Pillars of Eternity Hands On: Everything E3 Promised, for Better and for Worse.

Pillars of Eternity  image from Obsidian Entertainment.

Pillars of Eternity image from Obsidian Entertainment.

Obsidian Entertainment’s Pillars of Eternity was a hidden gem at E3. Leveraging older role-playing mechanics, the crowdfunded CRPG builds on a modified Dungeons & Dragons ruleset, promising a streamlined and updated version of an RPG system that defined games like Neverwinter Nights.

Though I was excited for the promise of Pillars of Eternity at E3, I didn’t get to go hands on until PAX Prime. But only 10 minutes into the floor demo, my party was slaughtered by beetles in our first encounter.

Pillars of Eternity screenshot   from Obsidian Entertainment, not from the hands-on demo at PAX Prime.

Pillars of Eternity screenshot from Obsidian Entertainment, not from the hands-on demo at PAX Prime.

I hit both extremes of witnessing the features that excited me play out very strongly and the ones that I never encountered before utterly befuddle me. Old school mechanics such as ability organization by level and spells charging only finite number of times during an encounter heightened the learning curve, but also rewarded the concept of paying close attention to combat. Playing with a Paladin, Fighter, Rogue, Priest, and Wizard, I got to experiment with over 20 different spells that mixed up my beetle-stomping flow.

Pillars of Eternity, hands on, is a bit complicated. The in-depth character creation asks players to invest as much time in their personal lore and class combinations as it does with physical appearance. And just like its tabletop predecessors, it has a lot of numbers to juggle. Revisiting the game in a closed demo, played with the help of Jorge Salgado, I was helped with balancing the huge number of stats and given more chances to explore the game and its combat.

Pillars of Eternity’s aesthetics, set in a Renaissance/Colonial-era time period, can excite players twice over since the game drips with inclusive design choices. The RPG trope of locking different species to specific backgrounds, and characters of any species or culture can come from anywhere on the planet and occupy any class. This almost demands the player to put their traditional fantasy character into a multicultural world closer to our Earth then a foreign realm.

Pillars of Eternity  image from Obsidian Entertainment.

Pillars of Eternity image from Obsidian Entertainment.

The game’s self-described “Interactive Story Moments” were put on display as my party encountered an old monument. We entered a 2D illustrated segment where dialogue trees and events were presented in a classic tabletop RPG fashion. According to Salgado, moments like these allowed the developer team to make adjustments to the environment without relying on big engine resources. It also gives players a chance to explore story moments and see how decisions regarding their characters’ stats could affect crucial moments. Not enough points into Lore or Stealth, (or too many points!) and the story can pivot on a dime. Though in this case, our party just examined the monument and figured out who was the strongest to push it aside.

Unfortunately, Pillars of Eternity’s bugs caught my notice. Characters sometimes failed to move back into position, and audio files unsuccessfully played at times, which remains my only major concern before the game’s upcoming release. The difficulty curve -- apparently a result of Josh Sawyer’s delight with older games -- is on par with what Obsidian promised when they Kickstarted the game, so my personal frustration with our group’s first death falls within expected parameters.

The high learning curve and diverse yet complex systems will fascinate fans of older RPGs, and will probably seduce newcomers who are looking for sophisticated mechanics in their game play. With combat awareness and attention to detail looking like key features, Pillars of Eternity so far follows through on its original promise of an epic PC-role playing adventure. 

Pillars of Eternity launches in Winter 2014 for PC, OSX and Linux, but those who funded the Kickstarter can play the beta right now.