I’m a fan of the RPGs from companies like Bioware and Obsidian. I haven’t beaten a lot of them, but I do enjoy playing them a great deal. Between getting on sites like Completionator, and recently (as of this writing) finding myself in between jobs, I’ve found myself with a bunch more time to play video games (when I’m not going through the process of looking for work). That, combined with a recent hiatus in my regular D&D group, gave me the time to finally beat Pillars of Eternity – not long after the sequel came out.
This review will contain some spoilers.
Pillars is the first in a run of titles from Obsidian that they’ve made in their own settings, instead of worlds that were created by other companies (like their D&D games or Fallout: New Vegas). It’s interesting to take in, because, in a sense, this game gives the team at Obsidian an opportunity to lay out, basically, what are we? What makes Obsidian’s RPGs so very different from other companies, when you take other people’s settings out of the equation?
The answer to that question is, basically, games with morally complex stories, and kind of complex gameplay, though they can be a little rough on the combat front. Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoyed the combat here. However, it felt like on the back end, Obsidian was trying to build their own version of D&D 3rd Edition or Pathfinder from the ground up, and they did not do a great job of surfacing how those systems worked behind the curtain, and in turn as a consequence it’s really easy to find yourself at a dead end in several respects that can lead to hassles down the road.
This particularly comes into play with the attribute system and skill system. The game doesn’t do a great job at putting forward what attributes help mitigate (for example) mind control attacks, which can cause your party members to end up spending part of a combat turning on you. Or, for example, setting up the skill curve to level up your characters skills (and what skills are more important than others) so you can handle some of the late game traps. This latter case is particularly an issue because at a point your party has enough perception to spot traps in the level environments, and even can have information on how to avoid those traps, but the AI’s pathfinding doesn’t have enough sense to avoid the traps that the characters have already spotted.
It was enough of an issue by the end of the game that I felt that rather than have to contend with this particular issue, it was better to just go into the console, and crank up the relevant skill ranking, just to get the traps out of my way, rather than having to deal with the micromanaging tedium of routing characters through various traps.
Combat uses a semi-real-time system similar to how combat is handled in the most recent versions of Kenzer and Co.’s Hackmaster – spells (both in terms of their casting time and their effects), weapons, and movement all take time in seconds (rather than turns and rounds like in D&D). In Hackmaster that worked really well because you’re either abstracting combat through the power of imagination, or you’re using miniatures on a grid-square map, so there’s a more granular degree of control. However, with Pillars, with how the combat works combined with how the pathfinding doesn’t quite manage, it makes combat a bit of an onerous chore – one which will hopefully be fixed in Pillars 2.
The story, however, works a bit better, with a conflict between two religions that resulted in the murder of a God leading to potentially a generation of children being born without souls, known as Hollowborn. After our protagonist stumbles into an occult ritual being performed by the game’s antagonist, Thaos, which awakens the memories of the person they were in a past life, our protagonist has to get to the bottom of what Thaos is up to, and how it relates to the Hollowborn.
As a setting, Pillars of Eternity wants to try to walk that fine line between what’s familiar in a tabletop RPG setting while bringing some new ideas to the table. There are Elves, Dwarves, and a halfling-esque race called “Orlan” in the setting, but they aren’t mono-cultures the way they are in standard D&D fiction. Not all Dwarves have beards, and indeed there are tons of them who have nothing whatsoever to do, culturally, with mining.
It kind of works, but there are a few places where it stumbles – in particular with how the mythology is structured. In most D&D and D&D inspired settings, they’re either straight-up monotheistic, or they’re polytheistic in a manner that goes halfway between monotheism and how polytheism was historically practiced in our world – where people have a primary god that they worship, but there are other gods of that pantheon that generally coexist. This is probably close to how things worked in Ancient Rome with the confluence of civic religion and Mystery Religions like Mithraism.
Pillars of Eternity doesn’t quite work that way. Instead, we have a Polytheistic pantheon with members of that pantheon who would really like to shrink down the size of the pantheon, possibly to one. One of the worst examples of this is one of the first party members we get in the game – Durance.
Durance, we learn early on, is one of the people who (with the assistance of divine inspiration) designed and built the Godhammer, a massive bomb that killed the god Eothas and which in turn lead to the start of the Hollowborn plague. He resents his patron deity, Magran, for not speaking to him since then, and frequently refers to her as a “whore”. However, he also holds other deities besides Magran in contempt, and would probably be just fine with killing all of them too.
Frankly, this is an attitude that, if it was held in any other polytheistic society, would be considered insane and certainly destructive to the social norms. I appreciate Obsidian’s desire to do something different, but I also get the impression that they didn’t take the time to think about the hows and whys of polytheistic society – especially considering how more monotheistic religions like the Abrahamic faiths came into existence by comparison.
This also leads to the problem with Durance as a companion – his attitude towards Magran basically ends up carrying towards other women. This practically goes to the point that he’s the religious equivalent of a guy who gets turned down at a party, gets pissy, and declares himself an “incel” and starts calling all women whores. To get into a minor spoiler – considering that his plot arc leads to him seriously considering killing all the other gods including Magran this seems like a valid comparison.
This also makes for a rather unpleasant problem because unless you roll a cleric as your character, Durance is the only cleric you get in the game, and at no point does your party just have enough and decide to call the bastard on his bullshit. Other party members will tell him off in incidental dialog, but there’s never really a meaningful opportunity to make it clear his behavior is not cool and to get him to stop – and nobody else is able to heal the party at the same level, so unless you want to be trucking around the Dyrwood (the game’s setting) with a piece of shit Red-Piller for 110 hours, you should roll a cleric.
This also actually leads into the game’s 11th-hour twist – which I need to spoil here so I can talk about it, so if you don’t want to know the twist, leave now.
The game’s twist is that the Gods are artificial constructs created by people, and thus we’re better off getting rid of them. It’s not handled well. The justification for this explanation is basically based around the various cruelties you’ve seen committed in the Dryrwood in the name of religion – except as mentioned before, polytheism, as practiced in the Dryrwood, is nothing like polytheism as practiced in any other real-world society. Furthermore, we have no outside context to how religion is practiced anywhere else in the world, and there is the implication that the Dryrwood is something of an outlier – that it’s like judging the Abrahamic Faiths as a whole (including Judaism and Islam) based on the worst parts of the Bible Belt.
So, with a couple of exceptions, there are no counter-examples to what we see in the game. The one voice of, for lack of a better term, atheism, we encounter in the game – and very late in the game – is something of a voice of Sagan/Tyson-style humanistic-atheism (“The world is wondrous and you don’t need a God to appreciate it – and because we don’t have a God to help us we must rely on each other to build a better world”). However, the level of bile and hate shown for all the other gods, combined with the fact that the main party member that we have to rage at the gods for their cruelty is… Durance, who has committed tremendous amounts of cruelty in the name of those gods in the past, and seeks to commit more cruelty in the future against those gods, and I can’t help but feel more like the story is slanting in the direction of Dawkins/Hitchens Atheism (“Atheism means I’m better than you – and fuck all y’all haters who ain’t down with me! Any theists are Fair Game!”)
That’s probably not the actual narrative intent, but with everything leading up to that point, it’s what I end up getting. Further, since the sequel is not only already out, but also as of this writing they’re working on DLC, we’re not likely going to get a “Tell off Durance” patch in the original game. Further, there’s some very important information about the game’s story that you end up missing if you don’t have Durance, which honestly, also precludes kicking him out of the party entirely.
So, while I enjoyed most of the game’s story, and thought the gameplay was okay, I would also say that Pillars of Eternity should be an object lesson to game writers about the perils of making information that is vital to understanding a game’s main plot dependant on having a toxic party member. No matter what tone you were shooting for, making the story dependant on that character will color the story in manners that you did not intend and will encourage players to drop the game entirely.
Pillars of Eternity is available on the PC on Steam, GOG, and Amazon.com. (That last was a referral link – the others not so much). There are also console ports – I can’t speak for the controls on those, as I didn’t play those versions. I can imagine navigating the map on those versions will probably be kinda sluggish – that was a problem with the console version of Divinity: Original Sin.
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