A few of us have been playing Pillars of Eternity, the lovely new crowdfunded PC role-playing game that sets out to re-create the vibe of old Infinity Engine games like Baldur's Gate.
Safe to say we love it so far. I've got many more hours to play before I feel comfortable writing a full, thorough review for Pillars, which comes out Thursday, but Kirk and I took some time last night to have a broad chat about what we like and don't like about Obsidian's latest. You can read it all right here.
Jason Schreier: Let's get this started: Pillars of Eternity is a stellar video game. Anyone who liked Baldur's Gate, Planescape Torment, Icewind Dale, or any of those other old isometric PC role-playing games will absolutely love Pillars... and anyone who hasn't played those old games owes it to themselves to dig into PoE nonetheless.
Kirk Hamilton: Right to it! Yeah, I like it a lot. I'll admit that you and I are both kinda in the tank for this kind of game, since we both grew up playing CRPGs like the ones Pillars is (wonderfully) channeling. But I am enjoying the heck out of it. How much have you played at this point?
Jason Schreier: I think my clock is at around 13 hours, but that doesn't count the few hours on my first character (you know it's a good RPG when you feel compelled to start over after three hours just to try a new class) and it definitely doesn't count the time I've spent dying against particularly tough encounters. Hardcore RPG fans will rejoice to know that this is a very challenging game, even on Normal difficulty.
I think I'm in act two. What about you?
Kirk Hamilton: I've played about 8 hours, I'd say. I'm a bit behind you in the story, because I sense I was doing more sidequests, at least at first. I'm currently exploring the first big town, have a full party of six, and I've gotten my head around combat. It was a bit of an adjustment—like you said, this game can have teeth! Incautious adventurers will get wiped out more than a couple times at the start.
Jason Schreier: That first big town, it's worth noting, is nearly as big as the city of Baldur's Gate (from BG1). Defiance Bay, as it's called, has got five districts, a whole lot of buildings, tons of quests, an obligatory sewer/catacomb system, and like four different Kickstarter-backer-named inns. It's not quite as huge as Athkatla, the main city in BG2, but it's a substantial, interesting city, with tons and tons to see and do. And apparently there's another one that's just as big!
Kirk Hamilton: Oh, nice. Yeah, I'm still getting my bearings in Defiance Bay. I walked in on some thieves planning a heist and killed them all. Then I went to the library. Just another day in Dyrwood.
So, let's think... what do people want to know about this game? We're just supposed to be writing "impressions" of it, and neither of us has played enough to say anything SUPER authoritative, but clearly we both feel confident saying this is a good game. What do you like about it?
Jason Schreier: When I first loaded up Pillars, I was bouncing around a few questions: 1) Will this feel like old Infinity Engine games? 2) How deep and interesting are the progression and combat systems? 3) Are the quests going to be more interesting than your average "go kill some rats and deliver this package"? And finally, 4) This is an Obsidian game — is it going to be super buggy?
So let me try to tackle those, after ~13 hours of playing.
1) Yes, in every possible way, from the size and shape of the cursor to the way enemy health displays phrases like "Injured" and "Near death."
2) They definitely take some getting used to, since Pillars of Eternity has replaced the familiarities of D&D with its own set of rules and systems. Gone are +2 weapons and Magic Missiles, replaced by a whole host of unique yet somewhat similar weapons, spells, and mechanics. Let's touch upon all that more in a bit.
3) Sort of. Some of the quests have felt rote; others are really interesting, enhanced by the story and setting, which revolves around souls. Again, more on that in a bit.
4) Surprisingly not buggy! I've seen some typos, and once in a while the game will screw up a script trigger and I'll have to reload an auto-save, but everything's mostly stable, which is lovely.
Whew. OK, lots to talk about there.
Kirk Hamilton: I'm with you on most of that. What's struck me as remarkable about this game is how effectively it demonstrates the potency of a lot of storytelling techniques—writing, in particular—that video game RPGs have "evolved beyond" over the intervening decade and a half. The writing is the most obvious thing—dialogue boxes don't just contain dialogue, they contain descriptions of how the character said what they just said. That's because the characters themselves are tiny little figures viewed from on high—you can't see their faces, let alone their body language—but it's surprisingly, almost startlingly evocative.
At one point early on in the story, the character Edér makes a short joke, which is followed by: "He smiles at this, but it is the smile of one recounting a joke for effect rather than enjoyment." That bit of writing is so effortlessly potent, when it'd take a crew of well-paid animators and mo-cap artists to capture such a thing visually.
Of course, text-based games didn't just stop doing this sort of thing even as big-budget RPGs moved more toward representative animation. Hell, the whole Twine-game resurgence is based on the ideas that 1) Simple writing can more easily capture the imagination than complicated animations and 2) It's much more cost-effective to favor writing over graphics, meaning the games about more things can be made by more people. Back in 2000, the tech limited people and forced game designers to rely on text as a means to convey nuance. Now, it's more optional, but in channeling the vibe and approach of those older games, Pillars is a good reminder that simple writing can be a wonderful thing in a video game.
That was kind of a whole digression, but you know what I'm saying? For all the thoughts I have about the combat design, the quests, and all that, the writing is the thing that really sticks out to me so far, both in quantity and in quality.
Jason Schreier: Yeah, I mean that's been one of Obsidian's finest skills as a developer for years now, from Fallout: New Vegas to Alpha Protocol to Knights of the Old Republic II. They've got some of the most talented writers and narrative designers out there, and that's clear in Pillars, both through the big themes and the little character moments. One thing that's unique to this game is that rather than just striking up random conversations with an NPC, your character can go up to them and look at their soul, which tells you a short story about who they are and where they came from. I haven't done this with every single NPC — there are points where I just want to get on with the story — but the ones that I have read are lovely little bursts of story and flavor.
Kirk Hamilton: I'm amazed that they made so many of those! I've stopped doing them all because there are like five or six in every area I visit, and each one is such a mini-emotional-journey. But while I do like the writing, I guess the specific thing I'm talking about is how the game uses... "every part of the language buffalo," maybe. It uses writing in a way that modern big-budget RPGs rarely do, at least outside of the codex. I can't even remember the last time I played an RPG and the game TOLD me the character's eyes were downcast as he spoke, rather than trying to show me. Like... the "cutscenes" in this game are just text, with music, sound effects, and black and white illustrations. I have to imagine everything. It makes me feel less like I'm playing a modern CRPG and more like I'm doing a pen and paper D&D campaign.
Jason Schreier: Which is awesome! Maybe not for everyone. Maybe Pillars won't sell 40 billion copies like, say, Skyrim has. But if you can appreciate what it's doing, and you don't mind reading a lot, this is something special—an RPG that is OK giving you mini-choose-your-own-adventures where you can decide whether to climb up those vines or throw a grappling hook at the window, all in text. I love that sometimes I'll talk to an NPC and see them lost in thought rather than just cutting straight to dialogue. Or how sometimes I'll try to open a chest and find myself suddenly participating in a text adventure, where I can examine the chest more closely, or try to force it open, or walk away and hunt down the key. It's really rad.
Kirk Hamilton: It really is. It's funny—as much as text-based games have been the province of more experimental indie games over the last few years, this is a good reminder that a lot of that stuff has its roots in more conventional (or, "conventional") PC gaming. Fantasy, dragons, dungeons, the sort of stuff so many big-budget games these days still focus on. Text-based gaming has something to offer everyone! And hey, speaking of conventions—what do you think of the world Avellone & company have built here? I like some aspects, but some of it hasn't quite drawn me in yet.
Jason Schreier: I love it to death. I want to play 5-10 more games in different parts of Eora. (Although I hope they stop putting random Kickstarter backer text in the next ones.) There are so many cool concepts—people constantly reincarnating after death thanks to something they call The Wheel; souls being an integral part of the body that can be manipulated by savvy wizards called animancers; gods walking among humans and waging war... have you read about the Dozens? And how they built the Godhammer? I won't spoil anything here, but man, even without reading the bazillion tomes of lore and history, I'm totally attached to this world, like I am to Westeros or Camorr.
Kirk Hamilton: Yeah, a lot of that stuff is really cool, especially that there was something called "the Godhammer bomb." (It's almost JRPG-ish?) And I like how the game treats souls, and "the wheel," and how we carry these echoes of our past selves around.
I guess something that's turned me off a bit is how... well, how "basic fantasy" a lot of it still feels. It's funny you mention Camorr. You and I are both big fans of the Locke Lamora books, and in re-reading the first one, I'm struck by how Camorr is such a distinctive place because it channels specific cultural touchstones to create a cultural tapestry. Most of the terms and names are vaguely Italian, and the whole thing has this Mediterranean vibe. It helps me see it as a real place, as opposed to a kinda-sorta European land with forests and castles and barbarians and dragons. I think that a lot of my favorite fantastical worlds—like, say, the ones in later Quest for Glory games, or in Grim Fandango—have some sort of specificity to them. By way of comparison, a lot of Eora feels fairly routine. At least so far.
Jason Schreier: Well, this is meant to be the Baldur's Gate successor, not the Planescape Torment successor. But I see your point.
Kirk Hamilton: Hahaha yeah, the Planescape Torment successor is still in development!
Jason Schreier: We should remember, again, that we're still early. It took a large chunk of hours in BG2 before you started getting to the craziest parts of the game, like the Underdark — I imagine that Pillars will have some exotic stuff in its endgame, too.
Kirk Hamilton: For sure. And as Game of Thrones has demonstrated over and over again, it's certainly possible to take a world that seems like Generic Euro-Fantasy and turn it on its head. So, speaking of castles and stuff... I didn't realize that there would be castle customization in this game. You get a whole castle! It's like an Assassin's Creed homestead, only it's a castle.
Jason Schreier: Disappointing amount of customization so far, though. I expected a lot more interesting choices and random events than what I've seen so far, which is basically just "hey go build something new every couple of in-game days." Sometimes we'll get attacked by bandits or whatever, but it feels more like busy-work than actual strategy, which is a shame. I'm spoiled by Suikoden.
Kirk Hamilton: It does feel a liiiittle bit like a mobile tie-in game right now, or something. (Can I say that without sounding like I hate it? I like it!) I got an update that bandits had taken all my earnings, and now I want to build up my walls to keep them out, even if it was just a pop-up that told me.
Also, there's a dungeon under my castle, which apparently goes on... forever? For a long time? What's the deal with this dungeon.
Jason Schreier: So apparently this was promised in the Kickstarter!
Jason Schreier: lol
Kirk Hamilton: holy shit
Jason Schreier: "The Endless Paths started with three subterranean levels, but it can grow larger with your help. For every 2,500 additional backers, the depths of Od Nua's castle become deeper, which means one additional level will be added to the vaults. Continue to spread the word about Project Eternity, and let's see how big we can make The Endless Paths!"
Kirk Hamilton: Ha, so it's like a playable representation of crowdfunding. Yesterday you posted about how some of the ways Pillars' Kickstarter-ness manifests itself in the game can be distracting (I agree), but that strikes me as a pretty good/funny one. Want more levels? Cool, give us more money!
Jason Schreier: Yeah, the stronghold itself was also a Kickstarter stretch goal, hilariously. (Kickstarter stretch goals are ridiculous in general — as if money can directly translate to new features. Money means you can keep people working on a project for more time, which CAN mean more features, but it's silly when Kickstarter creators act as if you can, like, pour $100,000 into a vat and suddenly get a stronghold out of it.)
So, OK, let's talk about the combat. I remember you texting me that you were overwhelmed at first — still feeling that way? It's both similar to and different than old IE games in a lot of ways.
Kirk Hamilton: It's a lot to keep track of, but I've gotten into the groove. I think my issue is that a lot of the combat encounters I've had so far don't quite seem to fit in the rooms where they take place. I've got six characters in my party, and we'll be taking on another six baddies, and the screen winds up looking like this:
It can be hard to figure out basic stuff like who's doing what, who I'm up against and how many of them there are, what their positioning is relative to one another, etc. Pathfinding can be an issue, too—we're not on a grid (I don't think?) but sometimes characters will take weird routes to get to where I asked them to go. When there's enough space to maneuver, things work well and I feel able to play strategically. But in a lot of the indoor areas, things still feel awfully cramped. I'm sure that's at least partly on me, though, and will change as I learn how to better manage my party and formation.
Jason Schreier: Actually, I feel like a big part of strategy is drawing your enemies to the ideal place for positioning your dudes/dudettes. Going into cramped areas is usually a recipe for disaster; I try to send out my ranger's pet to scout and draw enemies to where my party can flank and deal with them.
Kirk Hamilton: But if, say, you walk into a room full of thieves and have to fight them right there, there's no way to do that. That's not always a workable strategy.
Jason Schreier: Right, sure, sometimes you can't get away from a claustrophobic environment, which is Not Great if you want to, say, cast a giant fireball that would also inadvertently blow up your own party members if they were in the area of effect. (edited)
Kirk Hamilton: Yeah, that's definitely true—you have to take your environment into account. Sometimes that feels by design, like with the fireball example you cited. I guess that for me, sometimes it still feels like the areas are just too cramped and, maybe more importantly, the game itself can be too difficult to read once the fur starts flying. Still, like I said, it's something I'm sure I'll get better at as I go.
Jason Schreier: Also something we'll hopefully get better at: sorting through armor and weapons, which can be really overwhelming. It's nice that you have an apparently unlimited Stash for storing goods so you don't have to worry much about inventory management, but Pillars doesn't make it very easy to sort through which items are worth using and which you should just ditch.
Kirk Hamilton: I like that there's so much stuff, since I kinda love sorting inventory items in games like this. But it's already getting a bit beyond my grasp, especially with so many party members and different loadouts.
Jason Schreier: Right, don't get me wrong, I also get a kick out of inventory sorting (which I like to do when my inventory is basically overflowing with shit). It's just going to take a long time before I get the hang of how many grappling hooks to keep around or whether my cipher would do best with a cape that boosts her perception. Pillars isn't afraid to barrage you with unfamiliar systems and information — I'm still not 100% sure how my chanter's songs work — and unlike those old D&D-based games, there's no frame of reference here, you know?
Kirk Hamilton: It's definitely going to take some doing before a lot of this stuff is clear. I trust in the Internet's ability to parse and re-explain dense RPG systems—the wiki for this game should be a pretty killer resource in a week or two—but here at at the start, at least, it can all be pretty confusing and under-explained. I could use a Player's Handbook!
Jason Schreier: Yeah, but also, it's getting me so psyched for this to be an ongoing thing — imagine if there's a Pillars 2 that's as transcendental as the Baldur's Gate sequel was? I'm already stoked to go visit other regions of the world, like the Vailian Republics, which I'm guessing we'll see in an expansion or sequel soon.
Kirk Hamilton: The islands my character hails from sound pretty nifty, too. It's weird to be playing a game and already daydreaming about sequels—I guess that's as good a sign as any that we like it, eh?
Jason Schreier: I mean, I'm also daydreaming about leaving this office and going home so I can play more. Which I am going to do right now.
Kirk Hamilton: Nice, and I'll do the same. Let's maybe re-convene when we've gotten farther into it? And in the meantime, I'm sure I'll be texting you for tips.