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[Review] Pillars of Eternity: Beyond Infinity

A short review of the first crowdfunded old-school RPG

  1. Keneth
    I've done a review of Pillars of Eternity a couple of years back when the game was originally released, just as the major fixes went live, but after two years of patching and content updates, I feel like the review deserves an update as well. After including a couple of new sections, the score ended up being a bit lower, although my general opinion of the game is actually slightly better than it was at release.

    At this point, I've experienced about 99% of the game, including every single quest available (with many different resolutions), every class, every difficulty, and every game mode, so I feel confident in my ability to judge the game fairly.

    I'll split the review into sections and rate each aspect individually based on my experience with it, so that it's clear how the overall score was achieved as well as give you some insight into the quality of specific parts of the game. I'll try to keep spoilers to a minimum, but I won't bother concealing them.

    (Scroll to the bottom of the post for the tl;dr and score.)


    Since this is a story-driven RPG, this particular part of the game is the most important for me. That said, it is rated equally with all the other parts.

    Main Plot Hook

    The main plot hook is arguably the most vital part of the story design when making a video game. If the hook is done poorly, a lot of players will have a hard time getting pulled into the overarching storyline. Personally, I wasn't overly impressed with the main plot hook. Some children are being born with a defect and I'm hearing voices? So, basically it's a day of the week that ends with a "y"? I didn't really feel like I should care. Even with a not-so-imminent threat of insanity looming over you, I felt like the "gift" that you were given far outweighs the drawbacks. There also doesn't really seem to be any urgency to it, unlike in MotB for example, where the spirit meter is an ever present reminder of your impending demise. Not that that was a good mechanic, it just got the message across better than some random ghostly images and fragments of conversation from the past.

    Score: 6/10

    Complexity and Freedom

    There's nothing wrong with a simple story, but I think most of us are looking for depth in a game like this, and Pillars of Eternity certainly does not disappoint when it comes to intricacies, twists, and background information. The world they've created is built on solid foundations and the story winds its way through it quite delicately, slowly but surely unraveling the mysteries of the unfamiliar world and its peoples. There are also a great many interesting side quests to complement the main storyline and give the game some real meaty breadth. The amount of choices in conversations and quests allow the player to role play a wide variety of different and reasonably organic personalities which define your character throughout their journey. It's not perfect, there were times when I wished I could have a few more choices that reflected my character more accurately, but expecting a perfect array of choices in a computer game is simply asking for too much.

    Score: 9/10


    The ending is a source of some controversy and disappointment in the community. Some feel that much of the last act was rather anticlimactic, others are let down by the lack of everything falling neatly into place, and some are just disappointed that the game ends with a standard slideshow epilogue. I've never really been a fan of slideshow endings and I feel that the game overreached slightly in the descriptions of events that follow, in some cases telling the story for decades to come or completely ignoring your influence on the region and your companions. That said, I can appreciate the fact that it doesn't end all neat and tidy. Like the rest of the game, the questions asked don't really have a "right" answer and much like in real life, everything doesn't just cleanly resolve itself at the end like it does in fairy tales. It's not the best ending I've seen in a game, but it's certainly not a bad one.

    Score: 7/10


    Companions are what brings the journey to life. You know an NPC is good when there's a healthy amount of people who love it and a healthy amount of people who hate it. Sadly, Pillars of Eternity doesn't quite achieve that. Many of the available companions are rather bland and forgettable. Even so, they're not quite as tedious and unimaginative as the ones in NwN2 OC for example, and you don't have to drag any of them around if you don't want to (in fact, you have the option to recruit custom built characters at any inn). There is a decent amount of banter between the companions, a lot of it quite interesting and amusing, and they do regularly speak their thoughts on various matters, although their presence almost never affects the outcome or even elicits a response to their comments from the NPCs.

    • Aloth — A highborn elven wizard struggling with an awakened lowborn personality. (7/10)
    • Edér — A war veteran who's unsure whether he fought for the right side. (9/10)
    • Kana Rua — A happy-go-lucky chanter scholar in search of an ancient text. (5/10)
    • Durance — A crass priest of Magran, trying to find his way in the wake of his deicide. (9/10)
    • Sagani — A hunter from a distant village, looking for the reincarnated soul of their old leader. (5/10)
    • Pallegina — A godlike paladin working in the employ of the Vailian Republics. (5/10)
    • Hiravias — A vulgar orlan druid split between the worship of two gods. (8/10)
    • Grieving Mother — A manipulative cypher midwife whose way of life was shatered by Waidwen's Legacy. (7/10)

    The score below represents the overall score for the companions, how they fit in the world, and all the related mechanics.

    Score: 7/10

    Story Score: 7.25/10


    Character Options and Classes

    Character generation and advancement in Pillars of Eternity is fairly complex. You can choose your own race, class, class options, background, appearance, and behavior (which is defined by an array of personality traits rather than an arbitrary alignment on some cosmic morality scale, as well as by the reputations with various factions in the game). Class mechanics are pretty well designed and balanced, although some classes can still feel somewhat lackluster and lacking in combat actions (which is remedied by consumable and reusable items to a degree). I also appreciate the fact that stat investment and class choices aren't crippling when done "wrong" (unless you decide to go for the triple crown). Despite (or perhaps because of) the complexity, the system can feel rather rigid and clunky at times. There is certainly room for improvement, which I'm hoping they will remedy in the sequel.

    Score: 7.5/10

    Combat and Encounter Design

    Combat in the game ranges from charge in and forget about it to enjoyably tactical and challenging. It's worth mentioning that the AI is pretty atrocious and, in the vast majority of fights, enemies can simply be funneled into a choke point where you can eliminate them one by one while a tanky character holds them off, without fear of being overwhelmed. The overall encounter design combined with the poor AI can make for a somewhat bleak if not tedious experience as you position yourself in the door frame for the umpteenth time, which is especially true while doing triple crown solo since that's often the only way to tackle the encounters.

    It's also worth noting that many of the combat encounters can be skipped by sneaking and interacting with the environment or by talking your way out of them. You miss out on some loot, but luckily there is hardly any experience involved with killing enemies, so it doesn't slow your advancement by much. I believe the current lowest kill record is 12 kills (with a fair bit of system abuse) and my only regret is that the developers hadn't ensured that you could avoid those 12 as well.

    Score: 7/10


    The world in the game can be interacted with in many ways. There are a fair number of places where you can put your characters' skills to good use, initiating story sequences reminiscent of the golden era games and textual adventures, finding secret switches which open up new paths, locating and disarming traps which are placed into your inventory for personal use, etc. Many of the locations also feature interactable scenery that gives you a more detailed description of what you're looking at (but can't necessarily see on the screen). Then, of course, there's the conversation system which is almost at its apex (there could still be a few minor improvements), allowing for massive dialogue trees, as well as giving your character the chance to make use of their skills, personality traits, allegiances, backgrounds, and raw attributes.

    Score: 9/10


    The stronghold feature has gone through a fair amount of iteration. Where it was originally a somewhat tedious experience, it now serves as a minor gold sink and a quaint little minigame. It could still benefit from many improvements, but at least it's now a decent feature of the game.

    At its core, the stronghold allows you to restore its buildings that provide you with some basic perks, like free materials, resting bonuses, new merchants, loot, etc. The stronghold also unlocks several new quests and unique features described below.

    You have a dungeon where you can hold certain NPCs as prisoners if you didn't want to kill them at the time. In newer versions of the game, the prisoners are stripped of their belongings, so there's no real downside to taking prisoners. Unfortunately, they still have a continual chance to escape with no way to recapture them, and there is still not much you can do with them, aside from selling them to slavers, mad scientists, or their crooked families.

    The vendors inside the restored buildings are pretty useless overall. The only real gain is the free monster and plant parts gained from the curio shop and botanical gardens respectively and the inherent prestige/security bonus of each building.

    While your security score is low (and while you haven't yet completed the massive dungeon below), you occasionally get attacked by groups of monsters or brigands. You have the option of resolving the fight automatically, which results in casualties and loss of buildings and funds, or returning to the stronghold in time and taking care of it personally, where it invariably occurs inside the keep's walls or main hall with you in the center. How the monsters managed to get past every other defense right into your main hall or courtyard is anyone's guess. You should be able to deter armies, not having to worry about a handful of beasts banging against the walls.

    You can also hire a selection of mercenaries to guard your keep. These individuals provide you with a security and/or prestige bonus, but are otherwise completely useless in a fight (aside from maybe the ogre).

    Building a warden's lodge will give you access to a number of bounty tasks. Most of these make for a good fight and not much else.

    After restoring the great hall, you gain access to "adventures". These are off-screen quests that your inactive companions can partake in to give them an XP boost and earn some nice loot. Unfortunately, the adventures are completely random, so if you want a specific item that can only be acquired through adventures (like Helwax Mold), you are at the mercy of the RNG.

    Score: 6/10

    Difficulty Options

    The difficulty options in the game are pretty excellent, though the experience could be greatly enhanced with better AI. For the most part, changing the difficult affects the composition of enemy encounters, rather than their stats. The Path of the Damned difficulty offers an extra challenge with both increased enemy numbers and improved stats, contrasted by the Story Time difficulty that skews the odds heavily in the player's favor.

    Score: 8/10

    Mechanics Score: 7.5/10


    There is, without a doubt, a lot of artistic value in Pillars of Eternity. From the hand-painted backgrounds to the wonderful musical scores and skillful storytelling. Although art is highly subjective, it's still pretty hard to find any reasonable fault in this particular aspect of the game.

    Art Score: 9/10


    The game is built on a modified Unity engine, which has its perks and plenty of drawbacks as well.

    Despite the rather simple graphics (compared to modern-day AAA games), the game isn't very well optimized at all, and my high end rig still tends to choke up a bit at times. You are, however, offered a wide array of options and settings which can ensure better performance, as well as the type of experience that suits each player. Controls are basically identical to what we're used to from Infinity Engine games and most can be rebound.

    Since Unity isn't FOSS, much of the game is not easily moddable and the developers are unable to provide the community with information or tools to do so. Over time, the modding community has found ways to make some custom tools and successfully created several mods, but it's safe to say that the modding community will not be thriving for years to come, which puts into question the longevity of the game.

    Of particular note is the IE Mod which injects custom functionality into the game's DLLs, allowing for a wide range of useful options, including interface customization, revised leveling options, changed save game mechanics, fast stealth, cheat keys, etc. It's an invaluable mod for any prospective player, but unfortunately it requires a code update for every official patch released, which demands a constant investment from its creators (at least until Obsidian decides to no longer update the game).

    Technology Score: 7/10


    I've heard people say that the White March story is lacking in substance and some reviews even likened it to Icewind Dale in terms of story and combat focus. Personally, I didn't get that feeling at all. On its own, Part I of the DLC might indeed feel somewhat bare bones, but only because it's setting up the stage for Part II of the DLC. Taken as a whole, the White March provides an excellent experience, full of challenging encounters and an interesting storyline that can certainly match that of its base game and more.

    The DLC adds 3 new companions for the 3 classes that were still unrepresented in the base game (monk, thief, and barbarian). While not necessarily bad, I also didn't end up liking any of them enough to take them along.

    • Zahua — An aged monk desperately trying to find a way to save his people. (7/10)
    • Devil of Caroc — A gynoid with a soul of a murderer bound to it. (6/10)
    • Maneha — An awakened barbarian trying to forget her past life. (4/10)

    After completing their storylines, I ended up wishing the companions had a bit more character. All of them feel rather one-dimensional and even a bit soulless at times. Like many other people, I also didn't enjoy Maneha's disposition and voice acting in the slightest.

    The White March raises the level cap of the game by 4 levels, which can make an already easy game (for a properly organized party) even easier, to the point where I just let the AI do my battles at the end. It gives you the option to increase the difficulty of main storylines if you are above a certain level, but I didn't feel like it made much of an impact. That said, encounters in the DLC itself are reasonably challenging even at higher levels and I enjoyed tackling them.

    In addition to raising your general power level to over 9000, the DLC also showers you with powerful spells and gear, including soulbound items that can be bound to a single character and upgrade themselves as you complete a certain set of goals. Unfortunately, they didn't bother adding any real gold sinks, so any group of murder hobos is bound to end up with hundreds of thousands of pands that they have no way of spending.

    Along with new content, the DLCs also introduced some technical goodies, like Story Time, balance updates, and other features which were certainly a welcome addition to the game.

    DLC Score: 7/10


    As a true spiritual sequel to Baldur's Gate, Pillars of Eternity should satisfy even the biggest grognards. Crowdfunding certainly did more good for Obsidian in this venture than any publisher ever could (or would anyway), and they have delivered a thoroughly enjoyable product. It's not without its flaws, but if we take off the nostalgia goggles and think back, neither was Baldur's Gate 1. It paved the way for a number of new isometric RPGs and has a sequel on the way that is bound to be another hit if the developers have learned anything from their past experiences.

    tl;dr: Great game and the vanguard of many great things to come.

    Total Score: 7.55/10

    (If you're off-put by the "low" score, please note that I'm an old-school guy and, as such, I'm not using the modern review scale.)
    Draco Vlasavius and Taluntain like this.
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