Pillars of Eternity: Complete Edition Review

Dan Webb

For too long have console gamers sat in the dark while obscure and massively niche PC-only strategy titles have passed us by! Too long has this madness cast a shadow over the wonderful world of consoles! For too long! Okay, that might sound a bit tongue-in-cheek and massively sarcastic, but you know what? As someone who loves a good strategy game and doesn’t have a gaming PC, I actually mean it somewhat. Okay, sure, I might not yearn for them and lie awake at night willing them into my life, but Paradox’s recent shift to console support is one that should be commended and one that genuinely brings a smile to my inner strategy nerd’s face. After all, we get to experience the joy of the likes of Cities Skylines and now Pillars of Eternity, which is effectively the spiritual successor to Baldur’s Gate, and that is nothing but a good thing.

"There's always time for a pint or two after a long day's adverturing!"

Pillars of Eternity: Complete Edition – as it’s called on consoles, thanks to being bundled with the game’s 2 fairly sizeable expansions – will thrill those pen and paper RPG fans the world over with more stats than your weekly bullshit sales meetings and more reading involved than a JRR Tolkien book. As far as games go, this one is for the purists, the Baldur’s Gate fans, the Planescape fans, those who love to drill down into the complexities of stats systems and climb out of that 'stat-y' goodness like a baby being born into the new world order. To put the game into laymen’s terms for those whose roots don’t lie in the long history of PC games: imagine if the battle system from Dragon Age: Origins got down and dirty with Diablo and created a devil’s spawn. That game would be Pillars of Eternity, a game with what could be argued as more archaic with outdated systems – in the grand scheme of games development – than any other game over the past 10 years, but does so on purpose and prospers because of it. It’s a game that raises two fingers to accessibility and demands you learn its nuances or die a swift and painful death. It’s unfair (at times), it’s difficult, it demands your full attention, it’s truly hardcore and that’s nothing but a good thing in this case.

Let me stress again before I continue: Pillars of Eternity is hard. It has brutal difficulty spikes. It doesn’t pander to you. It treats you like an adult and doesn’t hold your hand. Not even for a split-second. Heck, there are barely even any tutorials for some of the most basic important stuff, but that’s Pillars' thing. In the same way that it’s also Dark Souls' thing too. And in the same way that most of the games in the late 90s were. It’s old skool by design, and old skool by nature.

While the difficulty and straightforward nature of the game we can get behind, the difficulty spikes we cannot. Playing on normal – the game’s reviewer’s go to difficulty for video games – we hit multiple difficulty spikes throughout the game. Early on you can venture into areas inhabited by high level enemies, which is understandable, but after 40 hours on a main story quest, hitting an insane difficulty spike is another thing. The fact the game doesn’t really let you flee from combat too means you’re effectively facing certain death when this happens. Which is highly annoying when you take into consideration that the game has permadeath.

"Careful, Pillars of Eternity has friendly fire... eek!"

Pillars of Eternity is a traditional rock, paper and scissors class-based RPG where you can customise anything, from your look, your background and your teammates – that latter assertion is no exaggeration either, if you don’t like the actual teammates that Obsidian has built for you, then you can build your own. Literally. It’s a game that gives you complete control over your experience, from your look, your playstyle, your teammates, your reputation, how you tackle various situations and so on. Want to be a benevolent hero? You can. Want to be a vindictive killer who's only looking out for number one? You can do that too. If you want to be a little from column A and a little from column B, that door stands open for you as well.

While the game doesn’t have the cinematic prowess of a BioWare game, its story – after a slow beginning – is hugely engaging, and while the game’s characters are oddballs to say the least, they do grow on you. As I previously mentioned, there’s a lot of reading to be done in Pillars, whether it’s general lore of the world or some of the dialogue (the game voices a lot of stuff, but doesn’t in other certain instances – it's a little jarring), so if reading isn’t your thing, don’t even bother letting this game grab your attention. You can even go one-step further and invest heavily in your stronghold which becomes available to you a short way into the game and build an army. There’s plenty of interesting side quests, adventures to take on and treasures to seek.

The combat as I mentioned earlier is very reminiscent of Dragon Age: Origin’s system mixed with Diablo. In essence, the amalgamation of point and click-based real-time combat like Diablo with the action pausing strategy-oriented tactics that could be adopted in Dragon Age. So, like Baldur’s Gate then. For the most part it works, with classes, weapons, spells and what-not having a time and place, and more importantly, a situation. It works, for the most part and its only real issue like in the engine itself, with more than a few fights causing annoyance thanks to the game’s path-finding issues with your party in combat. Not to mention the fact that it’s easy to take advantage of the dense AI by bottlenecking them in doorways and small openings.

Quite often the reason these games don’t translate well to consoles is not just the complexity of their systems, but the complexity of the controls too. Pillars of Eternity doesn’t suffer here though, aside from when you enter your inventory which can become a little finicky. Sure, they’re not super responsive at times with a controller, but for the most part, they do their job, whether you opt for direct control or mimicking the mouse cursor control method with one of the analogue systems. Up to you entirely.

Where the console version does suffer – arguably the most frustrating aspect of the game – is with its load times, which are roughly around 30 seconds per load screen. That’s not too bad if you’re talking about maps the size of The Witcher’s or something, but the maps are relatively small in Pillars of Eternity and it can be hugely infuriating when you enter towns. Go into town. Load screen. Go into inn. Load screen. Go upstairs inside the inn. Load screen. Go back downstairs in inn. Load screen. Leave inn. Load screen. A 2-minute job can turn into a 5-minute job and does more often than not. Thank all that is holy though that the game has a “fast” movement speed option that can be toggled, otherwise I’d still be in the first town now! That said, the frame-rate in said fast mode can often be a little juddery.

One of my biggest bugbears with the game itself is the lack of real perceived progression. After 35-hours we were only a level 9 character and while the game is full of loot, a lot of it feels really pointless – which is why the game’s difficulty curve seems so brutal. As someone who likes to hoover up anything and everything, most of the items in the game are utter toss. There is a non-communicated and necessary reliance on some of the game’s deeper systems like enchanting, crafting potions and cooking too, that are really the key to making the game a little easier on you. Emphasis on a little. What I do like is the way in which the game rewards you with experience, and that's not through combat, but through quests. It means you can actually avoid a lot of the combat by being stealthily and be no worse off for it.

"Everything you'll need in-game is just one quick button press away! "

Having zero experience with the original PC version of Pillars, I can’t tell whether the port is a good one or not. I say that because there are a lot of weird bugs in the current build that crop up from time to time. I’ve had the controls weirdly reverse for me, I’ve not been able to move maps because I got stuck in combat mode, I’ve had characters show they’re fine but are laying dead on the floor and more. Most of which I had to fix by losing a decent amount of progress by loading a previous save. Hardly ideal. For those that did play the original, though, they can enjoy a director's commentary at various intervals throughout the game, which is a really nice touch.

From an achievements perspective, the list is… well, average. It does reward you for some really cool questlines, which are well worth exploring, so I can kind of forgive its lack of originality. What I don’t like is the fact you have to play it through twice for the full 1,000Gs, which considering it's potentially a 50-hour game, that’s the last thing you want. Sure, there are probably some shortcuts available, but I’m talking doing it without them. On the whole though, uninspiring.

For all its issues though, Pillars of Eternity is still a worthwhile experience. It’s unashamedly archaic, it’s deep, complex and can be a little convoluted at times, but that’s part of the charm. It isn’t unnecessarily complex, though, which is what makes it an enjoyable RPG as every stat carries some kind of weight in the game. Sure, it doesn’t have the cinematic value of a BioWare game, but its story when it picks up is a pleasure, and its quests are pretty engaging. If you’re an old skool RPG fan looking to scratch that itch, this is the game for you. Be prepared to spend a considerable amount of time in loading screens though! Far too much if you ask us!

The voice acting feels a little phony at times, but the orchestral score is as epic as it is wonderful. Oof! It gives me tingles just thinking about it now.

Its charming visuals are, well, charming. They’re not going to blow you away by any stretch of the imagination, but they do their job. The environments are picturesque, the characters not so much.

The game does have its issues with pathfinding and some fiddly menus at times, but it does its job by complementing and assisting what is an unbelievably complex RPG.

Hidden beneath the incredibly deep RPG systems is an epic adventure across a land of many horrifying and evocative stories, one that will test your wit, your resolve and your patience. Them loading times are a bitch!

Lacklustre and uninspired. They do tempt you to do some real cool questlines, which is commendable. But they force you to play the game twice, which is not.

An old skool RPG if ever there was one, Pillars of Eternity: Complete Edition should be on your shopping list if you’re a strategy and RPG junkie. It’s as close as we’re going to get to a new Baldur’s Gate, and while it has its quirks and suffers from agonising load times on consoles, it’s still a joy to play.

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