It’s always a treat returning to a game you love. When I reviewed Pillars of Eternity back in March I gave it 5 out of 5 and called it a serious Game of the Year contender. With the release of PoE‘s first expansion, The White March Part 1, I was given plenty of incentive to return to the world of Eora. Developer Obsidian Entertainment said all the right things; new dungeons, gear, weapons, abilities, companions, cross-class talents and an increased level cap. The reason Obsidian chose to release The White March in sections was their desire to get new content into the hands of players sooner rather than later. An admirable and understandable decision. But was it the right one?
- Developer: Obsidian Entertainment
- Publisher: Paradox Interactive
- Reviewed On: PC
- Also Available On: OS X and Linux
- Release Date: Available Now
The White March Part 1 expands upon the third act of Pillars of Eternity and requires an experienced, well equipped party to complete. If you are returning to PoE for the expansion you’ll want to choose a save that is as close to the end of the game as possible. The savegame I chose was from before I fought the final boss (just before the point-of-no-return). If the game detects you do indeed have a high level party it will offer you the option of increasing the difficulty of The White March Part 1 content to provide more of a challenge for you party. The rewards you receive remain the same regardless of whether you choose High Level or Standard difficulty. As the savegame I chose was already on Normal difficulty, I chose the High Level difficulty option.
The main story of The White March Part 1 revolves around the village of Stalwart and their desire to reopen Durgan’s Battery; an ancient Dwarven stronghold. At one time Durgan’s Battery created the best weapons and armor in the land; right up until they sealed their doors and never opened them again. The villagers want someone to reopen Durgan’s Battery to help save their struggling community. Vanilla PoE was reasonably good about adding twists to old school fantasy cliches. The White March Part 1 unfortunately is not. The story of Durgan’s Battery feels like it could have been pulled in its entirety from any pop culture fantasy novel. Now that may change when The White March Part 2 launches, as the first part of the tale of Durgan’s Battery/The White March ends with a number of unanswered questions and the promise of an even bigger threat. It’s hard to judge a story when you have only heard half of it.
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This unsatisfying division extends to just about everything. The expansion introduces two new companions you can add to your party; Zahua (Monk), and the Devil of Caroc (Rogue). The pair are a bit of a let down. Zahua is a crazy monk who loves getting high, wallowing in filth and harming himself in the pursuit of “clarity.” The Devil of Caroc is an artificial construct imbued with a human soul. She has a pretty dark backstory and nasty sense of humor. Unfortunately their descriptions are a lot more interesting than the characters themselves are when you have them in your party. Neither of them have very much to say or contribute. A couple quick quests and a couple conversations and that is it. Zahua ends up feeling like a lame stoner version of Durance the Priest (who is also a crazy man).
The Devil of Caroc “could” have been something special. Instead she is just a superfluous rogue you’ll quickly want to swap out. In fact I found purposely keeping the pair in the party while I completed The White March Part 1 content to be more of a hindrance than anything else. You’re not missing that much not taking them along. You probably already have a go to rogue for your party so the need for The Devil of Caroc is super low. Even with her increased damage resistance and abilities she’s not a compelling choice for your party. Zahua is even less useful. Despite trying dozens of builds and permutations, for the life of me I can’t find a situation in which I’d rather have a Monk than one of the other classes. So in the end both new companions have little to add to the story or the combat. Which again could change when The White March Part 2 expands upon things, but judging this expansion on its merits alone both are a disappointment.
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As players will quickly discover, combat is king in The White March Part 1. Besides Durgan’s Battery itself there are a number of side quests and dungeons. The Cragholdt Bluffs was specifically designed to give well geared end-game parties a tough challenge. You’ll battle a number of mini bosses before an epic throw down at the end. The expansion also adds a new Dragon to hunt down, as well as number of tough bounties to complete. The side quest involving a group of smarter-than-average-ogres was one of my favorites. Here at least White March Part 1 shines. The combat is challenging and satisfying.
Alongside new dungeons, the expansion adds new gear, weapons, abilities, cross-class talents and an increased level cap. I really, really liked the addition of cross-class talents. It allows for some really fun, and more importantly, really powerful character builds. The new abilities added to the game are pretty great as well. The value of the new weapons and armor depends on whether or not your chosen party can make use of them. One of the big selling points for The White March was the addition of soulbound weapons, which increase in strength the more you use them. They become really powerful and are worth respec’ing your party to accommodate them. My main gripe with the soulbound weapons is that there are only 5 (?) of them. A weird number for a game with parties of six. Plus the weapon types are not exactly the kind I would choose to equip under normal circumstances. A Mace, Hunting Bow, Quarterstaff, Great Sword and Estoc are hardly my go to weapons. Because only certain classes can equip certain soulbound weapons (with different benefits depending on which class you bind them to) you’ll find yourself with an odd ball party if you want to field a party with all five soulbound weapons equipped.
I already had a character built around wielding a great sword, and a quality bow is always welcome. I never use quarterstaff’s, maces or estocs (another kind of two handed sword). So if you want to field a party with all five soulbound weapons you now have a pair of two handed sword wielders (less than ideal), probably a caster or a monk with a Quarterstaff (again less than ideal) and a rogue or a priest with a mace (even less ideal). The sheer power of the soulbound weapons eventually counteracts the negatives of having a weirdly built party, but it takes a lot of the freedom of choice away from the player and forces you to play a certain way, which really jars when compared to vanilla PoE. Adding more soulbound weapons would help immensely.
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Released alongside the expansion are the improvements to the core game that come from Update 2.0, which was released to everyone who owns vanilla PoE. An improved UI that now shows spell/attack range as well as accuracy indicators is very welcome. The ability to have individual party members enter stealth rather than the entire party is super helpful. It allows players to plan out their positioning before a fight which is really handy when you fight in an area where simply fighting in a doorway or choke-point is not easy. The biggest improvement is the addition of party AI. Now you can choose how each individual character behaves on their own. You can choose what kind of auto-attack logic they use, whether or not they can use per rest abilities and choose from a number of general class behaviors. It’s a welcome improvement over vanilla PoE’s heavy reliance on micromanagement.
Unfortunately the party AI system is super basic. The party AI is pretty stupid most of the time, able to carry out only the broadest strokes of behavior. If you are looking for a extensive list of variables to chose from like you would find in many older RPG’s you’ll be disappointed. Melee characters behaved the most appropriately and consistently. Casters however are a total wash. Unless you are playing on Easy I just don’t see why you would turn the AI on for casters. For example even with party AI on my Priest never, ever stayed on top of healing my party members. Hell he barely ever healed anyone period. He spent half his time casting useless low level spells and buffs. I can’t think of a single situation in which my Priest or Wizard cast useful spells when I needed them. The complete absence of an option for priests to simply focus on healing is bizarre. The AI seems to love casting super low level spells over all else and show little intelligence in terms of when to use abilities beyond the most basic variable=activation logic. Because the combat is a notch higher in difficulty in The White March I ended up turning party AI off for all my party members. I doubt anyone playing on normal or above outside of the earliest parts of the game will actually use party AI at all.
Ultimately The White March Part 1 feels exactly like what it is; half an expansion. Story, characters, improvements and more feel “almost done.” I constantly had the feeling that if I just had a little more time with things everything would “click.” Critical as I have been of the expansion I did have fun. I pulled almost 20 hours of entertainment out of a $17 expansion. Even though I have gripes about a lot of stuff, there is enough content and enough entertainment to be found to justify paying its current asking price. Broader improvements like cross-class talents, level cap increase, soulbound weapons etc. make a fresh playthrough of the entire game more appealing. I strongly suspect that once The White March Part 2 drops the entire expansion “package” will be a lot more compelling. As much as it was nice to have some more PoE content to play I think I would have preferred Obsidian had released the entire package together rather than cut into segments.