The Pillars of the Earth is a tough game to categorise, being that it is quite simply an interactive novel. The game is based on Ken Follett’s best selling book of the same title, which is a story that spans one thousand pages in total. With that in mind, Daedalic Entertainment will be releasing The Pillars of the Earth via an episodic format, with three episodes planned for release. There’s no question about it, this game will not be for everyone. It’s a very particular game that tells a very particular story (or part of), but if you fancy yourself a solid tale that’s well written and excellently presented, The Pillars of the Earth is one you shouldn’t overlook.
First and foremost, The Pillars of the Earth is a very deep experience. It deals with a plethora of issues and sensitive topics, such as the abandonment of a baby, religion, family feuds, and more. Gameplay typically consists of character growth and player choice. This episode introduces us to three main characters, Prior Philip the monk, Tom Builder the builder (didn’t see that coming, eh?), and finally Tom, a young man that was raised in the forest by his caring mother, Ellen. We also get a slight glimpse of Aliena, who is the daughter of a humiliated nobleman. All of these characters as well as their stories, slowly intersect with the core arc of The Pillars of the Earth, so as you can imagine, episode one wastes no time in setting that into motion.
Starting with Tom, who has the life goal of building a cathedral, we witness that he’s not in the best of states. Him and his family are out in the cold wild, lacking both food and water. Tom’s heavily pregnant wife goes into labour and after giving birth, sadly passes away due to a haemorrhage. It’s a very touching and mature scene, but one that Daedalic have handled extraordinarily well. We’re then sent to meet Philip as he sets off to visit Kingsbridge, a close-by priory. Upon his visit he witnesses the place in near ruin, having learned that the previous prior had recently passed away. On top of this, his politically inclined brother Francis has him questioning his own morals, which understandably puts a lot of strain on poor Philip.
This then leads us onto Jack, who serves as the thread that weaves these characters together. Jack bumps into Tom and his family and helps them track down Francis, who just so happens to have stumbled upon Tom’s deserted baby. The story goes one notch further when all three of the main characters meet up, which truly sets the plot into motion. With this being so heavily story based, we’ll leave the rest up in the air for you to discover. What I will say is that what follows is every bit as intriguing as I imagine the book is. I admittedly haven’t read the book, so I cant touch upon how faithful the game is to it. Thankfully you don’t have to have read the book to follow the story in the game, as everything is explained to you in detail. You can also go off the beaten path and talk to optional bystanders for additional information which is an added bonus.
In terms of choices you can make and the consequences or dialogue that follows, I’ll say this, The Pillars of the Earth seems to do it better than any Telltale game I’ve played as of late. You can make a minor screw up and feel the discontent of people around you, or you can make deeper choices later on which will directly affect how the story moves. With two episodes to follow, it will be interesting to see if these choices impact the ending of the story, if so, fans of the book should find some interesting scenarios to toy around with. Going back to the gameplay, that’s a pretty loose term for The Pillars of the Earth, being that there’s very little (if any) “play” involved.
Gameplay as already alluded to, consists of moving from one scene to the next as you engage with characters and objects. There’s always an occasional hint that overhangs to gently nudge you in the right direction, but for the most part, you can take this at your own pace. There are puzzle aspects of play but much like King’s Quest, all you need to do is pay close attention to your surroundings and use some common sense. Almost every item you pick up can be used for something, so it helps to be particularly aware of that as you fulfil tasks for other characters. On the flip side you can’t really fail any of these set tasks, but most unfulfilled tasks will result in a slight consequence later on.
I do have two gripes with the game, albeit they’re quite minor. First of which is the animation of the characters over the background environments, they stick out like a sore thumb. It’s something that you do learn to gel with as you get deeper into the game, but the poor transition of the two is more than obvious. My second issue is with the odd behaviour of your control over the characters. Several times did I try to engage with someone or something, for my character to disregard my command and walk around in circles before following through with the prompt. Sure, these are hardly game breaking problems, but I would be remiss if I didn’t at least point them out.
It has to be said however that with those issues to the side, The Pillars of the Earth looks gorgeous. There’s a great level of detail and care that has gone into the experience. Everything has been hand-drawn and the environments differ from one another wonderfully, ensuring that you’re constantly treated to new surroundings. This is all held together by some stellar voice acting, which really helps to set the tone of the game. Again, I don’t think this game is going to be for everyone, but if you enjoy a good tale that tackles some very adult themes, The Pillars of the Earth wont let you down. Furthermore, it’s a great starting point for what lies ahead.
The Pillars of the Earth is an excellent start to a three part story, but it’s not going to please everyone due to its simplistic (almost non-existent) gameplay. The three main characters are well struck and the entire experience is voiced perfectly. This is all tethered to some brilliantly hand-drawn art that pushes forward a decent amount of variety. I did find issues with the animation, meaning that the characters seem to stick out too much over the backdrop, as well as some problems with my character not following my commands, but in the grand scheme of things, these are small problems to endure. The story is interesting enough and certainly has me eagerly awaiting the follow-on episodes, and I’m quite excited to see how the vast amount of choice plays out through the entire game in regards to consequence and direction. Puzzles are fairly easy and lack structure, being that all you need to do is pay close attention to your tasks and items, much like King’s Quest. In any case, it’s a solid entry nevertheless and easily a game you should at least consider looking into.
This game was tested and reviewed on Xbox One. All of the opinions and insights here are subject to that version.