Date: March 1, 2023
Books and video games are two very different storytelling mediums. With Pillars of the Earth, Daedalic Entertainment have set out to adapt Ken Follett’s epic historical novel into a point-and-click adventure. The result winds up feeling a bit more like a visual novel, albeit a good one. First released in 2017, the game makes its Switch debut today, March 1st.
If you play this game, it will be for the story. It follows a large cast of characters in a 12th-century English shire that is being torn apart by war. You’ll get to know characters from all different walks of life and see how the broader political picture of their world impacts their individual paths. Each character has their own motives and point of view, and most of them are sympathetic even when they do things we know they shouldn’t. It’s difficult to avoid comparisons to Game of Thrones, which was inspired by similar historical elements and uses a similar ensemble approach.
Come for the story, stay for the art. Loading up the game for the first time, it immediately struck me how beautiful the hand-painted backgrounds are, and I continued to marvel at new scenes throughout my time with the game. Some of the areas become familiar over time as you revisit them with different characters and during different events. That familiarity becomes part of the narrative, making you acutely aware of even slight changes to the environment: the darkness of night falling over the cathedral, the bleakness of a rainy day at the castle, unlocking a new room you didn’t know was there, or finding an object that was left behind by another character. It brings to the forefront the fact that people actually live in these places as you observe their movements and the alterations they make to the world over time.
The character art is also well done, but the animations are a big weakness, especially the lip sync. When the characters speak, it looks like they’ve been dubbed over in a different language – the audio and lip movement don’t match at all. Sometimes there are long, dramatic pauses in the dialogue, which is something that works in a movie when you can see the subtle expressions of the actor’s face, but in the game the character is just standing there awkwardly while you wait for them to continue talking. That is a shame, because the voice acting is excellent.
And it’s a good thing it is, because the bulk of the game is spent listening to dialogue, either in cutscenes or in dialogue menus. Daedalic has done a good job of making your dialogue choices feel impactful within what is otherwise a strictly linear narrative. At the end of each chapter, you’re given a summary of your choices and hints as to what their effect might be.
There is also an option to remain silent by letting the dialogue options time out. This actually turned out to be the best choice in one situation, but most of the time the game would send me back to the previous menu, forcing me to make a choice. There were times where I felt funneled to certain options, regardless of what I tried at first, and that was frustrating, but not unexpected in a game that is based on a book – the story can only diverge so much.
Beyond dialogue, the game is mostly walking around and looking at things, sometimes picking them up or interacting with them. There were a few quick-time events where I had to click a button at the right time, but these were infrequent and had no sense of urgency. There weren’t any puzzles beyond simply figuring out how to use the random objects I had picked up. As an example, I picked up a hot stone from a kitchen hearth and attempted to interact with every person or object I encountered until I finally bumped into a monk who was happy to use it on his sore foot. This turned out to be a meaningful interaction that gained me favor with this character, but it was something I discovered only by extensive trial and error, not based on any clues I encountered.
The controls were a little awkward on the Switch. That’s probably to be expected when you play a point-and-click game without a mouse. I spent a lot of time walking around trying to find a spot where the interact point would light up so I could use it. I assume that on a PC, I’d simply be able to click it. Transition points between areas were especially fidgety, with no indication of whether you were standing in the right spot to trigger it. I frequently found myself walking in circles around these points.
The game’s pacing will probably be the real test for most players. It’s slow and deliberate, and some may find that it crosses the line into tedium. Even your walking pace is slow. There is a button you can hold down to walk faster, and the faster pace feels like it should be the normal one. But what comes out of this slow pace is a sense of being fully immersed in the world. As the political and personal intrigue intensify, the pacing starts to feel better. It feels like the difference between reading a book and watching a movie. You have time to get absorbed in the details, and time to mull over what is happening before being thrust into the next climactic moment.
The game’s solemn tone is the other sticking point that will make or break your enjoyment. It doesn’t skirt around the harsh realities of life in the Middle Ages. But there is a beauty in the bleakness. There are also moments of humor and triumph that feel all the more powerful in contrast. Ultimately, Pillars of the Earth is about regular people navigating a turbulent world, and it tells that story very well.