A story about building a cathedral in England during the 12th century doesn't sound all that compelling does it? Unless you're a history nerd like myself, I imagine that description of the story won't do The Pillars of the Earth any favors when it comes to grabbing fans of visual novels. However, layered on top of that is the fact that the story also takes place during a civil war. In that chaos powerful men see opportunities for more power, which of course leads many schemes to clash with one another. While the minor battles of those conflict are just beginning, Book One of The Pillars of the Earth is more about laying the foundation for who all the major characters are and what they want, which it does incredibly well.
Before deep diving into the story, I have to talk about The Pillars of the Earth's art. For some, it may not be all that appealing, which is totally fine, but it's one of the best looking games I've ever seen. No scene is haphazardly put together, and everything works as a cohesive whole. I was consistently met with incredibly detailed interiors, sprawling vistas, and just generally gorgeous scenery.
What's more incredible about that is just how little scenery you see more than a few times. There are so many scenes that take place in a unique backdrop or offer a different angle of what you've seen before for a dramatic flourish that it's a sight to behold. Even though everything I saw looked great, if I were to see just the same handful of locales and angles time and again, the visuals would get boring. That is certainly not the case here, and I appreciate the extra time that likely added to the development of the game, as there was a lot of variety on the screen.
The Pillars of the Earth is obviously made up of mostly dialogue but does offer players the ability to do some looking around and experience some different areas in the world. Places like a castle town, cathedral grounds, the surrounding village, and even a brief trip to the forest. In those moments you can walk around with your character to inspect items, places, people, and more to get that character's thoughts on them. When given the opportunity to explore the same area with different characters, of the two playable in Book One (there will be three overall), it's interesting to see the different reactions.
In my E3 meeting with the developers, they said The Pillars of the Earth would also include some puzzles. While there are puzzles, the game does a great job of hiding them in plain sight. What I mean by that is that it is not often immediately obvious that what's in front of you is a "puzzle," it's just something you need to do. The puzzles get further obfuscated by the fact that they aren't really pass/fail and rarely impede progress. Instead, they are often wrapped up in the choices of your character. Making the "right" choices may lead to the most positive outcome.
Book One is told from two different points of view. The first is that of Philip of Gwynedd (pronounced Gwyneth). Philip is Prior (the religious superior of a given community) of another town and comes to Kingsbridge for one of his regular visits on New Year's Day. When he arrives, he finds the Prior of Kingsbridge is dead and the monks of Kingsbridge are getting ready for an election to replace him. Philip finds the cathedral in poor shape, the buildings in town in less so, and the brothers and novices of the church ill-mannered. The previous Prior was not doing a good job.
It's interesting to see the very pious man that Philip is, who has a reputation of being one of the most knowledgeable on Scripture, get involved in politics. He starts out small in the squabbling of the other monks and brothers of Kingsbridge to eventually see himself stand before the King, making or rejecting deals with nobles and higher ups in the church, including his direct superior Bishop Waleran.
Things are complicated further as Philip's actual brother, Francis, is deeply involved in politics. He plays politics for the church's benefit, and when he sees Philip in a position to help the church by politicking himself, Francis urges him to do so. Who Francis works for directly puts him in an awkward position, so on top of asking Philip to help, Francis asks Philip not to reveal that he's involved at all. That is a central conflict for Philip as time and again he has to choose between telling the truth or lying to protect his brother. He has to choose the path of deceit to protect who he loves, and there are times where he has to be deceitful to see what he wants done.
Philip's struggle is interesting to watch because he is constantly forced to interact with people he does not want to and forced to go to places he does not want to be. Adding to his pressure and conflict is the fact that he's often in those places with those people while wrapped up in the plot or scheme of another person, be it his brother or someone. All Philip wants to do is see Kingsbridge recover and prosper, which is exactly why Philip gets tied up in so many things he doesn't want. Everyone knows what he wants to do and can exploit him for it.
Philip's tale is an incredibly interesting one I can't wait to see progress. He's in an interesting position to play a key role in so many different threads of the story while being an interesting character in himself.
The other playable character is that of Jack, a boy raised outside of the law in the woods by his mother. His story begins by running across a man in the woods who has just found a baby. The family who abandoned the baby is overcome by guilt and returns to find it has been taken by the man Jack saw. Jack tells them what happens and says he'll help them try to get the baby back.
The family he finds is that of Tom Builder. Tom is a builder whose dream is to build a cathedral of his own design. His family is out in the woods scrounging for food, selling off all of their belongings to survive, just so he can try to reach that dream. His family had the opportunity for security and food if Tom accepted a mundane job, but he wasn't satisfied.
Tom's the real main character from Jack's point of view. It's hard to get a read on Jack as he more or less just fills the role of a curious child wanting to help others in his party. I still don't really know who Jack is. On the other hand, Tom gets some good characterization. He knows building but doesn't know a lot of other things, which explains his position in life at the time of the story. His struggle to find work to support the entire group is central to Jack's POV.
Their struggle for survival is a short, uninteresting one, and Jack's story doesn't really pick up until the party makes their way to Philip. I'd rather not go into details, as this is where the story really gets going, but suffice to say the group does change a lot of Philip's plans.
Jack's side of the story felt more like playing the role of an observer, which wasn't all that interesting. There are some moments that Jack's actions play a role in the events that follow, but for the most part, he's just along for the ride.
Before I end, I wanted to talk some about choices. The Pillars of the Earth is full of choices to make, some that seem to be very consequential. In talking with the developers, they hinted that choices could have a very significant impact and lead to big deviations from the book the game is adapted from. We won't know how much choices made in Book One will the story later, but some choices you make seem like they have to lead to some major deviations in the story as the various options should lead to very different outcomes.
Book One is all about laying the foundation for the rest of the story, which takes place over 40 years. It establishes characters and what they want wonderfully, laying the groundwork for a lot of things to happen later on. The ending is bittersweet in that it does wrap up the storyline of the Book but ends right when everything is going to kick up a notch. So, I am definitely interested in where the next book will go. I have not read the book this is based on, but Daedalic's interpretation seems an ideal way to experience the story of The Pillars of the Earth so far.
Our The Pillars of the Earth review was conducted on PC via Steam using a copy provided by the developers. The game is also available on Mac, Linux, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.
If you like a slower story more about political intrigue wrapped up in a great presentation, you'll love The Pillars of the Earth.
- Fantastic Presentation
- Well-Realized Setting
- Fleshed Out Characters
- Strong Story
- Jack's POV is Less Interesting