Pillars of Eternity – Brief thoughts (Early AM ashcan edition)

Just finished it, all sidequests and whatnot wrapped up, played on hard, clocked in around forty five hours. Enjoyed my time with it but ultimately it feels like a good not great game. It’s early in the morning so this is a bit stream of consciousness (some of these I wrote as they occurred in play so some may be more strident due to that) There are less pros than cons. That’s because it’s generally easier to critique something than praise it. Don’t get me wrong. Pillars of Eternity is a good game. If you’re pining for an “old school” western computer RPG then spend your money freely secure in the knowledge you’re in for a good time. I enjoyed my time with it; after all I wouldn’t have put in nearly fifty hours (so far) if I didn’t. I’ll come back and tidy this up tomorrow when I’ve had some sleep. I dont think theres any real spoilers but youve been warned.

Pros

  • Sidequests – Often a source of sub-par distraction compared to the main quest in PoE I felt that the sidequests were of a much higher calibre than the main quest. They did more to get you involved, a lot of them had better writing and were better constructed; they did more to place you in the world, etc. Now there are a hell of a lot of sidequests so I’d say if you combined sidequests and mainquests you’d end up with more good quests over all due to the sheer volume. But at the end of the day they’re still framed as a sidequests.
  • The World – Some areas of the world are certainly lacking (as I discuss below). But other areas, despite feeling a little generic in the broad strokes, are quite well constructed and combine to make a compelling setting. I think the big selling point is the fairly realistic approach to politics and commerce the world presents as well as its metaphysical and religious setup. It generally feels like real people have made real decisions (and thanks to some of the NPC’s feels like they’re living real lives). This adds a layer of verisimilitude to the larger setting concerns that helps the world feel more real to the player.
  • The Dialogue system – The dialogue system is great, it has an impressive depth and allows you to make use of the full complement of your characters skills, attributes, reputation and behaviour.
  • The experience system – You don’t get experience for killing monsters. You get it for completing quests and overcoming challenges such as succeeding in skill checks, etc. This is a good system because it allows you to take different approaches to problems without being penalised one way or the other for it.
  • Presentation – The presentation is generally excellent, the game is lovely looking from the level backgrounds to the “hand drawn” cinematic sequences. This graphical polish is matched by a solid soundtrack with some stand out moments and most importantly an intuitive and responsive user interface.
  • Fun – Despite the cons listed below the game is quite simply fun to play. Despite shortcomings in individual elements they all gel well together and provide a return to the kind of RPG experience we haven’t seen in a while.
  • The Companions – Even the ones I didn’t like were still well written and well realised. The companions are quite varied and all have their own interesting personal stories which tie in well with the “mood” of the world. 

Cons

  • The System – Mechanically PoE feels like a fantasy heartbreaker from the late nineties. As a computer game PoE is the next iteration of the Infinity Engine games from that time which were based on the AD&D 2nd Edition and D&D 3rd edition rulesets. In the P&P RPG design space there has been a lot of work done in the intervening decade, both by later editions of D&D and other RPG’s as well. A lot of innovation has taken place so even mainstream modern RPG’s have incorporated lessons learned from indie’s, smallpress games, etc. Unfortunately PoE’s system seems to have ignored all of this design work. It feels like the classic fantasy heartbreaker, a reaction to D&D which tries to solve some of the problems with it and ends up introducing new problems of its own (it even contains some of the classic selling points of fantasy heartbreakers, “More classes!”, “Mages can wear armour!”). Unfortunately it’s a reaction against a version of D&D that D&D itself has long since surpassed. So it’s this odd hybrid where it’s not “new” enough to take advantage of any “advances” in modern design but also too new to really appeal to an OSR vibe. In short it’s something of a mess. It also has that fantasy heartbreaker classic of various sub-systems for the same thing, some of which end up being clearly superior to the others. Honestly I can find very few good things to say about the system, “It works” is about the best you can say for most of it. I suppose in fairness some areas where I would say it doesn’t work; it would be more accurate to say it doesn’t match my preference. But really, other than a game based on his works, I don’t think there’s an argument to be made for the inclusion of Vancian magic these days.
  • The World – Yes the world setup is both a pro and a con. While some parts of the world are good and will hopefully provide a solid groundwork for fun stuff to do in the expansions (primarily the political setup) other parts of the world setup range from average to flat out bad. It’s the old fantasy heartbreaker feeling rearing its head again. You have cultures jammed together without much rhyme or reason and with very little intermingling and mixing, often widely disparate cultures. “This is the not-Celtic country”, “This is the not-Renaissance Italy country”, etc. It’s hardly a problem unique to PoE but it’s a problem all the same. You see the same thing in enemy placement around the world, why am I running into this giant pack of lions in the middle of a fucking forest? Did a wizard do it? The world feels decidedly artificial, beyond its existence as a setting for a videogame. Which possibly would be ok if it did anything to distinguish itself but it’s generally painfully generic.
  • A static world – The world does a poor job, well that’s not true, generally it does no job of all, of reacting to your actions within it. Once you’ve passed whatever scripted event an area contains the game doesn’t care anymore. You snuck into the secret meeting? Grand, once that’s done feel free to parade your entire party through said meeting as you loot whatever chests are in the room. Discovered that such and such is a necromancer and you just watched someone get eaten by a monster? Sorry their boss didn’t notice and doesn’t want to talk about it because there’s no scripting for that. Or when you hire a prostitute and then march in with six heavily armed guys, “Oh no this totally isn’t gonna go all Leaving Las Vegas!” Or when you run into someone, then get sent to find them but don’t “remember” meeting them before (apart from the one quest where they do). It makes everything you do feel remarkably artificial. It also has the near omnipresent issue of “Gotta do this pressing thing! Time to spend a few weeks dicking around!”
  • The main storyline – Workmanlike at best. You get involved in events that you initially don’t know a lot about (not simply because they’re mysterious but because the game doesn’t present you with information your character would know but you do not) and never really have much of an organic reason to care about. For a lot of it you’re going through the motions because, hey, it’s a videogame, that’s what you’re supposed to do. The main storyline also often did a poor job of differentiating itself from the sidequests, certainly towards the beginning of the game you basically stumble through the (meaningless) end of Act 1 without any fanfare or really even noticing. At least the main antagonist is good and it does a good job at times of presenting you with interesting ambivalent choices
  • The companions – Specifically the fact that you can’t assign their attributes or, more annoyingly, their abilities, before recruitment. This is exacerbated by the fact that you can hire adventurers who you have full control over. It wouldn’t be as big an issue if the majority of the companions didn’t feel deliberately mechanically sub-optimal.
  • The experience system – Another double edged sword, while it has advantages if they aren’t going to provide experience for combat then they shouldn’t include so much of it in the game. Especially so much meaningless combat in the form of pointless wilderness encounters and “wandering monster” rubbish in dungeons. They should have pared back the encounters to only the significant ones and spent a bit more time making them feel distinct from one another.
  • Tone – The game was very downbeat/melancholy. Initially it added a bit of verisimilitude, as a layer of dirt generally does for a fictional world, but after a while it felt a little oppressive and then it became expected and lost any impact, it went from “Ugh, grim” to “Who cares?”. It felt like everyone had a sad story to tell, or every sidequest had a sting in the tail (the epilogue continued this trend), like a horror game with too many scares it drained the events of any real emotion. I would have been more surprised to get sent to find someone who didn’t end up dead or with something horrible having happened to them. It’s the Belle & Sebastian of GrimDark fantasy worlds.
  • Pacing – The pacing of the main quest feels all over the place, Act 1 passes almost unnoticed with no real delineation between it and Act 2, Act 2 has more to do (sidequests and tasks) than Act 1 & 3 combined and Act 3 feels extremely truncated (you can bang right through the main story part of it and there aren’t that many sidequests either). The split between Act 3 and 4 also felt largely artificial (as most of the Act breaks apart from the end of 2’s)
  • The Reputation System – The way it works pretty often breaks ones sense of immersion, if I secretly murder an old man in an inn behind a closed door then why am I losing major reputation with various factions? Deeds done in secret shouldn’t garner reputation
  • The encounters – There’s too many (and they’re too boring) considering the game has a combat system that incentivises taking the one approach to combat and encounters which do nothing to shake the player out of that routine.
  • The bugs – There were, and still are, a lot of them. Despite several patches being released there are still game breaking bugs (on main storyline quests) in the game. Do a lot of other games, especially rpgs, release with bugs? Yes. But that’s even more reason to complain about it.
  • Missing “Quality of Life” – The game is missing some fairly basic qol stuff like being able to sort your inventory/stash, being able to name your saves, etc.
  • The spark – This is both wildly subjective and wildly unfair, but I felt the game just never made me think “This is great!” it never gave me that kind of “Holy fuck!” mind boner moment that indicates greatness. Which is clearly its ultimate flaw.

Ambivalent

  • Travel – You spend a lot of time running across the same maps again and again. The ability to fast forward time does help, but considering they highlight all important locations on the area map anyway it feels like they could have introduced a fast travel option
  • Voice acting – Some of its good, some of its atrocious, most of its workmanlike
  • No niche protection – The limited number of skills and over-lapping competencies and talents mean that the majority of classes lack a true niche. Which isn’t really a problem per se as they’re all being controlled by the player. But conceptually it feels a little inelegant.
  • The factions – While there was clearly an attempt to add some dimension to the various factions I don’t think it was particularly successful. Personally I found nothing sympathetic about the Dozens and the Domenels are flat out criminals. While the Crucible Knights have a racist for a door keeper and their ultimate commanders plan for magitek-robocops was stupid the higher ups you deal with in Defiance Bay all seem fairly reasonable
  • Prose vs voice – Its jarring reading descriptive prose interspersed with voice work when the voice work offers no pauses to give you time to read. Especially when it’s completely redundant i.e. the prose is describing the voice work. In some sections I simply turned off the sound because it was too distracting.
  • The plot – Some elements of the plot felt fairly deprotagonising or purposefully inflammatory in a “Ha ha you wasted your time!” type of way. Hardly unique to PoE it’s an issue with most games that have a story to tell, just that in the context of RPG’s and open ones like PoE it feels exceptionally “rail-roady”. The games big revelation felt like a bit of a let-down (and painfully heavy on exposition), while important from a metaphysical standpoint it felt largely immaterial to the day to day world you were dealing with for a lot of the game (and based largely on a semantics argument). There were also times the game seemed to be pushing an agenda masquerading as the settings metaphysics.
  • The Stronghold – This would be a con if it was actively bad, as it is it simply feels pointless. There’s no particular benefit to upgrading it, there’s no personalisation or any choice at all other than ticking a box involved in upgrading it, it’s located just far enough away from the main story areas to be annoying. It’s an occasional distraction that has you click a box or two. Feels like a wasted opportunity. Even for the few things it is good for it feels clunky (I don’t want to have to see three different loading screens just to rest in my stronghold)
  • Itemisation – Much like the stronghold, its not bad per se, its just really boring. There’s not a lot of variation, the unique weapons dont feel particularly unique or special and dont offer anything notably better than the stuff you can craft yourself (crafting is also fairly unexciting).
  • Loading times – They seemed excessive considering it was running from a SSD on a decent machine. Or perhaps I was overly sensitive to it as I took a break for Bloodborne due to loading times in order to play this. The quest design for populated areas exacerbates it as you are frequently going back and forth through the same areas.

2 thoughts on “Pillars of Eternity – Brief thoughts (Early AM ashcan edition)

  1. I think I get what you mean by heartbreaker games, but what exactly are they? Where does that term come from? (Google, what’s google?)

    1. As far as I know it was probably Ron Edwards (of GNS fame) that coined the term. Its now in general use on online RPG forums, while the origin of the term isnt necessarily derogatory in general use it commonly is. In short a fantasy heartbreaker describes a (generally small press even by RPG standards) fantasy rpg who’s main reason for being is D&D i.e. the purpose of the game is to patch or surpass D&D which seems to be the authors only rpg/fantasy experience. Its sort of like publishing your D&D house rules as a full game. Generally they have one or two cool ideas buried underneath the dross (hence the heartbreak) or possibly they broke their owners heart, its not particularly clear. The two articles that started it all – http://www.indie-rpgs.com/articles/9/ and http://www.indie-rpgs.com/articles/10/

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