By Mento 12 Comments
Boy, that naming scheme is getting dumber by the iteration, ain't it? Welcome to another brief (hah) gander at Obsidian's latest joint, the Infinity Engine-inspired throwback that is Pillars of Eternity. I wanted to give myself a bit of time before jumping in with another bulletpoint list of observations and mechanics discussions so I could have at least some semblance of an air of authority about this game. This will probably be the last blog of this type on Pillars of Eternity; after this, I intend to beat the game and write up a review that will probably involve copy/pasting whole swathes of these three blogs (here's part one and part two, by the way). Uh, I mean figuratively speaking, of course.
A few things to get out of the way with first: You're probably already aware of this, but the game received a massive v1.3 patch recently that ironed a few of the more malevolent game bugs. There's still a helping of minor bugs (in fact, the patch added a couple of new ones), but game-breaking issues like that passive bonus wipe have thankfully been dealt with. It's an ideal time to get into the game, unless you still have a few demons wandering around Yharnam to keep you busy. The other is that I intend to get somewhat spoilery for the second half of this blog. I'll post another warning when I get there, but it's not really story-related: it's just a few in-depth discussions of areas you might be more inclined to explore for the first time on your own.
First, we should drop in on my party again. It's been a while, though not a whole lot has changed. For the record, my group just hit level 8.
- Aravella the Ranger is still proving that I made the right choice with my protagonist class (though there's a pretty cool recruitable ranger too, if you wanted to grab her instead and try a different protagonist build - as I stated last time, there's no pre-generated PC for the barbarian, rogue or monk). Troutleap, her stalwart animal companion, now has a bunch of feats (the game calls them "class skills" and "talents") to make him more durable than ever, though he's still best as a distraction rather than a hard-hitter. She's rocking a really powerful hunter's bow I found recently, with a sword-and-shield combo for when enemies get too close. I haven't really been trying her Watcher powers much - they tend to be debuffs, and I usually forget which enemies are immune to what to be too mindful of them.
- Erstma the Barbarian is a force to be reckoned with. She's peeled ahead of the other characters in terms of raw strength and health, and her frenzy means I can just let her take care of anything that makes the mistake of approaching her. She also picked up a useful skill that heavily restores her endurance, which keeps her in the fight longer. By the way, she can do both her frenzy and heal once per encounter: it's always best to check descriptions carefully for new skills because you want to be hitting those "per encounter" skills in every single battle to speed things up. "Per rest" and spells in general you need to be a little more judicious about, but just go nuts with those "per encounter" skills. I was happy to discover that the little statuettes that summon creatures, also an Infinity Engine mainstay (and, I'd like to believe, inspired by Drizzt Do'Urden's Guenhwyvar companion), are also "one per rest" items rather than items with a finite number of charges. There's one that summons a giant beetle that's saved my hide a few times.
- Ori the Rogue is still the one I'm sending out to check for secrets, traps and enemy ambushes. I've given her a pistol, which has become something of a plus and a minus: in order to use a pistol, you need to get closer to enemies than you would for most of the other ranged weapons. It also takes a long time to reload and is slightly less accurate for some reason. However, pistols are capable of huge amounts of damage because of the way they pierce through enemy armor. Because my rogue only needs the one shot for a sneak attack, after which she runs back to the security of the group hiding nearby, she can pull that thing out and blow an enemy's head clean off with the increased sneak attack damage before booking it. She's not bad with her sabre-stiletto combo either, and if enemies get past my front line I usually switch her over to defend Aravella and Adsho and any recruitable mages I might have with me. Rogues are very much glass cannons in direct melee combat, taking and receiving a lot of damage quickly with their dirty fighting skillset and relative lack of defenses (though, I guess I could always give her heavier armor to wear).
- Talking of whom, Adsho the Wizard now has access to fourth-level spells, but I've found a lot of her stronger attack spells require a wide berth to use effectively. Lots of AoE radii to keep track of, and a few of her new ones require a straight line of sight, so I often have to find creative ways of placing her where these spells can be effective that won't also put her at risk. The alternative is to start a fight with Ori's sneak attack and have Ori run behind the group while Adsho prepares a spell to zap the incoming enemies before she, too, joins Ori at a strategic position on the back row. It's been a pretty successful tactic so far, except when Ori doesn't quite run fast enough... (she's got super high dexterity though, which means her Reflex mitigates a lot of the spell damage. She, uh, only gets a little singed.)
- I have two new recruitable characters right now, but I fully intend to keep cycling through them regularly because they all have quests attached to them at various parts of the world. The first of which is the Grieving Mother, who is a fascinating character. Whether she's an absurdly powerful Cipher in disguise or a Cipher that has been cursed with a veil of obscurity, every other character besides the very perceptive Watcher protagonist sees GM as an entirely (and deliberately) unremarkable peasant woman. I'm getting little bits and pieces of her backstory as the game progresses by looking through her soul whenever she lets me (she doesn't seem too bothered by it), but it's been extremely vague so far. It doesn't help that she herself is an enigmatic person who pauses every so often to voice what sound like Evanescence lyrics. I want to say GM is your typical mystery waif, but there's not a whole lot typical about her.
- Perhaps more interesting still is her skills as a Cipher. A Cipher is essentially a psionics-user, a 2nd-Edition alternative to magic that was about as confusing as grapple mechanics and underwater fighting. In PoE, it's essentially a mage that's limited by their repertoire but greatly unlimited by the fact that they run off a regenerating "focus" mana total rather than stuck with a certain number of charges per spell level per rest. A Cipher can keep casting spells as long as they have the focus for it, and focus regenerates very quickly. Some of her more useful spells include briefly taking over enemy characters, healing a character's endurance and sapping an enemy of a random stat (strength, intelligence, etc.) and adding it to her own total. If she's lucky enough to sap 8-10 points of strength, I sometimes let her go to town with her enchanted stiletto.
- My other present recruitable character is Pallegina, a French-accented paladin and one of the game's "godlike" - a race of disfigured humans that are born with abnormalities that were supposedly gifted to them by the Gods. I kind of love this idea, that these people are "blessed" with unfortunate facial dysmorphia that also renders them sterile. It actually reminds me of the Shibito of the Siren games and how they gradually become more monstrous and disfigured as the game continues: the game explains this as them evolving to be more like their God, which in every Siren game is always some sort of hideous Lovecraftian extradimensional being. Anyway, Pallegina has a few bird-like aspects to her head and vocal patterns, but seems normal enough if a little direct (paladins, what can you do?). She's from a different part of the world - one that sounds a lot like Orlais with its old Imperial roots, layers of political intrigue and goofy French accents - and works for a paladin order that answers directly to a counsel of "ducs", so we sort of help her complete missions for her people.
- Her role as a paladin is fairly self-explanatory too. She's a front-line fighter first and foremost and has a few ways to help allies, whether it's through direct healing (the classic "lay on hands") or a "zealous aura" that increases the accuracy of everyone around her. She can also set her sword aflame several times per encounter, which is damn useful when fighting undead and other monsters that don't like fire too much. When I cycle through the two remaining slots with revolving characters, one of them is always a front-line fighter like her or Edér (a stock fighter and all-round southern nice guy).
Remember the spoilers I told you about? Well here they come. I'm going to be talking about the Endless Roads of Od Nua and Raedric Hold in the next few paragraphs, so be forewarned.
The Endless Roads of Od Nua is, like the stronghold that sits atop of it, one of the most overt homages to the IE games. Specifically, it's the super-long and mostly optional dungeon that every add-on pack always includes. Baldur's Gate: Tales of the Sword Coast had Durlag's Tower, Baldur's Gate 2: Throne of Bhaal had Watcher's Keep (different Watcher, one assumes), Icewind Dale: Heart of Winter had that weird desert dungeon. It's a tradition, in a way, to give players who have mastered the core game some huge and unpredictable dungeon to explore. Od Nua is conveniently situated above your HQ, and you can tackle it whenever you're in the area to check in on things, rest at your own guest house or switching party members. Each floor is progressively tougher than the last and, I'm assuming, the dungeon is meant to last you the whole game, with its lowest floors suitable only for a party ready to take on the final boss.
There's a lot I admire about this dungeon. The first is that it attempts to tie the floors together both thematically and geographically, as you can see by the above image. Throughout the entire dungeon is a colossal statue that you see bits and pieces of as you continue to go deeper, crafted from adra (crystalline rocks that are everywhere, but are rarely over ten feet tall). There's also other features, like a sacrifical pit that passes through several floors to a drake waiting below for free food. A lot of the floors have a certain trick to them, like finding keys to open a door or agreeing to do a task for a creature before it'll open the way to the next floor. Every few floors there's a "master staircase" that the player can use to get out of the dungeon if it's getting a little too tough for their present level, and can later use to return to the floor they last reached. While the Endless Paths do appear to be optional, it's a truly intense place given its size and the deepening mystery behind its construction. It's cool that it's front and center like this too, directly under the player's HQ, rather than hidden away at a corner of the world map hours away from any conveniences.
Raedric's Hold, which is another optional location, requires a little more elaboration. It's the home of the local Lord, who by all reports has gotten a little crazy due to the plight that has affected his lands. He's going around murdering animancers, denying the opportunities he promised visitors to his land and overall being a tad despotic with his terrified populace. If you head near the road to Raedric's Hold in the Esternwood wilderness area, a young man named Kolsc walks by, asks you to take down Lord Raedric and tells you of a secret sewer entrance that just wiped out his group. Once you actually get to the Hold, however, there's many different routes to take to reach Lord Raedric, and it's a case of the game cleverly setting up multiple routes to suit the player. I'll go over a few of them below:
- The player can choose to take the sewer entrance, as Kolsc suggested, and find a prisoner (one of Kolsc's men) who tells you about a friendly Priest of Berath in the Hold's chapel. The player can find a way to the chapel area of the Hold, conceal themselves with priest robes to avoid suspicion and find this priest to get a key that will open many of the doors in the Hold, including the one to Lord Raedric's throne room. The player can then fight Lord Raedric and his retinue of soldiers, sellswords, paladins and an Archmage and let Kolsc take over the castle (he's revealed to be Raedric's cousin and sole remaining family). Time will tell if the citizenry will benefit with this new ruler.
That's one route. It's probably the most likely one a player might take, as it requires the least amount of skill checks and combat. While there's a lot of monsters to fight in the sewers, and the Lord Raedric fight itself is quite difficult, this route isn't particularly violent. But there's plenty of other options:
- The player can choose to take an alternative route, climbing up a vine wall that fatigues the less athletic members of the party but skips the sewers entirely. The player emerges on the battlements close to the chapel entrance, and through here can find the priest with the key. Unfortunately, he won't co-operate without the prisoner's word, so you might have to kill him or find a different way into the castle from the battlements. You end up fighting more human guards this way, but it's faster.
- The player can choose to take the very direct route and simply march through the vast number of guards between the moat entrance and Lord Raedric's throne. Just kill everyone, sure, why not. Why even have keys and puzzles and dialogue and subtlety. This is why we can't have nice things.
- The player can choose to empty the sewers of its undead creatures as usual, and then take down Raedric's pet animancer who made them (or convince her you're working for Raedric so she leaves you alone). If someone in the party has a high Mechanics skill they can find a secret entrance in the animancer's room that goes directly to the Lord's private chambers, which is directly next to his throne room. This route doesn't even require meeting the priest.
- The player can even, after listening to the mad Lord Raedric talk about how killing his wife and newborn child was necessary, decide to join him and go murder Kolsc on his behalf. Hey, it's just politics. This route doesn't require killing anyone above the sewer level.
- The player could kill all the guards in the castle, then kill Raedric, then kill Kolsc, then go upstairs and murder all the priests. There might be a few maids and other servants around to murder too. Possibly a bunny or two hopping around outside. They're probably all worth experience points, right? Or have a few coppers on them at least? Whatever lets you sleep at night, buddy.
It's impressive that the game has a depth of options for you with this situation, though it's more the mark of a good RPG than anything unique to this game's quest design in particular. The old "alternate routes depending on how you've specialized" tactic has been around in RPGs for a while, whether it's the IE games or the modern BioWare games or Deus Ex or Quest for Glory or any number of games that combine RPG stats and skills with adventure game dialogue trees and puzzle-solving. I also appreciate that PoE has options that removes dialogue options that you don't have the stats for (rather than saying "hey, if you were smarter, you could've gone for this option"), or simply not state if a dialogue option requires a skill check you're qualified for - that way, if you wanted to be a real purist, you could rely entirely on the tone of the dialogue options presented to you.
Anyway, I've talked enough about this game, its mechanics and its strengths for the time being. I daren't talk any more about it without A) finishing it first or B) going into further spoiler territory and revealing more mid- and late-game elements that would be better discovered first-hand than described and/or explained. Be sure to keep an eye out for that review and I'll catch you all later.
(Though, if you like, feel free to ask any questions about the game that wasn't covered by this or the two previous blogs, keeping in mind that I'm not at the end just yet. I swear I keep remembering extra stuff to talk about after one of these goes up, which I of course then forget about when it comes time to write the next.)