This is a piece about the game in general terms. While I do not go into much detail, there might still be some spoilers. You have been warned!
I like language. Not in the sense that I know a lot of languages or that I'm particularly good at the languages that I do know, more in the sense that I think communication is really interesting. I'm fascinated by how words form, how communication evolves and how languages travel throughout time. This would naturally make me a "story"-kind of gamer. A person who thinks that the story in the game, and the way it is told, is the most important part. Unfortunately, games is my big exception. When I'm playing a game, the mechanics is king(queen, jack, baron and emperor). With this in mind, I will now talk about Pillars of Eternity.
Pillars of Eternity(from here-on referred to as PoE) is a CRPG(Computer Role-playing game) developed by Obsidian Entertainment. It pays a lot of respect to the CRPGS of old and tries to bring the "role-playing" aspect of the game to the forefront. What that means, is that it's a isometric game that uses a rule-set loosely based of DnD(Dungeons and Dragons) and tries to make dialogue and decision-making a core-experience. In that, I think that it succeeds pretty well. These kind of games used to be very popular, but around the turn of the millennium, interest(and the games themselves) dried up.
With the advent of kickstarter, games like this got a second chance. Developers seemed interested in making new CRPGs, and the audience seemed enthusiastic. With that, we got PoE and similar games like Wasteland 2 and Shadowrun Returns(Dragonfall and Hong Kong). All of this might seem like needless faffing about, since we're here to talk about one game, not the history of how its inception. But I think it's good to keep in mind that this game is kind of an under-dog. It is a game from an almost forgotten style of genre that sprang to life at the behest of an audience people though were gone. And it was quite the success.
Language and Glanfathans in Eastern Reach
The reason I explain at the beginning of the article my enjoyment of language is because language and words are central to the game. PoE presents a world to you that is lived in, complex and foreign. It doesn't hold your hand particularly much and learning the ins and outs of the world it relegates to you, the player. While most veterans of CRPGs, RPGs or fantasy in general won't find themselves to far out in the water, it is still unique enough, and stubborn enough, to feel foreign and new.
The game takes place in the "Eastern reach", a region in the southern hemisphere of the world Eora. The land is divided by the two biggest powers in the region. The western part belongs to the colonists of the Aedyr empire, who some time before the game starts gained Independence and now call themselves the Free Palantine of Dyrwood, and the eastern part belongs to the indigenous Glanfathans, who live in the ruins of an even older tribes settlement called the Engwithans. This back-story is not showed down your throat(the way that I have just now) and it is up to the player ti figure all of this out, because it matters to the game and how the game plays out.
When the game starts out, your character is part of a caravan going to Dyrwood. The baron of Dyrwood have promised any new settler land and opportunity. The reason for his generosity has to do with the fact that there is a disease/curse plaguing the land. Children born in the region are born without souls, and what that means in real world terms is that children are pretty much still-born. Their bodies function, but their minds and souls are gone. While they breathe, they do not think, feel or even eat on their own. This is made worse by the fact to no one really knows it its a cruse of a disease, and even worse still is the fact this no one knows how to cure it. To the people of Dyrwood, they are watching the end times in an almost biblical fashion.
It is this disease/curse, called Waidwen's Legacy is central to the games plot. After some unfortunate unforeseen events the player finds themselves as "a watcher", a person who can read, understand and live other peoples souls. This is made more complicated by the fact that the players characters own soul is "awakened", which means that it remembers it's previous lives. Not all at once, it comes in bits and and confusing pieces. But with these tools you are prepared to figures out the mystery and save the lands.
While I don't think that the central plot is very spectacular, it is still very competent and serves as a decent vehicle for what really is spectacular with the game, the world itself. The world is deep and complex, lived in and welcoming, foreign and frightening all at the same time. There is a lot of lore and a lot of things to discover. And most of it is very compelling. The fact that the game doesn't dictate to you too much is very welcoming. While there is a lot of story, the game rarely takes hold of your character and shoves exposition in your face. You have to work for your knowledge. If you need to know something, go ask someone. Do you need clues from old history? Go find yourself some books, or go to someone who might know the answer. The game is very open with its storytelling. This also makes the game less judgmental, since it trust the player to find his/her own way in the game.
A pile of mechanics
Okay, for serious this time!
The game is an isometric affair that uses a system of rules that seem like a home-brew of Dungeons and Dragons-rules. Its got its own names for stats, and have switched some functions,but the core, the skeletons is pretty much the same. So, for anyone comfortable with these systems, the game will play like pretty much any other. But for those not initiated in the pen and paper-cabal, it might be a little bit more difficult. The game has stats and skills, its got attributes and perks, its got damage reduction and resistances, and most of this will probably seem like Greek to most people who are new to this stuff. Fortunately, the game also has tool-tips. In fact, it has tool-tips for days. Everything of import has a tool-tip that explains pretty much everything you need to know about that particular thing. This means more reading, but since the game is already a tome, this doesn't matter too much to me.
The one big problem the game has got with its mechanics is the fact that since there are so many little numbers to keep track of it tends to get messy. While you can pause the action at any moment, keeping track of every little things is almost impossible. So if you're looking for an experience that you dictate at every instance, you might be a bit disappointed. This might seem like a small problem when you start the game. But at later levels, when facing lots of strong enemies, control is key, and losing control might mean a quick death. While it didn't stop me from enjoying the game, it did cause me to re-load a fair few times not really know what went wrong.
One specific pile of mechanics that I do appreciate quite a bit is the reputations system. In true RPG fashion, your character gains a reputation depending on what you do. But unlike most modern RPGs, the system isn't binary. In PoE, you don't have a "good/evil"-reputation. Your reputations is broken down into different attributes your character displays, and each attribute gains points when you display said attribute. This frees the player up to actually role-play instead of min-maxing the game to earn a specific reputation that unlocks a specific thing. This makes pretty much every decision in the game it's own decision, while at the same time building towards a specific attribute that might come in handy in later decisions. It's a difficult balance to keep, but I think that PoE walks the line pretty well.
I finished the game and the first expansion in about 60 hours. That's pretty long for a modern game, but also pretty short for THIS game. I skipped some of the later side-quest and most of the Endless path, so my game-time landed a wee bit under the average. One day I will probably return to that hole and find what's at the bottom(there might be dragons), but at the end of the game, I was pretty done with it. It's not that it dragged on, it's just that the game has a way of fatiguing the player. There is a TON of reading to do, reading that you have to comprehend and take in, reading that actually have to read, not just skimmed through. While it is rewarding, it can get draining. There is also a TON of numbers to keep track of, number to work with, number to work against and number that will quickly get you killed if you overlook them. This, again, is rewarding, but, again, fatiguing. The final thing was the fact that there doesn't seem to be any truly "simple" quests. This must have taken the writes at Obsidian some serious effort, and it is truly spectacular to witness. But the down-side is that there isn't really any part of the game that let's you just relax and play. Every encounter, every quest and every dialogue must be approached with attention, and maintaining that attention throughout 60 - 80 hours of game-play can be fatiguing. So by the end of ma play-through, I was done. I was satisfied, but I was also kind of tired of always being at attention to the game. While I do not think that this is a bad thing, more games should aspire to this. I still feel the need to mention this, as it can be both a good and a bad thing, depending on where you stand.
For all my whining in the last paragraph, I still love this game. It is a beautiful piece of work that both serves as a revival of a genre, and stands on its own as a game. I would recommend this game to anyone who has any interest in RPGs, language and fiction. It might be a bit tough on new-comers to gaming, but it is very rewarding to play. It's interesting, though-provoking and a fun exercise in the power of language. Just be prepared, the game expects you to be at attention at all times it is played, but the rewards for that attention is great.