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Can Obsidian's Pillars of Eternity revive a glorious dead genre?

By Rob Crossley on Friday 25th Jul 2014 at 1:19 PM UTC

If you never got round to playing those wonderfully niche Infinity Engine RPGs such as Baldur's Gate and Icewind Dale, it's pretty likely you don't understand the appeal.

This rich spate of cult classics, released at their peak between 1998 and 2002, brought the soul of tabletop RPGs onto desktops. They established their own sub-genre, resplendent in isometric 2D, and were adored by PC enthusiasts but have faced extinction in the modern age.

"In the early 2000s, publishers said they don't want isometric games any more. I never really saw any proof of that, they just told us," says Josh Sawyer, a games developer who helped build many of Interplay's Infinity Engine games.

Understandably, such games are intimidating to get into. There's the bible-sized lore to overcome, the bottomless pit of statistics, the weird nouns, the profoundly unfashionable tropes, the diligent pointing and clicking and turn-taking and grinding.

With these games you're either in or you're out, and in an age where immediacy and cinematic bombast have become borderline commercial necessities, a lot of publishers are out.

So why did Pillars of Eternity, a new spiritual successor to the Infinity Engine games, become one of the biggest funded Kickstarter projects ever? Why did it raise more than $4 million when the team was asking for a quarter of that? Well, it's because a lot of people are still in.

And who could blame them? Those 2D RPGs may require a tolerance of fantasy clichés, but residing at their core is inherently gripping game design. The secret sauce is your own creativity, and how these games toy with it so expertly.

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The character creation system gives players the chance to adjust race, sex and numerous attributes

I mean, who doesn't love assembling their own motley crew of questing adventurers? Raising these little fellas and embarking with them on journeys into the depths of ancient ruins, perfecting their skills and shaping them in your image, falling in love with them and observing their coming of age like a proud parent on prom night.

The hope is that these timeless values will return in Pillars of Eternity (née Project Eternity), developed by RPG specialists at Obsidian Entertainment and due for release later this year.

Hero craft

Creative thinking and freedom of expression are key values in Pillars of Eternity. The character creation system, at the game's outset, tasks players with immediately bringing their own ideas to the game.

"Our character creation engine is intended to be as deep and rich as the original Infinity Engine games, we want players to have a lot of options," says Sawyer during a hands-off demonstration.

Players start by choosing their hero's race and ethnicity. The typical ones are available, from humans to dwarves to elves, but a trio of new races has been added too.

The Aumaua are a dominant semi-aquatic race, the Orlans are a more feral version of halflings, and the Godlike are bizarre homosapiens blessed with extravagant and hideous body mutations.

"We wanted to make it very difficult to build a bad class. If someone has a very specific idea for what they want to create, they can see that through without creating a bad character"

"That's not a helmet," Sawyer says pointing to a Godlike character with a sharp crown of bone the height of Marge Simpson's beehive, "that's growing out of his head".

As well as selecting either male or female varieties of hero, players can choose from a mix of sub-races, which Sawyer promises won't just add cosmetic value.

Each Godlike ethnicity, for example, is based on a certain deity or celestial body, which informs their powers. A sub-race known as Death Godlike will give a team bloodlust when their enemies are low on health, while the Moon Godlike can radiate healing energy.

There's plenty of cosmetic options too, but not to the extent that are applied in games like Fallout 3, FIFA and WWE. You can't tweak nose type and eyebrow distance, sorry.

Instead, the depth and intricacies of character creation is reserved for the abilities editor, where players must balance six statistics: Might, dexterity, constitution, perception, intellect and resolve.

It is the alchemy of character, ethnicity and ability which best demonstrates the level of authorship players have over their minions. Sawyer says he wants to encourage experimentation, and hopes the team can balance character creation to the extent that there are qualities to be found even in the most reckless creations.

"If you want to build an idiot muscle mage or a clumsy thief, you can do it. You have to find ways to play to the strength of the characters, but you can't create bad ones. It's very good to support players' choices."

Each of the abilities can clash and complement each other too. The constitution skill, for example, affects long-term health, but with a strong might count will also bolster fortitude, which provides a resistance to poison and knock downs.

Sawyer explains that mixing skills with races also comes with benefits and trade-offs.

Dungeons are peppered with various puzzles that some characters will find easier than others

"Barbarians, for example, have limited-use abilities such as wild sprint and frenzy, but with a high might score and intellect, they can increase the range and duration of their attacks," he explains.

"We wanted to make it very difficult to build a bad class. If someone has a very specific idea for what they want to create, they can see that through without creating a bad character."

In true RPG fashion, abilities also spill into in-game benefits (a rogue with high mechanic skills can better detect traps, for example) as well as dialogue trees. But there's a catch.

"Just because you unlock a certain answer in a dialogue tree doesn't necessarily make it a better one," says Sawyer.

"That's something we used to do but now we want more of a dilemma. We want the player to read the situation better".

In the demo, our party leader is ambushed yet has enough inner-might to threaten his captor. This, in turn, triggers the captor to begin a battle, though not before getting a nasty cheap-shot in first. Perhaps a less direct approach would have been the smarter choice.

Old flames

Though Obsidian has crafted Pillars of Eternity to capture the spirit of Infinity Engine games of yesteryear, there's a deeper ambition than evoking nostalgia.

The project team (who have also worked on the likes of Fallout, Arcanum, Knights of the Old Republic 2, Planescape Torment and South Park: The Stick of Truth ) want to revive this esoteric sub-genre and secure its future.

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Sawyer said his dream outcome for Pillars of Eternity is simple: "I just want the backers to think that this is a worthy successor to the Infinity Engine games. If they believe that, then the other viable opportunities for success will follow. It would become a viable IP, meaning we could make more of them and take them in different directions."

There are some concerns, particularly that journalists haven't had a chance to play the game just months away from release.

Also the $4 million budget, while it broke records on Kickstarter, is still small by today's standards. The money constraints are noticeable, particularly with regards to the abridged voice acting (most dialogue is read-only) and the economic approach to cinematics (which use a storyboard of images instead of animated scenes).

But Obsidian doesn't want to boast modern video game features, nor does it necessarily need to. The objective here is to capture the magic of a long-lost genre, once loved by dedicated fans, and prove it still holds currency today. Judging by what we've seen so far, the isometric RPG genre could be on the cusp of revival.