Before anything else, I had my rag-tag band of adventurers make an anxious beeline for the smithy in this brief beta build of Obsidian’s Kickstarter-funded RPG. One question – the most important single question I had about the game – needed an answer. An answer that would either shatter or galvanise my high hopes for Pillars of Eternity.

If you right click on a magical item in your inventory does the game display a little blurb about the item and a brief biography of its prior owners?

The answer is “yes”. And really, it’s that attitude that always made the Infinity Engine RPGs so enchanting. Attention to detail, and an unmatched respect for comprehensive world-building made Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale, and Planescape: Torment feel truly epic in a way that other RPGs have struggled to surpass, even with modern day production values.

Pillars of Eternity hands-on
Pillars of Eternity hands-on

This preview drops players, without context, into the outskirts of a quaint fantasy village. After the creation of a single playable character, the rest of the party is automatically populated by stock classes. Mage. Thief. Stocky dwarven fighter. The character creation system seems near-overwhelming. But as a fan of Bioware’s early games it is an incredibly comforting type of overwhelming.

In classic Infinity Engine RPGs, strength was the only attribute that it made sense to pour points into for a fighting character. Priests needed to have wisdom or they would be totally ineffective, and so on. Obsidian brags that any character class will function, at least adequately, with any combination of attributes in Pillars of Eternity.

A high-intelligence barbarian, for example, will do larger amounts of area-of-effect damage. One imagines a bloodthirsty warrior that fights with the passion and fury of a barbarian, but in a fluid, intelligent way, dipping and weaving between key targets.

I elected to spec out a druid with high strength, dexterity, and constitution. The theory was that the shapeshifted form of the druid, a mighty stag, would be a foreboding foe, goring monsters with its great antlers. Whether or not this system works and is adequately balanced is impossible to determine without playing the completed game. If it does, it will be incredibly freeing and compelling to experiment with.

The combat itself is similarly overwhelming. Instead of picking a couple of spells to memorise, every level 3 spell is available to cast at level 3, but only, say, four level 3 spells can be cast per day. And there are dozens of unique spell effects and dozens of different enemy types in this build alone.

Pillars of Eternity hands-on
Pillars of Eternity hands-on

All the old favourites are here: charm animal, fireball, web, flaming sword. Even magic missile exists as a simple damage-dealing level one invocation – albeit under a different name. Again, the number of strategies this combat system will ultimately afford is huge. It isn’t a foregone conclusion that Obsidian will be able to balance these spells so that a few are not grossly overpowered while others are woefully ineffective. However, if they pull it off, this will be a deeply rewarding experience.

In Skyrim, the bread-and-butter of a level 3 hero is fighting draugr in a cave and dragons in the skies. The bread-and-butter of a level 35 hero is fighting draugr in a cave and skelton-dragons in the skies. In Baldur’s Gate 2, a level 7 character battled illusory werewolves in an Arabian-style circus tent conjured by a jealous gnome. A level 10 character battled a serial killer who offered a powerful, magical set of leather armour made of human flesh in exchange for his life. A level 13 character dueled with tremendous iron golems in a dimension traversing metal sphere created by a terminally-ill wizard.

I won’t spoil the preview, as the quest it contains is compelling. The dungeon that acts as its centerpiece is as thematically and aesthetically interesting as I would expect from a game that functions as a love letter to Infinity Engine enthusiasts. The quest itself is wonderfully morally ambiguous, and doesn’t provide any real rewards for morally right or wrong answers. The writing is absolutely top-notch, and the voice acting lives up to it.

Pillars of Eternity hands-on
Pillars of Eternity hands-on

Pillars of Eternity, as a prospect, has nearly limitless potential. We can’t yet know the full extent of the lore of the world, nor does this preview reveal any of the dialogue of the secondary recruitable characters. We also cannot know the true breadth of dungeons and outdoor environments.

Nonetheless, it’s an extraordinarily exciting release to look forward to in 2015 thanks to the richness of its systems, its writing, and its environments. That same richness is what makes Pillars terrifying in equal measure.

The more a developer attempts, the more numerous the opportunities for failure. Of the only four or five quests present in this early build, the game bugged and wouldn’t let me complete one. I often had trouble looting bodies. The game would occasionally crash multiple times in a row when I tried to load into a new area.

All this, during play of a tiny slice of a much larger game. The fact that it doesn’t function comfortably is not a wonderful omen for the finished game. Compounding my concern is Obsidian’s reputation for releasing buggy games. The idea that a game like Pillars that could be a monolith of all-encompassing brilliance might be bogged down by technical issues is absolutely heartbreaking just to think about. Yep, it’s looking that good.

Pillars of Eternity is out on Windows PC, Mac, and Linux in “early 2015”.