Video Games Review: Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth (PC, 2017) is glacially paced but will reward those who can tough it out

Written by author Ken Follett in his 1989 novel, The Pillars of the Earth is a wildly popular story about the building of a cathedral in a small town in 12th century England. It is a long and sweeping story, and one of the most popular literary works of the last two decades. It also makes great subject material for a point-and-click adventure, though your enjoyment of it as a game will be tied directly to the length of your attention span.
I suppose your enjoyment will also depend on your tolerance for religious stories, because this is at its heart a story about building a house of God. Pillars of the Earth is a cracking yarn, regardless of its religious leanings, filled with drama and interesting characters both evil and benign.

It’s game’s glacial pace that’ll either pull you in or turn you off. I mean, I was playing this for work and as much as I was enjoying the drip-fed nature of the story, it doesn’t make the game easy to get through. If you can find it in yourself to tough it out, what you’ll be given in return is the first episode of a game with huge promise.

The story follows a pair of characters whose narratives overlap and intertwine at different points. The first is Philip, an abbey prior who is (to a greater or lesser extent) the architect of a war between a pair of English camps. He’s not the most self-confident person but he seems to try his best to be considerate. On the other hand, we have Jack, a kid who grew up in a cave with his mother. Jack struggles to make sense of the world he lives in, to trust the people he meets, and isn’t at all sure of his place in the grand scheme.

The way their stories intertwine, the push and pull they have one another and the events that surround them, is one of Pillars of the Earth‘s great accomplishments, but its the cast of supporting characters that will stick with you. Every part of the game, from characters to environments has a lovely, painterly look to them. There’s a sense of depth to them that hasn’t really been around since the old Lucasarts days. The same goes for the elegantly adapted script, which stacks solid dialogue and set pieces in just the right way to give you brief windows into the minds of even the most fleeting characters.

Despite all of this — the great writing, the great artwork and the degree to which I enjoyed it, I still find it hard to actually recommend the game to anyone. It’s not exactly out of the ordinary for a point-and-click title to throw action under the bus if it means a meatier narrative but Pillars does so to such a degree that it feels like the story in this first episode barely moves at all, you can feel the tension draining out of it. This is a game with a resting heart rate of a marathon runner.

To make matters worse, technical hitches dogged my playthrough — the frame rate ground to a halt following loads (which happen every time a new scene is begun), I ran into an issue were characters would chatter over each other and it even crashed on me once or twice. For a game that’s already moving at a snail’s pace, for it to make you sit through even more waiting seems like an unnecessary punishment.

I am interested to see how Pillars of the Earth changes as it releases its next two episodes. As it stands, it presents a layered story filled with complex, well-written characters and an art style that is one of my favourites of the year. It takes forever to get to the damned point which means it certainly won’t be for everyone, but if you can marshal yourself long enough to get through it, you will find yourself rewarded.

Score: 7.0 out of 10
Highlights: Great story; Great characters; Great art
Lowlights: Some technical hitches; Plot speed is outpaced by continental drift
Developer: Daedalic Entertainment
Publisher: Daedalic Entertainment
Platforms: PS4, Xbox One, Windows PC, Linux, Mac OS X
Available: Now

Reviewed on Windows PC.


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David Smith

David Smith is the former games and technology editor at The AU Review. He has previously written for PC World Australia. You can find him on Twitter at @RhunWords.