I bought Pillars of Eternity in March, 2015, almost two years ago. Yesterday, I finally finished the game. This post is an examination of what I see as the flaws of the story.
I should note that Pillars is a very good game, especially if you like old school Baldur's Gate-style isometric party RPGs. In particular, you may find the elements which kept me from finishing the game attractive to you.
A World With No Triumphs
My first mistake with Pillars is that I like to play paladins. And Pillars is not a paladin-friendly game. The world is somewhat dark, and the game delights in giving you quests and situations where there are no good choices, and you're usually picking the least-bad choice.
For example, in Act II you have to ally with a faction. One faction is city knights, who are arbitrarily discriminatory (basically, your soul has to come from someone who fought for the right side in the country's war of independence), and who are creating an army of clockwork knights which they are going to imbue with human souls. The other factions are a bunch of thugs and vigilantes who you generally encounter beating up people you need to rescue, and the local crime syndicate.
I didn't want to ally with any of them, but the game forced me to choose one.
But the thing is that every quest in the game is like this. There are no unambiguous wins to be found, and no one who is likable, worth saving, or even worth caring about. Or if there are such people, you won't be able to help them in any way.
Event the one good thing you do in Act I, getting rid of the cruel local lord, is arbitrarily overwritten in Act III. The lord comes back from the dead and slaughters the people you left in charge. I was like, "Really?"
I found my reaction to this to be very similar to my reaction to books like Game of Thrones. After a point, I stopped caring, and ended up dropping the game for months at a time. This position, though, is a personal one. Lots of people like grim works, and if you like this kind of work, you'll enjoy Pillars. I don't care for overly hopeless works, and as a result I didn't like much of Pillars.
Ultimate Truths That Clash
The basic structure of Pillars goes something like this:
- In Act I, you learn that children in Dyrwood are being born without souls, called Waidwen's Legacy. It may be natural, it may be the result of the death of a god's avatar fifteen years earlier, or it may be the work of soul mages called animancers.
- In Act II, you learn that Waidwen's Legacy is being caused by a conspiracy called the Leaden Key, using ancient Engwithan technology. They are acting partially to discredit and end the study of animancy.
- In Act III, you learn that this is really a power-play among the gods, with one of them trying to usurp the other's powers. The different factions of the gods have different philosophies on how the problem is to be solved, and you have to ally with one of them.
- In Act IV, you learn that the gods were created long ago by the Engwithans, because they learned that there were no gods, and they feared what people unbound by faith would do.
The major problem of the last two Acts is that the two "layers" of knowledge don't really work with each other. For example, the final choice you make at the end of the game is based on the truths of Layer III, on the gods and their philosophies, and not on Layer IV.
The main villain, Thaos, is working to empower one of the gods with the stolen souls. This works with Layer III. But in Layer IV, Thaos is revealed to be the one originally created all the gods back in ancient times. It's never really explained why he now works to shatter his original vision. The Layer IV truth of Thaos is opposed to the Layer III truth of Thaos.
As well, if you have a game with a pantheon, there are two ways you can go. The gods can be an active, literal presence in the game. Or they can be mysterious beings that may or may not exist. Act III chooses one path, and Act IV chooses a different path. The whole question of whether the gods are real or not is somewhat pointless when your character has communicated with them, obtained their blessing, and has observed that they have dominion over their portfolios.
I think Pillars of Eternity would have been far better off if they had chosen one of the two final truths and discarded the other. Either the divine power-play, or the truth about the creation of the gods, could have worked. But both together simply don't. They conflict and create holes in each other.
A final point is that the last layer of truth in particular is very heavy on the "tell instead of showing". You find out about it mainly through conversations of a past life where the conflict between telling the truth about the gods or spreading their worship was more central. This adds to a basic feeling of unimportance around the last truth.
Pillars of Eternity has an interesting story. However, it was a little too dark, hopeless and "unlikeable" for me. As well, it has one "reveal" too many. The last reveal, rather than enhancing the story as whole, undermines and weakens the previous reveal, as well as the motivations and actions of the main villain.