Pillars of Eternity: Third Impressions

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.

Party

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).

Dungeon Specific

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.

I love this map. It shows you how every floor is connected.

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.)

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Wiki Project: Super '94 Q1

Welcome to another episode of Wiki Project, where I break down all my recent work with the Giant Bomb Wiki. This particular one I'm on right now, where I'm trying to fix up all 489 pages for games released for the Super Nintendo in 1994, is a bit on the Herculean side. While the round-up I did last year for the Super Nintendo's 1993 output was well-received, it's going to be hard to jam all these '94 games into a single blog. For one thing, it would probably end up being around 20,000 words, and getting folk to read that much about a bunch of anime mahjong games from over a decade ago is a big ask. Too big, by any rational perspective.

Instead, we're going to go at this quarterly report style, as if I wasn't worried that these retro round-ups weren't exciting enough without layering business speak over it. Suffice it to say though, as one of the Super Nintendo's peak years, a lot of excellent and curious games would hit the platform in 1994 as everyone had settled into a comfortable groove with what the system could do. The Super Nintendo, it would be fair to say, was easily the market leader at this time, handily beating out the relatively tired Sega Genesis and the multitude of expensive and underwhelming CD-based consoles that were desparately trying to convince us that discs, not cartridges, were the future. Oh, how we laughed. And then the PlayStation came out. (In late 1994, in fact, alongside the Sega Saturn.)

Well, until then, the Super Nintendo still ruled the roost. Nintendo fans were getting hyped over early pictures of the "Ultra 64", officially announced to the public in the Spring of this year, but most were content to see what all the various first-, second- and third-party developers that Nintendo had wrangled were producing for the SNES in its senior year. 489 goddamn games, turned out.

(A little bit on how I'm presenting this particular Wiki Project. Even within this three month time frame, we're looking at almost a hundred releases, and the recent table-based TurboGrafx rundowns almost killed me. A lot of the Super Famicom games out at this time were dull horse-racing, mahjong, shogi (that's chess but not!) and Pachi-Slots (which are just straight up slots, no pachinko involved), and the SNES saw just as much awfulness in the form of poorly conceived licensed games, so with that in mind I've decided to only highlight the ten "most interesting" games for each month with a few honorable mentions.)

January

Always an inauspicious start to any gaming calendar, as well as the traditional start to most calendars in general, January saw a relatively sparse twenty-one new releases. Doesn't sound bad, but it was the second lowest monthly total of the year and less than a third of what would come our way in December. (Decembers be crazy, y'all.)

Brain Lord: During the 16-bit era Enix was a publisher working with many different RPG developers, the most prominent of which included: Chunsoft, with whom Enix worked closely for many of the games in their flagship Dragon Quest franchise and the lesser but still outrageously popular Mystery Dungeon series; Quintet, which put out a lot of very memorable SNES RPGs in the guise of ActRaiser, Soul Blazer, Illusion of Gaia and Terranigma; and Produce, who are perhaps the least well-known and most underappreciated of Enix's frequent partners, maybe better known instead for their collaborations with Hudson developing Super Bomberman games. I've yet to complete a SNES Produce/Enix RPG myself, despite a few attempts to get into one. It's not that their games are bad, necessarily, just kind of obscure, dark in tone and/or mechanically abstruse (which I kinda figure are all big positives now in this post-Souls JRPG world). Produce's three big SNES JRPGs were The 7th Saga, Brain Lord and the Japan-exclusive Mystic Ark, none of which had much in common besides multiple protagonists (one of them, Remeer, appears in all three games), open-world elements and a high level of difficulty. Brain Lord's probably the most accessible gateway of those three, even in spite of its ridiculous name. It's more of an Alundra (or, indeed, Terranigma) take on an action RPG, in the sense that it's just The Legend of Zelda with a few RPG trappings stuck on top. Lots of puzzle dungeons, some nice art design and an unusual game all round.

Fire Emblem Monshou no Nazo: Intelligent Systems's Fire Emblem needs no introduction, seeing how Awakening blew everyone away relatively recently. Monshou no Nazo, or Mystery of the Emblem, is still firmly in Fire Emblem's hazy, Japan-exclusive past. It's the archetypal Fire Emblem experience however, continuing (and building on the blueprint of) Fire Emblem: Ankoku Ryu to Hikari no Tsurugi's adventures of Marth the future Hero-King with all new graphics, new units and a whole second chapter to expand the game's length. I'm not really a Fire Emblem guy, but this seems like the franchise's "A Link to the Past": a big, brash Super Nintendo debut for that series that has everything a fan of the original could want in a sequel.

Lester the Unlikely: Lester's unfortunately a bit notorious for its unusual take on representing a character's dramatic arc through game mechanics. Lester begins as a fraidy cat nerd and learns to find his courage and convinction as the game progresses, meeting the love of his life and the nebulous forces of evil that are threatening the island he washes up on. Unfortunately, this means a lot of the early game involves him running away from Galapagos Turtles in sheer panic, despite the fact that they're some of the least threatening creatures on the planet. It doesn't help that the game controls awkwardly in its attempts to out-Mechner games like Flashback and Prince of Persia with its fancy rotoscoped acrobatics, both of which had recently seen SNES conversions around this time. One of those cases where the devs had some neat ideas but couldn't quite capitalize on them, which to me is infinitely preferable to the many SNES cookie-cutter licensed platformers that shot for the lowest point target on the figurative skeeball table and still missed.
Lethal Enforcers: Perhaps best known for the giant pink revolver peripheral (the Justifier!), the Super Nintendo Lethal Enforcers was a fairly faithful recreation of Konami's digitized-actors-in-shades light-gun game from the Arcades. I recall it being infamous for its high price tag to relatively brisk (if you could survive long enough) length. Glad we still don't have arguments about game length vs. dollar value these days...
Majin Tensei: I'm actually showcasing two Shin Megami Tensei games in this Wiki Project (entirely by accident), and Majin's the first of what would become a strategy-focused spin-off series separate from the core's standard first-person dungeon-crawling. It's a lot like Fire Emblem, in fact, with units on grids facing off in detailed little animations that show the exchange of damage. You've still got all the demon summoning/recruiting goodness of the core series as well. Weird that I decided to publish this blog after more details emerged on that Shin Megami Tensei X Fire Emblem crossover, huh?
Ninja Warriors: Not quite the original Taito Arcade brawler, 1987's The Ninja Warriors, but rather an enhanced remake for the Super Nintendo that added a third character (Kamaitachi, the scythe-wielding endoskeleton) and made the gameplay a little closer to Final Fight than the original's Rush'n Attack. I mention this one both for its great soundtrack (though there's sadly no Daddy Mulk, as far as I can tell) and how most of this wiki page's resources had to be carefully extricated from the core The Ninja Warriors page. Still, an easy to mistake for an editor to make, especially as the US version of this game was just called "Ninja Warriors".
Pop'n TwinBee: Rainbow Bell Adventure: The TwinBee games, like the Hebereke games (which we'll get to a little later), were deemed too cute for American audiences. At least, I can only assume that's what happened, as both the excellent shoot 'em up Pop'n TwinBee and this unusual platformer spin-off both skipped the Land of the Free. Rainbow Bell Adventure has a lot of great ideas though, carrying over TwinBee's colored bell power-ups (they now enhance things like jump height and melee attack length) and Super Mario World-style secret exits. The European version unfortunately cut out these secret exits for an entirely linear chain of stages and most of the story as well, so American TwinBee superfans (all three of them) shouldn't feel too burned by losing out on that version.

Skyblazer: Skyblazer is one of those forgotten SNES gems that sadly didn't get the exposure it deserved, in part due to its obscure developer (Ukiyotei, which wouldn't do much else besides SNK grunt work). It's a fantastic game, however; a mix between Mega Man X, Strider and Sparkster. As Sky, the protagonist, gets further into the game he'll gain more abilities, not only increasing his firepower but his traversal abilities as well. Towards the end, you're shooting around like a comet, flinging past platforming sequences and taking down weird boss after weird boss. It has also some Super Mario World branching paths and secrets too, and both looks and sounds fantastic for a 1994 game.

World Class Rugby 2: Kokunai Gekitou Hen '93: As well as showcasing the big name favorites and diamonds in the rough, I'm going to be dropping into bizarre curios that perplexed me after discovering them. This game, for instance, is a Japan-exclusive sequel to a UK-developed rugby game. Apparently Japanese players couldn't get enough of England's particular interpretation of handegg and went to on to commission a sequel from the same developer. Either that, or some contract developers modified the original to have more anime in it. As someone who finds rugby odd enough despite living a handful of miles from several prominent rugby towns, it's extra bizarre to find a Japan-exclusive game based on the sport. Like seeing an anime reboot of Thomas the Tank Engine (outside of all those Attack on Tank Engine YouTube parodies at least).
Zool: Ninja of the Nth Dimension: It's funny, but Jeff's been making murmurs of once again trying to break into Amiga gaming despite being put off numerous times. He's created a thread to ask for recommendations, and once again everyone is bringing up action games that really don't do the Amiga any favors, most of which have Arcade or Mega Drive alternatives which would be far more preferable. Zool's one of those games: a fairly standard but decent enough platformer that really does better on a console like the Super Nintendo than the Amiga, which suffers with its one-button joystick. Zool's not too exciting on the SNES, where it's less of a big fish in a small pond and has to contend with comparisons to Super Mario World and Super Castlevania IV, but... well, I guess as an Atari ST kid, I have a certain amount of nostalgic reverence to that sneaky green alien from the Nth dimension.

Honorary Mentions: Hey, are you a bored secretary from the mid-90s and like playing Windows Solitaire? How about a version with multiple Solitaire variations, that was inexplicably full of half-naked animes in the Japanese version? Super Solitaire might be what you're looking for. The developers of Bastard!! Ankoku no Hakaishin weren't sure what to do with the license for Bastard!!, the medieval fantasy brother of JoJo's Bizarre Adventure, so they turned it into a DBZ fighter game. Super Pinball: Behind the Mask is some pinball-ass pinball, but with a dark gothy motif because the 90s. Prepare to feel the unbearable anguish of the flipper bonus zones!

February

The releases start to pick up in February with a respectable total of twenty-eight new games, but it was the Sega Genesis that was drawing the most attention this month with the premiere of Sonic the Hedgehog 3. Unfortunately, the SNES didn't see anything that major this month, but we have a collection of interesting titles nonetheless.

A.S.P. Air Strike Patrol: This is a nostalgia pick for me. Very nakedly a Japan-produced (the devs, Opus, actually went on to create the Half-Minute Hero games) attempt to recreate the isometric chopper shenanigans of EA's excellent Strike series of open-world(ish) mission-based military games, ASP (or Desert Fighter) had players configure a jet and pilot loadout and go on "sorties" into mission areas to take down assigned targets. It uses Strike's mix of air-to-air and air-to-ground weaponry, looking for places to refuel, repair damage and restock ammo whenever one of those respective meters got too low, and frequently pausing to check the map to see if you were going the right way. It's not a bad clone, honestly, and the fact that you'll take regular sorties to different areas per mission means it has a lot of variety, even if most of the missions tend to involve flying over bases blowing parts of it up to reach a necessary destruction percentage. The one thing I do remember about the late-game is when you discover that the despotic leader of the fictitious Middle Eastern nation of Zarak is being helped by goddamn space invaders, and you have to blow up their mothership in the final mission with your F-16s Independence Day-style. Man, did that game get stupid.

Cyborg 009: A Japan-only platformer and one that didn't seem to be received too well, Cyborg 009 is based on an old 70s anime by legendary manga artist and TV writer Shotaro Ishinomori whose works, oddly enough, include a manga adaptation of A Link to the Past created for Nintendo Power. The game's curious because it allows for multiple protagonists - you switch them on the fly, sort of like Portrait of Ruin's two protagonists. You can only take two other characters with you, however, and there are eight characters in all each with their own special abilities. It mostly boiled down to the player's style when it came to deciding who to bring along: some characters are good for being sneaky and avoiding confrontation, while others are entirely offense-based. Pity its ideas didn't coalesce into something more satisfying, as it sounded like a neat attempt at a Mega Man/Lost Vikings hybrid.

Itadaki Street 2: Neon Sign wa Bara Iro ni: While this is the second official Itadaki Street game, it helped to establish more of the quirks that made Itadaki Street stand out above other Monopoly clones. Multiple players attempt to out-commerce each other as they walk over various boards buying properties and spending cash on improvements, though they can also choose to gamble and procure money by other means. Enix's involvement would eventually lead to a lot of Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy cameos further down the line, but for the occasional Slime-shaped board there wasn't too much of that yet. Still, this is really the game that began the whole Itadaki Street streak, so to speak, and we all remember what happened when the Bomb Crew tried their hand at Fortune Street, Itadaki's Wii incarnation.

Olivia's Mystery: I really didn't know what to make of this game. It feels budget-y as hell, and of course is entirely in Japanese, but the gameplay uses a format which I've heard referenced as "motion puzzles" in the past. In order to continue the game's story, the player must piece together scenes via jigsaw pieces that are constantly animating. If that's not enough of a distraction, there are several fake pieces that won't fit in the puzzle despite displaying part of the same picture. The animations are often as much a help as a hindrance, however, such as scenes where there's clearly rain falling down from the sky which helps determine which pieces need turning around.
Super Alfred Chicken: Talking of Amiga games slumming it on consoles, while there's games like Zool that are helped immeasurably with a 16-bit controller rather than a one-button joystick, there's also games like Alfred Chicken which, unfortunately, are perhaps beyond saving. Alfred's an especially quirky game of the sort Jeff would immediately recognize as European (just watch the site's Putty Squad QL for this perceptiveness in action). It's also fairly obtuse and not particularly fun either. Clearly someone thought highly enough of it to release it to the Super Nintendo though.
Super Troll Islands: While this game initially looks like a risible attempt to market those hideous Scandinavian Troll dolls with the wild hair in as many 90s multimedia formats as possible, there's actually some creativity here. The game uses a City Connection/Q*Bert-style painting gimmick in which the player must canvas the entire stage with their feet in order to entirely restore its lost color. This means eluding enemies and finding the quickest route to take, and the platforming is workmanlike enough to not get in the way. I dunno if I'd spend too long playing a game based on Troll dolls, but at least it opted for an interesting premise.
Uchuu Race: Astro Go! Go!: It's a bizarre anime take on F-Zero, and that's usually sufficient to get me to sit up and notice. It's limited to one-player and five characters to choose from, including a skeleton named Bari who drives the Barivehicle. The courses are kind of nuts, throwing all sorts of jumps and speed arrows and one-way currents and other obstacles in your path. Unlike F-Zero, leaping to your doom isn't the end of the race, and the player is helpfully carried back onto the track with a robotic Lakitu ersatz. We were going to get a version of this ourselves, with the terrible name of Freeway Flyboys, but someone pulled the plug on the idea. Probably for the best.

Uncharted Waters 2: New Horizons: Uncharted Waters is an impressive game for a multitude of reasons, but the buccaneer simulator was jam-packed with different open-ended ways to play the game and different stories to follow. New Horizons appears to be more of what people liked in the first game, with various protagonists that each have a different goal in mind, from becoming a successful merchant kingpin to a Spanish-sinking privateer to a heavily in debt treasure hunter to murder-solving lady pirate to being the first cartographer to chart the known world. It seems insanely dense for a SNES game, but then that's Koei and their many various strategy franchises for you.

Wolfenstein 3D: The Claw of Eisenfaust: Before SNES Doom there was SNES Wolfenstein 3D. The console obviously suffers a little trying to keep all those fancy 3D effects in check, but fortunately Wolfenstein 3D is a far more primitive dry run to what would become a very compromised (but still surprisingly spooky) version of Doom. Of course, you mention Wolfenstein 3D and the Super Nintendo to a lot of folk and the first thing that comes to mind is that ridiculous Super Noah's Ark 3D unlicensed game.
X-Kaliber 2097: One of quite a number of cyberpunk sci-fi action games that tap into that era of 1990s gothic cool that so greatly amuses anyone who vainly tries to analyze the once-massive appeal of Spawn or The Crow in this day and age. I really have no idea what we were thinking back then, sorry. X-Kaliber 2097 was mostly known for being difficult as hell, if at all, but these days it has the dubious honor of being the original source of underground RPGMaker hit Barkley's Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden's sprite for its Zauber master Balthios.

Honorable Mentions: Top Management II follows its forebear into the cutthroat world of business executives and spreadsheets in a game presumably for the 40+ aged. Winter Olympics: Lillehammer '94 brings the thrills of the Winter Olympics to consoles everywhere as the first official video game version of the chilly weeks-long event. Joe & Mac 2: Lost in the Tropics is actually the third Joe & Mac game, but who's counting? Presumably not a bunch of cavemen, given that humanity was still a few millennia away from inventing mathematics. They're happier throwing axes at pteradons.

March

March 1994 will be an exciting month for the Super Nintendo as we'll shortly find out, but it's also one of the busiest for the system. Forty-nine releases overall, which means March had as many releases as January and February put together. I'm not sure why this is a big month for releases; maybe it's an "end of the fiscal year" thing?

Advanced Dungeons & Dragons: Eye of the Beholder: Westwood's Dungeon Master-inspired RPG series finally makes its SNES debut, joining other venerable PC RPGs such as Ultima, Wizardry and, well, Dungeon Master itself. It's an alright adaptation, one that has compatibility with the SNES Mouse to ensure that people aren't scrambling to the attack buttons whenever a gnoll shows up, but kind of pokey and underwhelming compared to its computer incarnation. Curiously enough, Capcom both developed and published this SNES port. CRPGs really don't seem like their wheelhouse.
Idea no Hi: Translated as "The Day of the Idea", this bizarre RPG features a young boy with psychic powers joining up with other oddball characters to discover what mysterious forces are threatening to destroy their eccentric, USA-inspired world. Nope, it's not EarthBound, but it's certainly just as strange and has a lot of gameplay similarities all the same. The surreal aspect is in part due to the involvement of satirical manga artist Koji Aihara, who both designed the characters and wrote the game's story. He also worked with the same developers, Office Koukan, to create the equally unsettling Maka Maka in 1992. Remember when they let any old nutcase develop an RPG?
Liberty or Death: Another dense Koei strategy game. Best known for developing Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Nobunaga's Ambition, Koei's "Historical Simulation Series" would try its hand at many different historical settings during its heyday, not least of which is this take on the American War of Independence. Fight the tyrannical King of England as Washington's blue coats, creating a Republic built on the principles of liberty and justice, or fight on the obviously correct side instead and silence a bunch of uppity Yanks so they can go back to paying through the nose for teabags. Easy enough choice if you ask me.
Mega Man Soccer: Remember that exciting Super Nintendo release this month that I mentioned? Well, Mega Man Soccer isn't it, but it's certainly an interesting take on the Blue Bomber that I'm not sure was thought through all the way. For one thing, it doesn't really make sense that there would suddenly be eleven Mega Men running around. If it was that easy, surely Dr. Light would've taken over the world by now? Still, this appears to be the one soccer game even soccer-haters like most of the US seem to tolerate, if perhaps only for its novelty value.

NBA Jam: NBA Jam became an institution in due time, deconstructing the respectable and long-lived sport of basketball to its base constituents of jams and slams. The game had 90s attitude out of the ears, literally setting basketballs on fire when a player was doing well enough, and helping to usher in an age when basketball was the coolest thing going in the world of sports. Boomshakalaka indeed.
Saturday Night Slam Masters: Capcom hadn't really dabbled in pro wrestling much, though it couldn't help but note that it created more than its fair share of incredible pro-wrestler characters in various other violence-based games they were known for. Saturday Night Slam Masters, also known by its Japanese name Muscle Bomber: The Body Explosion (perhaps the one title that can top "Saturday Night Slam Masters"), feels more like a standard fighting game than a wrestling game with the requisite grapples, holds and pins, but it sure does nail that 90s pro wrasslin' aesthetic. Its "made for primetime TV" visual style invites you to pull up a chair, then get off the chair so you can fold it up and hit someone over the head with it until either it or the other wrestler breaks in half.
Shin Megami Tensei II: More Megami Tensei, Shin Megami Tensei II is the second game in the core series to be released for the Super Famicom, and continues to refine the formula of fighting, recruiting and evolving various demons in order to join the forces of Law or Chaos or neither in determining the fate of the world. It introduced a few concepts that would become widespread in the series and its spin-offs, such as how certain spells could be passed onto the "child" of two fused demons. Unusually for a game in which you can literally kill the Judeo-Christian God with Lucifer on your side, the game never saw a US release. Odd, that.
Sugoi Hebereke: Most of the Hebereke games, featuring a drunken penguin in a beanie cap (Hebereke means "drunk" or "unreliable lout"), are of the Puyo Puyo puzzle variety. At least that was the case for Hebereke's Popoon and Hebereke's Popoitto, two of the three Hebereke games to see a European release (the US saw neither hide nor hair of this elusive soused bird until the Virtual Console era). Sugoi Hebereke, which loosely translates to Amazing Reprobate, is a four-player arena fighter and one of the earliest of its kind. SunSoft would go on to develop more games with this format, many of which would turn out way more interesting than this Bomberman-meets-Final Fight free-for-all. Still, though, why would all these adorable, vaguely Sanrio-esque mascot characters suddenly decide to throw down like this? Alcohol? Probably the alcohol.

Super Metroid: So I've beaten around the bush long enough, here. My bad for deciding to alphabetize these lists. Yes, the big release this month was Super Metroid, possibly the greatest Super Nintendo game of all time (coincidentally enough, one of the few games that might challenge that title is coming up next month). Super Metroid's base of a huge, open world filled with secrets and upgrades and immense bosses and a moody, incredible soundtrack and amazing visuals to buoy the player throughout their journey is something to behold, and games are still iterating on its formula to this very day (Axiom Verge literally came out a couple of days ago, as of this writing). Nintendo were still happy to prove that they were untouchable as game developers from time to time.
Young Merlin: I've got kind of a weird history with this game. It's far too abstruse for my liking, contains the hardest minecart sequences this side of a Donkey Kong Country game and is filled with bizarre little touches that would go on to confound a younger me for many years. It sounds and looks pretty good for a Super Nintendo game, yet it also simultaneously has this distinctively janky quality (maybe it's the animations? Something felt a little off) that I would also go on to notice in ICOM's lackluster TurboGrafx output. Westwood Studios, creators of some of the greatest PC gaming franchises ever produced (Eye of the Beholder! Legend of Kyrandia! Lands of Lore! Command & Conquer, for Kane's sake!), developed this odd little Zelda-inspired action-adventure game presumably as a way to take a break from their headier PC work. What a mystery this game was, and continues to be.

Honorable Mentions: March also saw the first of the Star Trek: TNG games with Star Trek: The Next Generation: Future's Past, an adaptation of the Genesis game Echoes from the Past. Ever wanted to see hyperintelligent Starfleet officers lower themselves to solving lever puzzles in top-down dungeons? Here you go. Talking of sudden losses of dignity, Chester Cheetah: Wild Wild Quest is the second game to feature the Cheetos mascot with a lithe feline form that somehow never accurately reflects the vast amount of corn snacks he puts away. KeroKeroKeroppi no Bouken Nikki: Nemureru Mori no Keroleen is a word salad title for a game starring Sanrio's frog character Keroppi, who must find his frognapped girlfriend in this kindergartener's first RPG. Super Robot Taisen EX is the third game in Banpresto's immense mecha crossover franchise (best known to us as Super Robot Wars), as well as the series' first of many spin-offs, which began a gaiden continuity that would finally be resolved in a game released last year. Last and probably least, we have the SNES adaptation of the Laserdisc QTE game Space Ace, which didn't quite do as well as its fantasy equivalent Dragon Lair despite having a sexier heroine. I guess magical dragons and evil wizards make for more impressive villains than some blue guy named Borf. (Repeat: We are all out of Borf license plates.)

The Bit at the End

Well, hopefully that didn't go on too long. I want to keep highlighting the weird stuff I find because this is largely the reason I do all this wiki work at all. It occasionally feels like archaeology, except instead of finding a shard of an ancient Etruscan urn, I'm finding a 16-bit golf game where I'm controlling Spike McFang of Twisted Tales fame, or stacking preservatives as a raccoon from the 1977 anime adaptation of a 1963 children's novel, or a Reversi board game adaptation featuring anime cats as pieces.

I want to share these games as I find them, and so I find myself displaying what I've found in what presumably comes off as self-aggrandizing "look how I chose to spend twenty hours of my finite lifespan this month" wiki navel-gazing. It's really all about the weird and wonderful world of games however, and how little our otherwise video-game-savvy collective knows of the madness that goes on when a successful console like the Super Nintendo gets perhaps a bit too popular for its own good.

Anyway, I hope you'll stick with me for future updates to this Wiki Project, as I continue to research Super Nintendo/Super Famicom games and update the Wiki with what I've uncovered. Until then, I'll see you next mission.

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Pillars of Eternity: Second Impressions

I should've thought a little harder about a title for this series that would allow for multiple parts. Oh well. We're back again to discuss more of Pillars of Eternity, side-stepping deeper plot and side-quest spoilers for the sake of the game's mechanics. Specifically, how it tries to be as close to an Infinity Engine game as possible for nostalgia's sake while also making a necessary departure from the copyrighted AD&D rules that governed same. The pleasures of discovering this game have thus been twofold: getting to pontificate about a style of CRPG that meant a lot to me as a younger man, and exploring the ins and outs of an entirely new RPG system. Deep mechanics and a focus on player versatility are why I'm so attached to the RPG genre, after all.

Party

Won't be too much more this time, though I did pick up a fifth party member:

  • Aravella the Ranger has been soldiering on. She's kept to the back and now has a nifty modal ability (which is just what the game calls active skills you can turn on or off) in which she'll fire arrows at a slower rate but with much higher accuracy. I'll be going into why accuracy is so important a little later, but suffice it to say once I figured out how it works I saw the merits to any buff that can raise your to-hit capability.
  • Erstma the Barbarian's learned a few modal abilities too. Most of them tend to involve sacrificing defense for increased attack, naturally enough for a barbarian, so I've been careful to ensure that Aravella's wolf always leads the charge so that enemies will focus on it instead of Erstma. I'm thinking of getting her something that drains Endurance to keep her in the fight longer, though I could just as easily find a Cleric type for the group for the same purpose. She has HP for days, so it's no big deal if she takes a few knocks. If anything, people are getting fatigued (which is a permanent condition that lowers accuracy and Endurance until the party rests, which is essentially the game saying "yo, you better rest now") long before anyone gets too far into the red health-wise.
  • Ori the Rogue's becoming one of my best tools for combat, specifically initiating combat. Her sneak attack seems to proc often enough whenever the enemy's occupied by someone else, but it's a guaranteed sneak attack (if not necessary a guaranteed hit) if she's in scouting mode (i.e. stealth and search mode) before launching an attack. She can then run from the now irate enemies into the ambush I've set up a little further away. Of course, there are times when she can't quite escape quickly enough, so maybe I've gotta rethink this surprise attack plan. (I believe she can do even more damage if she gets to within a couple of meters, a backstab in other words, but then she really will have no way to run back to the others in time. I'd better make sure the target dies in that one hit if Ori's going to stay standing.)
  • Adsho the Wizard's pretty much what I expected from a mage. Her four spell slots per level don't actually refer to how often she can cast magic: rather, she has a certain number of "charges" per level. That means if she has three charges for level one spells, she can cast any three of those four spells in any amount, even the same one three times. It's actually the spell system introduced in the original Final Fantasy, oddly enough, which Square also conceived as a way to distance Final Fantasy from the D&D systems of the games that inspired it, like Wizardry. Additional grimoires not only give you more loadouts to play with, but they also tend to come with spells written in them that the Wizard can learn. It costs money, and gets pricey if the spell's a higher level, but it's an elegant way to handle spell acquisition. I can just haul around these books with half a dozen new spells in it and learn them whenever I have the spare cash, and the books remain useful thereafter.
  • My new character is an Aumaua Chanter named Kana Rua I found loitering outside the dilapidated keep of Caed Nua (and, oh boy, a lot more on that place later). He's my first pre-gen PC as a result, and for an enormous guy with jagged teeth (the Aumaua are sort of like large sharkpeople with Hawaiian names, which I'm totally on board with) he's something of a bookish nerd. He wants a book or a tablet of some kind from the basement of the Caed Nua dungeon, and given that I'm heading that way I'm happy to have him around for the time being. Someone asked last time how involved the pre-gen PCs get with the story, and Kana Rua often seems happy to interject whenever I'm talking to someone. (But, like, not in as rude a way as I'm making it sound. Regular BioWare type party interaction stuff.) There's a little pop-up on the character's portrait whenever they want to talk to you, usually when you learn something that relates to a quest they want you to do but mostly after any big story moment, so you can get their impressions and thoughts on what just transpired. I'm hoping to find another PC like Kana to take up the sixth slot in my party, and it's going to have to be another tank-class. I have four range-attackers now! That's not a good balance.
  • Chanters, it turns out, are like Bards but slightly different. While Bards are known for being versatile fighter/rogue/mage hybrids in D&D, which are they are here as well, they're usually limited to either singing in combat, which buffs everyone in earshot, or participating in a more active role with swords and spells. Chanters can do both simultaneously, which is convenient, but the way their chants work means they need a little time to warm up. As a Chanter performs, parties receive temporary buffs for single lines of lyrics that come and go as the song progesses, but the Chanter earns an extra "Phrase" each time one of these lines is complete. Once they reach a certain number of Phrases, they can use the rhythm they've got going to cash those Phrases in for a stronger, spell-like Invocation. Some of these Invocations seem to be pretty useful, ranging from stronger buffs to creature summons and evocation magic, and they're all unique to the Chanter. Funnily enough, the thing that immediately came to mind once going through Kana Rua's "spell list" is that Chanters sound like what would happen if you turned the "Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra" guy in Star Trek: The Next Generation into an RPG class. Each Phrase and Invocation has a name like "Blessed Was Wengridh, Quickest of His Tribe" or "At the Sight of their Comrades, their Hearts Grew Bold", each of which has their own unique effect. These guys are definitely fun, and I recommend leaving a slot open for Kana Rua once you reach Caed Nua (it's a story quest location and the thing between you and the rest of the world map, so you literally can't miss it).

General Mechanics

All right, I didn't cover much of the general stuff last time because I was too busy gushing over my party of nondescript hirelings, so I'll get a little deeper into some of the stuff I mentioned last time now that I understand it better, as well as a few new rules I've started to get used to.

  • I'll start with the world, first of all, since I didn't really talk about much of Obsidian's worldbuilding here. One of the hardest challenges Pillars of Eternity had to overcome, I imagine, was creating a new fantasy world from scratch; something that takes most fantasy and sci-fi authors many years to do. (I should say that most authors only create the geography necessary for the story they want to tell in order to avoid getting too bogged down in unnecessary and irrelevant lore, but even so it took decades for places like Middle-earth, the Discworld and Westeros and its neighboring lands to properly coalesce.) Eora, the world of Pillars of Eternity, and specifically the Dyrwood area that the game takes place in, appears to be largely based on Welsh/Irish Gaelic/Celtic mythology. Lots of standing stones, nature gods, indigenous hut-dwelling peoples (i.e. the modern day Welsh (sorry for that)) and a larger plot concerning blights and the unbalancing of the natural order of things. I've obviously not pried too deep here, nor do I want to for this feature, but it feels both novel and familiar, sort of like Mass Effect's universe. I guess what I'm probably trying to say is that they invented just enough new stuff about their world to not come off as too derivative, so hats off to 'em.
  • I mentioned accuracy earlier, so here goes: D&D judges the accuracy of one's attacks with a D20 roll (as in, a die that has twenty sides. For some reason I remember those being called icosahedrons. Man, the trivia you pick up, huh?). If the D20 roll is high enough to overcome the opponent's armor class, after applying all of the attacker's bonuses they are due, then the attack counts as a hit and the player rolls for damage, a figure that is again based on their weapons and stat bonuses. PoE is a little different: if a character rolls for an attack the resulting number can be anywhere from 0 to over 100. If you roll under 15, you miss. If you roll 16-50 you "graze" the opponent, doing minimal damage but applying any bonuses you have to your attack, like additional fire damage or a knockback effect. Grazes tend to be very small amounts of damage though, usually less than half of what would've normally been incurred. Rolling a 51-100 results in a hit, doing full damage on top of any special effects. Anything over 100 is a critical attack, doing even more damage. Accuracy is reduced by shields and, I believe, heavier armor types. Armor also serves to slow recovery time down for attacks and abilities the heavier it is, but also boosts damage reduction in turn. Fairly straightforward, but I saw myself doing lots of Graze attacks before I figured out what was going on. Turns out if you want powerful "DPS" type attackers, you have to make them relatively unarmored. It's a tough trade-off to make, so it seems prudent to go back to that MMO school of thought of considering tanks and DPS attackers separately when putting together a party. (At least it makes the game a little more accessible to those who grew up with World of Warcraft instead of Baldur's Gate.)
  • Damage Reduction. There's multiple types, and in this sense the game is folding elemental and magic resistance into armor class. Any piece of armor has a DR value attached to it, reducing damage by that amount after every attack. Many magic items will give you bonus DR to various specific damage types: for instance, the first blacksmith merchant in the game has a belt that boosts both slash and pierce damage reduction, which are two of the three physical types of damage along with crushing. Again, it's a pretty elegant system and far more straightforward than good ol' THAC0: The more armor you wear, the higher your DR, and it's very easy to comprehend that number as "the number of damage points you ignore after every hit". It just feels a little unusual to see DR used this way, because any ability or item that gives you damage reduction in regular D&D tends to be a rare and coveted thing.
  • Crafting! Like learning spells, any character can improve their weapon anywhere by spending a bit of money and some resources. The stronger the upgrade, the more expensive the process and the more rare the ingredients. Unlike what I erroneously stated last time, gems are NOT vendor trash and are actually one third of the components needed for upgrading: every upgrade demands one type of gem, one type of plant (these grow everywhere, so just keep Tab pressed if you've moving around outdoors to spot them easier) and one type of monster spoil. @karkarov was kind enough to inform me that it's never a smart idea to sell anything that appears in the "ingredients" tab of the inventory, and the player should opt instead to sell equipment they don't intend to use as well as notes and other books they find in order to raise any needed funds. I'm usually pretty smart about not selling ingredients, but I guess I was thrown off by how similar these gemstones are to the gemstones of the Infinity Engine games: those things really are useless, unless it's a diamond or something else super rare. I don't know if crafting on the whole is something I'll visit too often: I'm finding a lot of weapons with the "Fine" modifier (which raises accuracy and damage) just lying around in dungeons, so maybe I won't need to craft magical stuff too often. I'll be holding onto all these ingredients regardless though, 'cause you never know...
  • I'll just copy/paste this one from the comments of the last update): Something I forgot to note this time but really impressed me about the game after reading a tooltip about it is that on higher difficulties (except for the hardest, "Path of the Damned"), the enemies don't get any stronger but the placement of them changes. So it's sort of like Doom's philosophy behind its difficulty levels: a room becomes harder on a higher difficulty because it has more imps and maybe an undead sergeant in it, but they don't hit any harder or act any differently than they already did. Not only does that mean less worrying about invisible dice rolls you already can't trust, but if you were to replay the game on a higher setting it'd feel completely different. At least as far as fighting through its encounters goes, anyway. (I'm on Normal difficulty for the record, since I felt bad for easy-streeting MGS 3 last time. Higher difficulties in RPGs usually means playing more tactically and resetting a lot to be adequately prepared, which'll just add another ten hours onto what will no doubt be an already long playthrough.)
  • For the final part of this update, I'm going to enthuse about this stronghold feature. The aforementioned Caed Nua becomes the player's stronghold once the story mission there is complete. Each upgrade takes a considerable amount of funds and a number of days to complete, but will eventually provide all the amenities of a town like the Gilded Vale, as well as a whole bunch of resources to draw from and more quests and adventures to take part in. I absolutely adore bases of operations like these in games, as evinced by this list I wrote a while back about games that do this sort of "upgradeable homestead" feature. I guess I'm more than a bit of a homebody, so I always like to have roots in a big sprawling RPG like this, even if it's just a moldy old keep that needed a few less undead monstrosities roaming around it before it could get any cozier. Y'know, your standard fixer-upper. I'm looking forward to spending all my cash renovating this place, dropping by occasionally to see how my recruited characters are doing and finding out what else there is to be done.

Speaking of which, that's my cue to leave you all for a while to go do more adventuring, with my solemn promise to return someday and keep you all updated. There's not a whole lot of the game's base mechanics that I've yet to cover here, so maybe I'll work on some "advanced tips" just as soon as I'm qualified enough to do so. Catch you later.

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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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