Sunday, January 28, 2018

Dave Critiques - Pillars of Eternity: The gods must be crazy

Hey hey folks, Dave here. Welcome to my critique of Pillars of Eternity. Just a friendly reminder that I will be discussing the game for those who have played it. If you haven’t and are worried about spoilers, please pause the video and go play the game before returning. For everyone else, let’s continue.

In Dyrford Village you meet a noble named Lord Harond. His daughter Aelys has gone missing and he implores you to find her. Your investigation takes you to a Skaen temple underneath the town inhabited by cultists who worship the god and are performing blood rituals. Upon discovering their leader Wymund, you learn the awful truth. Aelys is Lord Harond’s niece, and he has impregnated her in order to carry on his bloodline. Wymund is tired of the aristocracy not paying for their debauchery and corruption. The priest has set Aelys up as a timebomb of sorts. She will return to Harond and through Skaen’s magic, extinguish their whole bloodline, serving as a warning to others that such vile behavior will not be tolerated.

The quest Blood Legacy is an example of many of the sidequests in Pillars of Eternity. The initial quest giver is either lying to you or not telling the whole truth. Upon further investigation you discover this, resulting in a decision to make whether or not the lying is justified and what action you will take against the parties involved. I used to agonise over moral decisions in RPGs but recently, I find myself picking what seems like the right answer in the moment and seeing where that leads me. Just like using this practise in real life, it doesn’t always lead to a good outcome. This is because our world, like Eora (the world in which Pillars takes place) is full of nuance and uncertainty. 

The world of Pillars is one where the soul exists, magic exists, but the Gods may or may not exist. For the first time in any RPG, I found myself reading a lot of the ingame books as well as using the ingame encyclopedia to read up on certain groups, gods, peoples, and the world’s history. I wish I could say it helped piece everything together, but as the credits rolled I was left with more questions than answers. Questions about important things, like the main character’s role in what is going on as you play through the game, and especially their relationship to Thaos, the antagonist. I’ll explain my theories on this a little later.

While your main character is a chosen one like in many RPGs (although what chose you is not altogether a positive), Pillars of Eternity is focused on the group instead of the individual. You can hire your own party members to assist you through the game’s combat, creating any classes you wish, but I would recommend having the game’s many side characters join your party. They each have their own personalities, troubles, and desires that unfold during the game. Each party member’s sidequest has multiple stages, and some like Durance’s don’t resolve until close to the closing credits. What endears you to these characters more than their personalities, is their utility in combat. You come to rely on what each character can do. So much so, that when new characters join, you might be like me and leave them waiting around in your stronghold, as you don’t want to disturb the party lineup you now depend on.

In Pillars, I found myself getting into a familiar rhythm with combat. I found strategies that worked for most encounters and only when that strategy failed did I start thinking about what else I could do. Then I incorporated aspects of this new strategy until I needed to adjust again, repeating until the end of the game. As pillars is a party based RPG, these strategies involved using each one of my 6 members in very particular ways. This is what I meant by growing close to my party members because of their utility in combat. Eder’s knockdown and defender abilities made him an ideal tank, capturing the enemy’s attention. If I needed a backup tank, Sagani’s pet did the trick, her bond with the creature helping her deal damage to this second attacker. Kana’s chants that strengthened the party were as invaluable as the buffs and debuffs that Durance laid down each fight, while Aloth’s arcane assault was great for AoE damage, using fireballs and concussive missiles on stronger or more numerous targets. My main character being a Cipher meant that Mind Blades was a great way to open up any encounter along with blinding or paralysing any difficult foe.

Despite the ability to pause the battle at any time and assign commands, battles have a sense of tension in them, leading to panic when things go wrong. I think this has to do with the encounter design. Whether it’s the combination of enemies, the location of battle, or a blending of the two, this is what forces the need for new tactics. Familiarising myself with what my spellcasters could do. The Wizard and Priest gained an absurd amount of spells each level, but even the few spells the Cipher has access to were ignored until difficult fights. I found myself reading through spell descriptions, and finding something that worked exceptionally well for that encounter, adding that spell into my optimal strategy rotation or saving it as the first thing to try when facing the next tough encounter. This “throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks” mentality kept the dangerous encounters interesting, with some fights lasting upward of 30 minutes without losing that sense of tension and excitement. The final boss and its guardians are an example of this. His ability to soul hop and buff himself and his allies caused many frustrated restarts and variations in strategy before he finally fell under the crack of a rifle

While combat is exciting, one thing I love about this type of RPG is that dialogue is just as important. Pillars of Eternity is combat heavy, but many encounters are avoided and quests completed through saying the right thing at the right time. I remember in the original Fallout games how important it was to pick the speech skill. Not that you’re forced to talk your way through Pillars. I imagine you could have a lot of fun slashing your way through everyone who looked at you funny, but a large amount of enjoyment and satisfaction I derived during my play was being able to talk my way out of a bad situation.

This push and pull between combat and dialogue is a thematic undercurrent of Pillars’ RPG power fantasy. As I levelled up, my characters grew ever more powerful and the fights became more trivial. At the same time, even after the final boss, I felt I had been powerless throughout the events of the narrative. An obvious example is no matter what choices are made during the trial at the end of act 2, the Duc dies and chaos ensues. An example possibly tied to my own ineptitude is not understanding my character’s past and the nature of Eora’s Gods. It’s not like I wasn’t paying attention either. I read many of the ingame books and took my time reading dialogue. In the end, I really don’t know what role my character played as Thaos’ right hand other than the one who betrayed Iovara. Is it just that my character’s association with Thaos in a past life lead her to follow him in this one? I mean Thaos’ plans associated with the Hollowborn are heinous and he definitely needed to be stopped, but I still remain confused about the personal nature of the conflict.

I remain confused about the Gods as well. The seeds of doubt are sewn related to their existence late in act 3. Wars have been fought because of these gods and people have done horrible things in their name, but perhaps the question of their existence carries more weight in a world where the soul is a verifiable truth. I was left believing the gods to be real, in a sense. You talk to the gods of your choosing at the end of the game. I had conversations with both Hylea and Wael (two of the only gods I cared to converse with. I would have liked to talk to Eothas as well, but he wasn’t available).

While I believe the Gods of Eora are real, I think of them as Greek Gods. This is a world of magic and power. Some beings have used both to elevate themselves to a level where they are revered, and they work to shape the world as they see fit. Of course as they all have differing philosophies as to how the world should be, they come into conflict and they play games with each other. Well, games might be a light way to put it. Magran straight up murders Eothas through her followers and Woedica has been sowing her own seeds of dismay for what sounds like centuries if the life of Thaos is any indication. The question that the player and their party wrestle with is if the Gods are not really gods, does it change anything? Do people need gods to believe in? Does it make life more bearable or does it lead to greater suffering? Is there a difference between a true god and a mortal that has used power to elevate themselves to such a position? A constant theme of many of the quests in Pillars is the danger of money and power. How it corrupts those who have a lot of it, and how they see themselves above consequence. How much greater is this righteousness when the level of power is raised exponentially?

I would love to hear your theories about the Watcher’s role in the game, whether the gods are real or not, and what that means for Eora. What are your thoughts on animancy? Did you view it as a danger? A necessary evil? Is some knowledge just too dangerous for people to have? The soul machines of the builders certainly lean towards that idea. Who was your favourite companion and why? What are your thoughts of the game in general? What did you think of this video? Let me know in the comments. 

Thanks for watching. If you enjoyed what I have to say, please like, share and subscribe, and I hope you’re having a wonderful day.

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