Pillars of Eternity Review: A Nostalgic Masterpiece

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When I was 13, I somehow convinced my mother to let me purchase my very first M-rated game, on the somewhat dubious grounds that I was already so desensitized from seeing them played (and playing them myself) in local game stores that letting me own one of my own couldn’t possibly do any more harm. Fortunately, she relented to this fatalistic but nevertheless accurate argument, and I was allowed to choose just one M-rated game as a test to see whether I could really handle the gameplay involved.

I made my choice count and picked the then-newly released Diablo II. And for weeks afterward, I never played anything else. I obsessively fought my way through the game, spending hours on end conquering every boss and building up my necromancer into a cosmos shattering force to be reckoned with. And when I got tired of single player, I migrated to Battle.net, where I experienced my first legendary armor equipment theft, and as a result, became one of legions of annoying 13-year-olds to try to grief the thief into giving the armor back. Don’t you run away from me, Princess_Leia! I will have my revenge!!!!!!1

Ahem. The point I’m actually trying to make here is that none of this would have been possible were it not for the extraordinarily addictive first hour or so that I spent playing the game, in which its seamless, elegant gameplay completely won me over and had me chomping at the bit to play more even after I was told to go to bed and shut the computer off. It was an experience of instant addiction that transformed me into a lifelong lover of isometric RPG’s, though unfortunately, in the years since, I came to believe that it was an experience born as much of youthful naivete as of good gameplay, and thus an experience that I would be sadly unlikely to experience again.

Oh, how wrong I was. Because in my first hour or so of playing Pillars of Eternity, the same sensation came flooding back. In fact, not only did it do that, but it actually persisted even after I played like an utter idiot and died the first time on only the game’s second encounter. I honestly felt frightened to boot the game up after I’d quit, just because I didn’t like to think how much of a slave to the game I’d be once I was actually good at it.

Pillars of Eternity is good. No, it’s not just good. It’s a nostalgic shot of ecstasy straight to the heart, especially if you grew up playing Baldur’s Gate, the Ultima series, or the aforementioned Diablo series. In fact, people who mournfully recall the days of turn-based RPG’s like Wizardry or Might and Magic will probably also feel their heartstrings throb with joy when they boot the game up.

Start with the character customization. So many RPG’s go out of their way to force a player’s initial character to look and feel as weak as possible, with the theory being (I suppose) that the player should be motivated to find further aesthetic customization and badassery in the game world. However, what this overlooks is that a character you love and enjoy embodying from the start is one that you will only adore more once they exit the entry level.

Pillars of Eternity gets this, to the point of allowing you to basically build a character who looks like a heavy metal album cover right from the beginning, if you so choose. By the time I was finished with character customization, I found myself playing what appeared to be a seven foot tall avatar of death (“Death Godlike” in game terms), whose face was nothing but a pair of blood colored horns crowned by angry looking slits for eyes, whose magic-based class was built on mind control and sucking out his enemies’ souls, and who talked like a mixture of Tony Jay and Benedict Cumberbatch doing his most malevolent Smaug voice.

So yeah, that whole “feeling like a 13-year-old again” thing probably went to my head a bit. However, the fact that I could indulge it that shamelessly before the game even began was so refreshing that even after my character turned out to be much weaker in actual combat than he looked, I didn’t care. I wanted to do the work necessary to make him strong, rather than just restarting with a generic fighter and turning off my brain, the way I would find myself doing with so many less inspired RPG’s.

This adds up to the most blissful experience of control over your own identity and interaction with the world that I’ve seen in a game yet…

Which leads me to the other thing the game does well — it doesn’t bludgeon you over the head with its lore. So many games, including even the gloomy and near-perfect Dark Souls, force exposition down your throat before you’re allowed to even start playing. But when lore is cast as an obstacle to inhabiting the game world in this way, then the player will come to approach nearly all similar worldbuilding or exposition the same way: as an obstacle to be bypassed as quickly as possible. Pillars of Eternity, on the other hand, opens with an extremely brief text crawl that only grounds the circumstances in which the player finds him or herself at that precise moment. From there, everything about your background, and the degree to which you investigate the

From there, everything about your background, and the degree to which you investigate the world, is up to you. Early on, one of the other playable characters will question you about your roots and future goals, and the game provides you with a surprising array of answers, depending on the background you choose for your character. My character, being an aristocrat (because why play a horned, sinister soul sucker if you’re not going to make him a Man of Wealth and Taste), was given several equally convincing adventure hooks, all of which came with a “None of the Above” option, in case your own imagination could outstrip the designers’.

This adds up to the most blissful experience of control over your own identity and interaction with the world that I’ve seen in a game yet, and it’s one that deserves to be emulated by numerous other designers. Other characters who join your party come with pre-packaged backstories, but this actually makes the party-focused element of the game feel less crowded, because even if you might like that female barbarian who can hack and slash her way through a small army of enemies, you’re never going to lose sight of who the real star of this story is.