Obsidian Entertainment shakes the pillars of heaven, and produces a game that is no horseshit.
If there's one thing that Kickstarter has proven, it's that people are very fond of the games from their past. Many of its greatest video game-related successes have been due to game creators wishing to revisit a glorious era of their past, and asking a long-dormant fanbase to once again rise up and help make a new game in that mold a reality. Double Fine led the way with the beautiful Broken Age, a game unapologetically calling back to developer Tim Schafer's 90s period in which he created many 2D graphic adventure game nonpareils like Day of the Tentacle and Full Throttle. Legend of Grimrock saw a return to the real-time dungeon crawlers of the late 80s. Shadowrun Returns is a confident video game reboot of a table-top RPG that saw its last (universally well-acclaimed) adaptation in the 16-bit era. Funkadelic alien duo Toejam and Earl is getting rebooted. Mutant League Football is... well, maybe not that one.
It's no surprise, then, that one of the most popular RPG systems of the late 90s and early 2000s - BioWare's Infinity Engine - would also see a Kickstarter-funded renaissance. Pillars of Eternity is Obsidian Entertainment's labor of love to homage a specific period of CRPGs where they first made a name for themselves, albeit as Black Isle Studios, as RPG developers to watch. Black Isle's 1999 Infinity Engine game, Planescape: Torment, was highly regarded for its off-beat setting, heavily-emphasized narrative elements and overall writing quality. After being formed in 2003 by the disestablishment of Black Isle, Obsidian Entertainment would prove time and time again that, while they perhaps suffered numerous bugs in their overambitious approach to creating worlds, their imagination and attention to detail made them a rare talent in an industry generally more concerned with pushing the envelope on gaming's mechanical and graphical aspects. Focusing on story and characters seems more the domain of Indies, conversely, and is possibly why Obsidian has engendered a legion of loyal fans who tend to take the occasional technical hiccups in their stride.
The Infinity Engine model was created in 1998 for BioWare's Baldur's Gate (though it was originally a prototype for an RTS, curiously mirroring the wargaming-related conception of Dungeons & Dragons itself back in the 1970s) and was highly praised at the time for merging an older style of top-down tactical RPG made popular by SSI and their Gold Box series of D&D campaign adaptations with the fresh hotness that was Blizzard's Diablo and its gloriously-rendered isometric hack-n-slash action. Baldur's Gate adopted a form of real-time combat that worked in intervals, using D&D concepts of time-based "rounds" and "turns" to determine how often everyone took attacks. While the real-time combat would continue indefinitely until one side prevailed if left to its own devices, the player could pause the action at any time and issue new commands for their party of adventurers to follow, allowing them to turn the tide. The result was a quick-paced battle system that offered all the tactical decision-making a player would need to command a group of diverse heroes, one that would also factor in situational awareness ("Why is the fighter taking so much damage? I need to buff them, or support them with my ranged attackers before they fall.") and strategic placement ("If I move my mage here, they can hit up to four enemies with this Cone of Cold spell."), but could also be over in a flash if the party just happened upon a group of weaker creatures that wouldn't make for a particularly interesting combat encounter. I mention all this because it might be hard for a newcomer to comprehend why such a system would be so well-considered so many years since it was rendered defunct by its successor, the single-character-focused Aurora Engine first seen in Neverwinter Nights. The fact remains that while many future RPG systems would be based on the model, like Troika's The Temple of Elemental Evil and its in-depth D&D 3.5 Edition take on the Infinity Engine, it was IE itself that revolutionized CRPGs and helped revitalize the flagging genre. The multitude of fans who consider Baldur's Gate, Planescape: Torment and Icewind Dale to be some of their favorite games of all time made sure with Pillars of Eternity that IE would not stay a historical footnote.
Which isn't to say Pillars of Eternity is an Infinity Engine game, at least not entirely. While a lot of due attention was spent ensuring the engine was remarkably similar, right down to the UI and iconography, Pillars is absent the D&D license that included the Forgotten Realms setting that Baldur's Gate/Icewind Dale drew from and thus has created an entirely new ruleset and setting with which to craft their RPG. Importantly, this system is every bit as functional and in-depth as the D&D 2nd Edition that the original IE games used, drawing in various additional rules from D&D Editions 3 through 5 as well as a few new ideas of its own. The health system, for instance, has been heavily reworked to be less focused on micromanaging post-battle healing and recovery yet still demands that the player be mindful of taking on too much damage over time. Thief skills like trap-detection, lockpicking (both of which are folded into the "mechanics" skill) and stealth are now accessible to every class should they choose to focus in those areas, changing the Rogue to a mostly martial class that balances low durability with extreme damage output when an enemy is compromised by debuffs or being flanked. New classes like Ciphers and Chanters offer new twists on psionic-users and bards respectively, while many other familiar classics now adopt different roles in the party due to the new rules that govern them: Paladins offer group buffs to nearby allies, making it important to put them in a central defensive position in combat; Rangers use hardy animal companions as distractions for their ranged talents; Wizards and other magic-users have spell charges that can be spent on any spells they have prepared, and because most spells have AoE ranges that can also cause friendly fire their placement is now paramount to their utility; Barbarians still soak up and dispense damage in equal measure, but have numerous means to reverse their fortune when backed into a corner; Monks now become deadlier the more damage they accrue; and so on. I've written a few blogs that go into the mechanical differences between Pillars of Eternity's new ruleset and that of the original Infinity Engine games, so please feel free to peruse them over here, here and here for more details.
Pillars of Eternity has a fantastic story and setting, yet even so the game occasionally feels like an introduction to Eora: the world that Obsidian has created for this game. It's an inescapable element of any inaugural game in a new series, and Obsidian was wise to keep much of the lore in books, item descriptions and the player's "Cyclopedia" reference guide that they can read at their pleasure, but plenty of the game is spent making necessary introductions to the Gods of this world, the kith (the various civilized races, including the halfling-like Orlan and the imposing shark-like Aumaua), the countries and their political relationships with one another and concepts like adra: immense crystalline rocks that play a major part in the life and death cycle of the world. Shadowrun Returns faced a similar problem due to the amount of necessary exposition that its setting required, creating a default campaign that felt like an all-stops tour of what Shadowrun had to offer rather than a considered story with a logical consistency to connect its set-pieces. Pillars of Eternity's main questline fares a little better, featuring a particularly devious and intelligent nemesis that recalls Baldur's Gate 2's memorable antagonist Jon Irenicus, though unfortunately without nearly as much screen-time, and the story's philosophical probings into the very nature of its world is a bold step for a nascent property still finding its feet.
Taking a cue from Planescape: Torment, the greatest XP boosts come not from rote battles but from acquiring knowledge: while completing story and side-missions grant the largest XP gains, boosts are also given for fighting a type of monster for the first time, which slowly fills in a useful "Monster Manual" bestiary containing statistics on each monster as the party takes them down. Finding new locations, unlocking chests and removing traps also award small XP prizes to thorough players, and the player will find themselves at the experience cap after around 80-90% of the game's content has been experienced. As an exploratory type, I greatly appreciated a progression system that awarded discovery over hitting things, though that's not to say that hitting things can't be its own reward. As for party members, Obsidian has created eight companions that come with all the quips, interjections and commentary expected of a BioWare game, as well as a companion-specific side-quest chain. Some don't feel quite as fleshed out as others, and their side-quests are relatively brief and perfunctory, but characters like the candid Orlan Druid Hiravias and the enigmatic human Cipher known only as Grieving Mother are worth having around. The game also presents the option to craft PC companions from scratch close to the protagonist's present level, which can help considerably with the early game where there are few pre-generated PC companions accessible.
As for Pillars of Eternity's drawbacks, there's a few small quibbles I have about the game but nothing that would hold me back from an emphatic recommendation. The bonuses for high-level Kickstarter backers, which manifest as many colorful NPCs with little side-stories the player can read as well as comical epitaphs on gravestones (a Baldur's Gate staple) felt a little too incongruous and narcissistic at times; the result of a backer reward system that has yet to be properly codified to ensure that player immersion isn't regularly broken by grateful developers kowtowing to those who made it possible. At times it almost feels like putting a Coca-Cola™ billboard in the middle of a dungeon because the fresh, cool taste of Coca-Cola™ or Diet Coke™ is sure to quench a powerful thirst from smashing skeletons all day. I suspect that, much like achievements, developers will find a way to integrate those elements far more cleanly and adroitly as they continue to grow in prominence. The other downer is, of course, the requisite bugs. There was a particularly nasty one that removed passive buffs while changing equipment that has since been patched, but there's still a handful of typos, visual glitches and bugs like a random reputation drop upon revisiting a certain location in the late-game that, while not enough to ruin the experience, were still reminders that a lot passes by Obsidian's QA department even when they're not being rushed to put out a product by impatient publishers.
Overall though, Pillars of Eternity is both a confident step into the unknown and a very loving homage to an incredibly important transitional period in the PC RPG genre. It features all of Obsidian's strengths as a developer: an emphasis on intelligent, strategic gameplay as well as realizing the necessity of a well-crafted story, or a multitude of well-crafted stories, and some of the most attentive and imaginative world-building in the video game medium. Any Infinity Engine fan has probably already bought the game by now, or got in on the ground floor by being one of its 77,000 Kickstarter backers, but to anyone else who appreciates or is interested in the CRPG format, who has in the past enjoyed Baldur's Gate or Planescape: Torment or Icewind Dale or Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic or Dragon Age or Divinity: Original Sin, I absolutely urge you to try Pillars of Eternity for yourselves.
(My thanks go out to user @omghisam, who gifted me the game and made this review possible.)