Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Pillars of Eternity: Character Creation and the Crisis of Countless Choices

Is this the spiritual sequel to Baldur's Gate that I've been waiting for all these years?
No spoilers here for Pillars of Eternity, I've barely started it. I seem to have got stuck on the character creation. Not because it's bad, but rather because it has so many options I can't quite make up my mind! Instead, I'll ramble on about RPGs for a bit and the gameplay posts will come later on.

The introduction: You are travelling with a caravan to a new settlement when you get stuck in a mountain pass.
If there's one thing I really do love about RPGs, it's the character creation. Good character creation can add a wealth of possibilities to a game. As a first impression though, it can provide a daunting plethora of options, many of which might be completely unknown to the player. How important every statistic, every class, every spell, every choice can have unforeseen consequences for the future of your character.

First choice: Male or Female? No idea how much this affects things. I chose Female this time. I've also missed a screenshot where I chose my race, and I've gone for a strange looking "Coastal Aumaua" who are taller and stronger than most others it seems.
Class: A large selection, with some familiar and some new. I pick Paladin. Usually a warrior type, but with a bit of magic and a sense of self-righteousness.
Sometimes a character creation is reliant on rules not fit for the game itself, or badly fit in. This can lead to superfluous skills which might seem highly valuable to a new player but in fact are a dead end. Fallout 1 and 2 had it's skills like Doctor and First Aid, which at first might seem highly useful in a radioactive post-apocalypse, but in fact have very limited use due to the vast amount of healing items available. Specialising in the wrong character can make the game punishingly difficult, and may reduce the enjoyment of the player.

Subclass: You have to pick an order, I went for a "good" one. I had thought there might be a choice of God to follow, but I guess not.
Your basic statistics: Here at least some guidance, the game highlighting which stats are most useful for your chosen class.
Baldur's Gate and Neverwinter Nights used the Dungeons & Dragons rules, which are suited for tabletop/pen-and-paper roleplaying and not very well suited to a computer RPG. The systems are designed around larger possibilities than a single-player cRPG can manage, and certain skills may never come into use. The Neverwinter Nights 2: Storm of Zehir was the best I've seen at using these otherwise superfluous skills, making certain characters like Rangers useful (allowing you to notice enemies on the world map before they can see you, avoiding them with stealth and still getting experience for this!).

Culture: Again, this is a bit opaque. I don't know much about the world yet but I have to pick which culture I associate with. I chose Aedyr, an old slightly crumbling empire.

Background: A little vague boost here to your character, here I gain +1 to Stealth and Survival skills for being a "Drifter", which seemed appropriate for someone tagging along with a caravan to a new settlement. 

Pillars of Eternity is trying to tread that fine line, in giving the player a wealth of options, whilst also trying to guide the player with as much information as they can. While I appreciate this information, it can still feel quite daunting. The game seeks to guide with the basic character statistics (strength, intelligence, etc.), and will recommend which ones are most important for the class you have chosen. For every other choice, there is a lot of text explaining the possibilities, but such things are a touch opaque when I know so little about the world. What effect will +1 survival have on my playthrough? Or +1 Lore?
There are various cosmetic changes you can make to your character here, unfortunately the number of portraits is small, so you can only pick one with a vague similarity to your character (choosing human would have made this a bit easier, but the non-human races have far fewer portraits). Some of this can be changed later, which is a marvellous boost. The voice choices all seem to be the same actor, which is a bit crap (but they are rarely used, generally just a bit of shouting in combat).

Here is my completed character: Level 1 Paladin, Morgana. Until I decide to restart with someone entirely different.

What would be a missed opportunity is to allow for a vast array of starting choices, but have them proceed to have minimal impact on the game as you progress. If your starting choices have minimal impact, it is perhaps best to begin with a blank slate and fill in the character through encounters and dialogue during the opening area of the game. On the other hand, if your myriad choices will have definite impact on a playthrough, then it is imperative that the consequences are felt as soon as possible, so that if a player decides they've made a terrible choice the restart is less painful.

A tree blocks the path of the caravan, and my character is suffering from some form of mild nausea so it's off to the forest to pick berries, rather than chopping the downed tree and getting out of here. Note the big glass-like green protrusions surrounding this camp, I'm sure they will be important!

For what it's worth, I truly hope that the first choices that Pillars gives are ones that will shape the rest of the game, because if the game is truly great I will want to play it multiple times. As it happens, I've already played it four times (sort of), because I can't decide what sort of character I want to play as. Do I want to be an honest paladin, a bitter druid, a mysterious spellcaster, or something else? I'm always tempted to pick the noble paladin as a first-time playthrough of most cRPGs if only because it's what I'm used to from various Ultima games (in which the player is literally the paragon of virtue, the hero who gets called whenever there's a threat to Britannia).

Here's the inventory screen, and my very own Giant Miniature Space Piglet (a callback to Minsc's Boo, a Miniature Giant Space Hamster from Baldur's Gate). I also get an Obsidian Dragon if I prefer (Kickstarter backer perks). Not sure what these animals do, except for follow you around.

So far I've only played through the opening section, which contains a brief tutorial (which will be mostly unnecessary to anyone who has played Baldur's Gate or a similar infinity engine game), and consists of a few fights and some snippets of dialogue to introduce you to this strange new world. Hopefully this week I will delve into the game and discover how much my choice of character will affect how I approach the encounters and quests that the game throws at me.

And so my adventure begins, accompanied by a reluctant hunter and a blue piglet.

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