With the first part of the White March expansion for Pillars of Eternity, Obsidian Entertainment has a chance to expand upon one of the best RPGs around. Unfortunately, these new adventures are almost indistinguishable from the questing and killing on offer in the main game. This isn’t entirely a bad thing given the game's superb foundation, but while I enjoyed most of my time in this snow-draped environment, something was missing. The setting was new, but I felt like I was finishing off leftover side quests that didn't make the cut the first time around. The saying "been there, done that" came to mind.
Just as Pillars of Eternity is a modernized take on the iconic Baldur’s Gate games, The White March is reminiscent of Icewind Dale, at least when it comes to the frigid, mountainous setting and game's combat-heavy focus. In the White March, your party must head up to the frigid mining town of Stalwart and deal with an ogre infestation so the local residents can return to the Moria-like Durgan’s Battery. Inside lies the fabled White Forge, which is used to make a legendary alloy known as Durgan Steel. Stalwart and Durgan’s Battery are accompanied by Russetwood and Longwatch Falls, but these wildernesses are lackluster, dotted with a few quest locations and encounters--none of which feel inspired. Stalwart itself is quite barren and fails to stand out; there are a few huts, a tavern, a merchant selling equipment, and a handful of citizens offering side quests. It's suitable, but it's nothing Pillars of Eternity veterans haven't seen before.
The majority of The White March's side quests fall into two camps: defeat a horde of enemies, or retrieve an item. These tasks aren't interesting or original in and of themselves, but you do meet two characters along the way who provide a welcome dose of color and personality: Zahua, a monk with a penchant for psychedelics, and a metal automaton rogue inhabited by the soul of a female serial killer known as the Devil of Caroc. Unfortunately, their participation is minor; Zahua does little aside from adding spacey, drugged conversation to your wanderings, and The Devil's backstory, while fascinating, is only briefly explored. At least the main quest is more interesting, involving a spooky search for a dead dwarf and a trip to the haunted ruins of Durgan’s Battery. Thanks to a great deal of emotional dialogue, along with poignant visuals and audio, these moments stuck with me. Maybe it was the booming of bells and the eerie chanting of fallen dwarf spirits, but for a moment, it felt like I was peering into Pillars of Eternity's version of the afterlife.
Like the original game, the voice acting in The White March is disappointing, with characters speaking in monotones, or with emotion that conflicts with the text on screen. Every character in the game has a bit of a bad attitude, too, which gets a little depressing after a while. Despite the game's retro veneer, the mood is a long way from the bright colors and heroic derring-do of classic tabletop role-playing.
On the bright side, party-AI issues have been addressed. Now you can adjust the AI for each character, using aggressive and passive settings. I appreciated this more than the original system, but the battles are often tough enough to demand a steady hand on the wheel at all times. You're occasionally thrown into battles that the game doesn't prepare you for; a group of renegade cultists obliterated me during my first few run-ins with them, and I also spent a couple of hours fighting a gang of undead enemies backed by a group of specters. It's good to be challenged, but the sharp increase in difficulty during these encounters blindsided me. It doesn’t seem right that I could plough through the monsters and undead dwarves in Durgan’s Battery and then get slaughtered by a gang of outlaws or a random assortment of undead during a standard side quest. As a result, it’s probably better to hold off diving into the White March until after you have wrapped up the original campaign. You can scale the difficulty for higher-level parties, as well, so you can still maintain a serious challenge once you hit the game's level cap.
It's easy to sell the first installment of The White March short when comparing it to the main game, because it just feels like more of the same. While that isn't a deal breaker, as the adventures here would have fit almost seamlessly into Pillars of Eternity proper, this first expansion is a little too predictable and a little too rough around the edges. More innovative side quests, a little more work to fill out some of the settings like Stalwart, and a main plot that either tied into the main storyline or offered a noteworthy change of pace could have made this expansion something memorable. Even though it gives you a chance to revisit one of the best RPGs in years, The White March Part 1 ultimately feels like a missed opportunity to expand that greatness into new territory.