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Pillars of Eternity and the dangers of fantasy pest control

S. Prell, @SamPrell

"Streamlined" is a buzzword you hear often when talking to developers about games. "Simplified" is almost as common. The unspoken implication behind these descriptors is that complexity and time-consuming mechanics are a thing of the past. If that's true, Pillars of Eternity is a time machine.

Developed by Obsidian and designed to evoke the look and feel of the Infinity Engine games – Planescape: Torment, Baldur's Gate, Icewind DalePillars of Eternity is as old-school as a roleplaying game can get without turning into a text adventure or a dice-rolling tabletop quest. There is nothing simple or streamlined about Pillars, and therein lies the appeal.

Gallery: Pillars of Eternity (July 2014) | 3 Photos

At character creation, players select one of six races: human, dwarf, elf, orlan, aumaua or godlike. While the first three should be immediately recognizable, even the latter half have their roots in familiar fantasy tropes. Aumaua, for example, were described to Joystiq as being Pillars' versions of orcs; large humanoids with slightly elongated heads and hulking frames. Orlan are, more or less, furrier halflings ("hobbits" if you prefer Tolkien's term) with long, pointed ears.

Godlike are something of an odd one out, as they're not really their own race. Instead, they are mortals – meaning they can be of human, dwarven, elven, aumauan or orlan descent – who have taken on an aspect of a deity representing the elements of existence like death, fire or nature. Along with special bonuses like increased damage when your character's health falls below a certain threshold, a godlike's appearance will change to reflect the chosen deity; fire godlike have flames rolling off the top of their scalp, nature godlike sprout horns and fur, and so on and so forth.

I opted to play as an elven rogue, and was soon thrust into the world of Eora with four pre-generated companions. The demo at PAX Prime is one backers of the game are already familiar with, and forgoes spoiling any story elements by focusing on side-quests.

As I jogged around the small farming village with my party, I could eavesdrop on various conversations that gave me hints about what was going on with the townsfolk. They talked about the lack of new births, and hardships. I could click on various pieces of scenery to learn more, and each description was written with the type of dramatic penmanship you'd expect from an experienced dungeon master leading a game of Dungeons & Dragons. Details like mouse and bird skulls covered in the dripping wax of altar candles were described in thorough detail, giving my mind a striking illustration to imagine.

Eventually, it was time to head into the wilderness and take on some beasties. My group journeyed forth, and soon we came upon a group of four beetles. The biggest one, whom I referred to as Ringo, set his beady eyes on the fighter, the toughest and hardiest of our group. Having an armored fighter taking hits gave me the confidence to go all-in with the rest of my party. I had a feeling; a feeling deep inside. A feeling I now recognize as "human arrogance."

I began by simply slashing at the oversized bugs with basic attacks, figuring that they would go down easy. Soon, I realized that my health was dropping much quicker than my foes', and my fighter's stamina was likewise falling rapidly. In Pillars, health is damage directly applied to a character, and it is recovered by making camp and resting between battles. Stamina, on the other hand, is used up as your character fights, and can be restored mid-skirmish via actions like casting a restoration spell. The danger is that, even if the character in question still has plenty of health, they'll faint if they run out of stamina.

Pillars features a real-time-with-pause combat system, so I froze time to consider my options. I selected the priest character and looked over his spell selection. Magic users in Pillars of Eternity are not bound by mana pools, but are instead given several levels of spells which can be used a limited number of times per encounter or per rest period. But try as I might, the fighter could not handle Ringo's onslaught. Once he was slain, the rest of the party soon followed.

I had been told this particular build had five hours' worth of content, but I lasted roughly 20 minutes, a pitiful legacy brought to an abrupt end by an angry grub. All because I had forgotten the depth, complexity and difficulty of the Infinity Engine games. Because in an age of simplified, streamlined gameplay, I had developed a sense of hubris where I believed myself an ubermench of the fantasy realm. Obsidian seems all too eager to remind players of a time without regenerating health, without AI companions that do all the work for you.

But next time, I'll be prepared.
[Images: Obsidian Entertainment]

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