It's like the Infinity Engine hasn't aged a day. If you were a teeanger 15 years ago, when legendary Infinity Engine games such as Baldur's Gate and Planescape Torment were redefining the computer RPG, Obsidian's Pillars of Eternity is probably exactly what you see in your mind's eye. In reality, those old pre-rendered backgrounds are now plasticky and microscopic on high-res monitors. Pillars of Eternity is how you remember those games looking: moodily lit, each isometric scene packed with evocative tiny details. And from the short demo I saw at E3 , Obsidian has done exactly what its 73,986 Kickstarter backers want: create a 1999 RPG with a 2014 graphical shine.
Obsidian showed off an introductory area of Pillars of Eternity, which opens with your character traveling through the Eastern Reach with a ragtag caravan. A few minutes in and the caravan is attacked, people die, and you lead a couple surviving companions through some nearby ruins. It was a short presentation, about 20 minutes of gameplay, that assumes some baseline knowledge of past Infinity Engine RPGs. Obsidian didn't spend time explaining the basics of isometric RPGs or digging into stats or classes or even showing off dialogue. Instead, they focused on what's new and different.
There are 11 classes in the game, but Obsidian focused on wizards, which have gotten a nice boost since the days of Baldur's Gate. "In the old Infinity Engine games, once you spent all of your spells, your wizard was kind of useless," said Brandon Adler, lead producer on Pillars of Eternity. "We wanted to avoid that, so one of the things we're doing is [giving wizards] rods and wands and they can shoot projectiles out of that and do a lot of damage." Wizards will start with a blast ability that will do AOE damage around the enemies they hit, which Adler said will be good for mopping up mobs.
Classes won't be restricted from using different weapons. A wizard, for example, could wade into battle with a sword, but stats would affect his skill with the weapon. He'd likely end up clumsily missing attacks until a monster gave him a good stabbing.
Obsidian skipped through most of the story in the demo, but I spotted the long blocks of dialogue, descriptive flavor text and multiple dialogue options that defined Infinity Engine RPGs. The big storytelling addition for Pillars are "scripted interactions" that play out like storybook sequences. Instead of animating small plot points in-engine, Obsidian paired illustrations with narrative text to tell short vignettes. The parchment background and flat presentation surprised me, at first, but I immediately liked it—it's a great callback to pen-and-paper RPGs more expressive than the engine's pulled-back isometric camera.
"Whenever we want to really emphasize something in the story we do one of these," said Adler. "It's very similar to [a choose your own adventure book]." One scripted interaction towards the end of the demo presented the party with a damaged stone wall. It was an ability check: with the right items or party skills, it was possible to break through the wall and take a shortcut.
I saw a few scripted interactions in the short 20 minute demo of Pillars, so I expect they'll be common in the full game. Pivotal story moments will still mostly be presented in-engine.
The last interesting mechanic Obsidian touched on was the disposition system, which works similarly to alignment in Baldur's Gate or Planescape. "You'll see diplomatic, honest, passionate," Adler pointed out at one point. " Depending on how you respond in various conversations, it'll track that throughout the game, and people will respond to you differently based on that. As an example, if I was to choose the cruel option and was a jerk to everyone, that'll get out ot the public at large at some point, and that'll change how people react to me. A priest may not want to deal with me because I'm cruel. Then again, somebody inside the village I'm dealing with will go 'I don't want to mess with that guy, so give him whatever he wants.' "
After the demo I got a few interesting details out of project lead Josh Sawyer. In the intro section I saw, it's possible (even likely) to have your two starter companions die or abandon you based on your decisions. The same goes for the rest of the companions you'll encounter throughout the game—they can die or leave your party, and it's theoretically possible (though extremely difficult) to fight through the entire game solo. Sawyer said no one at Obsidian had tried yet. If you do get all your companions killed or decide you don't like them, you'll be able to recruit other generic companions—they just won't have the fleshed-out personalities and story arcs of the eight companions Obsidian is focused on.
Pillars of Eternity is feature locked at this point and heading towards a beta phase, where quests and systems will be tweaked, art will be polished and bugs will be squashed. Backers will get their hands on a beta build of the game in the next few months before the final release in winter 2014.
Obsidian is intentionally keeping a shroud pulled over the story of Pillars of Eternity out of respect for backers who don't want to be spoiled. And everything rides on that story. Right now, Pillars of Eternity looks like the successor to some of the most legendary RPGs ever made. It just has to sound like one, too.
For much more on Pillars of Eternity, read our recent interview with Josh Sawyer covering classes, real-time combat, difficulty modes, and more.