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Ken Follet’s The Pillars of the Earth Book 1: From the Ashes Review

Developers Daedalic Entertainment are best known for the Deponia series, an offbeat comedic adventure, so I was curious to see how they would handle the transition to more serious subject matter in a historical setting. The game takes place in 12th century England early in the reign of King Stephen. Against a backdrop of rival noble families vying for position and corrupt church officials looking to advance their own power, the story follows the fates of a monk, a stonemason, and a young boy named Jack involved in the rebuilding of Kingsbridge Cathedral.

In ‘Book One’ of the game, the player controls Philip, a monk visiting Kingsbridge Priory, and Jack, a child living in the woods with his outlaw mother, across seven chapters (also briefly taking control of Tom Builder during the prologue). The game plays out in a classic point-and-click style as your character explores the current scene, finding characters to talk to, items to collect, and clues to advance the story. Thankfully, there are no headache-inducing puzzles to stall you, allowing the game to flow quite smoothly from one part to the next.

As is to be expected from a modern interactive tale, at key points in the game you will be faced with dialogue and action choices that will affect your relationship with other characters and the direction of future events. However, this is one of those games where the decisions do not feel particularly impactful. Often, you end up being forced into one ‘choice’ after all others have been tried out. At other times, the choices do not ultimately seem to matter. For example, when controlling Jack, you have the option to commit a destructive act. You can do it in the name of your mother or Tom Builder, or you can change your mind and walk away. I chose the latter, only for Jack to slip, fall, and accidentally do it all anyway. He gets away with it but acts sheepishly around the other characters for a while, and I am sure this would have played out the same had I made a different choice. Perhaps this will have an impact in future instalments (Book Two is due before the end of 2017) – we shall have to wait and see.

Efforts have also been made to avoid backtracking, a frustration that plagues many point-and-click adventures. I never had to return to previous locations just to ‘discover’ something I had already seen and, in general, the game does an effective job of guiding you through locations and events in a logical and seamless manner.

At times, progress in the game can appear slow. The prolonged periods of listening to dialogue will not appeal to everyone, and the historical drama setting does not allow for the same frequency of jokes as a Telltale adventure. To keep the pace of the game going, some sequences of events take place as voice-over narratives on the map when characters travel from one location to another. However, this is not always used effectively. The first time it happens comes very shortly after we first meet Jack and his mother and makes their introduction feel unnecessarily rushed. Later in the game though with the already established character of Peter, it works well to avoid a side-quest taking up too much time.

One advantage The Pillars of the Earth holds over many of its episodic contemporaries is play time. It takes about 6 hours to get to the end of Book One, much longer than your average episode of Batman or The Walking Dead. With two more books to come, that makes for almost 20 hours of potential game time in a single playthrough.

The scenes, backdrops, and characters are all presented in a beautiful hand-animated style reminiscent of recent titles such as The Banner Saga. Some of the wide angle shots of the exterior of the cathedral and crowded medieval city streets also reminded me of the early Broken Sword games. The detail featured is impressive and complements the style of the cutscenes perfectly. There is one moment that feels like a missed opportunity though – the moment of destruction alluded to above builds quite dramatically but ends with a long-distance shot, over in a second. A more detailed cutscene here would have added to the drama.

The visuals do an excellent job of portraying medieval England, and this immersive element of the game is enhanced by the sound. The music feels right for the era and helps add to moments of tension. The monastic choir singing in the cathedral even made me pause to listen for a few minutes instead of rushing to the exit. The voice acting is superb for all the major characters, fitting the personality of each very well. The lip-synching is also well done, which adds to the realism of the gameplay experience.

I enjoyed The Pillars of the Earth a great deal. The story is incredibly well written, and everything about the setting fits the historical era perfectly for an immersive experience. The only issue I had with the game was the illusion of choice – I never really felt that I made any decisions that had major impacts on the progression of the story. Nevertheless, if you, like me, enjoy this interactive mode of storytelling, you will find plenty to like about this game. Simply, the fact that I am looking forward to the release of Book Two means this is a game I can easily recommend.

Developer: Daedalic Entertainment

Publisher: Daedalic Entertainment

Platform: PC

Release Date: 15th August 2017

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