The game that saved Obsidian, Pillars of Eternity was originally released back in 2015. It quickly broke records for a crowdfunded title when it was first announced, with over 77,000 backers raising a cool $1 million in the first 24hrs of its Kickstarter campaign to put the studio – which had been limping along after a string of cancelled projects – back on the map. This success ultimately led to the situation in which it finds itself today, with a successful sequel to Pillars Of Eternity in the bag and the release of its next big project – the hugely anticipated The Outer Worlds – looming tantalisingly on the horizon.
It’s hard to imagine the strain that Obsidian was under to deliver the goods after the overwhelming support shown for this return to the old-school isometric style of classics such as Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale, but it more than stepped up to the plate and Pillars Of Eternity was a critical and commercial success upon its original release. It's an epic RPG filled with truly meaningful choices to be made at every turn – and backed up by tough strategic combat and several books worth of well-written characters and storylines for fans of the genre to sink their teeth into – all of which has now arrived on Switch, DLC included, in a pretty much perfect port; it also gives Nintendo fans plenty of time to get through it before its sequel arrives on the platform in December of this year.
Pillars Of Eternity kicks off with you, the nameless hero, taking refuge from an apocalyptic storm known as a “bîaŵac” or "spirit wind", which has destroyed the caravan in which you were travelling, killing your companions. As you take shelter you bear witness to a bizarre cultist ceremony which bestows upon you the power of a Watcher. You're able to reach into the souls of others and experience their many past lives, a power that in turn leaves you blighted by creeping visions and encroaching madness. You must go forth, therefore, in that timeless CRPG tradition, on an epic adventure to search for a cure for your own malady whilst at the same time uncovering the truth behind Waidwen’s Legacy, a curse which is seeing the children of Dyrwood born hollow, arriving into the world minus their souls.
After spending several hours in the character creation suite poring over the eleven classes on offer – everything from your usual knights, rangers and mages, to more original choices such as chanters, god-likes and ciphers – you’ll set forth on an adventure which immediately grabs your interest by virtue of the fact that every character you meet – whether friend or foe, party member or meaningless NPC – is so richly detailed. Most of this detail comes in the form of chunks of text, but when it’s this well-written it’s a delight to make your way through, providing a complex backdrop and adding real tension to the decisions you’ll need to make as you progress through its story – and believe us, right from the off you’ll make some pretty big decisions.
Without wanting to reveal too much of the story, as an example, just a handful of hours into Pillars Of Eternity, you’ll meet a revolutionary named Kolsc who wants you to murder his cousin Raedric, Lord of the land, who is killing and banishing people who suffer from Waidwen’s Legacy. It’s a situation that seems cut-and-dry at first but becomes more complex when you meet both characters and hear, in great detail, the different sides of the argument. It ends up being a decision you know will affect your playthrough later in the game in some way, something that will no doubt come back to haunt you. It’s a really tough call, and this is just an early side-quest. Almost any mission you take on has the potential to morph into something bigger; even a simple bear hunt early on spirals into a whole moral dilemma, and it’s worth taking your time as you make your way from the opening areas of the game to its first major city, Defiance Bay, as there are lots of seemingly innocuous little quests that turn out to be much more than they appear on the face of things. Scouring each area’s map, lifting the fog of war in every direction, reveals all manner of dungeons and side stories that will delete hours of your life in the most satisfying adventure blur.
Helping to bring missions and quests further to life are the multitude of dialogue options you have available to you during each and every conversation. Standard responses sit alongside the usual 'special' locked replies, things that require a certain character – who may or may not even be in your party at the time – or perhaps a certain skill level in Lore to use. What’s more, where some RPGs reward your ability to use a special dialogue option by having it always be the correct response, in Pillars Of Eternity they are often not the right choice just by virtue of the fact you earned the ability to use them; you really do need to engage in what’s going on and read every option in order to make the right conversational decisions.
There’s also a reputation system to take into account, with NPCs in the world reacting to you in different ways depending on how you’ve chosen to behave over time in previous missions. Townsfolk will remember if you've treated their kind harshly, whereas criminals will be more inclined to deal with you if they know you're a shady type. There's real weight to everything you do here and it creates a tangible sense of peril and adventure as you make your way through the game, investing you thoroughly in the world of Eora and its inhabitants. As a result, you'll find yourself completely caught up and emotionally engaged in the characters and stories you happen across. Pillars Of Eternity also boasts a permadeath system which can see good friends and favourite party members you've picked up on your travels removed entirely from the story, should they fall in battle. This can be slightly eased by using an option to have your character maimed the first time they fall – giving you a second chance of sorts – but it's just another factor that heightens the tension and adds to the atmosphere overall.
Alongside all of this sits the old-school pausable real-time combat, where you’ll take control of your party of adventurers in truly tough strategic combat. Even in easy mode (which is the recommended difficulty and the one we played on) only the smallest of enemies succumb to any kind of button-mashing effort. You’ll need to quickly become accustomed to the skills and powers that your team members bring to the table, using AoE spells and buffs while moving weaker party members – such as priests, mages and rangers – out of harm’s way where they can support your tougher fighters with healing spells and long-distance attacks. You’ll absolutely hammer the pause button in most large fights, constantly changing the positioning of your party members and the attacks they are throwing out.
Of course, the beauty in the depth of a game like Pillars Of Eternity is that you can also fully adapt your party so that, for example, your priest decks out in heavy armour and carries a pistol as a backup weapon, enabling him to get more involved in the mix, rather than hiding behind a table and healing your party every now and again. You can even save custom formations for your squad so they automatically assume your favoured positioning, which you can then adapt on the fly as battles progress. It is also entirely possible to avoid combat in many situations – should a stealthy approach be your favoured style of play – and, in fact, moving around the game world in stealth has the benefit of highlighting traps in environments, which is useful as most dungeons are full of them.
The systems at play here are beautifully malleable and so numerous that it’s almost easy to overlook some of them; indeed, it was several hours into playing before we even noticed that you can easily craft your own food and potions to buff your squad as well as enchant any piece of armour or weaponry in your inventory – which is a good thing, as one place in which Pillars Of Eternity does fall down a little is in its loot. The weapons and gear you’ll be rewarded with as you progress through the many, many labyrinthian dungeons in the game aren’t the most exciting, and enchanting is perhaps the best way of adding some spice to most of the gear you’ll equip.
A handful of modern conveniences have also been delicately layered into proceedings to make things slightly less obtuse than they were in the glory days of the CRPG. Fast and slow modes are available for traversing with a quick tap of the left or right directional buttons, enabling your party to double-time it across terrain. Camps can also be set up anywhere whilst there are no enemies around in order for you to recoup your strength and nullify negative effects that have been accrued by your party in battle without having to traipse all the way back to the nearest inn to sleep. The graphics are also beautifully detailed, doing a wonderful job of paying homage to their predecessors whilst adding plenty of detail, with smoke billowing from tumbledown chimney stacks in quiet towns, cobbled streets slick with rain, huge statues rising out of forested areas and bizarre dwarven contraptions and ancient machinery to stumble upon on your travels. All of this is set to an enchanting score that swells at just the right time to catch an attractive vista or in the heat of a particularly important battle.
In terms of this Switch port, it’s identical to the Pillars Of Eternity you may have played on other home consoles, complete with the streamlined control system which does a valiant job of replacing the (obviously more appealing) keyboard and mouse setup of the PC version. The game runs beautifully in both docked and handheld modes with no frame rate issues or graphical downgrades to report, and dialogue boxes have been cleverly tweaked to fill almost the entire screen with large text in portable mode, so you’re not straining to read anything. Some players may be annoyed at the fact that the Switch touchscreen hasn't been employed to any effect here, but the controls do such a good job of covering all of the bases that it isn't something we'd say was particularly necessary.
We did encounter a bug which sees random chunks of text temporarily glitch as they appear on-screen, and some item icons appeared to be showing up as the wrong thing from time to time in our inventories. These are two small issues which will hopefully be quickly patched post-release. Beyond this, the main problem with Pillars Of Eternity is one it’s had on every platform it’s released – long loading times, which seem to get longer the more save files you have in play. It’s not so much of an issue in large outdoor areas, but there are some keeps and dungeons where it can become truly obnoxious as you back in and out of areas that require a good twenty or thirty seconds of loading every single time you pass through them. It’s not a massive problem but it is a shame, albeit one that isn’t in any way Switch exclusive.
During the sixty to seventy hours it takes to make your way through the main story and DLC on offer in Pillars Of Eternity (much more should you choose, quite rightly, to meander), you’ll meet a cast of unforgettable travelling companions, fight your way through labyrinthian dungeons, explore deserted Dwarven fortresses, become Lord of your very own stronghold and undertake quests as varied as they are beautifully-written and acted. Obsidian has created a heartfelt tribute to the classic 'Infinity Engine' RPGs of old; one that takes the best of those games, delicately updates them and – in the process – becomes something of a classic itself. For RPG fans, this is a must-buy.