It seems most modern adventures have at least some player choice mechanics, which honestly was a scary proposition for me as someone who so loved the story as already told by Ken Follett, because the main design options appear to be either disrupting the story and allowing for wide diversion, or making the choices minor and artificial. The latter would have been the easier path, but a less appealing one, and that is not the direction taken here. While there are a few choice moments that are clearly inconsequential in the grand scheme, generally all the decision points really do have the power to swing the story, at least temporarily. What seems like a relatively minor decision of whether to identify a novice monk who commits a small offense has troubling ramifications much later, putting clear weight behind everything you do.
The decision points aren’t always your direct actions, either: sometimes as you are about to do something, you’ll have to choose your specific motivation. There’s one very key moment where you have three choices: do it for Mom, do it for Tom, or don’t do it. A simple binary choice, given the circumstances, would probably not be very interesting, but I found myself very thoughtful about why exactly I was about to do this (or not) and it put me deep into the mind of the character in a way that games often fail to achieve. Each of the seven chapters ends with a recap screen that reminds you what exactly you did for future reference, and sometimes those choices are nothing like the path of the novel.
Though the game’s remarkable faithfulness to twelfth-century England should appeal even to those entirely unfamiliar with the book, the novel has sold over 26 million copies and thus it is more than fair to judge the game on its adherence to the source material—and even with the choices you make, it is a triumph in that regard. The design is a masterful blend of hitting the important story beats and developing the essential relationships, while still allowing for the flexibility of a choice-based game. There are scenes, such as the initial discussion of the Kingsbridge cathedral plans between Tom and Philip, where substantially all the dialogue is word-for-word lifted from Ken Follett. However, there are major character relationships such as the dynamic between Jack and his older step-brother Alfred (who had endless animosity toward each other in the book) that, through the player’s actions, can be substantially modified. It is not at all surprising that the game has great reverence for the novel, of course; Follett himself was involved as a story consultant, and in fact even plays a minor voice role as the Kingsbridge priory’s cantor.
The renowned author is just one member of an absolutely superb professional voice cast. Not only are the English accents authentic and seemingly true to the era, but the actors hit every beat of the characters they portray. Prior Philip, one of my favorite literary characters, has the quiet confidence and faith of a devout man of God determined to remain strong in the midst of endless trials. William Hamleigh, conversely one of the most atrociously evil antagonists to be found, is exactly the right mix of sneering youth and sinister menace. At one point while playing as Philip, you’ll be accosted by William with a profane monologue regarding his use of sexual intimidation that is downright stomach-turning—and which could only succeed with a great vocal performance. Even Jack, age 11 in this Book, gets about as good a performance as you could ask from a pre-pubescent lad—not too cute or wide-eyed, but still youthful and likeably genuine.
As good as the voices are, the orchestral soundtrack may be better. Daedalic has spared no expense in bringing in the FILMharmonic Orchestra of Prague to perform an original composition, and the incredible result is reminiscent of some of the industry’s greatest soundtracks, a constantly evolving and unbroken symphony that frames every scene with the right emotional notes and the type of evocative score that I always prefer to turn on as background noise while reading (or composing a review). This is easily my favorite adventure game soundtrack in recent memory and deserves to be enjoyed both as context to the game and on its own.
This debut episode of Pillars focuses almost entirely on Philip and young Jack. The third major POV character of the novel, Aliena, daughter of the Earl of Shiring, has what only amounts to a couple brief cameos—but given the events that take place shortly after this installment ends, her story is certain to be a primary focus of the next Book. The individual chapters range from over an hour to just twenty minutes in length—the seventh and final chapter particularly ends a bit too quickly—and all told my playing time came in a shade under six hours.
As with any choice-heavy game, there is plenty of wondering whether certain decisions could be made differently, and the choice moments seem to allow you to deviate broadly from the path of the book. Usually I stayed close to the story I was familiar with, since it generally felt the most true to the motivations of the characters. However, the achievements serve to tease any missed opportunities. I finished this Book with 12 of 21 achievements, but the 9 that I missed were clearly different options that I didn’t take. It strikes me as misguided to offer achievements for only one branch in a story tree where multiple choices all appear to have validity, and I hope that achievement hunting completionists aren’t driven to constantly rewind their story (even with an autosave, the game allows for hard saving, with unlimited save slots, at any point). Please take my advice: make your choices and dwell in them, enjoying wherever the remarkable story takes you.
I requested this review assignment eagerly, and then almost immediately regretted it, for a very simple reason: The Pillars of the Earth is my favorite book ever. I have always adored every aspect of this extraordinary novel, a book I consider to be as close to perfect as a work of fiction can be. And therefore, I couldn’t help but be apprehensive of all the ways that Daedalic could have gotten this very wrong as I was booting up. Six hours later, other than some minor concerns about the character art, overall I’m impressed by the awesome quality of this game and the surprising effectiveness of how choice mechanics have been introduced into such an established story, and I’m truly excited to continue the Kingsbridge tale into the next interactive Book.