This isn't a revolution or new beginning for the genre, but a return to form.
Pillars of Eternity makes a strong first impression: 3D character models move about on pre-rendered 3D backgrounds, which are themselves colored and animated so that they appear hand-painted. Watching a hands-off alpha demo at E3, I couldn't help but be reminded of Diablo 2. A torch lit the night with a bright, dancing hue of orange and yellow, and the hero's movement looked just a touch stiffer than you'd expect from a game in 2014.
The game also hearkens back to its Dungeons and Dragons roots via a narrator who speaks in second-person. This disembodied voice helps set up scenes and gives pertinent background information, much like a virtual Dungeon Master. As Pillars of Eternity opens, you're told that you are part of a traveling caravan. Unfortunately, you've decided to make camp in the wrong part of the woods, and soon your party is ambushed.
Combat lies somewhere between real-time and turn-based, with an option to pause at any time. Character actions operate on timers, which you can see as a depleting bar over their head. Again, the influence of DnD shows; the bar is a visual representation of what would be a round of combat if the game were played pen-and-paper style, and watching how fast each ally and enemy's bar moves is a quick way to know the flow of battle.
I watched as a developer made short work of tribal warriors and monsters alike, eventually delving into a nearby cave. Here, Obsidian showed off another of the game's features: scripted interactions. While that sounds like a synonym for "quicktime events," the reality hems much closer to a Skill Check in DnD. For those not familiar, Skill Checks are situations where a player rolls a die to see if they can perform a given action, i.e. "You come across a fallen tree. Roll to see if you can lift it."
In Pillars of Eternity, players are given a text description of what their character experiences, accompanied by a static sketch or three showing what's happening. This scripted interaction system eschews cutscenes and extravagant animations for stylish illustrations that look torn from an adventurer's journal, with all of the action taking place in the player's mind. It doesn't get much more old-school than that.
Appealing to gamer nostalgia has been a successful tactic for many developers. The resurgence of pixelated graphics, franchise reboots and hardcore roguelikes over the past few years ought to be evidence enough of that. Thing is, such games often also add modern twists or conventions. Based on what I saw during the opening 15 minutes of Pillars of Eternity, that won't be the case here.
With Pillars, everything looks to be rooted in something older than itself. Whether that's the use of pre-rendered backgrounds, a combat system with allusions to tabletop RPGs, or encouraging an active imagination, it all comes together to give the sense of a game out of time.
We'll find out if first impressions match up with the reality this winter, when Pillars of Eternity launches for PC, Mac and Linux.