The Pillars of the Earth Review

By Kelly Packard, 1 month ago
When Daedalic Entertainment announced The Pillars of the Earth, a game based on Ken Follett's 1,000-page novel of the same name, the overall sentiment of players was "Why?" Pillars is a best-selling tale that is considered to be a modern classic, but those familiar with the book questioned how well a work of historical fiction about 12th century conflicts between the church and state would translate to the video game medium.

It's a fair question, but thankfully Daedalic have not made Pillars a first-person shooter. It's not an RPG. It's not a MOBA. It's not a card-collecting game. It's an interactive novel, so they have simply converted Pillars from one type of novel to another. But "simply" is the wrong word to use — it's clear this has been a labor of love, one that took a great deal of effort and was far from "simple" — and they've done an excellent job with the task at hand.

The Pillars of the Earth

Pillars is being released in episodic format. Its 1,000 pages will be divided into three parts, of which this is only the first. The first episode introduces monk Prior Philip as he visits Kingsbridge, a nearby priory that is down on its luck. There is also Tom Builder, whose life revolves around his desire to one day build a cathedral. Then there are Jack and Ellen, a mother and son who live deep in the forest, away from people. Also briefly introduced is Aliena, the daughter of a disgraced nobleman. Of course, all their lives will intersect or we wouldn't have much of a story, would we? It's all set to the backdrop of the members of the church interfering with politics, politicians wanting their hand in the church and some brothers yearning for more prestige or money than their religious profession offers.

Games that have their roots in historical time periods often center around action, excitement, bloodshed and battles. Pillars has plenty of battles, but most of them aren't fought with sword and shield. Its tools of destruction are intrigue, persuasion, back-stabbing, hidden motives and under-the-table deals. It's a mature story and a younger audience will probably find it downright boring. For those willing to look past its supposedly "boring" subject matter, however, it's an intriguing, well-told story with many facets to it.

It should also be noted that I have never read the book and I was captivated by the tale nonetheless. Surely much had to be cut out, or even watered down, to convert a 1,000-page book into a coherent video game, but I was never confused or felt like there was something going on that had not been explained to me. In short, you don't need to be familiar with the book to tackle the Pillars video game. There is also much to do outside of progressing the story. You can talk to people you don't need to talk to and they'll let you in on additional details, expanding the rich tale. There are secrets to be found all over the world. You can fail or succeed at tasks — say, cooking dinner — and it will have minor outcomes on dialogue or events. There are also heavier choices you can make that will affect how the game plays, which means it will allow you to do something that did not happen in the book, and those who have read it will find it interesting to spin the story in a different way.

Out in the forest alone. What could go wrong?Out in the forest alone. What could go wrong?

It's also beautifully presented. As an interactive novel, it's designed as a familiar point-and-click where you'll travel screen to screen. Each backdrop, of which there will be more than 200 once all three parts are complete, is hand-drawn. The backgrounds are wildly different. Some are close-ups of rooms; others are large set pieces of bigger towns and cities. It's never the same image re-skinned. They do a fine job of helping you picture the setting and characters as though you were there. Every line — there must be thousands overall — is voice acted, a feature that often gets cut out or overlooked in lower-budget games. While I could have easily skipped through the dialogue and read it at a faster pace than it was read aloud, I found myself preferring to listen to the convincing voice actors play out the scene. Pillars was announced nearly three years ago and it's easy to see why this ambitious endeavor took so long.

As for the gameplay, it's nearly nonexistent, but that's a good thing. As you move through each screen, you'll chat with other characters and interact with objects. The game is not trying to trick you. Your objective is written on-screen and talking with people or selecting the wrong object will prompt hints to guide you in the right direction. This is the right approach to a game like Pillars. Too many times have games with excellent stories — take Dreamfall Chapters — been bogged down by confusing puzzles, attempting to create a gameplay aspect that was not needed, when they should have just told a story. Pillars is all story and no fluff.

Playing Pillars handles well outside of some strange animation interactions. For example, you'll interact with something that is directly next to you only to have the character walk all the way around the other way and come back to the same spot before doing what you asked. There are also a couple parts where the pathing seems odd; for example, it looks like you can travel one way but then it turns into an unexpected dead end and you'll have to walk all the way back. It would be better if there was some type of invisible barrier that was introduced much sooner. That way you'd know you weren't supposed to go there before heading too far in the wrong direction.

If this empty place doesn't look ominous,<br/> I don't know what doesIf this empty place doesn't look ominous,
I don't know what does

The achievement list is about what you'd expect for an interactive novel. There are achievements for progressing through the plot, making specific dialogue choices or interacting with characters in different ways. It should be a simple completion. The game allows you to save anywhere and it's advised that players make plenty of saves throughout Pillars' many locations. This will allow you to return to any specific areas to mop up achievements after you've finished with the episode.

Summary

The Pillars of the Earth isn't your typical video game; it's an interactive novel that weaves a rich and intriguing story. Developer Daedalic Entertainment has cast aside annoying gameplay tropes often found in point-and-clicks to create an experience that allows the player to focus solely on the narrative. Aside from occasional pathing problems, there isn't much to complain about here. The developers have gone to great lengths to give Pillars the beautiful presentation it deserves, creating a rich world and atmosphere. Each background is painstakingly hand-drawn and every line has been given life through voice acting. Only the first of three episodes has been released, and if the other two carry on in the same tune, there are more good things on the horizon for both diehard Pillars of the Earth fans and newcomers looking for a well-told tale.
4 / 5
Positives
  • Captivating story
  • Gameplay, or lack thereof, is welcome for this style of game
  • Richly-created world with beautiful, hand-drawn backdrops
  • Entirely voice acted
Negatives
  • Occasional hiccups in pathing
Ethics Statement
The reviewer spent five hours playing The Pillars of the Earth, earning 18 achievements along the way for 885 gamerscore. An Xbox One review code was provided by the publisher for the purpose of this review.
Kelly Packard
Written by Kelly Packard
In a few descriptors: college student, longtime gamer, writer and junk food enthusiast. I am currently contributing to TrueAchievements as a news writer and reviewer. Usually you can find me knee-deep in a multiplayer game while ignoring my growing backlog or on one forum or another discussing all things gaming.