If you could map out all the possible narrative avenues and paths that a possible playthrough of Pillars of Eternity could take, you would likely go mad and start chewing on tables before you succeed in your foolish endeavour. As it is, Obsidian Entertainment’s brave invigoration of the isometric RPG, a subgenre long since thought to have lived its best days in the late 90s, can seem hugely intimidating in a way that other adventure games, outside perhaps the likes of Fallout 4 and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, rarely manage to achieve.
Like all the best examples of the genre, such intimidation soon gives way to a deep sense of wonderment, and Pillars of Eternity, with its stunningly realised world, where deep characters and evocative stories intertwine with remarkable amounts of player freedom, is an adventure that looks to hold your attention for weeks and months, rather than hours and days. If you were looking for another world, with different stories and other people’s lives to be part of, then Pillars of Eternity is absolutely going to be your jam.
A sprawling, epic adventure where choices carry real consequences
If you’ve ever sat back whilst watching Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies and pined to be in a sprawling fantasy epic of your own, Pillars of Eternity scratches that itch with almost overwhelming vigour (the orchestral score alone feels like it could have belonged in those movies). Set in a world of fantasy where magic and science collide and where souls don’t seem to be going to the afterlife quite as they should, it’s fair to say that Pillars of Eternity provides an ample canvas upon which players can indulge their adventuring habits.
An isometric RPG with pre-rendered backgrounds, Pillars of Eternity’s closest kin in this regard is arguably Torment: Tides of Numenera, though of the two, Obsidian’s game is far less abstract by comparison. A shared similarity with Torment however, is that while a fair amount of Pillars of Eternity is voiced by talented actor folk, there is still a good amount of reading to be done, and for those of you who cannot abide with dealing with all that business, Obsidian’s game might hold a little less allure than it does for others.
Pointedly, much of the text that you’ll come across in Pillars of Eternity serves to flesh out the gargantuan amounts of lore that the game encompasses. From history books, dusty tomes and long forgotten texts through to evocative descriptions of abandoned buildings, crumbling statues and much, much more besides, Pillars of Eternity text doesn’t just lend credence to the fact that it’s massive; it also happens to be heavily detailed and feels appropriately lived in, too.
More than anything though, Pillars of Eternity is all about choice and from the moment you generate your character, you’ve already made your first. Depending on your character’s chosen race, class, abilities and social standing, the world will perceive you in a certain way and so the options that you have to interact with it will be different too. An argument between two Dwarves for instance, might be easily resolved if you’re a Dwarf yourself, whereas if you were any other race, you’d be perceived as an outsider and thus lose access to that particular solution. Decisions made early on in the game often reverberate throughout the narrative, the ramifications of which can be felt from something a small as a side quest to an event that could change how the endgame scenario plays out altogether.
Another early example of how this plays out is when you stumble across a man in the wilderness who seems to be in a rush to pack up his tent and leave. One conversation later and you learn that his companion has lost his life in a nearby cave to a bear only for you to discover that the man’s soul lingers, and he imparts to you a tale of betrayal by the very same chap you just spoke to. Fast forward a little more time and you track the apparent betrayer to a nearby town who, it seems, is intending to abscond with the dead man’s widow; the pair of them asserting that the fallen man was a fiend prone to violent outbursts and beatings. What do you do? Do you avenge the dead man in the cave, extort money from them so they can make good on their escape, or, do you let them go completely free, only to run into them again further down the line?
Such scenarios like this are repeated over and over in Pillars of Eternity and each one really makes you feel like your choices matter; something more than a few other games would do well to learn from. Coalescing with the choices that you make are the various companions which will end up accompanying you on your epic journey. A fascinating and charismatic bunch with deep backstories, they too interact with the world in wholly unique ways, interjecting themselves into conversations, conflicts while also possessing unique questlines of their own.
Of the whole cast, the elvish wizard Aloth remains a particular favourite; at once a caring and sensitive soul, he finds himself occasionally dipping into an alternative, much more brutal persona within which his voice, mannerisms and behaviour all completely change. He’s a fascinating character, not least because his Jekyll and Hyde complex makes him wonderfully unpredictable at times, all the while the longer you have him in your group, the more explicit the tragic origins of his multiple personalities become.
When you’re not using your social and intellectual grace to solve things diplomatically, Pillars of Eternity provides ample scope for violent recourse, too. Combat is handled in staggered real-time, where you can pause the action at any point and issue orders to each member of your party. As the difficulty ramps up and your enemies become more and more hardy, such tactical freedom proves welcome, as you find yourself being able to co-ordinate wizards to cast spells at distance, warriors to be up close in thick of it soaking up the damage and dishing out, healers to cast restorative magic when needed, and so on and so forth.
Annoyingly however, is that when the size of your group swells to include four or more folks and you’re engaged in combat with enemies where there impassable obstacles exist between you the pathfinding can sometimes become rather non-existent. As a result of this, your companions can all too often rush to meet the enemy along the exact same route, leaving the melee focussed of their number utterly ineffective as they listlessly hump the comrades which are stood in front of them. Now, while manually directing each individual mitigates this, the AI should really be smarter regardless.
Beyond the substantial trappings of the story, Pillars of Eternity is a veritable embarrassment of riches when it comes to things to do. Aside from the mountain of experience rewarding side quests that you’ll invariably run into, there is the typical lure of character progression whereupon all manner of skills, specialisms and fancy loot can be obtained to empower you and your group. Another addition in this regard is when you become the steward of your own stronghold; where renovating its dusty, cobweb strewn corridors and smashed mortar proves worthwhile because of the special bonuses and other benefits that it provides to your party of adventurers.
Let’s talk about how the controls fare on PS4 (They’re fine)
An all-consuming fear whenever a bulky effort like Pillars of Eternity lands on PS4, is in how the developer will manage to translate the mouse and keyboard driven interface onto the relatively undersized Dualshock 4 controller. Thankfully, Pillars of Eternity joins the likes of Wasteland 2: Director’s Cut and Divinity: Original Sin Enhanced Edition in this regard, fashioning a system of control and interaction that both fits its new console digs perfectly without taking anything away from the sophistications of the game itself.
There are two main ways of controlling your party of adventurers; you can either steer the group around the place by the left analogue stick while using the face buttons to interact with points of interest in the world, or, you can elect to mimic the cursor based control system that the PC version embraced. Of the two, it’s the first of those methods which works best with the Dualshock 4 controller, simply because Pillars of Eternity feels much more responsive when you’re constantly moving around the place (you can speed time up or slow it down too, depending on your preference), rather than taking the time to manually click on each and every point of interest.
Equally, the generous use of on-screen radial controls to deal with game elements that would normally be relegated to big draping menus on PC is also welcome, since holding down either the L2 or R2 shoulder buttons allows you unfettered access to anything that you would ever need at any given time. Where this method of control ends up being a little less than graceful however, is when you’re confronted by two or more points of interaction that are in close proximity. Because the UI will flick between one and the other depending on how close you are to each point, you’ll need to shuffle about with micro-steps to be able to interact with whatever it is you want to. Granted, such instances tend to err towards the uncommon, but even so, it can prove to be mildly annoying regardless.
An impressively crafted conversion
Given that the controls have fared well in their leap to PS4, it bears mentioning that other key aspects of the original experience have been translated with similar care and thoughtfulness. Of particular note is that the UI is totally scalable, and pleasingly large by default. Because of this, text ends up being very easy to read, which is really rather good because as I’ve alluded to previously, there is a fair old chunk of it to get through.
Something else which reinforces the idea that the PS4 conversion of Pillars of Eternity (that ‘Complete Edition’ suffix isn’t just for kicks you know) is a superlative package, is the fact that it packs in both parts of the White March expansion which packs in a whole bunch of extra hours of gameplay on top of the base game. Simply put, Pillars of Eternity: Complete Edition is a delightfully substantial odyssey which is absolutely stuffed with possibilities; just make sure you let your friends and family know about your newly attained hermit status – it would be rude not to.
Not since the criminally underrated Alpha Protocol have Obsidian really had an IP to call their own, and now, with Pillars of Eternity, an effort that is unburdened by publisher pressure, they can say that they have their own magnum opus at last. By capturing the essence of the classics that paved the way for it in the late 1990s, while also bringing that same formula up to date, Pillars of Eternity has itself reached a similar status; bringing in audiences old and new alike to a style of RPG that was long thought to be forgotten.
Arguably something that’s equally as impressive is the breadth and scope of the conversion work that has been undertaken to bring Pillars of Eternity to PS4. Intuitive controls and menus coupled with easily readable text and pin sharp visuals all combine to make this version of Obsidian’s finest effort to date one that feels absolutely suited to Sony’s home console.
As someone who lost far too much time and productivity to the Baldur’s Gate series on PC all those years ago, Pillars of Eternity feels like a resurrection of that bygone golden era, and for those of you who never experienced that first time round, you are absolutely, positively, in for a treat. Traditional RPG’s don’t come much better, or ambitious, than Pillars of Eternity: Complete Edition.