Have you ever had games that you played up to a point, left behind for other titles and never really returned to? Over the past few weeks and aware that I’ve done that with several great and enjoyable games, I’ve gone back and played them to completion, or at least to a point where I can say it’s enough and don’t want to touch them ever again.
The latest of those titles I’ve cleared off my backlog is Pillars of Eternity, an RPG with clear roots in D&D but one that doesn’t directly translate the tabletop RPG systems but has its own ruleset.
I began Pillars of Eternity months ago, but left it there gathering dust after only a couple of hours of game time, which was a blessing as it meant I didn’t have to remember plotlines. Everything was still fairly basic in the storytelling department so I could just jump right in.
In doing so, a few things became apparent that I hadn’t noticed when I first launched the title, the most critical of them being that no matter how much I fought enemies, I never seemed to gain even a point of an RPG player’s most important currency: experience points.
Where in many RPG titles and even in Dungeons & Dragons, combat encounters provide you and your party with experience points to advance your characters, the value depending on how strong the opposition is comparted to you party, in Pillars of Eternity you receive only a minimal amount when fighting enemies for the first time and then a decreasing amount up until the point you fully fill their bestiary entry. Once that’s done, no matter how powerful they are, the creatures will not allow you to level up.
Looking through the vitriol-filled madhouses that are gaming forums I often heard defenders of the game claim that the developers of Pillars of Eternity did so to encourage other approaches, so that you could negotiate or find alternate routes to your mission goals, without having to resort to violence.
I took this at heart and decided to play Pillars of Eternity in a way that focused more on diplomacy and cleverness, on taking the long way around to complete a quest when the easiest path would have been to just fight the monster in front of me. Instead of vanquishing a spectre in a haunted lighthouse, I took her books, found a recurring name, tracked the person and convinced them to return with me and face the spectre, face their common past and find peace.
But no matter how much I attempted to use guile, thorough investigation, honesty and charity to make my way through Pillars of Eternity’s many quests, I often found myself fighting large waves of enemies. Take the above example. To reach the spectre that was key for the quest I had two long fights with other ghostly enemies that teleported around my party, making my positioning and formation worthless, causing plenty of status effects and dealing humongous amounts of damage to my party. Those two fights involved many reloads to figure out the right set of abilities that would counter them.
Combat in Pillars of Eternity is challenging, and requires careful coordination between your party members, to keep your Endurance up and remain active while blasting creatures apart and avoid friendly fire and many more circumstantial perils.
It didn’t take long for fights to become a slog, for the excitement to fade away. Even central conflicts within the game, fighting that crucial enemy at the end of a quest felt empty, because it lay at the end of what can only be described as a gauntlet of encounters, with little reward beyond garbage items to sell for gold and that’s only when fighting human enemies. If the dungeon features ghosts, elementals or fey, tough luck buttercup, you’re not getting anything out of it.
One of the cornerstones of Pillars of Eternity’s world is that healing is impossible, as in there are no ways to restore character health with items or with magic. You can only restore Endurance, a value sitting on top of your health that determines how long you can remain upright and fighting. When you take damage you often lose both Endurance and health, with the former recovering after fights but not the latter. You must rest, set down around a campfire to lick your wounds and see them heal, and to restore your expended spells and limited use abilities.
Resting becomes crucial as you advance through the game and already lacking experience rewards and meaningful physical ones, Pillars of Eternity’s design puts yet another obstacle on your path by limiting the number of camping items, consumed when resting, to four, which of course you must purchase. I can’t count the times that due to my desire to fully explore a locale I burned through my resources and health, rested four times and had to return to town to acquire more of these items. And every time this happened, I felt the progress and momentum completely derail. It was already hard to get into it when enemies were so abundant and hard-hitting compared to my characters.
If there’s one thing that character classes in Pillars of Eternity lack is impact. Very few times in the game did I feel like my characters were advancing, even when I levelled up. Considering how long it takes to advance in levels, I often felt like characters were powerless. They gained new class skills and talents, but with the exception of the spellcasting classes, my party always felt on the losing end of a fight, and I always had to scrape through with most of the group unconscious, fighting so many enemies with varying abilities that it felt unfair.
Worse still is that Pillars of Eternity locks you out of contextual choices by your ability score values, which are impossible to change unless you’re wearing magical items that increase their value, which aren’t as common as you’d think, and it’s only the main character’s values that count for this. Means that if a contextual option in a conversation requires 20 in Might to become available, my character won’t be able to do anything with his Might 14, even if there’s someone else in the party with massive Might. There are only a handful of these contextual moments where you can send your party members to take care of it, using their own attributes.
As you level up you can increase your skill ranks but it’s shocking how little these matter—the most useful of them modifying the rest bonuses you can get and the other reducing the number of lockpicks needed to open something—at least when compared to the ability scores. Too many contextual conversation opportunities depend on having some imaginary number in a static attribute instead of using the thing things you can improve you level up.
All of these factors together are the reasons that quests like the fifteen-floor dungeon below your keep—another mechanic that drove me up the wall with its nonsense—with nothing but monster fights I completely disregarded, and why I quickly ignored any side-quest that would put me in a long and arduous fight. After all, what is the point? There’s nothing to gain from that fight. Similarly, if all roads in a quest, even conversations, lead to inevitable fights, why bother?
Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire is coming and the developers claim to address many of the issues found in the first title, including the overabundance and reliance on combat, while revamping this system. I sincerely hope so, because behind the frustrating elements I’ve described is a very interesting roleplaying game setting, where souls are not only power sources but also determine people’s heritage, nobility and can at times even be the cause for ailments and curses.
There’s plenty of depth to explore in Pillars of Eternity, and I’m sure the same will be true about its sequel. Sadly, playing it never felt rewarding, not in a fight nor roleplaying and if Deadfire can’t overcome these faults, it’ll be a game I leave behind, to gather dust on the long steam shelf.