Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth: Book One – From the Ashes review

Pillars of the Earth: Book One review
Pillars of the Earth: Book One review

Daedalic Entertainment has produced many high-quality point-and-click titles over the course of a decade, but adapting Ken Follett’s 1989 epic historical novel The Pillars of the Earth into an adventure game is a monumental task even for a studio with such a proven track record. The seeds for this ambitious and unexpected adaptation were sown in 2014, when German media conglomerate Bastei Lubbe—publishers of the German editions of Follett’s books—acquired Daedalic, and the timing has been designed to coincide with the 2017 release of Follett’s long-awaited A Column of Fire, the third and final installment in the Kingsbridge series that began with Pillars. How could a developer arguably most famous for a series of comedic cartoon adventures possibly transform a thousand-page novel with such breathtaking scope into an interactive experience? The answer—at least so far—is brilliantly, in an episodic debut that fans of the book or great storytelling in general should play without hesitation.

The original novel is divided into parts, then chapters, and then sub-chapters, breaking up its massive story into manageable parts. The game will follow a similar track, being split into three “Books” released at separate times (though a purchase of the first includes the next two as free DLC), and each Book will contain seven chapters, then some chapters are split further still into different player-character sections. The first Book, subtitled “From the Ashes,” introduces the fictional English territory of Shiring circa 1136, the time of The Anarchy (a real period of civil war and unrest among warring factions under the uncertain reign of King Stephen following the death of Henry I).

Near the town of Kingsbridge, a man named Tom Builder roams the forests with his son Alfred and daughter Martha, having just experienced a tragedy involving his pregnant wife Agnes. Tom is looking for work as a master builder when he meets a mysterious and beautiful nomad woman named Ellen and her young son Jack Jackson. Within Kingsbridge, a kind-hearted monk named Philip attempts to set the town’s priory on the right path after the death of the previous prior James, rising to his current position while navigating the difficult political climate of a disloyal sub-prior named Remigius and the very untrustworthy Bishop Waleran Bigod. And at the castle of Earl Bartholomew of Shiring, the earl’s beautiful teenage daughter Aliena confidently rejects a series of suitors—including the coarse and menacing William Hamleigh, son of a Lord and owner of a sadistic mean streak.

The Pillars saga (best described in one book review as a “towering tale”) winds these characters and others related to them in and out of the real-life events of twelfth-century England, with triumphant successes and devastating losses along the way. The titular pillars represent the interest that drove Follett to write the book: the incredible medieval architecture of the era as best represented by its expensive and beautiful cathedrals. Follett, a noted atheist, found great fascination in how the communities of the period often measured their prominence and their piety by the grandeur of their church-building, and thus set to tell the story of the 35-year construction of the fictional Kingsbridge cathedral as the backdrop for the lives of all involved.

Follett’s love for architecture is so pervasive in his writing, it’s almost as though every majestic structure is a supporting character, so it was essential that the game’s artists bring the same sense of breathtaking wonder to the environmental design, and indeed they have. The hand-painted backgrounds are stylish and show an impressive sense of distance. In medieval times, much more of daily life took place outdoors than in our modern society, and the game does well in zooming out on many of its scenes, allowing views of distant mountain ranges and clouds looming over colorful skies. Daedalic’s artists, committed to being true to the source, diligently studied medieval architecture, and the detail they’ve brought to the castles and churches of Shiring show the same fascination with this era that led Follett to write the novel.

This world is so beautiful to admire, it’s a bit of a disappointment that the characters themselves don’t look better. The models are adequate within the stylistic context of the game, but since most of the males wear various shades of drab brown, there is not a lot of color or variety. The character animation is a bit stiff as well: facial expressions tend to immediately shift one frame to the next rather than animate a change in emotion, and the lip-syncing is not at all convincing. The bigger problem, however, is that the minimalist design means there is not a lot of depth, so when someone walks across the screen (which they do quite slowly, even when using the “accelerated walking” option) the effect is more like a piece of paper sliding across a static background rather than the animated depth of a person actually moving in a world. Though the game has some visual novel elements, Daedalic has primarily remained true to its traditional adventure roots and so the character art and animation is an essential element of the experience, and one that I wish looked better.

Pillars allows for two control schemes, either a traditional dual-button, mouse-driven point-and-click, or for those inclined to play with a gamepad, a very simple and intuitive direct control scheme that uses the left stick to walk, right stick for inventory, and the buttons for interaction and observation. Either way, the “Look” concept here is handled in a way that I’ve never seen before. I’ll give you an example: take a look off to your right and say out loud the first thing you think about what you see. Chances are, you didn’t deliver an extensive description as though to an audience the way most adventure protagonists do, but rather rattled off a brief immediate reaction. I looked outside and said “sky looks hazy” and similarly, to look at an item in this game is to be given a series of up to three (if you look that many times) quick thoughts rather than one lengthy description. They are neither voiced nor capitalized sentences, just to drive home their informal, abrupt stream-of-thought nature. It’s unique, but because these thoughts are deliberately short, they also generally fail to provide much context about the world or reveal very much about your character’s thoughts and motivations, so I found them usually extraneous and less than helpful. If you feel that an adventure’s world is best discovered through thorough observation of hotspots, I think you’ll be disappointed with the sparsity of commentary here.

There isn’t a lot of actual inventory to be found and carried with you; the majority of your “items” to be used are actually thoughts or needs. “I need to get the brothers together for a meeting” becomes an object to be used on the scattered monks of Kingsbridge, rather than a dialogue tree option. I would say it works well as a way to manage your quests, but let’s not pretend there’s any real difficulty involved, particularly since the game displays (by default) your current goal on screen. There’s no challenge to speak of at all, really; though this isn’t a pure visual novel, your objective is always very evident and simply exploring and talking will get you where you need to be. You’d be surprised how many interactions are optional, however. You may not even realize that helping an older monk ease his pain is something you can do, but it’s rewarding to know that the game does not force you down one linear path of interaction. There are a few brief sequences where an arrow moves quickly across a bar at the bottom of the screen, and you must click or press at the right time to accomplish an action such as firing a slingshot. Such moments are the closest the game gets to any type of action elements.

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What our readers think of Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth: Book One – From the Ashes

Posted by Hristovski on Mar 1, 2019

Interactive book

There's not much of a gameplay, mainly chat options, and occasionally using an item. But the story is just great - being based on a book. Emotional at times, it captures the time period and the characters are captured perfectly, all with a great voice acting....

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