What makes a good role-playing game?
A simple question, yet broad in it’s scope. For many, a good role-playing game can be defined by the emphasis of player interaction and exploration. Others would claim the richness of depth in the mechanics itself, the game system it is based on, is the true test of it’s bonafides. Many prefer real time combat over turn-based systems, or titles lacking in plot but are full of narrative.
Time and again this question always comes up, and it shall never have a definite answer. Unlike other video game genres, role-playing games take many forms, from action-oriented twitch-reflex tests to methodical, micro-managing turn-based strategy, and a whole host of things in between. As such, fans within the role-playing community are often more vocal about their preferences in an attempt to answer the unanswerable.
Take Pillars of Eternity as an example. The Kickstarter project by RPG stalwarts Obsidian Entertainment is the latest attempt at recapturing old glory, a certain gameplay style which isn't typically seen in high-profile titles these days. Obsidian, with their first original I.P since Alpha Protocol, is looking back in an attempt to push forward.
With a Kickstarter campaign of 77,000 backers and over $4 million dollars pledged, Pillars of Eternity has a lot to live up to. With a dream team including RPG icons Josh Sawyer, Chris Avellone and Tim Cain, the writers and designers of role-playing titles such as Planescape Torment, Fallout 2, and Vampire: The Masquerade -Bloodlines, does the title live up to the high expectations put upon it?
The answer is "yes and no". It is easy to be very esoteric regarding RPG’s and their mechanics, but for Pillars of Eternity it is essential in understanding the inner workings of the title itself - knowing the rules and jargon of a typical role-playing game before you start playing. A lot of the content found in the game was added to the game by the Kickstarter backers’ request, which makes for a game that’s rich and challenging for veterans, but also baffling and strange to newcomers. And with several classes, companions and even playable races being backer rewards, Pillars of Eternity is a strange beast to pin down, becoming a jack-of-all-trades as a title, yet a master of none.
The game itself blends several mechanics found from famous infinity engine titles like Baldur’s Gate: story driven, choice and consequence gameplay mixed with an isometric point of view and a tactical combat style. The isometric perspective is a holdover from early 2000’s-PC days, but here it is perfected and overhauled with a modern touch, using fully rendered 3-D characters on gorgeous 2-D backgrounds.
Obsidian attempted to create a unique role-playing system with their design, using the tired and true stat modification systems found in most tabletop roleplaying games. Here though, there are numerous secondary effects tied to your stat distribution. Might, for example, is not just muscle power but also magical power, giving you bonuses to attack and healing done by your caster classes. Intellect, in contrast, gives you larger area of effect fields, as well as bonuses to the duration of your characters abilities.
This approach of tying each of your attributes into different gameplay mechanics is a double-edged sword. While it’s possible to build a character in new and unexpected ways, it requires lots of micromanaging to make sure your character is fully viable in a combat situation. It also becomes unnecessarily complex, as your base attributes modify four primary defenses, total health and endurance and your concentration bonus, the ability to attack or cast spells uninterrupted. This makes character building fun, but an exercise of patience as you tweak and fine-tune your ability scores in the hopes you avoid a sub-optimal build.
Pillars of Eternity is one of the most number-heavy RPG’s I have played in a long time. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as the emphasis on "crunchy" character creation choice does offer a lot of experimentation in how you build your character - an art that is all but lost in most RPG’s made today. In practice, however, Pillars of Eternity drowns in the pure numbers that dictate every aspect of the game, leading to some design choices that feel tacked on as a result.
For example, a character's health is tied to a second statistic, endurance. Endurance is your immediate lifebar; in combat it is your endurance meter that goes down simultaneously with your health. So when a character falls in combat, they are not dead, just knocked out of that fight. Long term health loss stacks every time you lose endurance, and healing spells only restore your endurance, so the loss of all your health can lead to permanent death. Only extended rests in an inn or using camping supplies heal your characters fully.
As a mechanic it works, but it feels arbitrary to the game’s own system. Since resource management is already a part of Pillars of Eternity, with limited spell usage, camping supply carrying capacity and even potions found throughout the world, the endurance system feels added-on as another statistic to track. Without endurance, the game would be the same experience.
Attributes also work with scripted events found throughout Pillars of Eternity. Written in the same vein as the Fighting Fantasy game books, these events offer nice variety to problem solving with an obstacle, but many of them hinge on having the right equipment or attribute scores to succeed. While failure doesn't lead to death, it does lead to injuries and fatigue - penalties that affect the rest of your stats heavily. Puzzles also have backup solutions, usually finding a key or hidden door to bypass a puzzle lock, which in truth makes the puzzles pointless if you uncover hidden objects in the dungeon you are crawling in.
Combat still has its own problems. Due to the random dice-roll mechanic, all statistics have a chance of failure to them, leading to grazed hits that do less damage each time, or critical hits that do bonus damage (A staff member noted that the damage is not double, but 50%. - Ed). Despite how you plan for an encounter, be it tackling problems with stealth or traps or trapping enemies in a strategic position, at some point or another it comes down to luck. Of course your stats increase the percentage of normal or critical hits, but it doesn't stop the game from being sometimes unforgiving because of random chance alone.
Role-playing, however, fares a lot better. Dialogue options change depending on your attributes and secondary statistics, which give the player a richer experience with branching storylines in most cases. Despite most quest lines falling into the range of a binary choice, the sheer number of options available, or unavailable to you depending on your character build, is still impressive in offering more immersion into the choice itself. It is still an illusion of choice, but a good one that is able to respect different approaches, despite yielding similar results.
Unfortunately, like too many Obsidian games, there are bugs throughout Pillars of Eternity. While the bonus destroying bug is well known at this point, other bugs have prevented the conclusion of several side quests in my own experience. Normally bugs are barely worth mentioning as they should not, in my opinion, affect a review of a game, since we now live in a world where patches exist and fixes will occur. However, play at your own risk - be aware that there are quest-ending bugs, so save often.
The biggest warning, however, is how level ups are tied to quest lines. Instead of gaining experience by killing enemies all the time, you stop earning points after a few encounters, since it is tied to filling up the in-game bestiary instead of the fight itself. This style was designed to prevent grinding for experience, but it instead shackles the player to doing a fair amount of side quests, since the lion's share of experience comes from doing these missions. You still get some experience for finding new areas, but the returns are minuscule compared to quests. For many this may be no issue, however for folks more interested in exploring and avoiding the surprisingly high number of fetch and mission quests in the game may see this obtrusive at best and controlling at worst.
Thankfully, the writing is excellent, which makes a lot of these quest lines a bit easier to swallow. The main storyline in particular had some subtle moments to it, tackling an “old vs. new” story in regards to faith, magic and technology. While the cliché of “becoming a chosen one” is vaguely present, Pillars of Eternity avoids the pitfall by making the mystery behind your powers interesting enough to keep uncovering answers to your origins very grounded for the majority of the game, even leaving the main antagonist a shadowy figure until closer to the end of the tale.
Pillars of Eternity does suffer from overstuffed prose. The descriptions of places, objects and even body language are flowery and overly-written. This is particularly noticeable when you "read the souls" of various named NPC’s throughout the world. Some of the tales are well done, reminiscent of the dream sequences from Lost Odyssey. Others are much too long for their own good, making the interactions at worst, a waste of time.
Another contrasting area is the use of your party. The pre-determined companions are well written and voice acted, and while several of them have rather tame personal quest lines or agendas compared to the fantasy melodrama we normally see, their interactions and inclusion give Pillars of Eternity a richer experience. You also have the option to create your own party as well, making a group of mute adventurers that would fill out any role you wish them too, with statistics you want. Pre-rendered party members tend to be rarely overpowering, although mileage will vary. After all, it’s not every day a low-leveled rogue can one shot a forest troll.
Obsidian has touted the inclusion of companion creation as a boon to the game, and in truth, it is a fair addition. The problem, like many bits of Pillars of Eternity, is the unnecessary excess of it all. In adding so many backer rewards to the game, much of what could have made it a stronger title than it really is has been lost in the shuffle. Some of the rewards, such as the Godlike races, the Barbarian, Paladin, Chanter and Cipher classes, and the stronghold are excellent additions. Others fall flat completely, such as a boring thirteen level dungeon that is more of a chore to complete than fun.
It may seem like I am being too harsh on Pillars of Eternity, but in truth the game is one of the better Kickstarter titles to be released, and gives a lot of independent and even some AAA titles a run for their money. It is clear Obsidian has crafted Pillars of Eternity as a labor of love to the isometric era of RPGs; a game that is able to capture that old magic and make it new again, and for once avoided the pitfalls of nostalgia by pandering to those tropes in the way a game like Wasteland 2 did. There is enough in Pillars of Eternity to recommend, and despite some design decisions that may be questionable to some, for others they will be acceptable changes.
Pillars of Eternity will not satisfy everyone though. Fans of the isometric-era of RPG's will enjoy the game immensely, but for others who hate number crunching and excessive mechanics, this will not be their cup of tea. Yet that, in the end, is the beauty of a role-playing game. What makes it good is a multitude of different design choices that coalesce into a solid experience, choices that fans vastly differ in opinion on yes, but nonetheless choices that would make any RPG a valid one to play. Many fans have been clamoring for an isometric-styled RPG, and now they have one to play. Others may be daunted by the mechanics or the systems, but it doesn’t discredit Pillars of Eternity at all, it just makes it specialized like other games out there.
So what makes a good role-playing game? A lot of things, in the end, and it depends on your preferences.
Pillars of Eternity was purchased by the reviewer.
It may seem like I am being too harsh on Pillars of Eternity, but in truth the game is one of the better Kickstarter titles to be released, and gives a lot of independent and even some AAA titles a run for their money.