This ultra-deep RPG definitely doesn't coddle players.
Funding games through Kickstarter is a popular way for developers to make games nowadays, but a surprising number of them never get funded or never launch. Thankfully, Pillars of Eternity by Obsidian Entertainment was not only fully-funded in less than 24 hours, but it also reached every single stretch goals thanks to over 77,000 backers. As a result, this isometric fantasy-based RPG has been released with numerous enhancements including additional classes, new factions, upgradeable player housing, and more!
Anyone who loves deep RPGs like Baldur's Gate will appreciate how Pillars of Eternity eschews streamlined gameplay in favor of deep customization and micro-management. Players who rush their party into combat will usually become overwhelmed and defeated even on normal difficulty, similar to Divinity: Original Sin, so don't hesitate switching the game to easy difficulty (don't worry, I won't judge). Since the combat system will be unfamiliar, it's common to have your party wiped at least a few times while simply learning the ropes. But soon enough, you learn that it's crucial to have a well-rounded group of adventurers and a strong leading character.
Be prepared to spend a considerable amount of time creating the main character because the sheer number of possibilities is astounding. For starters, players choose to be male or female, which is about the only thing that doesn't affect stats. Then it's time to select one of six races, one sub-race, one of eleven classes (that's right, 11 classes!), one class-based starting ability, and the character's culture. All of these have minor statistic boosts, so make sure to choose stats that enhance the class. Players can also distribute stat points at this phase as well as create their physical appearance, which are limited but characters are not seen up close.
With eleven classes to choose from, selecting the right class seems crucial at first because there are no options for creating traditional multi-class characters. However, every class can use every weapon and also wear every type of armor (except for rare exceptions like the Godlike race not using helms), so it's possible to create a Wizard that can take lots of damage by wearing heavy armor. On the other hand, each class has a specific set of abilities, so players won't find a Wizard with a Fighter's knockdown ability or a Barbarian that can throw fireballs. It takes two levels for each character to earn a new ability, so choosing every new ability is a major decision.
Players begin their adventure by traveling through the night as part of a caravan. Things quickly go awry as the caravan makes an unexpected stop and a deadly creature sends the survivors scrambling into a nearby cave. In addition to numerous enemies in the cave, players encounter strange visions into the past that must ultimately be deciphered. From there, the game opens up into the gargantuan world of Eora that's filled with an astounding number of optional side quests alongside the main quest line. This isn't the type of game that holds your hand and shows you what to do. No, this is the type of game where players spend as much time exploring as they do fighting enemies.
Searching every inch of the game rewards players with more than just loot. It's common to find new side quests that lead to areas that may have been overlooked, and secret areas can be searched if players have the right tools (like a chisel and hammer to knock down a wall). One of the more useful things players can discover are eight different companions strewn throughout the land who are completely fleshed out with class, abilities, and personalities. Believe me, it's necessary to gather a party before venturing forth if you want to survive. As a back-up plan, another option that I really like is the ability to buy “blank slate” party members at local taverns and then craft them into exactly the type of traveling companion I want.
Death is not uncommon in Pillars of Eternity, so it probably isn't surprising to learn that I died a few times early in the game. That damned bear in Valewood shredded me more than once before I recruited a couple of party members and went back to claim my bear pelt. It will take a while to reach the full party limit of six players, but combat options open up significantly when that happens. So does the micro-management because there is no A.I. coding. This means that all characters will only use their basic attack if players don't dictate their every action.
Thankfully, the game can be paused at any time while orders are issued, and then started again for actions to play out. That doesn't mean that Pillars of Eternity is a turn-based game. It's more like Dragon Age Inquisition, where real-time combat ensues until players pause the action. Going through the first few combat scenarios without pausing will usually yield success, but micro-managing every party member's action is the real key to victory. This can be a bit overwhelming when player's have numerous allies and enemies onscreen at the same time and they're expected to attack, draw aggro, heal, and regain endurance at the same time. Like I mentioned before, this game requires players to be extremely patient as there really are no shortcuts, so basic combat encounters can easily take fifteen minutes to complete.
Combat can be extremely deep when you factor in the proximity of enemies, multiple afflictions (such as petrified, weakened, and terrified), damage reductions, specific damage weaknesses, and the inclusion of friendly fire. Not only do players have to dictate each attack, but they should take the angle of attack and the environment into consideration. Fighting in enclosed spaces makes matters worse, but it is possible to send in a party member or pet to lure enemies out into the open. Another useful tactic is funneling enemies into a small area to hit with AoE attacks or stacking them at a doorway so they can only attack one at a time.
Unlike most modern RPGs, retaining endurance is nearly as important as maintaining the life bar. In an interesting twist, the life bar takes very little damage during combat, but the endurance bar can be depleted in the blink of an eye. Players are knocked unconscious when their endurance bar is emptied, and they jump back to their feet if all enemies in that encounter are defeated by party members. However, the game ends if all party members lose endurance or the main character loses all health. Some classes slowly regain endurance during combat while others have spells that can enhance or refill endurance. Another way to refill all bars and revitalize the party is to camp for a few hours.
Thanks to the game's wildly successful Kickstarter campaign, players also have access to a towering castle, or Stronghold, to govern. This is a massive housing area where players can rest their party, interact with companions, barter with merchants, and craft items. It's also possible to upgrade many aspects of the Stronghold, such as increasing defense to deter thieves or building items that create resting bonuses. In addition, special quests can be initiated at the Stronghold, and there's a massive dungeon underneath that can be explored. One of the cooler benefits of owning and upgrading the Stronghold is collecting taxes from everyone who resides on your lands.
Add in an extensive amount of lore, as well as great writing and detailed conversation options, and the result is a finely-crafted RPG that will take over 60 hours to complete. Be prepared to say “goodbye” to the sun because with so many classes and side quests, most players will want to replay Pillars of Eternity at least once. I guess that's what spray-tans are made for…