Although slow to start, Book 1 of Daedalic Entertainment’s interactive novel eventually draws players in as it sets the stage for a compelling narrative-driven drama.
Pillars of the Earth, developed by Daedalic Entertainment, is an interactive novel set in 12th century England. Combining classic point-and-click gaming combined with branching dialog, Daedalic manages to build a compelling story. The actual gameplay component can feel tedious at times and isn’t overly challenging, but is largely forgiven in pursuit of the further narrative.
The story is a grim tale of the brutal realities of medieval England. Harsh winter, poverty, and the threat of death seem ever-present. That is 12th century England, though, and not even period drama gets caught up in the romanticism of knights and nobility. Despite all that, the rather compelling story manages to keep hope alive for the player that these characters will persevere.
Visual novels are not my typical gaming pursuit and even I was eventually taken in and left wanting more by the end of Book 1.
The Pillars of the Earth is based on the novel of the same title by Ken Follett. Set in 12th century England, PotE is the story of political upheaval in a particularly brutal age. There are three primary characters, however, only two of these characters are playable in the first book. The first book introduces us to the Builder family as well as our first two playable characters: Jack, an outcast, and Philip, a monk. The king of England has died and now they and the fictional town of Kingsbridge are trapped in the middle of a power struggle.
It is a narrative-driven drama that is a little slow to build but eventually draws you into the plight of its characters, who are basically just trying to survive as powers larger than them exchange blows. You can search the world around you and ask the right questions to unravel the secrets and conspiracies of friends and foes, but ultimately only more questions arise. The opening few chapters seem tedious, but as the story unfolds it draws you in.
As a visual novel, a large amount of the game is exposition and branching dialog. It is frequently broken up with “point-and-click” sections where your character can explore an area and interact with the world to collect additional information or items. The environments are beautiful, but PotE doesn’t challenge players much within them. They offer up additional world-building tidbits and sometimes useful items or information. The dialog is also important as characters shed helpful information both in direct conversation and when you eavesdrop on others.
Between the space bar, which identifies all possible world interactions in a scene, and a little patience, you can uncover everything you need. Even if you don’t, there doesn’t appear to be significant penalties for making a mistake. Some pieces are missable but nothing important can be missed, and the game politely nudges you along if you combine items incorrectly. During dialog sequences, I was sometimes given multiple chances to amend my wrong choice.
The branching dialog does affect the game and you can see your relationship with other characters adapt as you attempt to be more or less friendly with them, but the core story progresses no matter what your intentions are. Of course, it is entirely possible that this is kind of the point, as none of your protagonists can really do much to stop the ambitions of more powerful men anyway. Really, your goal is to get these people through as best you can.
The more time and care you take to uncover their story, the more connected you become. It is not long before you find yourself fully invested in seeing them through. At one point there is a scene with four of the five characters that the game had been following. I immediately noticed the unexplained absence of the fifth and assumed the worst, given the trajectory of the game. I didn’t even think I cared too much about him, but it was a blow to think this group just continued to suffer in their string of bad luck.
Exploring all possibilities is the only way to make the right decision, and even then it can be hard to determine the “right” decision. This lack of certainty combined with the strong narrative makes the game compelling despite the sometimes tediousness of a hundred clicks. The only real frustration I had was the lack of chapter select when I was done. If I wanted to change anything, I would have to replay the whole Book 1.
Performance & Graphics
The game is relatively easy on the system since it primarily relies on 2D painted backgrounds with a few animations. The artwork is rather beautiful, all hand-drawn art that sets the scene of a brutal winter in Medieval England very well. Character animations are not complicated, but Daedalic has managed to add quite a bit of detail to each scene. Something as small as facial expressions shifting with the conversations is a nice touch to bring the story to life.
The orchestral soundtrack adds some grandeur to the story; Daedalic manages to keep it subtle as you explore and uncover more of the story, and then play the music up at the right moments. The voice acting is good, almost sounding like a very well put together audiobook, but lacks the emotional range some scenes might benefit from. It may also be worth mentioning at this stage that, although there is no graphic violence in the story there is more than one mature conversation.
I will admit when I began The Pillars of the Earth I was somewhat skeptical. The first two chapters seemed slow and kind of completely bummed me out. As the story develops, it began to draw me into its world and characters. I became more invested in making the “right choices” and looking out for them. While the narrative remained grim, I came to respect Follett’s work for not falling easily into the romanticism of period dramas even as it risked hurting these characters.
I enjoyed the point-and-click style gameplay, although it lacked a real challenge as I found it difficult to really fail and had few consequences for exploring poorly or choosing badly. Interactive novels are driven by their narrative and The Pillars of the Earth performs well with it. Book 1 has introduced enough compelling characters and conflict that I am actually very eager to play Book 2 when it is available later this year.
This article first appeared on DVSGaming.org