Pillars of Eternity: Complete Edition review: Infinity and beyond

When it first came out a couple of years ago, Pillars of Eternity was widely praised, and for good reason. Many a game tries to capture the magic of Infinity Engine games like Baldur’s Gate, but more often than not, it’s a superficial homage that begins and ends with an isometric perspective and a pause-driven real-time combat system. Obsidian Entertainment saw that the appeal of those classic RPGs lay in their stories, characters, and worlds as much as in their mechanics, and they channelled that into Pillars of Eternity.

The result was a game that was easy to get lost in for hours on end. The world felt alive. The people, be they main characters or minor NPCs, felt human. The story was a fascinating dive into a kingdom where ancient religion and new science clashed in unexpected and thought-provoking ways. By almost every account, Pillars of Eternity stood shoulder to shoulder with the beloved games that inspired it.

With the release of Pillars of Eternity: Complete Edition, console players can finally see what all the fuss is about. Fortunately for us, it’s an excellent port. That may be a bit of a surprise, given Infinity Engine-style games’ inherent reliance on mouse and keyboard controls, but with a bunch of creative solutions, Obsidian and Paradox Arctic made it work.

In lieu of clicking on characters, items, enemies, and so on to interact with them, you can simply walk up to them and let a context-sensitive X button (or A, if you’re on Xbox) do the trick. That much is pretty standard, but Pillars of Eternity goes one further by letting you hold down X to “aim” your interaction, so to speak. With the button held, all nearby interactable objects get highlighted, simulating the mouse-over function, and you can cycle through them to select the particular one you want to engage with. This removes the frustration that often arises when you have a bunch of different things in close proximity and you have to find just the right position to interact with a certain one without others getting in the way. It’s a simple, elegant solution to a problem that’s all too common in console games, and console ports of PC games in particular.

Pillars of Eternity review

Almost all of the time, the X button is going to be sufficient—it lets you talk to NPCs, pick up treasure, attack enemies, and what have you. But every now and then, you’ll want to use something other than the default option; you may want to attack a friendly NPC for some reason! Pillars of Eternity also gives you an on-screen cursor that you can pull up at any time for the more precise control that this offers. Select the attack option, then “click” on what you want to attack, and away you go. On its own, an on-screen cursor can be tedious when playing with a controller, but as an optional alternative to more natural gamepad inputs that’s a press of a button away when you need it, it works beautifully.

One of the unique quirks of Infinity Engine games is that you don’t control a single character, nor do you control a party that acts as one unit outside of combat (like you do in most JRPGs). You have a party of fighters that you can control as a group or individually depending on who you’ve got selected—the movement controls are more akin to a real-time strategy game than an action game. It’s a control scheme made for mouse inputs, but once again, Obsidian found a simple way to adapt this to a controller. Using R1 and L1, you can cycle through party members one at a time, and pressing both together selects the whole group—which is what you want most of the time. There’s no convenient way to select, say, half of your party, but you can still do this with the on-screen cursor option, and individual members and full group are the most widely used options anyway.

All in all, Pillars of Eternity: Complete Edition is one of the best console ports in recent memory …

Pillars of Eternity on PC can be very menu-heavy, and though there’s nothing inherently wrong with lots of menus in a console game (look at almost any JRPG), Pillars of Eternity: Complete Edition instead opts for radial menus tied to shoulder buttons. These let you quickly access things like your character sheet and quest log in much the same way as keyboard shortcuts in the PC version, and it’s certainly a convenient and unobtrusive way of accessing the myriad of systems attached to menus.

All in all, Pillars of Eternity: Complete Edition is one of the best console ports in recent memory, and well it should; a game this good deserves a good port. And it really is a good game—now that I’ve finally had the chance to play it and see what all the fuss is about, I can see why Obsidian’s Kickstarter darling got the praise that it did.

Pillars of Eternity tells the story of Eora, a world on verge of its own age of enlightenment. Scientific process has been able to confirm and quantify the existence of the human soul, bringing with it the promise of bold new discoveries and practical applications of such. As you might expect, this doesn’t sit too well with the religious orders of the day, throwing the Eora into turbulence.

In the midst of all this, the nation of Dyrwood is facing a strange plague where children are born without souls. Many people blame this on the scientists who seem to be playing God with their research into souls, though the truth of the matter is more complicated. A string of events puts the player-created hero—a “Watcher” with the supernatural ability to read other people’s souls—to investigate and uncover the truth of the plague.

The whole “science vs. religion” thing is nothing new, but Pillars of Eternity offers a thoughtful, nuanced take that avoids the atheist dogma that often plagues such stories. It looks at the social progress born of science and the role religion often has in holding that back, but so too does it explore the benefits that come with faith in a higher power and the ethical and moral quandaries that science has to deal with.

This is carried by some excellent writing, whether it’s the rich character dialogue or the novel-style interludes framed as pages from a book. Between the colourful writing and talented voice performances, characters all come alive on the screen. Whether they’re a minor NPC or a key player, whether you’re playing through an optional sidequest or a part of the main story, everyone feels fleshed out and believable.

Your own role in all this is very much up to you. Dialogue choices drives much of the Pillars of Eternity, and what you choose to say or do has big implications on how other characters feel about you and the general trajectory of the story. Stats come into play here—this is an RPG, after all—so different character builds mean different choices will be available at different times. By extension, combat is often optional, as you can usually talk your way out of a conflict. There are still times where you have to fight, but combat isn’t as central to the game as it is to a lot of RPGs.

Battles play out in the real-time, pause-based system that’ll be familiar to anyone who’s played Baldur’s Gate or its ilk. In short, combat is real-time, but you can pause at any time to issue commands to your party the way you would in a turn-based game. This allows for a wide range of tactical approaches depending on your party composition, if you’re that way inclined. Conversely, if you’re playing on the easier difficulties, you can usually just get away with letting characters’ simple AI scripts do the fighting for you, which is certainly my preference.

This all builds up to create a captivating RPG experience that really captures everything that made those Infinity Engine games so great. With its isometric perspective and pre-rendered environments, this game certainly looks the part, but it’s in its story, world, and characters that Pillars of Eternity, like the games that inspired it, really shines.

Pillars of Eternity: Complete Edition is developed by Obsidian Entertainment and published by Paradox Interactive. It’s available now for PlayStation 4 (reviewed) and Xbox One.

A press copy was supplied by the publisher for this review.

Matthew Codd

Matthew is a writer based in Wellington. He loves all things pop culture, and is fascinated by its place in history and the wider social context.