Now Daedalic Entertainment has adapted the tale of twelfth-century political intrigue as a video game. Surprisingly, little depth is lost in this unique adventure.
A cold and dark period of history
The Pillars of the Earth is a traditional point-and-click adventure game based on the 1989 novel of the same name. Regarded as a modern classic, the book was previously adapted as a star-studded eight-episode TV miniseries in 2010.
The videogame version adopts a unique semi-episodic release approach. It consists of three episodes, each dealing with seven chapters from the book. As of press time, only the first episode is available – but the subsequent two parts will be included in the initial $40 purchase. So basically, you're getting an episodic game, but the only option is to pay for the whole thing up front. Luckily, it's a compelling game for fans of historical drama and intrigue.
The game begins with a prologue set in the year 1123. In this introduction, we play as Tom Builder, an architect who travels with his family through the cold forests of southern England on his way to a potential job. Tom's dream is to build a shining cathedral, if only he could find someone to commission the work.
As the family settles down in the forest for the night, his wife suddenly goes into childbirth. Players must help her through the birth, directing the other two children to fetch materials and consoling the mother as she delivers. You'll make these decisions through a simple system, aiming the stick at the desired choice while a timer counts down.
A painful childbirth is something you just don't see in games, told maturely and dramatically thanks to the game's excellent voice acting. Every line of dialog is fully voiced, bringing the drama of the story to life. The only downside is Pillars doesn't let you skip or advance text, so you're stuck experiencing every little bit of dialog at the game's pace rather than your own.
After the prologue, you'll play as one of the game's three primary protagonists: a monk named Philip. He arrives at the Kingsbridge priory, a small monastery that has fallen on hard financial times. There he finds that the prior (the leader of the priory) has recently fallen to his death in a frozen river. Meanwhile, Philip's brother Francis seeks a knight who passed by with a letter for his employer.
As the chapter goes on, players will explore the priory and its cathedral, meeting the various monks who work there and solving simple puzzles. When the superstitious monks of the choir refuse to sing because of strange sounds in a basement, Philip must root out the cause of the disturbance. A relatively simplistic situation, but the fate of the missing knight and his letter are anything but.
Our hero will butt heads with the soon-to-be-elected prior Remigius, whose single-minded desire to burn the deceased prior's books and writings hints at darker dealings. As for the letter, it hints at the war brewing between the deceased King Henry's nephew Stephen and Henry's daughter Maud. Naturally, the church desires a specific outcome, and Philip and the two subsequent protagonists Jack and Aliena will become embroiled in the conflict.
Puzzles and plot
Of the point-and-click adventure games I've reviewed (such as The Inner World and Little Acre), The Pillars of the Earth easily has the best controls when played on a controller (the Steam version obviously supports mouse and keyboard as well). The walking speed is too bit slow, even when holding right trigger to speed it up slightly. But everything else is intuitive and natural.
Holding the left trigger will highlight every point of interactivity in a scene, so you never need to wander and search for just the right spot to stand. When standing next to an interactive object or person, one button will cause your character to think about said noun, and another interacts with it.
You can also carry items in your inventory, easily selecting one active item by pointing the right stick towards it. These inventory items include not only objects like keys, but also clues and ideas (such as the search for the knight's missing letter). Whichever active item or clue you have, you can press another button to either use it or ask the person about it.
Achievements and difficulty
There's no combining of items, penalty for using the wrong item on something, or any real way to fail. Most of the game's 21 Achievements are missable, so you might want to consult a guide if you care about them. You can keep numerous save files, which helps manage things somewhat.
There are two Achievements for treating a character either good or bad throughout the game, necessitating a second playthrough to get them all. But otherwise, Pillars is all about the intricate narrative and historical drama rather than challenge.
The Pillars of the Earth is a fantastic adaptation of the popular novel, not that you need to have read the book or seen the show to enjoy it. The story starts out a little slow, but quickly becomes intriguing as events unfold.
Presentation helps too. The character art is mostly very good (though animations can be stiff), the backgrounds always detailed and beautiful. Excellent voice acting and an orchestral soundtrack further draw you into this tumultuous period of England's history.
The marriage of historical context, politics, intrigue, and tight adventure mechanics make The Pillars of the Earth an easy recommendation for fans of narrative-based games. It might even make you want to read the book!
- Plenty of historical drama, intrigue, and adventure.
- Excellent console controls.
- Fully voiced dialog with strong voice acting.
- Dialog can't be skipped or advanced at the player's own pace.
- Characters' lips occasionally fail to move while speaking a few sentences.
- The in-game maps you find are confusing and should be much more helpful.
The Pillars of the Earth costs $39.99 on Xbox One and PlayStation 4, and $29.99 on Steam. While digital versions are already available, the retail version, published by Kalypso Media, arrives on September 12.
Xbox One review copy provided by Daedalic Entertainment.
Paul Acevedo is the Games Editor at Windows Central. A lifelong gamer, he has written about videogames for over 15 years and reviewed over 350 games for our site. Follow him on Twitter @PaulRAcevedo. Don’t hate. Appreciate!