Pillars of Eternity: First Impressions

I've been profoundly fortunate to be afforded an early (release time is early for me, anyway) peek at Obsidian Entertainment's recent turn-based RPG throwback Pillars of Eternity. I want to do a lot of coverage of this game, but not in any sort of spoiler-filled exhaustive way. Instead, I'll be doing something akin to those Lightning Returns observations I wrote closer to the start of this year, only I'll be eschewing the story rundown and will instead focus almost entirely on mechanics, features and my own party of characters, going over experiences in lesser, non-story missions and talking about any interesting discoveries about the game as I go. I'll be skipping by most of the plot stuff except for when it pertains to some unique in-game mechanic, and focusing more on how Obsidian has attempted to recreate a late 90s Infinity Engine game for the modern market. It's a curious coincidence that I jump into this game so soon after Might and Magic X, itself a very deliberate and loving recreation of a specific older format of CRPG.

This will just be a loose list of observations as of right now. As I'm not talking about the plot, there'll be no sort of continuity to be concerned about from blog to blog. I'll also state that I'm barely a few hours into the game so far, and so I've still got a lot yet to discover. If folks in the comments want to keep discussions away from later game stuff or quests, I'd appreciate it. Absolutely talk about the parties you've created or other early game mechanics you've encountered, though. I haven't messed around with classes unique to this game like the Chanter or Cipher, for example, so feel free to tell me what those guys are like.

Party

I'll start with my party composition, since that's probably going to be the most interesting part for anyone already deep into this game. The game takes its first (of many) leafs from the IE games with an option to either create party PCs with no discernible personalities or relevance to the plot, or choose to pick up pre-generated PCs standing around in the world who are far more likely to interject in conversations and have their own backstories and related quests to follow. I remember Baldur's Gate being mostly of the "hire guys you find in the world" bent, but I also recall that there was a way to create characters and import them into your game if desired. Icewind Dale, conversely, was all about creating an entire six-person party from scratch. Pillars seems happy to be a bridge between the two, dropping the "create another PC" mode in-game as a "recruit hireling" function you can find in taverns alongside renting rooms and buying food items with temporary buffs.

The main character you create is the only one to have any relevance to the plot, tied up as they are in the game's familiar "chosen one" plot. I'll get into the specifics of their unique abilities a little later, but suffice it to say there's a lot of mileage in the eldritch powers you suddenly find yourselves with.

  • My protagonist, Aravella, is an Elven Ranger. Pretty basic stuff, and it was the same class I rolled with in Baldur's Gate 2 largely due to the fact that the protagonist's death marked the immediate end of the game. Therefore, I figured it was better to have a ranged class, and one that--unlike a mage--still has enough HP to be on the survivable side. To be frank, I never do well with magic-users in general despite them being objectively the most interesting class to play as due to their resourcefulness. I'm one of those players who never uses any consumables and just hangs onto it all in case they become necessary later, and not casting any spells tends to become an extension of that. (There's an aspect about spellcasting in this game that greatly helps in this regard. I only discovered it a few hours into the game, and it's something else I'll talk about a little later.)
  • Rangers start with an animal companion, and I selected a wolf named Troutleap (shout out to the McElroys). The role of the animal companion from a purely combat perspective is as an effective tank-slash-diversionary tactic, as Rangers are fairly weak in melee, so the animal runs ahead and keeps an enemy busy while the Ranger peppers it with arrows. These animal companions don't hit particularly hard, but their damage reduction (DR being a much more prevalent aspect of combat in PoE than normal D&D, in which it is a fairly rare occurrence) is high and they don't ever seem to lose health when defeated. The unfortunate side-effect is that if the animal gets downed, the Ranger suffers a severe stat drop because of their spiritual, familiar-esque connection with their beastly bud.
  • Rangers don't seem to have too much in the way of nature abilities beyond the animal companion, unlike their D&D equivalent. Rather, they're ranged combat experts. Aravella serves an important role as one of my chief damage-dealers, though she needs a bit of distance from the enemy to be effective at it. She has a sword-and-shield combo as her secondary weapon set - each character appears to have two slots for weapon loadouts, but I've noticed that there's space for three or four on the character sheet, presumably unlocked at higher levels for the more martial classes.
  • My second character, once I found enough cash to hire her (created characters cost 250CP per character level, which is a fair sum early on), is the Barbarian Erstma and another front-line fighter that can join my wolf in keeping enemies busy while the Ranger fires crit after crit. I probably should've gone with something a little more tank-like given her role, but I opted for a Barbarian because of their damage output. Again, more a philosophy of "offense is the best defense" that'll no doubt come back to bite me in the ass, probably literally. She has a few abilities that enhances her combat, but being level 1 in that tough post-tutorial dungeon didn't do her any favors. I got pretty familiar with the Endurance system as a result.
  • Endurance, to digress for a moment into core game mechanics stuff, is like a small portion of one's total health that is used in combat. While it's lower than a character's total pool of HP, it replenishes quickly, and fully regenerates after a successful battle. Heavy endurance loss carries over to the character's health, which doesn't regenerate and can only be refilled through rest (or, possibly, some higher level healing items/spells). Resting's not something you can do easily in the field, due to a limitation placed on camping supplies, so it's prudent to get back to civilization regularly to restock and rest at inns. Most healing items I've found recover endurance, making them useful only in mid-combat. It's a curious idea that bridges the gap between D&D's strict HP rules and a less stringent video game RPG like Xenoblade Chronicles that heals you fully after every encounter because it recognizes that the constant micromanagement of health and healing resources just detracts from the fun. The game's difficulty settings are a bevvy of these types of micromanagement decisions that scale from "convenient" to "hardcore", such as allowing the player to access their stash anywhere - the stash is effectively bottomless, from what I can tell, eliminating any problems with encumbrance or having to constantly leave dungeons to find merchants to sell vendor trash and make more room. I can certainly appreciate a boon like that.
  • Third character I made was a Rogue to help me find secrets and traps, a pale elf (sort of Drow-ish, but ivory instead of ebony) which I named Ori. Rogues are actually a type of martial class in this game, because PoE doesn't really do thief skills like D&D. Rather, being stealthy and being good with traps are simply two of several general "skill" categories that any character can excel in, bonuses to which are largely dictated by their backstories/temperament. For instance, a character with an aristocratic background receives a huge bonus to "Lore" during character creation; a skill necessary for casting spells from scrolls, and possibly identifying magic objects (I haven't gotten far enough to find any powerful artifacts just yet). Rogues don't get any extra skill points or anything to that effect either; their class is more engineered for backstabs and dirty fighting. Still, though, I needed a character with a high Mechanics skill (which governs how good you are with traps and locks and also helps you find secrets) and Ori does the job just fine.
  • Another mechanics segue now: the player can, at any time outside of combat, switch to a stealth mode that affects the entire party. They all try to be as stealthy as their Stealth stat allows, though I do the usual IE thing of having my best stealth character go off on their own to scout ahead for me. It's very much like the prior IE games in this regard: the character moves slower, is slightly opaque and will only trigger combat if they get close enough to enemies to get spotted. The game does a visibility meter thing here by slowly filling in a yellow circle beneath the character's feet: once full, the enemies know the character is there and will give chase. Likewise, you get a sense while in towns whether or not someone can see you, which is important if you're planning to raid their house of their valuables. It's been a while since I last played an IE game that wasn't Planescape: Torment (which was far less focused on this sort of thing), but I remember the detection meter being a party thing, so having individual detection meters is far more helpful in determining who has been spotted by whom (or what).
  • The fourth PC (and probably final, since I want to leave room for a few pre-generated PCs) is an ocean-folk human Wizard named Adsho. While I didn't want to make my main character a mage, I'm certainly not opposed to having one in the party, because they tend to be the most powerful characters at higher levels and a lot of fun besides. The thing I mentioned earlier about magic is that once a magic-user character is sufficiently high level it sounds like certain low-level spells become "so many casts per encounter" affairs rather than "so many casts per rest". If I can be assured that I'll always have a few spells to rely on in every fight, even if I've exhausted all my high level spells in previous fights and haven't had a chance to rest and recover them, then makes me far happier about tossing a few of those high level spells around instead of hanging onto them for emergencies. Of course, my level 2 Wizard has yet to reach that point of spell mastery, but she's got a handful of decent level 1 spells that seem oddly familiar. Old favorites like Grease, Shield, Mirror Image, Magic Missile and Burning Hands were all spells I relied on quite a bit in Baldur's Gate 1 and Icewind Dale, and they all have their equivalents in this game. The game severely limits the number of spells per level you can cast per spellbook (called grimoires in PoE), but doesn't seem to limit your number of spellbooks: if you wanted a spell loadout filled entirely with fire spells, maybe in case you're heading through a chilly cave or a crypt full of fire-vulnerable undead, I'm sure you could put together a grimoire for that very purpose.
  • Anyway, most of my characters are hovering around level 2 or 3 right now, so they haven't unlocked too many of their class abilities or have too many other qualities that can distinguish them and their role in combat, so I can't get too deep into how powerful these classes are just yet. I'll keep you updated on how my party's doing in future episodes in this blog series.

General Mechanics

I've covered a few of the game's mechanics while discussing my characters, but here's a handful more and then we'll close this down for today:

  • I was happy to see the return of the Tab button. Implemented in, I think, the add-on pack for the original Baldur's Gate, the Tab key became one of the most vital tools in any Infinity Engine game: they highlight everything in the vicinity that can be used, such as containers (which are often hard to spot as they blend into the background so well), switches, places of interest and other hotspots. Containers/switches appear blue if they've not been accessed, and gray once they have. There's also a purple color filter which indicates that they're secrets that a character with a high Mechanics skill has just spotted. I'm practically resting my elbow on the Tab key whenever I'm playing an IE game, so for me it's an integral part of the experience.
  • While I'm on the subject, they really nailed the Infinity Engine look here. Other similarities include: green circles under friendly characters, red under enemies and other hostiles; that movement cursor that looks like four Trivial Pursuit wedges; "You must gather your party before venturing forth."; trying to leave an area by one of the four cardinal directions you haven't already tried occasionally reveals a new location on the world map; a character's fatigue icon looks like a closed Neverwinter eye; the game bothered to create a couple dozen different gemstone types you might find, even though they all seem to be vendor trash of varying values; options to pause the game whenever you spot a bad guy, whenever a character has low health, whenever a character hits an enemy with an ineffective weapon, whenever a character falls or whenever a trap is detected; and last but definitely not least, combat works almost identically, with real-time combat that appears to be people standing around and swinging every so often that is actually governed by the speed of the character's attack. You can even see the damage rolls and the effects of special attacks if you hover over them in the text feedback window until you get the pop-up. It absolutely feels like an Infinity Engine game that uses a ruleset similar (but not identical) to D&D 2nd Edition and a whole bunch of appreciated (and optional, for purists) modern convenience additions on top, and if you're an old-school Baldur's Gate/Icewind Dale fan with a hankering for more of the same, it seems to be exactly what you'd hope.
  • More on that note: There's a dungeon in the first town that's way too tough for a level 2 Ranger and her dog. Even after hiring the Barbarian and Rogue, some of the encounters with groups of tough shadows and spiders down there can get a little tricky. But knowing IE as I do, I revisited my system of hitting enemies with surprise attacks, kiting them back to doorways and letting my front-line fighters block their path, which had the benefit of funneling the enemies one at a time into my slaughter jamboree, excepting the odd occasion when the ghosts remembered they could teleport and went straight after my ranged guys. I ended up killing a lot of tough enemies this way, since many of the rooms had multiple foes and a handy doorway to stymie them in. Cheap? Nah, it was old times, old crimes. Great to be back.
  • Here's the one point I'll get vaguely spoiler-y, though keep in mind this is still super early on in the game. The player character, due to an incident during the intro, becomes a "Watcher": a person in touch with the world of the dead, and can see spirits and other lost souls when wandering around. Yep, pretty much The Dead Zone (or The Frighteners, depending on what you're into I guess). This has some effect on story missions, allowing you to see how a victim died and learning more about the quest and the NPCs involved as a result, but it also comes into effect with the many otherwise pointless NPCs that are present everywhere. I can only assume by the incongruent names of these characters that they were Kickstarter donors who got the chance to add an NPC to the game. They don't have dialogue, but you can tap into their past lives by communing with their spirits, each of which read like little short stories. It's reminiscent of Kaim's Memories in Lost Odyssey, actually. They're fun enough to read if you enjoy the game's writing (which is sterling, but then this is Obsidian we're talking about), but kind of immersion-breaking all the same. Still, you gotta appease the guys paying the bills. (Talking of which, I hope this observations blog is to the liking of the generous soul who gifted this game to me. There's more to come, I assure you.)
  • This observation doesn't have any bearing on gameplay or really anything vital, but I can't help but notice during the game's background tavern chatter that there's someone with a very West Coast US accent saying "A perfect ten, pretty nice!" every few minutes. It feels almost as if the sound engineers recorded about three minutes of Obsidian Entertainment's cafeteria at lunch time and looped it, and the pragmatism of that foley work just makes me smile. In fairness, the chatter's one of several sound channels active whenever you're in a tavern, and usually obscured by the tavern's jaunty bard music and various other ambient sound effects layered on top. For some reason, though, it all cuts out except for the chatter whenever you're in the tavern's PC character creator, which I've evidently spent some time in if the above text is any indication. It's largely indistinct murmurs, so it's weird when you pick out certain phrases like that. I swear I heard someone talk about "all the best bits" too. That chatter would be a fun question to ask the developers about in an interview, especially if you wanted to look like a crazy OCD person who was focusing on the wrong thing.

Anyway, I'll update a little later, possibly once I have a few more levels under my belt and what might be an upgradeable stronghold to my name. I loved the De'Arnise stronghold in BG2, so I'm hoping it's more of that. Catch you all then.

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