Title: Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth – Book One
Platform: Xbox One, PC, and PS4 (reviewed)
Developer: Daedalic Entertainment
Publisher: Daedalic Entertainment
Release date: Out now
tl;dr: A visual novel with a pace so slow, you might as well read the actual book
Price: PS4: £35 (though I recently picked up a hard copy from GAME for £20)/$40
Xbox One: £32/$40
PC: £27/$30 (season pass price)
Family Focus: Click here for more information
Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth put my three favourite things in a blender – books, historical fiction, and video games, which has promptly resulted in an adaptation of the novel by the same name, neatly packaged into the episodic format we’re all so used to, these days. With a stunningly talented voice cast and a beautiful watercolour-meets-cartoon art style, it’s certainly nice to immerse yourself in, but to play? I’m not so sure.
Pillars of the Earth drops us right into medieval Britain, where the war for the throne is just beginning to brew; King Stephen, the former king’s cousin, who’s recently taken over from Queen Maud, the old king’s sister and current ruler until her son comes of age. And since no one can agree on who should rule the country, trouble is starting on a much smaller scale, beginning with a monk who is struggling to deal with the prospect of a treasonous conspiracy, a master builder struggling to provide for his family, and an outlaw mother and son.
My main issue with this is that the plot is pretty hard to follow if you’re not already familiar with the context. We’re hopping around point of views every chapter, and whilst the Philip and Francis plotline ties in with the fight for the throne, the others (Tom and Jack) feel out of place, like there’s no real reason for them to be there. There’s hints at links to a bigger storyline – Ellen has clear ties to the monks, and who the baby gets taken in by, but these don’t feel like story hooks, they feel like you’re missing the bigger picture. As a stand alone game, this falls apart, instead spending too much time setting up for the other two instalments.
Gameplay is a little more souped up than most visual novels, in the sense that you actually get to move and interact with the environment; truthfully, it’s more like it’s been blended with a point and click game. Your array of characters will move through animated, lifelike environments that are all lovingly drawn and painted, talking to people, playing the odd timed minigame, fitting items together as puzzles, or thinking, which was my favourite part; the thoughts are loosely, casually strung together, and felt like a natural way into the character’s brains.
The puzzles (for lack of a better word) seem to flow well together for a while, and then stutter to a stop when I got stuck at what felt like a dead end. Some of the solutions don’t really seem like they match up, or there’ll be a lot of tedious backtracking – a walkthrough will be your friend for the last, tiny annoyances that the game likes to throw at you when you think you’ve exhausted every option.
The controls, whilst relatively simple and easy to use, had one minor annoyance for me – the movement between screens. Instead of automatically moving to the next area once you’ve lingered in the correct spot long enough, you have to awkwardly fumble with X until the character decides to move. Annoying, but not a dealbreaker.
The real, glaring issue with this game, is pace. Because the premise is already fragmented into three parts, it’s hard to tell what this game is actually about, and the events unfolding in Book One really don’t do it any favours. It takes until Chapter Five, of a seven chapter game, for something visually exciting to happen; the rest of the game until that point had been family politics, and a conspiracy where all of the subterfuge is happening off screen. While the medieval setting itself could be a pull for some players, it’s hard to care when we’re introduced to random characters who are just dropped into the plot, and have too much significance all of a sudden (William Hamleigh) or are just… there, like Tom.
The length of the chapters doesn’t help, either – most are half an hour each, but there’s a couple that can be finished in less than ten minutes, which begs the question; why are they in there at all? I’m presuming more of the characters and their motivations and personalities will be explored in Books Two and Three, but this isn’t a great thing for the first book to be doing. When things happen, it’s intriguing, but the first game is too weak to stand as an opening chapter, and is a slow trudge to the finish. Maybe if you’ve read and enjoyed the books, this is perfect for you, but out of context, it’s boring. I’ll be reviewing Book Two as well, so hopefully things will pick up.
- Has the potential to be an interesting video game adaptation
- Graphically gorgeous
- Excellent voice acting all round
- Poorly paced
- Spends too much time setting up future events than focusing on the current narrative
- Too weak for the opening of a trilogy
Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth: Book One is rated PEGI 16 for realistic looking violence and language, and M for Mature from the ESRB, for violence, language, sexual themes, and blood. I feel the 16 rating is more appropriate here, considering there’s a couple of mentions of rape, but nothing too explicit, and any blood is shown as cartoon blood, since it’s animated.
Disclaimer: This review is based on a retail copy of the game purchased for the purposes of this review.