve scores in the beginning of the game, and never cared about them afterwards. I am not saying that there is no difference between a Human with 21 might and an Orlan with 3 might (because obviously, there is!) but after you set those scores there seems to be precious little to worry about on the number front. Some items will boost your main stats, but the increase in numbers doesn’t feel like it does anything. Getting the Girdle of Hill Giant Strength in BGII felt like something, because it made your character noticeably more powerful, especially in the beginning of the game. Once you set your stats in PoE, however, you won’t care about them for the most part.

The magic system in PoE is a mixture of different Vancian concepts. You have limited spells per level/per rest as per older DnD rules, but these slots are not taken up by specific spells -- you can (and likely will) cast four fireballs in a row. This is freeing in a sense, but also a little disappointing because so many of the spells in PoE are no-brainers. Why bother with spells that effect attributes, when damage or status effects like confusion and prone are so much more useful? This echoes the larger concern I wrote about above, in that everything seems to take a backseat to just doing damage; combat doesn’t last long enough to justify investments on roundabout ways to hurt your foes.

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Vancian-ish Magic

What’s confusing about this is the fact that the repertoire of priest’s spells does a better job of causing useful status effects, the tradeoff being that they very rarely get into the damage-dealing business. This is a traditional compromise that will surprise nobody who has played CRPGs, but the issue here is that priest spells seem better balanced. Durance, for example, does not have many damage dealing spells, but the ones he does have (Pillar of Holy Fire, Pillar of Faith, various seals) are nothing to laugh at. But his healing and status-changers are also pretty nice. Compare this to the mage, who has great damage dealing and one or two status-changers (Confusion, Gaze of Adragan) that are worth using, and you are left wondering why the mage class feels so limited. Mages are are almost pure damage dealers, and there doesn't seem to be any way around it.

These above problems are exacerbated by what is a pretty disappointing item/equipment mechanic; in fact, I would call this the biggest misstep in the game. I'm the most familiar with great swords, so look here for a perfect example of what I'm getting at. The base damages for the midrange swords all pretty much identical, with a very shallow progression. I used Raedric's sword for about 85% of the game, which is a bit ridiculous considering I got it in Chapter 1. I switched to Tidefall when I got it, but that's it. I used two swords for the entire game, and that doesn't feel right. Armor is a little better, but Eder starts with Saint's War Armor with an enchantment -- "Second Chance" -- that makes it almost indispensable for the first chapter of the game (Some people have even said they used the armor through the whole game. I can't verify if this is a good idea).

This lack of "oomph" in treasure plagues the whole game, with there often being no meaningful differences between even legendary weapons. Comparing this to, say, BGII one can see how much room there is for improvement. To continue with great swords as an example, in BGII you go from Sarevok's sword, to Lilarcor, to Carsomyr (maybe!) or the Warblade +4 (maybe!) or Flame of the North, or Gram, or the Psion's Blade . . . you get the idea. Now there are clearly some swords that are better than others, but they all felt different, and they acted different, and they did different things. Like PoE, the base damages of these weapons are all fairly flat, but the difference is I am not really given a reason to care about anything other than damage, because all of the other characteristics feel so underwhelming. This argument applies to everything -- shields, pistols, wands, and most wearables. I don't think I ever switched out my main's cape because, well, it didn't seem to matter.

The only caveat I can offer here is that perhaps, as I come to uncover more of the game through repeated playthroughs, the complexity of the item system will open itself up. Or, perhaps playing it on a harder difficulty level (as I'm now doing with my newly-rolled Monk) will make differences in equipment more meaningful. But as it stands now, you can fairly easily breeze through the game without worrying too much about what weapon you're holding, and that's a shame.

Class is the most definitive marker of how you will play the game, and this is largely due to class abilities. Unsurprisingly, when Obsidian decides to break the DnD mold and go off exploring, they come back with three character classes that are interesting and fun to play. The Chanter, Cipher, and Monk all have new, built-from-scratch mechanics that are unique to their respective classes. My experience with the Monk and the wounds/power trade-off has led to some scenarios I never faced with my Paladin: should I continue to take a beating and accrue wounds before some really heavy damage comes my way, or should I let Eder wade in and take the heat off? I am still early in the game with a Monk, but it seems possible to tank the entire game with the class, and if you look at the Monk's class stats, with their high endurance and deflection modifiers, they appear to be built for it. My only gripe with the Monk so far is that some powers, like Force of Anguish, seem a bit OP'd. But overall, the class is a lot of fun to play.


Combat

All of this stuff -- class, abilities, weapons -- is important because I'd say 80% of the game is fighting. Lucky for us, the combat is mostly well done. The internal logic for weapons is sound, insofar as damage, speed, and interrupt chance are all things that you should (theoretically) care about. The engagement mechanic, essentially Obsidian's take on aggro, adds a crowd-control device that was missing from most of the Infinity Engine games. There seems to be a good set of trade-offs between melee, ranged, and magical combat. For my first playthrough, I had two melee fighters: Eder and my paladin, Victor, three if you count Sagani's useless fox. The rest of my party were ranged, with Aloth and Durance packing wands or scepters, Sagani on the bow, and Kana with his mighty arquebus. This usually meant putting Eder and Victor up front, Aloth lobbing the occasional spell, Durance being his badass self, and Sagani and Kana loosing projectiles. This set up gave me very good control over the battlefield, and I rarely had melee characters rushing past my own to engage my mage or ranged attackers. When this did happen, sometimes I was prepared and sometimes I wasn't, and my back-rank guys were sufficiently squishy to warrant my concern. For example, teleporting enemies will phase in behind your melee guys and simply wreak havoc on your spell casters, and guys like Aloth simply cannot handle the pounding -- he goes down like a sack of potatoes. Or, there are some instances where the sheer number of melee enemies, combined with a wide open space, can overwhelm Eder's engagement limit, sprint past the line, and start wailing on your dudes.

In PoE you have to actually care about party placement, and using chokepoints can often mean the difference between an easy win and a hard-fought slog. I rarely used consumables, but again this might be because I played the game on "Normal." By the end of things I had a trunkload of unused ingredients, mostly because I felt no great need to do anything with them.

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Look at all this! Seriously, look at it.

The endurance/stamina system that Obsidian introduced here is nicely done, and presents a break from the traditional high/low HP mechanic -- a nod to Darklands, one of JE Sawyer's favorite games. It is not very intuitive at first -- much like DA:O, the number you need to care about in combat (in this case endurance) rapidly fills itself after each encounter; this makes endurance a short term resource, and health a long term one. But I only ever worried about health with the more frail, cloth-wearing members of my party because, based on their class, your front line tank-ish types will have more health than you know what to do with.

The resting mechanic is also a nice touch, but I have found this to be a contentious opinion among some who have played PoE, chiefly because they found that it didn't impact the difficulty of the game. As a resource management mechanic, it was serious enough to warrant my attention, but not something about which I had to constantly fret. I like this, other players may not. The biggest threat to running out of camping supplies is not some Betrayal at Krondor game-ending scenario where you are stuck in a dungeon with no way out, no way to rest, and no way to proceed through the level. If you run out of supplies, the worst thing that happens is that you have to backtrack to another location where you can buy them . . . but that's bad enough, for me. My supreme hatred of this kind of meta-gaming back-and-forth presents enough of an incentive for me to be judicious in my use of supplies.

The distinction between per-rest and per-encounter abilities mirrors the health/endurance mechanic in that you should be balancing your use of less-powerful per-encounter abilities against the more-powerful per-rest abilities. At least, this is how it supposed to work in theory but, aside from spells, I rarely wound up in a situation where I wanted to use a per-rest ability but couldn't. And in fact, it seems like per-encounter abilities are always going to be a better bet than per-rest ones, if you have to choose, because it all comes down to combat, and combat is won in the short term. A lot of this boils down to the game becoming too easy later on, but more on that in a moment.

If BGII suffered from any poor design choices, it was the one that allowed you to rest almost anywhere you wanted, whenever you wanted. This effectively neutered any kind of resource scarcity, since you didn't have to worry about your hit points or spells over the long term. The only thing you had to care about was making it through the current fight, after which you could rest for free and get all your spells back. PoE's attempt to fix this problem with camping supplies and per-rest/per-encounter abilities succeeds, most of the time, but it strikes me as something highly dependent upon difficulty level.

Encounter design is another area in which there seems to be some profound . . . agitation. I do not agree with some of the Codex complaints that encounter design in PoE was uniformly terrible, though I will say that my above formula with Eder up front made most encounters start -- and end -- the same way. It also doesn’t help that the guy is nigh unkillable. Anyway, sometimes you will stumble into a horde of enemies completely unprepared, but there are also some instances where a careful reading of the terrain will announce an upcoming fight (say, the sewers under Raedric's Hold), and you are rewarded for positioning your party and dropping down (the limited selection of) pre-fight buffs. The two fights against Raedric, and the two dragons in the Paths of Od Nua, are examples of tough encounters that will really test your mettle; on the other hand, fights against the game's main antagonist organization are frequently underwhelming, if not completely cheesy. And sometimes the game is guilty of simply throwing enemies at you in a way that feels lazy. But overall, encounters rarely left me me bored, and they were frequently exciting and challenging, which is the best I can declare about any video game combat, really. I have to say, I don't get all the disgruntled grumbling about the game's encounter design.

Separate from encounter design, PoE falls into the same problem that most CRPGs fall into, which is that by the last third of the game, combat is almost stupidly easy. Again, normal mode disclaimer, but I did notice a significant drop off in difficulty after getting to Twin Elms. The sweet-spot is really the latter half of Chapter II. And while I know I shouldn’t be disappointed, PoE also suffers from an economy that makes no sense, something else that most RPGs fail to get right. By the end of the game, with a fully built stronghold, I had almost 100,000 GP and nothing to spend it on. It was basically Skyrim all over again. And don't get me started on the stronghold. I can't offer any criticism of that system beyond what Roxor said in his review. It felt tacked on and cheap.

The parts of the game that are not combat, like exploration or dialog, present nice breaks amidst streams of fighting. Obsidian talked a lot about scripted game encounters where your party would be forced to make a choice, and ideally these would be used to flesh out the game play. For example, there is a locked sewer grate here, will you 1) Use your might score to break it 2) Use your mechanics score to pick the lock or 3) Bend the bars with a pry-bar in your inventory? These little set-pieces are awesome . . . so why aren’t there more of them? They are one of the few times that your skills -- ranging from stealth to athletics to mechanics -- are useful in a concrete way. For most of the game, stealth and mechanics are the only two skills worth investing in, and if you don’t plan on sneaking or scouting, your only concern is picking locks and disarming traps.

Overall, spending 80% of the game engaged in combat is not an ugly proposition. They really nailed the old-school feel of the IE combat systems, but like a lot of other modern games that bunt nostalgic, sometimes the amplification is indiscriminate; by this I mean that the good things about the IE formula are made great, but some of the bad things are made worse. The reliance on class is a good example, but none of this is game-breaking. And, as I've mentioned frequently, it is mostly stuff that will fly under the radar of casual players and so-called "hardcore" reviewers. I can say this because I've read the reviews (and if you're reading this, you likely have too). You can see what they’ve complained about, readily enough. And it seems this isn’t on the list.


Story/Writing

Durance is an awesome character, and he represents the epitome of what Obsidian and company are good at when they can get out of their own way. He is by turns funny, nasty, rotten, mean, generous, spirited, violent, and helpful. He is fascinating precisely because I don't think there is another character I've played in a game (ever) that he feels similar too. They managed to write him so that he does not feel schizophrenic, and his background is presented in a way that is -- despite all of the character's entrenched nastiness -- oddly sympathetic. His voice acting is the best in the game (supposedly provided by Patrick Seitz, but I can't confirm that), perhaps one of the best I've ever heard in a game, period.

A lot of people have been going on about Durance and Grieving Mother, precisely because they are great examples of terrific character writing combined with sensible pacing, a sense of awareness, and a great voice acting. Like most non-AAA developers, Obsidian can't afford to get a Patrick Stewart or a Gary Oldman to voice a character, but that's actually a good thing. Nothing against P-Stew or Dracula, but they aren't really professional voice actors, at least not like the guy who makes a living reading terribly shitty translated anime dialog . . . and these are exactly the type of people who can get into the head of a wide-eyed religious fanatic without overselling the whole thing. And while Durance sounds great, it bears noting that all of the voice acting is excellent.

RPG veterans will likely find the main story a bit flavorless. I was disappointed here because while there are tinges of "Chosen One" nonsense in the beginning of the game that go in a slightly different direction than you might expect, it ends up being a rather banal climax. It is interesting that you are not the only Watcher, that being a Watcher is a phenomenon that exists in the world apart from you, but it is still a bit too "special" to shake off the trope entirely. Obsidian does some really interesting stuff with regards to souls, memories of previous lives, and the blurring of different personalities over time. The Hollowborn plot itself is also pretty damned good, and dark to boot -- babies born without souls, and the panic that follows? Great stuff, appropriate to the setting and utilized to give other characters (like Durance, who sees no problem with killing Hollowborn babies) some added dramatic heft. Side quests are cool and engaging, and your companion’s quests -- Kana, Durance and Eder specifically -- are well-written, spaced out, and important enough to matter. Except for some blandness in the main narrative, and the occasional over-reliance on adjectives and info dumps, this is solid writing and certainly better than what you get in most modern games.

The only thing that tends to stink in the game, writing-wise, is the backer content. As a Watcher, you will often be able to “see” the souls of random NPCs, designated by those characters with a yellow name plate. Most of the writing that fills in these scenes reads like overwrought, angsty nonsense written by a teenager who just discovered Game of Thrones. And I can’t help but wonder if some of the backer-designed items are why the itemization seems so uneven, but there’s nothing to be done about that. If they plan on doing more crowd-sourced games, my advice to Obsidian would be to skip the tedious backer-content. Most of it sucks.

Art and Music

The music is great. I get hints of Morrowind here and there, with the occasional brassy, explosive sounds of BGII and the whimsical, tribal tones of IWD. I am not an art critic (thank god) but the 2D art, character portraits, spell effects, and map are all terrific. The only place things fall down is on the icons for weapons and armor. I miss the big, colorful icons of BGII. When you equipped Carsomyr, or even looked at it in your inventory, you knew you had something special. I don't get that feeling when I equip Tidefall, or throw on a new cape, though the unique/legendary armors do look quite good in in character portrait mode. But anyway, the art is great and if you don’t like it, you’re dumb.

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Great set pieces like these really showcase PoE's art.

Summary

When I first started PoE I made some comments in the various threads about the game being at least as good as -- if not better than -- the original IE games. I still stand by that. This review is filled with nitpicking, with only very few heavy-duty complaints that make the gameplay suffer. And if I could summarize my demands into one coherent sentence it would be this: Give me more, and make the complexity count.

There is some brilliant stuff in this game. The setting is familiar enough to conjure memories of other games, but it is just weird enough to feel unique. Many of the characters are gems, with terrific writing and voice acting. Whatever my gripes with encounter designs and/or combat difficulty, most of the time I was having fun, which is really the best way to judge if the combat is any good. Rolling a Monk and changing the difficulty level have both contributed to creating a different experience this second time around, which tells me that the game has replay value (though how much, I am not sure. We'll see). The scripted interactions are a cool addition that could stand to see more implementations, and I think Obsidian needs to bite the bullet and be willing to start gating content ala Wasteland 2, so that player choices feel a bit more hefty. But again, these are minor nitpicks. Overall, I had a really good time.

It is a testament to what Obsidian has made that most of the time, I’m playing a game I really like, sometimes in spite of itself. I spent a good portion of this review complaining, but I still like the game, and am playing it again. Which, if you really think about it, mirrors the experience of playing IE games almost perfectly. All of the IE games had problems, some of them glaring: Torment had lousy combat; BGII had a goofy combination of DnD rules, was often too easy, and the rest mechanic allowed for unlimited cheese; IWD could be underwhelming or even boring at spots, etc. I said before that going nostalgic, as Obsidian has done here, often results in friendly fire, that whatever was good in the old games could be better, but whatever is bad could be worse. With that in mind, one thing you cannot say about PoE is that it fails to accurately mimic playing an IE game back in the late 1990s. If you think PoE isn't a real spiritual successor to the IE games, there is a good chance you are misremembering how the IE games actually played.

I get the sense that main point of disagreement among players has to do with how hardcore the game is, and this hearkens back to what I wrote about in the very beginning. I used to think that it was possible to make a game appeal, within common sense limitations, to players of all skill levels. PoE seems to be the living point of proof that this is impossible, or at least the task is more difficult than it is worth. I have no doubt that, much like DA:O, the game will inspire a contentious and vigorous love/hate debate among the more hardcore RPGers that make up the Codex's user base. But even though the most hardcore player will get a lot out of the game, I imagine the people most impressed will be the ones who are less invested.

Because overall we’re talking about a pretty damned good game that, were there no attachment to the IE legacy, would still easily stand on its own. This is the irony of creating art based on nostalgia, at least as far as I can tell. It is easier to get started, but the stakes are higher. You can’t just copy what came before, because that is lazy and cheap. But neither can you deviate from the core formula, because pretty soon you’re talking about a “different” game. I might be letting Obsidian off the hook a little bit, perhaps bamboozled by the trip down memory lane. But none of their errors seem unforgivable and anyway, I don't know how you can create a game based on memory and get it all right. Nostalgia is always lurking the background, ready to smooth over the rough edges of your memory with the pleasant experience of going back in time.

There are 522 comments on RPG Codex Review: Pillars of Eternity, by Decado

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