Pillars of Eternity – Preview: Hallelujah for Classic Isometric RPGs


Baldur’s Gate. Icewind Dale. Planescape: Torment. Fallout.

If you played those wonderful isometric RPGs back in the late ’90s and early aughts, then you should get a slight chill down your spine remembering some amazingly immersive gameplay that still holds many of us old-school role-players in its captivating grasp. While there have been many great RPGs released since then, these older games represent our first computer kiss with the genre and that memory sits embedded in our consciousness.

That’s probably why the Kickstarters for Pillars of Eternity, Wasteland 2, and Torment: Tides of Numenera were so incredibly successful. We missed our first love. We wanted it back, and finally, thanks to developers Obsidian Entertainment and InXile, we got our wish.

It is why I was so excited to walk into the Paradox Entertainment booth behind closed doors at E3 to get a first public viewing of Pillars of Eternity. Obsidian is made up of old Black Isle folks, who crafted Icewind Dale and were part of Interplay during the Baldur’s Gate and Torment days. Guys like Chris Avellone, Josh Sawyer, Feargus Urquhart and Tim Cain understand the old-school isometric system and what made the old games great. And while many of us remember those old fantasy titles as being part of the Dungeons & Dragons system and world, Pillars is forging ahead without Wizards of the Coast to create its own unique IP, complete with lore, bestiary, races, classes, and gameplay system.

“We definitely took our inspiration from D&D, especially the 3rd and 4th editions,” said Pillars producer Adam Brennecke, “but the new rules sytem was designed with a computer RPG in mind, not a tabletop session. Every character will have their own personal round timer based on their stats and the weapons they are using.”


The short demo was impressive, and immediately upon seeing the opening sequence, memories of Baldur’s Gate came flooding back. While the isometric view was part of that, the art and Infinity-engine style – down to the movement cursor and colored circles around characters and enemies – was strikingly similar, and that’s not a bad thing.

The story, or as much as we got of it, begins with your character joining a caravan, which eventually stops for the night. When a runner sent out to get supplies fails to return, you and a companion are sent to find him. You find him dead, which gives you pause to check the safety of the caravan, but you return to find almost all of them dead as well. The caravan quartermaster still lives and he joins your party.

That brief snippet of story showed off a bit of the new Pillars rule system for classes, which doesn’t confine a class to specific weapons or armor types. We saw a mage in heavy armor still casting spells unencumbered. We also got a bit of insight into the character creation process, and how a character can evolve during gameplay.

“You will have an opportunity to use some of your skills in dialogue as well as combat,” Brennecke said. “The answers you give can change your reputation with people and be save as part of your character’s history.”

Players will be able to choose from 11 classes. There will be traditional roles such as Fighter, Druid, Barbarian, Monk, Priest, Ranger, Paladin, Rogue and Wizard, but also two somewhat novel classes called the Chanter and Cipher. The Chanter is similar to a bard, but instead of songs, it can rearrange the phrases of chants to provide different effects in battle. The Cipher uses mind and soul energy to control people around him, similar to psionics.

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There are also five races: Traditional Dwarves, Elves and Humans, as well as the semi-aquatic Aumaua, and the furry large-eared Orlans. A sixth “race,” known as the Godlike, are actually one of the five other races, but with a special manifestation lending itself to nature, fire, death and earth (among others). Brennecke said that these godlike have been blessed by the deities and that they can modify an existing race. So there can be a Dwarf Godlike that looks like a pudgy demon with fire attributes and visage. He added, however, that any attributes of the Godlike would supersede the attributes of the given race.

A full party will consist of six members, but Rangers can have pets, and some party members can have companions. Players can explore virtually any area of the world and rest anywhere. However, a twist to resting in the wilderness requires the party to have camping supplies, which can be found as loot in dungeons or off dead monsters or NPCs. The harder the difficulty setting, the more limited the camping supplies that can be found.


While a lot of effort went into the races and classes – and the various attributes and skills associated with them – perhaps the most effort has gone into creating the world, the lore and the game’s bestiary. “We spent a lot of upfront time to create the monsters and the lore,” Brennecke said. “A lot of the world building was part of the pre-production. We even created languages for the races that became part of our rule set.”

In the old RPGs based on D&D rules, players familiar with the tabletop experience could identify a monster the minute it appeared in the game, usually able to spout abilities, immunities and modifiers with ease. However, the monsters in Pillars of Eternity will be all new and created from scratch. Abilities won’t be known until players encounter them for the first time, but once encountered, the creatures will be added to the player’s bestiary for later reference if encountered again, Brennecke said. And if a monster displays a new ability later in the game in a separate encounter, that will be tacked on to the bestiary entry for that creature.

The game is currently in alpha, with all maps done and all content currently in the game. The narrative team is in the final stages of fleshing out companions and the finishing touches are being placed on the game’s two large cities, player strongholds and numerous dungeons. Oh, and let’s not forget the 15-level mega dungeon that only got bigger with the more Kickstarter donations and stretch goals that were achieved.

If you were one of the backers of the project, then you have probably been keeping up with Obsidian’s frequent updates on the game. However, while Brennecke was excited to show off what they have at E3, he said the company walks a fine line with what they show publicly and letting supporters play what we saw. “We want to do more polish before we show the backers,” he said. “We’ll also show off other game play to the backers that has no spoilers. But backers can expect a beta later in the summer.” He added that backers will get an update on the Kickstarter page after the show with more screenshots and details.

Backer or not, the game is expected to be released later this year for PC, Mac and Linux. As for me, I can’t wait to get my hands on the alpha in the next few months.

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