Sunday, June 05, 2016

Paratheo-Anametamystikhood Of Eris Esoteric

Woo! I finished Pillars of Eternity! I've been looking forward to this for a while... partly because it's a fun game, but also because, for the first time in many many years, I don't have any major RPGs waiting in my gaming backlog. I'm eager to broaden my horizons for a bit. I recently picked up the "Humble Narrative Bundle", which included a bunch of story-based games I've wanted to play, such as Her Story and Broken Age and Read Only Memories.

Before I get ahead of myself, though, let's wrap this puppy up!

I think that, on its own terms, Pillars of Eternity is a great game. It has a fantastic tactical combat system, solid level design, and deep gameplay and lore. Its story and characters are well above the industry average, but in my (highly subjective) opinion, are a step below the heights achieved by BioWare, Harebrained Schemes and some of Obsidian's other games.

I'm a little conflicted on the worldbuilding. As I mentioned in my first post, I have decreasingly little patience for vast and original new fantasy worlds. After absorbing dozens of unique fantasy settings over the years, it's hard to get excited about yet another configuration of new gods, nations, races, and factions. That said, I did warm to Eora as the game went on, thanks in large part to a few unique things it does.

One thing I really appreciate is how cosmopolitan the world is. Most fantasy worlds feature racially-pure homelands with monolithic cultures: Lorien is home to the elves, Orzammar is the city of dwarves, Ogiers live in the Stedding, etc. That may have been true far in the past of Eora, but by the "present", all of the settings are diverse. You might be an aumana from Raedceras origin living in the Vailan Republics, or a Glanfathan Orlan who has relocated to Aedyr. Race still matters, but culture matters more, and nationality tends to have the most immediate impact.

While characters on the whole tend to be interesting and well-drawn, the companions in this game didn't quite strike the highs that I'd hoped for. There are a total of eight (in the base game, I haven't picked up either White March expansion), and each is unique and fairly interesting. Every person gets their own companion quest. These are all optional, and there doesn't seem to be a pressing gameplay requirement to finish them - it's not like Baldur's Gate where Minsc would leave if you failed to rescue Dynaheir in time, or Nalia would get upset if you spent too long before reclaiming the de Arnise keep. But the quests are a good way to learn more of each person's personality, and you'll have some opportunities to guide their path and persuade them to follow certain courses, which will ultimately affect their ending.

That said, each individual quest is pretty short and simple. The most extreme cases just require going to a place (where you're going anyways) and speaking with a person (who you're talking to anyways). Others require a bit of exploration or a new fight, but that's about it. They're a step up from the companions in BG1, but a lot simpler than, say, the loyalty missions in the Shadowrun games or personal quests in the Dragon Age games.

The companion interactions themselves also felt pretty limited. There are a handful of banters between party members. These are usually just three or four lines, and pretty formulaic: person A says something, person B reacts strongly, person A ends with a quip. They definitely aren't bad, but it's disappointing that that's the entire extent of their interaction with other party members. The PC never gets involved in the banters, asking them to get along or fueling rivalries. Companions will sometimes interject during other conversations, but those interjections are always in isolation: they never respond to something that another party member has said. The more I played, the more I found myself missing the sniping between Morrigan and Alistair, or Gobbet and Is0bel looking out for each other, or Minsc's joyful adoption of Aerie as his new witch. Each individual companion is good, but since they rarely bounce off of one another, they don't reach the heights that they should be capable of.

At the top of my list of disappointments was a lack of romance options. I'd assumed all along that there would be romances - after all, this game is a spiritual successor to Baldur's Gate, which practically invented RPG romances. It wasn't until after I had entered Act 3 and started getting worried that I might have missed a crucial romance kick-off that I researched the topic and found that I had missed nothing.

I suppose I shouldn't be too surprised. Chris Avellone was one of the main narrative designers of the game, and he's clearly stated his aversion to romance in the past. The story doesn't need a romance, but I think it could have absolutely accommodated one, especially since the main plot of the game deals with procreation and may have had higher emotional stakes and stronger personal connections with an optional romance angle.


For the most part, the lack of romances makes sense at an individual level. I really wanted to romance Sagani, but she has a husband and children back home, and I can totally understand why she would rather not get involved with the crazy lady who sees dead people. Likewise, the Grieving Mother is... well, honestly, anyone with a name like The Grieving Mother is not going to be an eager love interest. Pallegina seems the most eligible of the bunch, and I dug her pride and competence and self-reflection, but it was not to be.

On the other hand, many of the male companions seem to be crying out for romances. Part of the reason I was so convinced that PoE had romances was because Eder seemed like a tailor-made love interest. Aloth also has several moments of vulnerability which seem like they would naturally lead into a romance angle - which could be very intriguing, depending on how you resolved the Iselmyr situation!

While not directly romance-related, I was slightly bummed to see that the game only featured 3 female companions, compared to 5 male ones. Worse than that, you'll most likely only start recruiting the women after you've recruited at least 4 men. Since most players tend to stick with the first people they accept into their parties (because they've already figured out how to use them and have built the rest of their teams around their skills), a lot of players will end up cruising through the Dyrwood with an all-bro squad. This is a recent and hopefully short-lived but worrying trend, following up on Dragon Age Inquisition's 6 male companions to 3 female ones. Not too long ago, you could expect that fantasy role-playing games would feature a roughly equal number of men and women as potential party members, and it's a little distressing to see those casts becoming less diverse. (DAI had the excuse of many significant women in NPC roles, which is less true in PoE.)

So, yeah, I was a little bummed about the non-romance. On the plus side, the stronghold was very well-done, both narratively and mechanically. It took me a little while to figure out the mechanics of the timeline. You finish building upgrades and pay your hirelings based on in-game time. Time you spend resting or traveling will help these things be done. However, you finish stronghold quests and collect taxes based on "turns". As far as I can tell, a "turn" occurs when you make progress in a quest. Therefore, there are a limited number of turns available in the game, which means that you can't just sleep for 100 years to collect a ton of taxes.

This seems to be balanced pretty well. I was always busy with my stronghold, making sure to always have something under construction and doing any quests as soon as they popped up, and I finished building my last expansion shortly before the end of the game. I focused early on security; I fought three battles early on (two against undead from the dungeon, one against invaders in the courtyard), but after I had finished the Endless Paths and got my Security over... hm, about 35, I no longer got any invasions.

As in other RPGs with strongholds, my favorite parts were scenarios where a petitioner would ask me to do something and I would need to make a decision. Unfortunately, I only had two or three of these over the entire game... once for a vassal who was being cruel to his subjects, once for another noble who suspected his rivals of plotting robbery, and... I think that was it. I would have loved more of these, I'm not sure if there just aren't that many or if I was unlucky in which events I got.

Mechanically, the two big benefits of the stronghold were the herb garden and the warden. Any time I came by the keep, I had a TON of new ingredients to collect, so I never needed to purchase anything for my (limited) crafting. The bounties that the Warden gives you are some of the best sources of XP in the whole game, and also pay out a good amount of money and items.

I hadn't realized at first that the different resting bonuses for Brighthollow were mutually exclusive, though I can now see how overpowered it would be to get all of them. I almost always chose the Woodland Trails option, which gives an impressive +3 CON in addition to 2 Athletics.  I was tempted to use the one that gives a boost to Mechanics, because I always seemed to be low in it, but since that's useless to most party members I never bothered.

Speaking of which... while I got more used to the talent system and general builds over time, I also got increasingly irritated at the skill system. In practice, what you need to do is pick one party member to be your honorary thief, and bump their Mechanics as high as possible. This will let them actually see traps before stepping in them, unlock doors and chests, etc. This means giving up points in Athletics and Survival, which provide combat bonuses that are useful more often. More annoyingly, it also means giving up Stealth. So, you'll most likely end up with one party member who can pick locks but can't sneak, zero or one party members who can sneak but can't pick locks, and everyone else who can do neither.

All that to say, while there are a few parts of the game that seem like they would lend themselves well to stealth-based approaches (as opposed to the more normal "kill everyone and take all their stuff" approach), in practice it ends up being tedious and difficult instead of fun. The main example I'm thinking of now is the temple in Noonfrost near the end of the game. I eventually was able to clear it without any fighting, but yeesh, it was annoying. Sagani was my dedicated stealther, so she would creep forward, check if the coast is clear, then motion for Aloth (whose Stealth was only about 3) to come forward so he could pick the lock, then he would rush back while Sagani crept forwards, etc. I probably reloaded over a dozen times... I really wanted the pacifist conclusion, but with such unbalanced character builds and no margin for error, a single mis-step would aggro the entire building.

This isn't a completely new problem - after all, back in Baldur's Gate you would need to divide between Pick Locks, Move Silently and Hide in Shadows - but it felt particularly harsh in PoE. I think part of that is because of the more open-ended nature of skill allocations in this game. In BG, you just know that you need a thief, and there's a very logical way to build them so they can take care of thieve-y things for you. PoE deliberately avoids having required classes like this, which is an admirable goal, but I ended up feeling like no character was able to fill the role required.

That was a broader thing that I struggled with, unlearning my habits of RPGs. I'm used to putting my frontline fighters in the heaviest armor possible and sticking my wizards in the back with light clothes. In PoE, though, that might not be the best approach. My chanter (bard) started off in medium armor, but I ended up loading him down with the heaviest plate possible, and he was a frontline tank who sang Broadway show tunes into his opponents' faces. Many fighters might choose to pick lighter clothes, since they are the primary damage dealers and can get in more hits with less armor. And it might be perfectly valid to, say, have your priest carry around three blunderbusses (blunderbi?). Since all three are loaded before combat starts, he can get off three shots in quick succession before needing to worry about reloading, at which point he can focus on spellcasting.

For the most part, I like the way they shook up the traditional build system. I was also intrigued by what they did with some of the new characters, particularly the Cipher. A Cipher builds up "Focus" by attacking enemies, and then can use that to unleash spell-like special abilities. One nice side-effect of this is that trash fights become meaningful: they are a valuable way for your Cipher to max out their Focus prior to facing down a boss. It vaguely reminds me of the Guard system in Inquisition, which similarly adds value to previously pointless trash fights, and both are interesting alternatives to the prospect of simply eliminating trash fights altogether (which the upcoming Torment game still aims to do).

Okay... that was very rambling, but I think those are most of my mechanical thoughts. Now, let's talk about plot! For most of the game, I thought it was fine - again, above average, but not as gripping as the best RPGs. That said, some big revelations that dropped near the very end of the game recast a lot of the background in a different light, improving my opinion of the story's quality and giving me a lot more to chew on.


Dragon Age and Pillars of Eternity are both descended from Baldur's Gate and its Forgotten Realms setting. Both games seek to "fix" the problem of D&D-style gods. Forgotten Realms talks about gods and religion and temples, but it really isn't at all analogous to our own world: if you pray to the right god in D&D, they absolutely will send down a lightning bolt to zap your enemy, or raise your friend from the dead. There isn't any "faith" in the way we would think of it, just super-powerful beings that regularly and predictably manifest in the world. The idea of being an atheist in Toril is ludicrous.

Dragon Age "solves" this problem by making God unknowable. There are certain aspects of religion that can be verified - the Black City, the elven pantheon - but central questions like "Does the Maker exist?" and "Did the Maker really speak to Andraste?" are unanswerable. Individual people, tribes, and nations make their own answers, which leads to conflict. This feels very realistic and compelling.

Pillars of Eternity, by contrast, takes a tack that felt closer to that which Philip Pullman used in His Dark Materials. It's driven by atheist sentiment, but rather than denying the existence of gods, it makes gods real but corrupt, unworthy entities. In PoE, there is a truth that you can discover and know, but it may not be a truth you want to hear.

Near the very end of the game, we learn that in the cosmology of PoE, "gods" exist, but they were created by us, rather than us being created by them. This is different from the metaphysical idea that "gods become real when people believe in them" (used to good effect in Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman and other modern authors). In PoE, they were created before people believed in them; they have "real" existence and can affect the world. As in D&D, you can verify the existence of gods by watching a priest cast a spell, or by speaking to one in a vision. But the fact that they exist and are powerful does not mean that they are gods or are worthy of our worship.

This was a fairly surprising revelation, but it also worked well as the capstone to a recurring question that ran throughout the game: should kith (mankind) put their trust in gods, or trust in themselves? In Act 2, this mostly revolves around the issue of animancy, using science rather than religion to understand souls. The question arises again in Act 3, when you meet the Ovates and the druids of Ethik Nol, who have defied the gods and claimed immortality. The question is, is that actually a bad thing? Why should mankind bow to the demands of the gods? This isn't a straightforward question: we see much harm done through animancy (children's bodies implanted with the souls of animals turning feral and mauling their families) and the rituals of the Ethik Nol (convincing others to sacrifice themselves that you might live longer). But, we also see much blood spilt in service of the gods, whether through the Saint's War or the Leaden Key's machinations.

Dragon Age makes religion interesting by looking at faith itself, people wrestling with the decision of whether to choose to believe in things that they cannot prove with certainty. Pillars of Eternity makes religion interesting by looking at the purpose behind religion: why it exists, what effect it has. The arguments made within the game have strong parallels to the sorts of arguments we frequently hear here on Earth: that religion provides a necessary moral compass, that a belief in higher powers and an afterlife curbs the worst impulses of the cruel and the powerful from abusing their meek victims. (I found myself thinking of Patton Oswalt's Sky Cake routine here.)

While processing this in-game, I found myself very much on the side of exposing the "gods" for who they were and encouraging the kith to look to their own strength. That said, there's one final piece of information that gave me pause: before the Engwithians created the gods, they were in the same sort of situation that we're in here on Earth: people believed in thousands of gods, and those beliefs led to terrible wars, slavery, and other ills. It was that very situation which led them to create the "real" "gods" in the first place. So, in the understanding of the Leaden Key, unverifiable belief in gods leads people to do evil, while verifiable knowledge of gods leads them to do good.

That said - as far as I can tell, nobody in Eora has made a serious attempt at building a society based on the knowledge of the absence of gods (well, other than Iovara I guess, but she didn't succeed). I don't know if it would necessarily be any better or worse than the alternatives; but since we know that the alternatives have both caused problems, it seems worth at least trying something new. So I ultimately shut down the Leaden Key.

One thing that I'm still unclear on is exactly what the gods are... we're told that the Engwithians created them, but how? I wonder if they were extremely powerful Engwithians, similar to the elven pantheon in Dragon Age. Or, they may have been purely artificial beings, carefully designed and constructed. Perhaps that is what the Engwithian machines were for: to collect enough soul power to combine them into new, immortal, powerful, near-omniscient entities.

And, yeah, while there are some cool and powerful parallels between PoE and our own world, there are definitely big differences as well, one of the biggest being souls. On Earth, souls occupy the same sort of faith-based category as religion: some people believe they exist, others believe they don't, many aren't sure if they do, and those who believe in them believe different things about them. In Eora, though, souls are measurable, verifiable, quantifiable, capable of being combined and divided and destroyed and recycled.

I complained in my earlier album about how I was confused about the main plot, particularly the stuff about memories and past lives. I eventually figured it all out, at the same time as my character. I think it would have been clearer if the game had just said "You don't understand what this vision means or why you see yourself doing this." I'd thought that I'd missed some earlier conversation or explanation that would explain why the flashbacks were occurring, but I think it's intentionally structured to drop you into the middle of past-you's relationship with Thaos.

However, I did still have trouble accepting that the Awakening was a bad thing. You're told a couple of times that it's dangerous, but there really isn't any in-game penalty or problem that makes you feel like you need to get rid of it. On the contrary, it seems like a cool new power, and frequently comes in handy for a wide variety of quests. I found myself wistfully thinking of the Spirit Eater / Hunger mechanic of Mask of the Betrayer, which is one of the few games that has managed such a powerful connection between your character's narrative struggles and their in-game mechanical struggles.

Once I finally figured out the Awakening, though, I thought it was an interesting situation. At the start of the game, you define your own character's background. You do some of this in the character creation screen (race, gender, culture, class, etc.), and other parts of it in dialogue (your reason for traveling to Dyrwood). After connecting to your Awakened soul, you define that character's backstory via dialogue, and it's kind-of-but-not-really-you. It reminded me a little of cases like in Shadowrun Dragonfall where you can define what your runner's relationship with Monika was, or in the Mage Origin story in Dragon Age where you can define your family background. Here, it's at more of a remove - you're defining another character, separate from your player character, but one who carried the same soul.

It's hard to decide how to shape that character. You have limited options - the broad strokes of history are already written, so you can't, say, decide to rescue Iovara. From the remaining options, I'm usually tempted to pick the ones that feel most "good" and most in line with my main player character's. In retrospect, though, I kind of wish I'd gone the other way. Redemption stories are more powerful, and I could have created a more conflicted, dark past without diminishing my player character. Heck, she would have seemed even better in comparison. But it's hard to claim the bad story for "yourself" while in the moment.

All that said, though, the game is really good at tracking those past-decisions-about-not-quite-you. I'd almost forgotten the choices that I'd made - that "I" had loved Iovara, that "I" had joined the Leaden Key because I had been abandoned by my family - but the game continued to track those choices, and they made a significant impact on the dialogue at the very end of the game. I suppose that I ended up getting a kind of back-door romance after all, albeit one that was far in the past and was hopelessly doomed (in other words, the kind that Avellone might approve of).

The end itself was very satisfying. You make meaningful decisions at the end, along with decisions you've made throughout the course of the game, which combine in interesting ways to influence the fate of yourself, your companions, and the world around you. In my case, I had agreed with Hylea's request to restore the stolen souls to the children for whom they were intended, delighting the Grieving Mother. I'd supported Pallegina in thwarting the Republics' aggressive trade takeover from Dyrwood among the Glanfathans; the Republic ended up seizing control of trade anyways, and so she was disgraced and exiled, but if I had chosen to distribute the souls among the living, she would have been vindicated and honored. The endings are shown in slide format, which more and more seems like the best way to handle endings in epic RPGs.

All right, final round-up time!

Favorite Companion


Favorite NPC


Favorite Voice Acting

Lots of great choices. At the moment I'm leaning towards Pallegina.

Best Insults

Durance, with an honorable mention for Hiravias.

Favorite Banter

Either Eder hitting on Iselmyr or Iselmyr hitting on Pallegina.

Favorite Music

Hard to choose one, but I really dig the Thaos theme.

Favorite Class

I loved playing as a Chanter, but I'll probably roll a Cipher if and when I play again.

Favorite Map

The Ducal Palace. Runner-up: restored Caed Nua.

Favorite Weapon

Honestly, nothing was too memorable. I ended the game wielding Sheathed in Autumn.

Favorite Spell

Pretty sure I (well, Aloth) used Fireball more than anything else. Lighting Storm was fantastic.

Favorite Invocation

At the Sound of His Voice, The Killers Froze Stiff (paralyzes enemies in a cone) was my favorite, but when enemies were immune or had high resistance, I would instead use Gernslic Slew the Beast, but Soon Faced its Kin (summons 3 wurms).

Favorite Caed Nua Upgrade

Mechanically, the herb garden. Aesthetically, the laboratory.

Favorite Monster

Cean Gwla are nicely frightening, though they're either too hard or too easy depending on whether you're able to suppress their Domination.

Favorite Boss Fight

The first fight against Raedric was probably the most enjoyably challenging. The Battle of Yenwood Field was the most epic. The Master Below was the hardest (and the one I did not beat).


Here's a look at Venyan near the very end of the game.

Not too bad! I'm not sure where the Aggressive point came from, but otherwise this seems like an accurate reflection of my character's personality. (Quick side note: my actual CON was 18; she was suffering from cracked ribs at the time this shot was taken.)

So, yeah. I had a great time in PoE, and will likely pick up any sequel. I'm not currently planning on grabbing either White March expansion, since they sound more like Icewind Dale-style dungeon crawlers than BG-style narrative games. That said, the new companions do look great (one of them was drawn by psdo!), so I may weaken in the future.

At this point, I've played substantial portions of all of the modern isometric RPG renaissance games (though I haven't yet beaten Divinity or Wasteland 2). In my entirely subjective opinion, I would rate them thus.

  1. Shadowrun Returns series (internally: Dragonfall, Hong Kong, Dead Man's Switch).
  2. Siege of Dragonspear.
  3. Wasteland 2.
  4. Pillars of Eternity.
  5. Divinity: Original Sin.
All of them are great, and the ordering has more to say about me than about the games themselves. Divinity arguably has the most interesting tactical combat of the whole group, with each encounter its own little puzzle to solve, and also features the most innovative approach to PC creation I've seen in a while.  Pillars has the most original and ambitious worldbuilding of the group. I rate SoD highly thanks to its story and my longstanding affection for BG, but I'm sure newer players who are not already familiar with the arcana of AD&D 2nd edition rules would place it much lower on the list.

Basically, I'm saying it's a great time to be alive and playing video games, where I can snark about a game not featuring romance or having companions who are just good instead of awesome. It wasn't that long ago that people worried story-based RPGs would be driven out, replaced by MMOs and action-RPGs; and not long before that when people worried that CRPGs would fade away and we would be left only with console-exclusive JRPGs. Here in 2016, the RPG ecosystem is healthier than it's ever been, from the varied AAA RPGs of BioWare, CD Projekt Red and Bethesda down to scrappy little independent studios telling compelling stories with 1990s-style design.

So, as I plan to take a little break from RPGs (possibly until Torment: Tides of Numenara leaves Early Access), I'm glad to see that the genre is in great shape. This may be the last ridiculously long album that I post for a while - this one features Act III (and the short Act IV) of Pillars, including copious spoilers related to the ending.

No comments:

Post a Comment