If there's one really nice trend on consoles at the moment, it's that a lot of the most interesting PC games have been seeing a later console release - even if we have had to wait a good few years. First there was Divinity: Original Sin, a traditionally styled role playing game that even came packing a split screen co-op mode, while more recently we've had Cities Skylines, an old school city builder of a kind that barely even exists on PCs nowadays, yet alone on consoles. And now, some two years after the PC players, we've finally got our hands on Pillars of Eternity, too - a fantasy role playing game that we'd long been casting jealous eyes at PC players over, while wishing our PC was up to running it.
Set in the land of Eora, Pillars of Eternity is a properly nostalgic role playing game, built in the manner of the classics. If the words Baldur's Gate, Neverwinter Nights, or Icewind Dale mean anything to you, then Pillars of Eternity will be right up your street - and even if they don't, if you like a good story, there's a good chance this'll be perfect for you too.
Played from an isometric perspective, Pillars of Eternity tells the tale of a world wrought by a curse of sorts that's been affecting its newborns. Rather than giving birth to a little bundle of joy, many mothers have instead found themselves having what's known as "hollowborns", or children without a soul, effectively leaving their child comatose, and all but incapable of living a life. Often abandoned - or outright murdered - by their parents, the lack of any information about what's causing the hollowborns, or how it can be stopped has been driving the citizens crazy, with villages choosing to either chase out, or string up anyone who's given birth to one before, in the hope of stemming the tide.
Into this mess comes your character. Assembled via a lengthy character creator, you are what's known as a "Watcher" - a guy or girl with the ability to see people's souls, whether they're of the recently deceased waiting to pass onto the next life, or the living, giving you a snippet of either their recent past, or their past lives... Giving you a bit of extra insight over the average Joe, it's up to you to set out on adventure across the green and not-so pleasant land, as you attempt to figure out what's causing the hollowborn, and how you can stop it.
Of course, that's not all you'll be doing, either. Like all the best role playing games, Pillars of Eternity contains hundreds of side quests for you to complete, with many a moral quandry or difficult situation you'll end up being called on to resolve. Whether you're helping a desperate mother track down a midwife who she hopes can help make sure her baby doesn't end up being hollowborn; avenging the soul of a man who was literally stabbed in the back by someone he considered to be his best friend; or venturing into a destroyed church to hunt for the remains of some monks, the quests are as varied and interesting as they are plentiful, and you'll always want to be sure you make the right choices.
As with many role playing games, Pillars of Eternity is a game where your decisions (and particularly what you say) matters. Depending on the dialogue options you choose, you can sometimes manage to avoid combat altogether, or even choose to start it, with characters reacting as you'd expect to anything provocative or rash you might say. Depending on your character's stats, you may find you can use your might to intimidate angsty characters into backing down, or rely on your superior intelligence stat to outsmart them and send them packing, meaning that the skills of your character, or the make up of your party can often lead you down some very different paths.
Combat in Pillars of Eternity is technically turn based, but plays out in real time. As soon as you get too near to an enemy, the game will pause as combat is triggered, and you can tell your party how you want them to attack. Once the battle's begun, your team mates will automatically engage, depending on which of a number of pre-set rules you've chosen for them, with the options you have being determined by their class. From "Damage" for mages, which sees them take a very spell happy approach, to "Hold Ground" for fighters, which gets them to use a defensive boost as soon as combat begins, there's not too much flexibility here, but it does let your team mates work independently fairly effectively. If you spot an opening, or want your characters to use specific moves, you can always pause the game to issue whatever command you want, with the game automatically pausing when your health gets low.
However, as much as we were desperate to play Pillars of Eternity, we can't deny we've been left at least a little bit disappointed in some areas. One of our biggest issues is with the writing - not so much the plot and the story, but with the actual quality of writing itself. The game regularly drops words in an attempt to make sentences read more naturally, but they seem to drop the wrong words. The sentence "Some of it all the way to the heart of the world, you believe the stories" doesn't actually make sense, especially as the latter half isn't a question. The fact that that line was actually voiced, and was seemingly read out by the actor without anyone questioning it is even more puzzling. There's also way too much repetition of "and", with things like "treading on limbs and backs and heads" cropping up way too often, and destroying any sense of flow, as any English reader will stumble finding so many "and"s so close together.
There's also the fact that, like Torment: Tides of Numenera, Pillars of Eternity seems to prefer to tell rather than show. As you're a Watcher, a lot of your time will be spent having visions of people's pasts, as you tune into their soul. The only issue is, these sections are relayed entirely through often fairly literary prose, with the screen simply remaining an odd shade of purple at the time. In fact, a lot of the text, both in visions and otherwise, is used to describe what you're seeing, which feels like such an odd decision. As games are such a visual medium, why not just, you know, show us what we're seeing, rather than use a hundred words to tell us about it? What's more of an issue is that these sections often end up going on for way too long, as they have to explain, in detail, what you can see. Having a single image for each vision to go along with the text description and "set the scene", as it were, would have made everything that much easier - and quicker - to understand. Instead, it can often be hard to tell exactly what's going on in the visions, leaving you to miss crucial plot points. That said, we should give the developers plenty of credit where it's due, as despite being a PC port, the font in Pillars of Eternity is large enough to be perfectly readable on a TV - something that so many games seem to get wrong.
Beyond the writing, there's only a few minor issues that are really of note. The game's pathfinding during battles is sometimes a bit iffy, meaning characters may get stuck on a wall, and not be able to attack an enemy. Meanwhile, when writing covers the entire dialogue box at the bottom of the screen, pressing X (on PS4) won't scroll the text so you can carry on reading, but will instead choose the first dialogue option below - something that can catch you out the first few times you do it. It may not be a bug as such, but it'd be nice if there was an auto level option, or something that would make it that little bit clearer how the stats you choose to invest your points in when levelling will affect your character. As with so much of the game, the descriptions here are lengthy and dripping in lore, which can make it hard to tell what the move you're looking at actually does. Nowhere is this more of an issue than with the game's overly complex dual health system, which sees your characters have both a health bar, and an endurance bar, with both taking damage during combat - and nowhere really explaining what the difference is.
Beyond the occasional issues with the writing, though, Pillars of Eternity is still an accomplished role playing game that's sure to scratch the itch of anyone looking for a good, story driven fantasy adventure. With the visuals alone sure to trigger huge nostalgia for retro role playing game fans (not to mention the free Miniature Giant Space Pig pet you get for signing up for a Paradox account), and a story that'll suck newcomers in and keep them hooked for the ride, this is a game that'll keep you going until Christmas rolls round, and is well worth a look.
Format Reviewed: Playstation 4