Pillars of Eternity Retro Review – Obsidian’s Love Letter to Classic CRPGs

Pillars of Eternity
Obsidian/Paradox Interactive

Back in 2014 when I’d first heard that Obsidian was developing an old-school isometric RPG in the same vein as Baldur’s Gate 1 and 2 (and Icewind Dale),I was ecstatic. I played those original masterpieces back in the late 90s when the genre was at its absolute best. The Forgotten Realms was probably my favorite iteration of Dungeons & Dragons, setting-wise, and I still remember staying up long into the morning hours glued to my gaming PC.

When Pillars of Eternity debuted in 2015 the first good sign for me was that it took me two hours just to create a character. As I began adventuring through the game’s world I got that whole 90s nostalgia vibe percolating again. It was about as close to those classic isometric RPGs as you could get, only Pillars of Eternity sported the shiny new graphics that today’s modern computing power can provide.

I also noticed that Pillars of Eternity never feel like a cheap rip off of those brilliant 90s classics. Although it does stick to many of the same conventions, such as having similar icons, UI, character portraits, layouts, and sound effects, the world feels very different.

Pillars also doesn’t employ the Dungeons & Dragons ruleset, which is the one minor complaint I have about it. Jumping into a D&D-based game was just so much easier because if you are an RPG geek like me you’re already familiar with the pencil and paper game of the same name.

There are some of the classic fantasy tropes (i.e. dwarves, elves, halflings, etc.) present but Pillars also introduces some of its own races into the mix, such as the Aumaua and Orlan. There’s even a quirky race called the Godlike, who are scaly lizard-type people with horn-studded heads. The character generation system isn’t as robust as say, Skyrim or Dragon Age, but it’s still pretty in-depth.

Pillars has some huge gaming areas to play in, map-wise. Everything around your burgeoning party feels so vast, and that sense of mystery and adventure is further enhanced by the RTS-style fog of war which invites you to explore them. The pre-rendered environments look absolutely stunning, and combined with the immersive (if a little confusing) storyline and engaging NPCs, makes for some truly tantalizing RPG cracknip.

No, this isn’t some sort of ARPG such as Diablo or Grim Dawn; this is a throwback to the cRPGs from the days of yore. In other words, instead of running around super-fast and slaying everything that moves, Pillars slows things down (literally) by not only featuring a more tactical movement speed for your characters, but also providing fully pause-able combat. This keeps you from becoming overwhelmed too quickly by enemies and also allows you to pause and think about your next move or sets of moves.

You’re also not forced to play a rigid storyline. Yes, there is a main storyline, but Pillars keeps it on the back burner for the most part. Exactly how the narrative plays out depends on you—based on the decisions your characters make will shape future outcomes. This is a fully reactive world where each and every action that you take has consequences that affect the eventual outcome of your game.

Your characters possess five core stats: Stealth, Athletics, Lore, Mechanics and Survival. How each of these factors affect gameplay can be a little confusing at first, but after a while they’ll become much easier to grasp since you’ll apply each of them in different situations.

Another interesting departure from most classic RPGs is the fact that experience points aren’t awarded to your party members by killing monsters; they’re doled out by reaching certain storyline benchmarks or solving various puzzles. I feel that this mechanic works well since it drives the narrative aspect of the game instead of its hack and slash elements.

Pillars of Eternity is a splendid love letter to the classics, but has enough of its own flavor and uniqueness to save it from being a mere copycat. In my next article I’ll cover Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire.

SCORE: 88%

Pillars of Eternity features great graphics that make its classic RPG gameplay truly shine. However, you want to have a pretty beefy gaming PC or gaming laptop in order to play it at a decent framerate. So, you may just want to invest in a decent gaming rig:

TRACER III 15-100 WITH MECHANICAL KB

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