Sunday, 24 April 2016

Pillars of Eternity: The Heir Apparent to Baldur's Gate

I've been playing Pillars of Eternity for over 30 hours, and have completed Chapter 2 and have progressed into Chapter 3. I backed the game quite a long time ago on Kickstarter, but had a terrible time getting into the game. I couldn't decide what sort of character I wanted to be, I didn't know the mechanics, I didn't know the setting, I didn't know anything about what I needed and yet I had to make significant choices.

I felt a bit paralysed by this choice early on. I experimented with several different ones, and found nothing to be a good fit. Even now, I don't feel like I made a great choice. Thankfully, I'm playing with the newly added lowest difficulty setting: Story Time. This patronisingly named option is from a recent patch, and drastically reduces the difficulty of combat.

I still find the combat rather off-putting, and the Infinity Engine games from which this derives were no less clumsy to engage with, but those previous games often had far fewer complexities to consider and generally could be brute forced with a few easy options. Pillars of Eternity on the other hand has been balanced like a multiplayer game, with no stand-out good or bad choices for characters or party setup. It's all about bringing the right tools for the job, and remembering which to use in the appropriate situations.

It's odd to find myself so turned off by the combat system, but then I think back to my times struggling with the first Baldur's Gate and I remember why that was too. Baldur's Gate started you out as a novice hero in a world full of danger and mystery. It didn't always deliver on the mystery and intrigue, but it certainly could be very dangerous with a poor grasp of the combat and by attempting to play the game in an imperfect manner (As I usually did, often resorting to cheats to power my way through). Pillars also has you starting as a relative novice, your power grows but you never feel like you exceed those around you, as progress brings both greater rewards and greater challenges.

Baldur's Gate 2 took the shackles off, to an extent. Gone were the level caps, you began the game as a prominent hero and only gained further power with every advancing move. There were countless challenges, but the breadth and depth of your party's abilities quickly outpaced them. It was a game that made you feel powerful, even in a world of overpowered villains. It felt more relaxed, and more comfortable with allowing the player to have fun, rather than creating constraints.

So while I enjoy Pillars of Eternity, and I will go into all those details, it still feels slightly disjointed, with the complex combat system and character levelling systems the subject of my ire. Story Time does mitigate those factors, making sub-optimal choices matter far less, but it doesn't fundamentally change anything and so while these problems don't hold me back, they still feel noticeable. In particular when informed during combat that my current attacks are having no effect, something which happens with alarming regularity.

The combat is more complex than I can go into in a short review, but the standard attacks all have a specific damage type, which is countered by specific attributes or defences. A kind-of more complicated Rock-Paper-Scissors. Few, if any, attacks will be effective against all enemies, so you must switch out weapon sets depending on your foes, meaning you can't just stick with that apparently amazing new unique weapon you received as a quest reward as it turns out to be only marginally better than non-unique versions and useless against certain enemy types.

I find this weapon switching frustrating and boring, and I find what little tactical opportunities this create rather uninspiring. I'll always prefer this sort of thing presented in a turn-based approach, and even then simplicity is often preferable (in terms of clarity and the learning curve). I find the combat in games like XCOM2, Jagged Alliance 2 and Shadowrun far preferable to the offerings of Pillars of Eternity.

If it feels like I've been going on about this for too long, that's how I feel about the combat encounters. I gratefully grasp at any and all opportunities to avoid combat (again, one of the big positivies which I will discuss later), because there is just so much of it. I've always felt in these games it becomes nonsensical, you fight a few groups of enemies then need to rest to regain spells and such so you camp for eight hours (There's a reason Neverwinter Nights changed this to a quicker rest system) then repeat until the location is cleared. In the end, most combat is meaningless and doesn't even provide much if any experience anyway.

The character levelling is almost entirely combat focused too. You pick generally from combat abilities, and I have no idea if it's better to focus on ranged weapons, sword and shield, buffs, debuffs, area-of-effect, and so on. All the abilities are useful in some context, but there are so many that I'm glad I don't have to try and optimally build my character or it might drive me insane. It doesn't help that most of the abilities don't sound very interesting from a role-playing point of view, and a lot of the spells are often of limited use thanks to the way friendly fire works and the casting time. I'm sure someone finds all this minutiae very interesting, but it just doesn't grab my attention in the slightest.

The rest of the game is often marvellous though. From the slow build-up of the (unfortunately easy to predict, but none the worse for that) plot, to the beautiful artwork and the amusing character interactions, all my time outside of combat is happy and fulfilled. At times, it really does feel like you're being swept along on a grand adventure across a strange and unwelcoming land. I just wish it would concentrate more on delving into the mysteries and character interactions and far less on the combat. There are often few options to avoid combat, or such interactions are barred behind high attribute requirements.

For such a long game, there seem some areas that you visit only fleetingly. It would have felt even more so, if I didn't feel the need to explore every location as I find it. Such a shame, when those locations are often beautifully realised, but lacking in things to actually do (except defeating whatever enemies may live there). The ability your main character has to see and speak with spirits could be far better used in such areas, to provide information on past events rather than a reliance on books, especially since books may be ignored by some players.

I also find the companions a little awkward. I enjoyed having them along for story reasons, they often chime in with a few interesting words during important conversations or just when wandering in a new area. However there are a limited amount of them, and which ones you choose are often more dictated by the needs of combat rather than which ones you'd prefer to have around. Especially if you were to play your main character as a priest or wizard, which would generally preclude you from bringing Durance or Aloth along with you (the companion priest and wizard respectively). Of course a new player will probably have no idea which companions are available, so cannot make an informed choice on that count.

The three acts I've played all have a slow build up of the main plot, with plenty of opportunities to venture out on side-quests. There's a general drip-feed of information, about the soulless children, about the Saint's War and the other conflicts in recent history. Soon, you find out that the obvious answers to the problems that beset these folks are in fact more complex, and involve the ancient ruins that scatter the land. New technology and new beliefs clashing with old technology and old beliefs. Of course your main character is special, their soul tied to another, awakened with knowledge and able to see and speak to spirits of the dead.

I love the Saint's War backstory in particular. in which a god takes a human host and gathers an army. The rising of this god-turned-man incites a war that takes place within the same area the game is set. In the end, it could only be solved by the creation of a super-weapon, the Godhammer, a bomb so great it could destroy a living god (and created with the help of a different god). These events are blamed by some for the curse on the Dyrwood, and why babies are born without souls. It's a shame we only hear about these events after they passed, because it would make for a very interesting setting (and of course is another link with Baldur's Gate, which also had a backstory involving gods taking avatars).

It's this plot, this mystery, and the chase you have against the primary antagonist that I enjoy so much. The interesting side-quests and the new cultures and ancient ruins are great at drawing you in and making you believe in the world. The section I am currently playing has me conversing with gods, and being asked to make a choice about which one to side with. They all have tasks they want me to complete, but each presents a moral choice and there are rarely any easy or definite good choices. This is perfect for this world and allows for real role-playing. I only wish there were more ways to avoid combat encounters.

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