Man, life was hard in the middle ages. Especially when you have to give birth. In the snow. And your husband has no clue what to do. This is pretty much how useless I was playing as Tom Builder in the prologue of The Pillars of the Earth. Watching my wife bleed all over the ground, I finally had enough wits to hang a blanket off her knees and hope for the best.
Fortunately, the game didn’t make me play Tom forever. Based on Ken Follett’s novel of the same name, The Pillars of the Earth puts you in the shoes of some of the major characters. These include a monk named Philip of Gwynedd and Jack, a young boy who grew up in the forest. If you’ve seen the mini-series, Jack starts out quite a bit younger than his TV counterpart (Eddie Redmayne *sigh*). But I have high expectations that he’ll mature through the game when the subsequent episodes are released.
The game’s events centre around the building of a cathedral in the time of the Anarchy (12th Century). I’m a bit of a history nerd so I might have salivated a little with the injection of real historical events. One of the other great respects that I have for the story is that it doesn’t feel like Good Guy versus Bad Guy. Instead, it’s more like Bad Guy versus Other Bad Guy versus Grey Guy versus Kinda Good Guy. A bit like Game of Thrones except that we’re playing characters who are more down-to-earth. As a result, there’s less combat and more putting blankets on people’s knees. Actually …correction… there’s no combat, unless you count Jack slingshotting some deer. But if you like point-and-click, then you’re not really going to care because there’s tons of pointing and lots of clicking. And a few quickfire events that have you clicking buttons at just the right time, just to shake it up a little.
With Pillars being touted as an “interactive novel”, I have a feeling that this is the key that will divide people’s opinions. As a visual novel, the game has an atmospheric depth that brings the story to life. It’s beautiful and stunning and definitely a winner for those who hanker for the nostalgia of 2D animation. A standout scene for me is when Tom Builder is describing what his ideal cathedral would look like. I actually regretted not saving the game at that point because I just wanted to see it all again. But as a game, Pillars feels suspiciously linear. There were a few too many times where, faced with two choices, I’d go with one, only to have it double-back and lead me to what seemed like the other choice. Either that or there would seem to be no real consequence from my decisions. It would have been nice to know when a decision I made had a real impact (a la Life is Strange or Until Dawn) and I suspect that that would have really added to my enjoyment of the game.
The pacing also feels gratuitously slow in places. Some of the characters have giant pauses in between sentences that make you wonder if the game has actually frozen. But hey, after all, this is 12th Century life and once my 21st Century impatience settled down, it didn’t bother me as much. Just be ready for a nice gentle ride rather than a roller coaster of events.
Speaking of generational differences, if you didn’t catch it already, the game does a pretty honest job of bringing out the brutality of life in the middle ages. This comes out not only in birthing scenes but also in the crudeness of language and the representation of women. It’s a little jarring at times, considering how contrastingly beautiful the game is, but I don’t bring this out as a negative – just that you may not want to be playing this around family time.
“Book One: From the Ashes” is a pretty quick play…just under 6 hours for me. Fortunately, buying Book One means that you’ll have access to the subsequent two episodes when they’re released. I’m definitely looking forward to Book Two, particularly with the promise of playing Aliena, my favourite character both in the series and the game so far. Bring on the spunky female heroines!