Though similar in many ways, the first episode of Daedalic Entertainment’s adaptation of Ken Follett’s classic 1989 novel, The Pillars of the Earth, nonetheless serves as a breath of fresh air when taken against the uniform and distinctly shelf worn Telltale Games template of recent times. It’s perhaps timely then that in heralding the tenth anniversary of the German point and click developer, The Pillars of the Earth might also well prove to be Daedalic’s finest work to date, too.
A refreshingly grounded narrative and setting
A world away from the comical or more action infused stories that often fill the ranks of similar episodic adventure fare on PS4; The Pillars of the Earth is instead based on a much more down to earth premise. Set in 12th century rural England, poverty is rampant and the spectre of war is ever looming. Against this chaotic backdrop, this first episode (the game includes the first episode, with the remaining two becoming available for free later on) focusses on a small town that commences construction of a cathedral in order to bring some hope and stability to its beleaguered people.
As all this is happening, a mason named Tom struggles to keep his family alive during the harsh English winter, while Jack, an almost feral boy raised in the woods by his exiled mother, is at odds with the civilized world that surrounds him. Further afield, a disgraced noblewoman tries to assert herself back into the world and a kind but troubled monk by the name of Phillip, makes a discovery that could plunge England into full-tilt, civil war.
What these folks have in common is that the player gets an opportunity to control each of them throughout the episode; the story pivoting from one to another and often intersecting as they advance their own narratives. In truth, it’s the grounded nature of the plot which makes The Pillars of the Earth feel so distinct from its genre rivals. From local politics, to matters of religion, war and even something as simple as young Jack learning how to cure the meat from his latest hunt, all of it feels real and completely believable.
This straightforward, more pragmatic approach is reflected in the dialogue too, which by turns is far more sombre and straight-laced than the witticism-laced conversations that we see in so many other games of this ilk. Speaking of which, the performances are roundly great also, possessing a real earnest quality about them as the voice actors convincingly convey the plight of their characters with verve and aplomb, organically selling you on the stakes as they increase throughout the episode.
Though The Pillars of the Earth, in a similar fashion to efforts such as The Wolf Among Us, allows players to steer the narrative depending on the dialogue choices that they make, it also rewards folk for keeping quiet in conversations too; rendering the decision to stay silent a worthwhile one for a change (indeed, one such instance of staying silent actually rewards the player with a trophy).
By telling a much slower-paced, grounded tale into which a tapestry of rich drama and political intrigue is woven, The Pillars of the Earth runs a risk of not appealing to everybody. Chiefly, for those who may have been reared on the more action-heavy offerings from elsewhere, Daedalic’s latest might well struggle to hold their attention given its lack of visual and thematic bombast.
What will hold the attention of most however, are the absolutely resplendent visuals which set apart The Pillars of the Earth from just about every other adventure of a comparable stature. Simply put, each scene looks like an oil painting that has been brought to vivid life; every new area and location exploding with painterly detail and handcrafted flourishes. In fact, so poignant is its depiction of rural England that when you’re not taking screenshots of every scene, you’re pining for the real thing; and if that isn’t praise for the towering quality of what Daedalic’s obviously talented team of artists have wrought here, I don’t know what is.
Though the visuals, narrative and setting do much to separate The Pillars of the Earth from the likes of The Walking Dead, Daedalic’s adaptation of the Ken Follett novel does still tow a similar line when it comes to how puzzles are handled. Much like Telltale Games output, The Pillars of the Earth eschews difficult puzzles in favour of keeping the story flowing; a fact is notably welcome given how the game’s unique setting allows it to appeal to fans of the book who might exist outside traditional gaming circles.
If you’re curious about whether the Pillars of the Earth boasts any of the QTE-fuelled action set pieces that define so many of the episodic adventures we see nowadays, you’ll be relieved (or not) to discover that there are no fancy QTE sequences, or extravagant cut scene showcases here. Indeed, the closest you’ll get to such a thing is the occasional swing bar mechanic in which you have to land a moving cursor in one of the prescribed zones to be successful at a given activity. As such, The Pillars of the Earth lends itself well yet further to folks who haven’t held a controller in their hands before.
Letting down the whole package a touch is the fact that The Pillars of the Earth seems a little rough around the edges from a technical standpoint. Mainly, this comes in the form of the occasional crash (I had two during my first playthrough) and the menus not working properly, and though both are more frustrating than anything else (and likely to be remedied in an upcoming patch), their presence does detract slightly from the otherwise superlative quality of the game.
Whether you’re a long-time fan of Telltale style adventures or if you happen to not be a gamer at all but have read and enjoyed the book (the TV adaptation wasn’t half bad either), then Daedalic’s latest effort arguably holds a great deal of appeal as the result of its engaging story and compelling characters that are easy to emotionally invest into.
As such, The Pillars of the Earth might just be the best game Daedalic Entertainment has crafted to date, and at the very least it represents a strong start for one of the most unexpectedly refreshing adventures of the year.