Based on Ken Follet’s worldwide bestseller of the same name, the The Pillars of the Earth is divided into three books each with seven chapters. Set in England in the 12th century, the game is about a civil war and royal families falling and rising with the political dealings of the church playing a large role. On the other side, players are shown the nobles and everyday citizens affected by this war and their struggle to survive.
And finally we’re shown one man’s dream to build the most beautiful cathedral England’s ever seen and the prior who hires him to do so. The Pillars of the Earth employs an incredibly beautiful yet subtle art style which includes hand-painted backgrounds. While the game shines with its story and graphics as well as soundtrack and voice acting, it leaves much to be desired in terms of gameplay. However, this is quite common for all games in the visual novel and interactive novel genre.
The game can be bought on Steam for your regional pricing.
“12th century, England: In a time of great poverty and war, a small town begins the construction of a cathedral to claim wealth and security for its people. In their struggle to survive, lives and destinies intertwine. Philip the monk becomes prior of the small abbey of Kingsbridge. At the same time, a boy called Jack is raised in the woods by his outlawed mother. His apprenticeship as a stonemason paves his way to become a gifted master builder. Together with the disgraced noblewoman Aliena, Jack and Philip begin the construction of one of the greatest cathedrals England will ever see.”
The first book of the game focuses on a civil war within England and the multiple parties caught up in it. In this chapter, players control a mason named Tom Builder, a boy raised in the wild called Jack and Philip, a Christian monk. Each character is well-rounded and dialogue options change well to match each character’s personality. While The Pillars of the Earth has many strengths, the game’s power comes from its incredible ability to tell story.
Furthermore, while visual novels and interactive novels can be dialogue heavy, The Pillars of the Earth moves the story forward quickly. There are some cutscenes or exposition breaks within the game in which travelling time is fast-tracked by showing an animation of a book with page and text read aloud to you by one of the main characters. In general, it’s a smart choice made by the developer in order to bypass mundane and inactive events in the story.
Within the workings of the game’s story, cinematics, gameplay, and art, The Pillars of the Earth holds themes of heaven and hell, light and darkness, and evil vs. goodness. The game successfully presents well-rounded characters and their descents into darkness, their rise to power and the losses of things they hold dear.
When players dive into The Pillars of the Earth it’s crucial for players to remember that this is an interactive novel. By that, I mean it is a novel first and a video game second and thus the story will be told mostly through dialogue and voice-overs. Players must expect the game to be dialogue heavy with little gameplay elements involved. With that said, gameplay consists of players walking around the map and interacting with objects, people, and landmarks in order to find clues or vital information to move the story forward. Now and then there are timed rhythm actions which are sometimes justified (Jack trying to shoot a deer with his slingshot) and sometimes pointless (simply knocking on a door).
Thankfully, controls are simple and easy to understand. Most players will be able to master the controls after just a few minutes. On the other hand, unfortunately the guidance system is awful or nearly non-existent. While the game does display quest objectives along the top of the screen there is little-to-no information given about where you have to go or what places are even reachable. In general, most of the maps within the game are small, but even so the game could use a fast travel mechanism.
Specifically, in the first book a lot of back and forth is required when playing as Philip the monk and a lot of time is wasted walking to and from the church. Characters move painstakingly slow and have no ability to sprint and therefore a lot of time is wasted simply moving from place to place. At the very least, the game’s level design and focal points (foreground and background) guide the player well and give players a hint of where they should go. However, everything from doors to wooden carts and even characters blend seamlessly into the background. This blending is so seamless that you can’t tell what parts of the background are interactable until you get close enough for the action icons to pop up.
On the up side, the game tries not to waste the player’s time. For example, after completing certain tasks, knowing where the player will go next, sometimes the game will teleport the player to the designated area rather than making them pointlessly retrace their steps.
The Illusion of Choice
Just like almost every other visual novel, interactive novel or branching narrative game, The Pillars of the Earth employs the illusion of choice. This means that while players are granted the ability to choose dialogue options and sometimes even travelling routes in the game, players will always end up with virtually the same result. Choosing different paths may unlock different dialogue or even interactions, but the main story line will remain the same. This means that player's available choices have little effect on the main story line and thus the game has little-to-no replay value.
Graphics & Audio
While the story of the game is great, the graphics are also an incredible sight to behold. The art is well-done and the game’s 200+ hand-painted backgrounds are beautiful and instantly rendered. While the backgrounds look fixed they are interactive and character sprites are well animated, blending perfectly into the backgrounds. However, the backdrop is often very large and in proportion, at times your character looks tiny on the screen which feels strange for a point and click adventure game. Sometimes it’s even difficult to differentiate the main character from the background NPCs.
As well, during cut scenes sometimes the mouth movements of the characters don’t sync properly with the audio and this happened on more than one occasion. It was also apparent that transitions are sometimes too abrupt and not smooth at all and scenes and events are linked together by nothing more than a quick and choppy fade-to-black.
Soundtrack & Voice Acting
The music and score of the game is fantastically well-done and with the setting of 12th century England, the tone of the soundtrack is similar to the HBO hit Game of Thrones or the History Channel’s Vikings. Furthermore, the sound effects of the game are superb. From the crackling of a fire in the middle of a cold winter to the sound of rotten meat plopping on the floor, the sound effects were masterfully created.
On top of that, I’d give the game’s voice acting a full five out of five stars. Employing multiple voice actors, the accents and tones of voice for each character seemed to match their appearance perfectly. The Pillars of the Earth cast includes voice actors from Voice Squad, a reputable talent company which has had actors hired for Triple-A titles such as Horizon Zero Dawn and Divinity Original Sin 2.
The Pillars of the Earth should be played by everyone who enjoys visual novels or interactive novels as well as point-and-click adventure games. Fans of Telltale Games should definitely give this game a chance. However, for people new to the genre this may be a difficult place to start, as The Pillars of the Earth is quite dialogue heavy and more lacking in gameplay compared to the Telltale Games series. With that said, the lack of gameplay is redeemed by the artful storytelling and beautiful graphics and soundtrack of the game. As more and more games are being considered art, Daedalic Entertainment has produced a game which uses video game mechanics to present the same themes and morals integrated into Ken Follet’s novels and that in itself is an incredible accomplishment.
|+ Complex and multi-layered story||– Low replay value|
|+ Beautiful art style||– Choppy transitions between events|
|+ Superb voice acting||– Low action, and strong lack of gameplay|