Pillars of Eternity The game
PoE is exactly what you might expect: a real time with pause high-fantasy RPG heavily inspired by its predecessors.
Despite the immediately noticeable similarities with the past real time D&D adaptations for videogames, in my opinion both the character development and the combat system have been heavily revisited to better work with the media, substituting what didn't work well in the transition from tabletop RPG to software and making the whole much easier to manage (especially for newcomers, as the D&D games have always been much more forgiving for those who already knew the rulesets) while retaining a good complexity.
First of all, I particularly appreciated that this time everything is plainly exposed since the beginning: the game colors each mechanic related word in red whenever it makes an appearance, allowing you to always be able to visualize its description and explanation by moving the mouse cursor over it. This allows the players to clearly understand what they are doing, and it is a real godsend during character creation: building a reliable character at the first try is not a dream anymore, and you will not have to restart the game three or four times before finding the stat setting you need and overcome all the obscure peculiarities of each class (remember Baldur's Gate? How many of you wasted precious points without knowing that going above 16 CON was useful only for specialized combat classes?).
During the character selection screens, you will have to choose your race, background and one among the eleven classes,then assign a finite amount of points to the six different attributes, parameters that -along with levels, spells and items- will influence all the other derived statistics trough the entire course of the game and will very often unlock special conversation branches in dialogues when certain requirements are met.
Said attributes have been finally balanced to always have a real impact on the character and never represent “dump stats”: while it's always true that every class needs some attributes more than others, lowering one of the less useful to increase the most effective one is simply not an option, as the character would be so greatly weakened by this to become almost useless.
There are no arbitrary restrictions for equipment, and each character can train in the use of the instruments you think are more fitting for them. For example, mages are perfectly capable to cast spells while in full plate, hence resisting attackers while they charge their magic, yet this will come at the cost of slower actions.
The hit mechanics are easy to understand: each character has a certain accuracy value, which works universally for whatever action they are trying to accomplish; after the move starts, depending on its kind it must pass a check based on the four available types of defenses, namely deflection, will, fortitude and reflex. Once the gap between accuracy and defense values has been calculated, a dice is thrown to determine what will happen: the action may miss, work normally, have a critical effect or simply graze the target with a reduced effect based on the number you score.
In PoE, each character has both an endurance parameter and a much higher health bar; once a hit connects, half of the damage goes to one and half to the other. When characters run out of endurance, they are knocked out for the rest of the fight -unless a spell brings them back to their senses- but when their health reaches 0, they are either maimed or permanently killed.
Abilities and spells can be either uses a finite number of times per encounter or per rest; along with the health/endurance system, this serves to limit the player's resources without forcing him to rest after every single fight (as it was in Neverwinter Nights).
While playing on hard I found the combat to be always fair and satisfyingly challenging, and the game usually avoids trash mobs, concentrating instead on the quality rather than to the quantity of the encounters. Also, killing monsters does not provide experience, so in several missions you can even try to sneak your way past annoying enemies that will only tire your party before a real fight without providing any significant loot.
There is only a single exception to this, an optional boss encounter so badly designed and utterly imbalanced to feel even more unfair than special bosses in JRPGs... and apparently unbeatable without a festival of cheese running. Luckily, a part from this there is no reason to complain for the solid combat.
For what concerns the classes, I'm glad to say that Obsidian followed the same philosophy of the rest of the game, making them as varied as possible. Even if they can still be divided in the classic melee/ranged/magic department, not a single class has elements in common with another and all of them works perfectly. Graphics, lore and sounds
Pillars of Eternity uses 3D models for characters and 2D hand drawn screens for maps.
Let's be fair: visuals of this kind couldn't get much better than this. Not only the entire game runs in 1080p (a rarity, in the non-AAA scene), but each area has its own peculiar style and it is filled with a huge amount of details; when zooming in or out, you will always notice the effort the developers put in their making.
While I would have preferred to see sprites for characters (though I can certainly understand the enormous cost of such a feature), the 3D model are still of great quality, not only showing in high detail each piece of equipment but also moving smoothly with many animations (potentially, if you have an adequate PC) running at very high FPS, finally abandoning once and for all the clunky movements of the IE games.
The soundtrack is also fitting for every situation -though a few tracks stand out more than others- and the sound effects department is varied enough to seem natural.
The narrative is centered on the concept of religion and all of its connection with “common mortals”; you start as a newcomer in the land of Dyrwood, a turbulent land known for its independence and for its proud but unruly and often unnecessarily violent inhabitants, but for unknown reasons you will soon become a Watcher, a person who can interact with lost spirits and read through the souls of people, recalling their previous lives as if they were your own... slowly risking to lose sanity in the process, confusing yourself with others and present with past. This will lead you to a journey to discover why this happened to you, how you can avoid a tragic fate and why you seem to have stumbled in a plot much bigger than you could have ever imagined.
In the beginning, the lore can be a little overwhelming: each character describes events of which you don't have the slightest idea about as if they were common knowledge, and while everything will be explained soon after you have first heard about it, the quantity of information can be so massive to leave you a bit disoriented during the first hours of play.
Regardless of this, as in every Obsidian title both the plot and the main characters are always masterfully written (even if a few companions are an inch above some others, Kana Rua, Durance and The Grieving Mother being in my opinion the best) and represent a very strong point of the whole.
Other than the major questline, there are plenty of other minor sub-quests; the majority of them is very interesting in its own right, yet unfortunately they have little to no impact over the main course of the narrative, remaining self-contained little stories separated form each others, much unlike in The Witcher series; this is certainly not a low point of the game, but it consistently lowers the replayability, as you can always see (or, at least, imagine or deduce) the effects of what you are doing in the moment you take a decision. The bad?
Aside from a graphic engine that handles very badly crowded situations (luckily in very few areas, mostly parts of the bigger towns with the highest amount of npcs, with a major drop in the framerate), there is really nothing that could be called “bad”: PoE has great RPG mechanics, one of the the most comfortable interfaces in the genre, a good story with solid characters and probably the best looks of any 2D game to date.
As stated by the developers, the few remaining problems (namely the group stealth mode and the absence of a companion AI, forcing you to always target enemies manually) will be addressed with the upcoming patch, so they should not be counted.
Then, where could it be criticized?
In my opinion, the problem is definitely not in what PoE is, but in what it could have been.
The game is the first Obsidian developed title to be completely free by external influences, and that should have pushed the creativity of a group of people renowned for their weird stories, deconstructions of clichès and unconventional setting. Yet, we have a game as classic as it can get, with no innovation under any aspect. It is very strange to see a company that always dared to push itself as far as possible -sometimes, even charging itself with consistent risks for their gambles- suddenly turning conservative just when they are more free than ever.
Summarizing, Pillars of Eternity is an excellent game that meets and surpasses the genre's standards, leagues ahead of its sources of inspiration (the much praised Baludr's Gate 2 above all) and undoubtedly a must buy for everyone who loved the Infinity Engine games, a title combining an unmatched quality in “rtwp” RPG combat with a strong narrative... yet, it leaves a bit of bitterness when thinking of how much more it could have been, if only it dared to risk a “Mask of the Betrayer” approach.