It's been a very long time since I've had to read a new game's manual before playing. The last time in I can remember reading one full stop was Baldur's Gate that I got through over the Christmas break and that game is over fifteen years old. Thankfully the rule set in use here isn't quite as complicated, but it's certainly worth having a read before getting stuck in. This isn't just a primer to the mechanics though. There's also an overview of the worlds lore, something you're going to spend a lot of time reading about in game. So you might as well get your primer out the way now.
I'll just state this now: if you don't like reading, you will not get along with this game. Experience is gained through dialogue and quests rather than combat aside from your first few encounters with a new enemy. If you don't like the idea of combing each new area for new people to talk to and gets quests from, consider yourself warned.
On the other hand if you like the idea of getting absorbed into a fantasy world, you can't go far wrong. As soon as you've finished creating your character from the robust selection of races and classes, you're thrown into what feels like the start of a visual novel. The scene is set with a passage of text read out by a rather brilliant narrator then you're thrust into the game proper.
Skipping specifics, the entire start of the game has the player making decisions that will alter how they finish the opening section fairly drastically and it's unlikely you'll have the same introduction as another person who's going into the game blind. This sets the tone for the rest of the game. Your choices matter and there's scope to truly role play, something few bigger budget RPGs seem to let you do these days.
Despite looking like something made from a bygone era, there's plenty of modernisations to how the game plays and it's user interface. Stats and items have detailed descriptions when you mouse over them, character sheets are easy to digest and in general nothing needs research to understand (I'm looking at you, THAC0). There's also a huge stash for extra items built into the equipment screen so you won't be stressing about item burdon when you're exploring a new area.
Visually, the game is very pleasing on the eye, with nice high resolution backgrounds and pretty effects. The only let down in this regard is the character models which are decidedly low poly and start to look rough as soon as you zoom in. On the plus side, this means the game runs smoothly on low end hardware. Personally I have no issues playing on my laptops native 2880 x 1800 using three generation old mid range nvidia hardware.
An extra plus point on the presentation front is the huge amount of spoken dialogue. It's mostly of good quality which is quite the surprise considering the games relatively small budget. All the traditional party banter is present and correct as well, which really helps flesh out their personalities and allows for some good laughs between the more dry lore bursts.
One of the best unexpected surprises to be found as you're questing is the choose your own adventure style sections. These are mini text adventures where you can do things such as climb rocks or break into sewers if you have the correct item in your possession. There's also situations where certain actions are available if your avatar has the correct stats. They're unfortunately few and far between with only a handful at the half way mark but they really add to the experience.
The fort, while not really a new idea, is an interesting addition to your overarching quest and actually acts as a high level dungeon as well as a hub for your companions. You can build it up with facilities as well as hire guards to protect the grounds when you're out in the field. Money in Pillars quickly becomes meaningless outside of these upgrades and upkeep costs, which is a shame but doesn't really impact the game in any great way.
Another pleasant surprise is the main characters ability to looks into NPCs soul's. These result in little stories about past lives that really add to the world's lore. The closest comparison I can think of is the 1000 years dream sections featured in the brilliant JRPG Lost Odyssey, complete with an equally rapturous level of writing. Indeed, all the text on show is a very high quality, which is fortuitous considering games like this live or die on this factor.
Niggles with Pillars of Eternity are few but strangle the worst by far is something just as prevalent in the classic Infinity Engine games: pathfinding. While admittedly I have been playing this game on easy, I spent way too much time in Baldurs Gate re-loading fights not to, the times I have been truly crushed in combat have been due to party members getting stuck on scenery or when they've had trouble actually getting into combat thanks to tight corridors.
Thankfully, when you have space, the combat tactical and satisfying. You will be punished for handling combat badly and while party members essentially have to be knocked down to zero health twice before they die, on top of a stamina system that adds an extra buffer, losing your team to an unexpectedly tough enemy when unprepared is not an unusual occurrence. Play it safe and save your spells for when you need them though and at least deaths won't feel cheap.
Questing is handled in what can only be described as a sensible manner after Dragon Age Inquisitions fractured zoning experiment. It's always in your best interest to explore a new area fully and hoover up every little nugget of content. There's comparatively little busy work in this game (at least compared to the amount of other content) so digging up little incidental flavour quests can be their own reward in terms of fun and immersion.
Pillars of Eternity represents what could be a revival of the role playing games of old, where story and dialogue were the key points of focus. This is something to be celebrated and this game sets a high standard for other titles that wish to follow in it's footsteps. While this title is purposely a throwback to a bygone era, it would be nice to see issues in those games not crop up this one. That point aside, Pillars of Eternity is a marvelous experience and comes highly recommended.