In traditional role-playing game fashion, you begin Pillars of Eternity by creating a character and assigning them a class, and then seconds later your avatar is caught in some sort of dastardly plot that leaves him or her with a magical new power. In this case, you're a Watcher - somebody able to communicate with souls, both living and dead. With your newfound ability and an unquenchable thirst for answers, you venture forth, recruit a ragtag band of misfits and miscreants to aid you on your journey, and inevitably fight for the fate of the world in a series of increasingly difficult dungeons. On the surface it's RPG-by-numbers, but Pillars of Eternity is elevated above the well worn ground that it sometimes seems eager to travel thanks to some superb writing, a world rich with lore, and engaging, challenging combat.
Each of the towns, villages, and cities you'll visit on your travels are beautifully rendered, and thick with history and politics. The local tavern is usually the best place to start, as they're generally a valuable source of information, and a reliable place to pick up quests. The main storyline of the game is consistently intriguing, and paced sensibly to allow you a little time to get used to the various locations and to pick up side quests. The side quests are impeccably written, and will often give you pause for thought as you contemplate which side to take in a particular argument or confrontation. The solutions to the conflicts you'll encounter in Pillars of Eternity are rarely clear cut, and rarer still do they boil down to a simple case of good versus evil. As a Watcher, you can also peer into the souls of the people you meet, and read a small, self-contained story dedicated to a single moment in their lives. These optional interactions aren't voiced, and are sometimes only a couple of paragraphs long, but are so masterfully scribed that we were compelled to read each and every one we found.
Meanwhile, combat is complex and unforgiving. When you start the game for the first time the default difficulty setting is Easy, and the game actually warns you to play it on that setting unless you're a seasoned veteran of the genre. The warning feels earned, as the game is challenging from first to last, and will likely leave players unprepared to take their time with the intricacies of the semi-real-time battle system frustrated. Upon being spotted by an enemy, the game will pause and allow you to take stock of your surrounding area and distribute commands to your various party members. You can send in your resilient fighters first to draw the ire of your enemies, and then allow your rogues to slip behind them for bonus damage while your ranged attackers work their magic from afar.
Rushing headlong into battle is scarcely a prudent option. It pays to set up a formation that your party will move around in that best fits the roles of each member, including your main character. If you're an archer it makes no sense for you to be front and centre, and so a little forward planning like this makes battles much more manageable. You can pause combat at any time in order to survey the scene, and then you can micromanage each of your party members in turn. More trivial battles will be winnable with brute force, but larger, more dangerous enemies require a little more cunning. It's in these instances that Pillars of Eternity shines, as you're switching between each member of your party and instructing their every move in order to best tackle a problematic foe. You can set up AI behaviour for your party members so that they tend to skew towards using some moves in their skill sets more readily than others, but leaving them on auto-attack and assuming that the AI will take care of it will almost certainly lead to problems on anything other than the easiest difficulty setting.
The port from PC to PS4 has been a smooth one, albeit with one or two minor quibbles. On occasion, the user interface can feel a little overwhelming and it's not entirely intuitive to navigate using a controller, and opening the map never seems to work on the first attempt, seemingly requiring two presses of the touch pad to register. But also present here is the downloadable add-on quest, The White March Parts I and II, which should add another twenty hours to an already sizeable forty hour campaign, and is more than enough to make up for any slight technical or control annoyances. There's also a fairly meaty minigame in which you can upgrade your castle with securities and amenities, not dissimilar to systems found within some of the Assassin's Creed games. It's not required, and it could probably be a little more fleshed out, but keeping your castle well stocked and well defended can be of benefit further into the game.
Pillars of Eternity is a wonderful role-playing game, expertly weaving deep, tactical combat and captivating writing - a combination that will appeal to unabashedly old school gamers, but will also yield abundant rewards for players new to the genre. What Obsidian has crafted here, ostensibly as a love letter to the isometric computer role-playing games of the late '90s, is not merely an exercise in tickling the nostalgia itch of those pining for another Planescape: Torment or Baldur's Gate, but a contemporary to those classics, and one that will surely be held in as high regard in the years to come.