Game review: Pillars Of Eternity Complete Edition is a good fit for Switch
Obsidian’s homage to old school role-playing games like Baldur’s Gate comes to Switch and ends up working surprisingly well.
Old school is such a more positive phrase than old-fashioned. It means exactly the same thing but feels much more defiant about its refusal to follow current fashions. Old school games are the way they are because they think the old ways are best, or at least a viable alternative that shouldn’t be forgotten. The old isometric style computer role-player is a dead genre as far as major publishers are concerned, but thankfully 73,986 Kickstarter backers and $3 million of their money said otherwise. Although at the time they never mentioned anything about a console version.
Pillars Of Eternity may well have the most generic name in video game history. It’s so completely forgettable that we still found ourselves double-checking it before this review, but there’s a good reason for that: its real name is Baldur’s Gate III. In all but trademarked title this is the second sequel to BioWare’s classic series, that fans have been demanding for over a decade. Or at least they were back in 2015, when the game originally came out on PC.
A lot has changed since then and now Larian Studios are working on an actual Baldur’s Gate III and developer Obsidian has been bought by Microsoft and have sci-fi adventure The Outer Worlds coming out in just a few months. But in their previous incarnation as Black Isle Studios they worked on many of the other games that used Baldur’s Gate’s Infinity Engine technology – most notably Planescape: Torment and Icewind Dale I and II. Pillars Of Eternity attempts to recreate the look and feel of those old games, and without any concessions to modernisation or current fads.
If you’ve never been a PC gamer then these names will likely mean nothing to you, which is one of the main reasons why we never expected to see the game on consoles – least of the Switch. The other is that it’s an incredibly difficult and slow-paced role-playing game, with an interface built entirely around using a mouse and keyboard. And yet somehow, miraculously, developer Paradox Artic has managed to make it all work on a joypad. They’ve also thrown in two-part DLC The White March, even though it was never very good.
Since this isn’t an official Dungeons & Dragons title the game takes place in the land of Drywood, which is suffering from a curse where babies are being born without a soul. There’s an awful lot more to it than that, but one of the major tensions in the game comes from the animancers who claim they can solve the problem but are, quite understandably, seen as a serious menace in themselves – what with all their soul-powered robots and heretical experiments.
The main character also has some interesting special abilities, including psychometry and speaking to the dead. This is a clear attempt to add in some of the occult elements from Planescape: Torment, but although the extra gameplay elements are welcome it doesn’t really mix with the otherwise straight-laced Tolkien-esque fantasy. Pillars Of Eternity not only takes itself incredibly seriously but seems to revel in the fact that there’s so little voice-acting, by presenting reams of text for even the smallest item description or obscure historical footnote.
BioWare has some good comedy writers amongst their ranks, and Minsc and his pet hamster were one of the most iconic parts of the real Baldur’s Gate series, but Pillars Of Eternity struggles to provide an alternative. In fact, despite competent writing, most of the characters make little real impression, with many becoming as interchangeable and forgettable as The Hobbit dwarves.
We can’t believe that fans wanted things to be quiet this dry and stuffy, but we’re sure the combat is exactly what they were after. It follows the original games very closely, in that although it takes place in real-time you can pause it at any moment in order to issue orders. Which is basically every few seconds, as there’s no artificial intelligence for your characters and they’ll happily wander in the way of not just enemies but each other’s friendly fire.
Pillars Of Eternity is brutally, and purposefully, difficult and if you’re anything other than an Infinity Engine veteran we advise playing on easy, or even the one below that that trivialises the combat and allows you to concentrate on just the story. Otherwise, even recovering after a battle is almost as complicated and stressful as the fight itself, as you need a proper rest at a well-supplied camp to completely recover. (Or ideally your own customisable Suikoden II style castle, which you get access to fairly early on in the game.)
As unlikely as it seems though the joypad controls do work surprisingly well, to the point where we described the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 versions, from 2017, as amongst the best PC to console ports we’ve ever seen. A cursor automatically highlights whatever your current character is looking at, while the trigger buttons give access to all the necessary menus. It’s a shame the Switch version doesn’t use the touchscreen at all but at least the performance is fine, beyond some very long load times.
On the ordinary difficultly modes fights are punishingly hard but one of the best things about Pillars Of Eternity, and all these older style role-players, is that violence is rarely the only option. Depending on your characters and their reputation you can talk, bribe, or sneak your way past many encounters. Which may seem the less exciting option on paper but adds greatly to both the sense of realism and the idea that you are fully in control of your own destiny.
Pillars Of Eternity’s problem though is that while it’s an incredibly accurate recreation of late ’90s computer role-players it’s also an incredibly safe one. This is a common issue with Kickstarter games, where the backers demand everything be exactly like it was in the old days. But the original games were groundbreaking and unpredictable in their day – and that’s the one element Pillars Of Eternity barely even attempts to replicate.
There are a few unusual races (mermaid-esque humanoids, for example) and a couple of unique characters classes (Chanters that sing stat and status-altering songs, and Ciphers that suck soul energy to cast as spells) but nothing of any real note or lasting value.
But while Pillars Of Eternity does nothing to build the future of modern day role-playing it is an almost perfect homage to its past. There’s currently no clue as to whether Obsidian will return to make similar games now they’re owned by Microsoft, but they can at least rest easy knowing they made one of the last great CRPGs.
Pillars Of Eternity: Complete Edition
In Short: A surprisingly good port of a purposefully old school computer role-player, that proves even the most PC of games can work on consoles.
Pros: A huge adventure, with highly involved combat but also plenty of non-violent role-playing options. Excellent PC port, with a surprisingly good control system and optional story mode.
Cons: Plot and characters are disappointingly generic, and the writing is overly serious. Zero innovation and The White March isn’t very good. Long load times.
Formats: Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, and PlayStation 4
Publisher: Versus Evil
Developer: Paradox Arctic and Obsidian Entertainment
Release Date: 8th August 2019
Age Rating: 16
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