Pillars of Eternity E3 2014 Preview: A Fine Line

Pillars of Eternity, a modern throwback to the isometric RPGs of the late 90s and early 2000s, stood out amongst the massive spectacle of E3.

Between between the two chaotic expo halls at the Los Angeles Convention Center, publisher Paradox Interactive and developer Obsidian Entertainment set up in a small, nondescript cubicle amidst a dozen others. There were no gargantuan displays. No attractive women courting the passersby. Just a gray cubicle with a couch, television, the isometric party-based RPG Pillars of Eternity, and Project Lead Josh Sawyer. Despite the lack of pizazz, I left the brief hands-off demo more excited for the spiritual descendant of Baldur's Gate, Icewind Dale, and Planescape: Torment than most other big-spectacle games I saw all week at E3.

The demo began with the player character escorting a caravan through the Eastern Reach, an area known for sacred ruins prowled by homicidal cultists. I noted almost immediately how much descriptive dialog has gone into the game. Not only do the top-down visuals give context, but so does what Sawyer called narrative text. I couldn't get a grasp of how well written this text and dialog was as the demo moved through it quickly, but Sawyer assured me heavy readers and fans of old school Western RPGs will feel right at home.

As this is a fantasy game, it wasn't long before one caravan member strayed too close to the ruins and irked some crazy cultists. The player character–a wizard–was forced to party with a fighter named Calisca and a rogue named Hoedan to defend the caravan. Both of the companions were temporary, beginner characters in place of the eight permanent party members found throughout the game. Be that as it may, Sawyer said that both of them, along with any other party member, can die permanently. It's possible to create and hire adventurers if you run out of companions, but these characters won't have developed background stories and personalities.

Battles with cultists played out very much like a battle in Baldur's Gate would, except with a modern coat of paint and a much cleaner interface. Party members were issued commands when the game was paused, and the wizard, fighter, and rogue fulfilled their roles as you would expect. But beneath the surface are many changes to the formula. For starters, Pillars of Eternity does away with the Dungeons & Dragons rule set in favor of a more consistent system built from scratch. Instead of weapon and armor restrictions based on class, any class can wield or wear any piece of gear. Penalties will be in place for certain classes to use certain types of gear, of course, but a sword-wielding wizard is a viable option from the get go. 

A mysterious purple wind appeared and sapped the souls of every member in the caravan except the three heroes who managed to escape into some ruins. Hoedan was pulled to the ground by some creature, and here I witnessed Pillars' scripted interactions, which work somewhat like a choose-your-own-adventure novel. A hand-drawn image depicted the scene along with some text that described the situation. As a wizard, the option to shoot a magic bolt at the beast to free Hoedan was present, along with the option to leave him to his fate. 

The bolt worked, and Hoedan was free, but not before taking a wound. Hoeden wished to stop and rest. Calisca would have none of it and demanded the group push forward. Sawyer informed me if the player rested for Hoedan, Calisca would leave the party for good. No prompts told the player this beforehand. Consequences will play a large role in the game and will be directly related to the player's choices. Careful reading of narrative text gave the clues as to what Calisca would do in such a situation, Sawyer assured me. The party pressed on, but Hoedan would remain wounded until the party could rest.

The three adventurers cleared the ruins after a series of battles with giant spiders. Hooded cultists chanted around an alter as the purple, soul-sapping mist swirled about outside, ending the demo with a cliffhanger that left me wanting to see much more. With over 140 maps of pre-rendered environments in the game, and lots of text and creatures to fight to go along with them, Pillars of Eternity promises to ship with a staggering amount of content. For reference, Sawyer told me Pillars is larger than Baldur's Gate and Icewind Dale, but a bit smaller than Baldur's Gate 2.

Of course, that's before Pillars of Eternity's multiple game modes add several layers of replay value. Along with the easy, normal, and hard difficulties, which effect how many monsters are fought at once, Pillars features three game modes: Trail by Iron, Expert Mode, and Path of the Damned. Trail by Iron locks the play through to one rolling save, restricting any reloads to counteract regrettable decisions. Expert Mode turns off all dialog hints and help menus. Lastly, Path of the Damned combines all the monsters from easy, normal, and hard into one game. All three modes can be combined together to create a daunting hardcore RPG experience. 

I left the small cubicle and out of the convention center entirely and into the sweltering heat of downtown Los Angeles after the demo concluded. I wished it was winter. Not because it was too hot out–even though it was–but because Pillars of Eternity is smack in the middle of beta and won't be released until the end of this year. I got the sense that Sawyer and his team were walking a thin line between simplifying a complicated genre while still retaining the depth that made it a beloved genre in the first place. As brief as the demo was, I felt that they were walking that line just fine.