Saturday, April 25, 2015

#87: Pillars of Eternity: New Solutions to Old Problems

On numerous occasions, I have cited a dislike of most of the old Infinity Engine RPGs. In particular, Baldur's Gate and its sequel were not very enjoyable. If not for my prior experience with their contemporaries, like Planescape: Torment and the early Fallout games, it would have been extremely tempting to swear myself off of the genre entirely. However, the recent renaissance of cRPGs, from Shadowrun Returns and Wasteland 2 to the upcoming Torment: Tides of Numeria, has brought a new perspective. Recently, Obsidian released Pillars of Eternity, which used those classics as inspiration. In doing so, it highlights many of their problems and proposes some interesting solutions to solving them.

The most obvious improvements Pillars of Eternity made to the systems of its predecessors are in the UI. None of them are major changes, but they all fix some of the more legendary problems that Baldur's Gate and its sequel were notorious for. For example, almost anyone who played those games will recoil in horror if one tells them that “you must gather your party before venturing forth.” Because of how slow characters moved, players could spend upwards to several minutes getting every single member of their group to the exit so that they can transition to the next area. Though that may not seem like a lot of time, when compounded over the sheer number of area changes, it is possible to spend hours in in-game time just waiting for the party to get into position. Should enemies still remain on the map, it will even be necessary to manually guide the party to the exit, else they will accidentally walk straight into battles, further slowing process down. The sheer tediousness of this exercise was, at my most charitable, mind-numbing to the extreme.
Pillars of Eternity fixes this issue in two ways. Although it stills used the memetic phrase, the game will automatically begin the process of bringing every party member to the point of transition the moment the player attempts to move to the next location, saving them from tediously selecting each member and moving them manually. On top of that, there is a “fast-movement” mode players can enable to accelerate the flow of time, minimizing the real-world wait for the party to gather. Though this is far from the only example of such improvements, it serves as a good demonstration of how Pillars of Eternity opted to do more than just reiterate old mechanics without considering how they may be improved.

Another major difference between Baldur's Gate and Pillars of Eternity was in the fighting. Back in the old days, Baldur's Gate utilized a Real Time with Pause combat system. This meant that characters theoretically acted in real time, requiring players to pause the action in order to coordinate tactics, but upon closer inspection reveals this is not entirely true. Though allies and enemies will only act with the passage of time, in truth the game utilizes turn-based mechanics under the hood. During long, protracted fights, I began to notice that my party and the opposition were repeated launching spells and attacks in the same order, no unit acting while another was in the middle of their own move. Baldur's Gate 2 makes this even more obvious by giving players the option to auto-pause the game after each round of combat.
In terms of play, this uncomfortable blend of turn-based play and real time combat offers the worse of both worlds. Turn-based mechanics work because they allow players to take their time and make meaningful, tactical decisions. Without the threat of enemies attacking, it is possible to better consider all possible options before the enemy gets their turn. On the other hand, real time systems focus on the moment-to-moment action. These systems are often built to test quick-thinking and reflex, the goal being to make smart decisions and act on them swiftly. Tactics are important, but they not as strongly emphasized.
With the way Baldur's Gate combined the aspects of these two design philosophies, players have the slow speed of a turn-based game with the need to reflexively, quickly pause after every single action in order to avoid giving away any advantage. Many time in the game, I found that if I did not pause after an enemy attack, my cleric might either launch a low-damage attack, or worst, do nothing at all. When several characters require immediate healing, this often spelled the difference between success and failure.
Pillars of Eternity fixes this in two ways. Instead of a rigid turn/round system, the game relies on cooldowns between attacks. Characters with lighter equipment and/or greater speed will be able to act faster and more frequently than their slower counterparts. Not only does this make party and equipment setups more interesting, but it solves the problem where players are using real time thinking and reflexes on a fundamentally turn-based system. An extremely robust array of auto-pause options also serves to benefit this system. By enabling them, players can force the game to pause on specific events like one character finishing an ability, getting low on health, or even something as simple as the start of a battle. As a result, players can rely on the game handling that aspect on its own, meaning they can focus on the action without having a thumb over the Space Bar at all times.

The balance of short-term versus long-term resource management is also different between the two games. As is the case with most RPGs, Baldur's Gate gives each character a set number of hit points. Once those hit points reach zero, they are killed unless a resurrection spell brings them back to life. In order to recover from damage, players could either use healing magic, or allocate time to resting in a place where no enemies are lurking. Theoretically, this meant that players could spend as much time as they wanted in the wilderness, before heading back into town. So long as they continuously found safe locations, or cleared out areas, any health could simply be recovered by resting. The only potential long-term consequences to doing so are inventory space and party member death. Because of this, battles were either be a total blowout or extreme tough, without any middle ground. Whenever one of those tough battles is finished, resting also became the only logical option so that the party can recover.
Pillars of Eternity uses a different system. Each party member has two pools which get used in battle. Like any other game, each character has health, with represents long-term damage. However, Endurance is another statistic that comes into play. Acting as a shield of sorts, Endurance will soak up most, but not all, of the damage during a fight and is restored at the end of a battle. Should it ever reach zero, the character is knocked out, unable to participate in the fight any longer. Should their health instead drop to zero, they are permanently killed off. This allowed Obsidian to balance each fight so that it will pose a good challenge to a reasonably-leveled party, while also limiting the overall impact of any single engagement on the player's long-term survivability.
Health is completely restored on rest, just like in Baldur's Gate. However, this is balanced by the fact that resting outside of an inn costs a camping set. At any given time, only six camping sets can be in the player's inventory, meaning that their supply will always be limited. The difficulty is in balancing the desire to travel around and complete quests with the necessity to conserve supplies and visit town in order to restock. After fighting a series of battles, finding that the party is tired, health running low, the game always tempts the player to see if they willing to go for one more battle without rest in order to best conserve their inventory. Unlike Baldur's Gate, the decision of when to rest and when not to rest becomes just as much of a tactical choice then anything other combat-related decision.

Pillars of Eternity is not just a loving tribute to Baldur's Gate. Rather, it is a modern take on the game design principles inherent to the old school cRPGs of that era. Given this lens, it is easy to see how Obsidian was able to improve upon those old systems and create something new from them. I am happy this genre is making a comeback. With all that has been learned in the time since the era of Baldur's Gate, there is huge potential for this genre to develop more than it ever could have in its heyday.


Aldowyn said...

Huh, Disqus seems to think I have my old twitter avatar? Ah well.

Anyways, I definitely agree with basically all of this. Not exactly controversial to say that Baldur's Gate's UI was terrible. The bits about the combat are worth discussing, though - I particularly think your point about allowing engagements to be balanced differently due to the health/endurance system was spot on.

Lots of things like that make this game feel more like it was designed to be a video game instead of hacking a system fundamentally designed for tabletop to kinda-sorta-not-really work on a computer. I played on easy for the most part, so I didn't exactly dive deep into the tactics of the combat, but it seems pretty well done, if not totally free of the micro-management nature almost inherent to the genre. Certainly enjoyed playing my cipher!

newdarkcloud said...

I'm actually kinda glad that I didn't play as a Cipher because otherwise I might not have added the Grieving Widow to my party.

If I ever play the game again, I think I'll try one of the classes that no party member ever gets, like a Monk or a Rogue.