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Pillars of Eternity - A Review

by David "Corwin" Yarwood, 2015-04-23

                                          PILLARS of ETERNITY - A Review

It was late 1998 when those immortal, and for some, life changing words were first uttered: “You must gather your party before venturing forth.” The game was Baldurs Gate and the PC RPG was back.

Now, nearly 17 years later comes BG 3, …er, Pillars of Eternity; if nothing else, a definite spiritual successor to the original BG. It even has those famous words. As I played the game I continuously felt transported back to those wonderful IE engine games from Bioware/Black Isle, which is not surprising considering many of the same people were involved.

Probably the toughest decision in the game has to be made at the outset: Character Creation. So many choices, so many possibilities, so little direction. If one assumes that the average person to play this game won’t have spent hours either on the forums, or playing the beta version, then the manual is not particularly helpful considering the differences between the classes/races available in Pillars compared to the perhaps better known ones from Dungeons & Dragons. Sadly, since 1998 the one thing which has gone backwards in gaming is the usefulness of the ‘game manual’.

Whilst many of the classes actually sound like those from D&D, there are many subtle differences. For example, traditionally a Wizard makes no use of the ‘Might’ attribute; that’s for the fighter classes. However, in Pillars it’s a Primary Stat for Wizards. Bottom line, it’s absolutely necessary to READ up about each class before making a final choice unless you plan to try out a large assortment of builds before settling in to play the game properly. The good news is that most builds are viable (at least on Easy and Normal difficulty levels) so it’s not a major issue if you get one stat wrong. As part of the game design, there are no truly ‘dump’ stats for any given class; all are helpful to some degree depending on other choices you may make. As well as class and race choices, assigning attribute and skill points you get to make choices about special talents and even your background. This, too, affects your character’s attributes, so read carefully and choose wisely.

Fortunately, there is a relatively short tutorial section in the game which should allow a person to decide if the build they have chosen is right for their play style. The interesting thing is that all secondary skills are available to all classes; some simply get a headstart in the number of levels they have in the skill during character creation. Want your Priest to be a ‘trap-monkey’, no problem.

One important point to remember here is that this is a party-based game, but you initially only create your main player character. After that, you can either recruit other NPC’s to your party, or pay a fee and create your own NPC’s at the various Inns you discover as you explore. Not all classes are available to recruit, the rogue and the monk for example, but as your party is limited to 6 active characters that is really not a major issue. Between recruiting and creating you cover whatever bases you wish. Once you obtain your Stronghold (which is fairly early in the game) you can store extra companions there and give them other tasks to do while they await your later call to action. Being able to change the composition of your party quickly and easily is a definite bonus.

Because all the classes operate differently from what most people may expect, I do strongly recommend that everyone become familiar with each class if only to make level-ups meaningful, as once an NPC joins your party, you have total control over their actions and development. Some I found easy to work with, while others, such as the Chanter, took much more thought. The depth of character choices available and how they can work together is clearly one of the many strengths of this game. It can also be one of the many challenges. To some extent, I felt I had to ‘unlearn’ many of the usual gaming tropes.

I could wax lyrical about the various character classes for pages, but half the fun of these games is discovering things for yourself, so I’ll move on. While people argue over what are the key elements for any RPG, most would agree that interesting characters, a good story and a variety of engaging quests would be near the top of the list. All are to be found here.

There are a massive number of quests in this game; some form part of the main story line, while others are optional side quests, but nearly all are fun and worthwhile doing; many contain interesting twists and differing options from talking your way out of trouble to killing everything in sight. Between quests there is a ton of exploration (it’s a HUGE game world) and many interesting things to discover and often appropriate. While it is not difficult to open up large areas of the map early on, be warned that it is very easy to find yourself in an engagement beyond your abilities and fleeing may not be possible. Save often. Scouting is very helpful here and some hidden items are only revealed when your party is in ‘sneak’ or scouting mode. Make sure everyone has at least a couple of points in the ‘Stealth’ skill.

There is a good mix of dungeon delving and above ground exploration in Pillars, as well as several towns and large cities which also generate many, but nowhere near all of the quests available. In fact, the first large city you visit, Defiance Bay, will remind you very much of the city of Baldur’s Gate in the original game, as it is divided into several parts which you regularly have to travel between. As I’ve said before, there’s something for everyone here.

One small complaint is that the loading screens for all this travel tend to get longer and longer, even when just entering a building. I miss the seamless travel found in many similar games such as ‘Divinty: Original Sin’. At least they gave me an opportunity to go and get myself a drink, or take a Bio break. I guess it’s part of the nostalgia we all feel for those original IE games. Sadly, sometimes nostalgia is over-rated.

Quests generate most of the XP in the game which, of course, is necessary to level up the members of your party so that they can learn new skills, spells and talents. Here the developers have made an interesting design decision which on the surface sounds good, but does it work in practice?

In most games, XP is given for winning fights and killing creatures and/or enemies as well as for completing various quests. In Pillars, however, very little, if any XP is given for fighting and killing. Now, I would not have an issue with this if there were either very few ‘forced’ random encounters where fighting is the only option, or if every quest had a non-violent option for resolution. While some do, many don’t and the game is brimming over with unavoidable fight after unavoidable fight. Not only do all these fights use up valuable resources, but there is very limited healing in this game. There are no healing potions. The only way to fully heal and to restore used spells is to rest. However, resting is possible only by using up game limited supplies or by visiting an Inn or your Stronghold.

Now I understand the reasoning here of limiting ‘spam’ healing/resting. In theory it is a good idea. However, if you’re going to implement that game design then you also need to limit the need for it. One obvious place where this can become quite frustrating is a particular FIFTEEN level dungeon where you can fight your way through several tough levels (of totally repetitious combat- 2 trolls and 3 large oozes, rinse and repeat over and over every few steps) and yet you receive hardly any XP whatsoever after perhaps 2 hours of gaming, 80% of which was combat. Now I loved the old ‘Eye of the Beholder’ series where gameplay was similar, but at least there you got a ton of XP for all the fights. Good idea, poorly implemented in my opinion. You couldn’t even sneak your way past most of the critters; I tried. You can only carry a maximum of 4 ‘resting supplies’ on ‘Normal’ and only 2 on ‘Hard’. You don’t get through too many levels with that restriction before you are forced to go all the way back to the surface to re-stock.

Talking about re-stocking makes me think about the loot. For the most part, while it’s varied it’s pretty mediocre. Lots of useless stuff like shields, poor armour and weapons, but very little in the way of boots, belts and gloves. Maybe I just was unlucky with the random loot drops, or everyone I fought went barefoot. The paper-doll effect works quite well, though sometimes in combat when everyone and everything seemed to congregate in one place sorting out one character from another became a mini-nightmare. Things improved somewhat after a patch which allowed you to click on a portrait to cast a buff or healing spell. That feature should have been in the game from the beginning.

Let’s open up another can of worms: combat. While I don’t mind ‘Real Time with Pause’, I much prefer Turn Based or even Phased for a party based game with this level of character complexity. I understand the developers were being faithful to the old IE games, but I would have preferred TB there as well. Even using ‘slow mode’ for combat it could become a challenge to keep track of all 6 of your characters and where they were in their attack round (have they cast the spell you queued up yet or are they just part way through the animation?) while also following what the enemy was doing. Reading the combat log at the same time meant a great deal of pausing. TB would have been so much simpler considering much of the combat was quite tactical. I got used to the combat and didn’t hate it, but for me it was often the most frustrating element in the game.

The setting and atmosphere in the game are fantastic. The artists have excelled themselves and the game is beautiful. The background music and sound effects when I listened to them were complementary rather than distracting, though to be honest I turned them off most of the time as that is my preferred playing style. I tend to find useless banter annoying (I hated Minsc).

One design feature which I thought was well implemented was the provision of a Stronghold. This possibly echoed back to Baldur's Gate 2, but I felt the implementation here was much superior. It certainly provided a money sink as I upgraded every part of it, but by adding separate quests and events for not only the Stronghold itself, but for the NPC’s ‘stored’ there it gave it a function beyond being just a simple storage base. There are aspects which could be improved, but I think it’s a winner for those who designed it.

So we come to the story and the writing. Not only is there a main, or central story featuring your Player Character, but most of your possible companions have a story/quest of their own which you can choose to follow or ignore. Some of these are fairly straightforward, but others are more complex, bringing comparisons with some of the complicated conversation quests in that other IE game, Plancscape: Torment.

The main story weaves through several acts, though not all these divisions are obvious, especially the one between Acts 1 and 2. I didn’t even notice it.

The division between Acts 2 and 3, however, is more dramatic and obvious, but Act 3 is nowhere near as good as the previous acts; it’s almost as if the developers ran out of steam, time, or both. Most of the quests are fetch or kill quests and don’t compare to the complexities of the earlier ones. In fact, if it wasn’t for the need to reach the level cap of 12 before the endgame, it’s actually quite clear how to proceed, whereas earlier in the game there was no such clarity. Basically, there are two inter-related main quests where one involves a ‘search for self’ motif and the other a search for what is really behind what is  termed the large number of ‘Hollowborn’ births; children born with no soul. I thoroughly enjoyed the twists and turns of the first two acts, but I was disappointed with act 3. It wasn’t that any one thing was poorly done, but it just became more of the ‘same old, same old’. Still, the Lore involved within the story was engaging which made it a totally enjoyable experience.

The determining factor for how many side quests you complete in Act 3 will usually be how many Bounties you have done earlier and how much of the ‘endless dungeon’ you finished. Once you reach level 12, there is no real point in doing more side quests unless you’re a completionist. That may be why so many of the Act 3 quests are so ordinary, but I feel a higher level cap might have helped.

The game presents the opportunity to do enchanting and crafting, but I never took advantage of it, since these things hold no particular appeal for me. They are neither essential, nor even really important. Another aspect I found annoying was the fact that only my main character could participate in scripted dialogues. Often he could not meet some or all of the scripted skill checks, so those options weren’t available to him, but other members of the party did meet those checks. If this is supposed to be a party game then why can’t the entire party be involved in determining the outcome of a conversation? This is a design decision I do not like.

Some of my comments on this game may seem overly harsh, however, the bottom line is that I really liked and enjoyed this game. It accomplished what it set out to do, was relatively bug free, and hopefully showed the ‘Big Time Developers/Publishers’ that there is still a market for these Old School games. It may not be perfect and there are definitely a number of design decisions I did not care for, but the overall package was greater than the sum of its parts. Bring on the sequel.

Box Art

Information about

Pillars of Eternity

Developer: Obsidian Entertainment

SP/MP: Single-player
Setting: Fantasy
Genre: RPG
Combat: Pausable Real-time
Play-time: 40-60 hours
Voice-acting: Partially voiced

Regions & platforms
· Homepage
· Platform: PC
· Released: 2015-03-26
· Publisher: Obsidian Entertainment

More information

Other articles



  • Great story and writing
  • Excellent character creation
  • Fabulous quests
  • Based on the old IE games


  • Combat can be a mess
  • Little or no XP for combat
  • Some good ideas poorly implemented
  • Last part of game gets tedious


This review is using RPGWatch's old style of rating. See 'How we review' link below

Review version

Opinions from other editors

Fluent: As you all probably know, I thought the game was fantastic. I thought the lore and world immersion were excellent, the combat was a blast, the nerdy Dungeons & Dragon-style stat system was done well and the game was quite highly polished (save for a few gamebreaking bugs I experienced with the initial build). I think what we can take away from this game is the knowledge that games based on older titles, in this case the Infinity Engine games, can be great games on their own, building on a formula and tradition that has all but been forgotten in modern times. Obsidian has created something special here, and I can't wait to see where the series goes from here. Well done, Obsidian! - Fluent

Aubrielle - What Obsidian has managed to do is create a singularly immersive experience that plunges you into the heart of a story. They've honed mood and storytelling into a keen edge, and it cuts. Combat is refreshingly fun, and the old Infinity Engine chore of loading after your party is insta-wiped in every fight is thankfully gone. My problems with the game weren't significant enough to really gripe about - the stronghold is still fun despite wondering "does this *really* matter?" and Obsidian has been hard at work fixing bugs and striving to make sure the right tone has been taken. I'm happy to give the game a 5/5 and call it a classic for the ages.