For those with patience, there's a wonderful story of political corruption, self-discovery, and religious reliance to be found in The Pillars of the Earth. However, for anyone with a short attention span, it'd be hard to recommend this game as its slow pace and often drip-feed-style storytelling can make it tough to get through. Stick it out, however, and you find that this first episode (of three) hints at a larger, more meaningful story to come.
Based on Ken Follet's 1989 novel of the same name, this adventure game gives you control of two characters with intertwining stories. The first of which is Philip, an abbey Prior who's more or less responsible for a war between two English settlements. Philip, while sometimes unsure of himself, is portrayed as a considerate, mindful character. His counterpart is Jack, a child who's grown up off the grid, living in a cave with only his mother. Jack is far less sure of himself and, at the encouragement of his mother, hardly trusts the world around him.
Following these two characters is a highlight of The Pillars of the Earth, seeing the way their stories eventually come together and influence one another. But it's the story at large and its cast of secondary characters that make this world worth inhabiting. Each environment, scene, and character also has their own unique, hand-painted look to them, often with grand senses of scale and depth.
Set in the 12th century, The Pillars Of The Earth tackles plot points both grandiose and granular. After King Henry I of England dies without a set heir, his nephew and daughter feud over which of them should take his place. This clash causes turmoil in England, leading to eventual wars. And while political strife makes up a lot of the overarching story, The Pillars Of The Earth isn't afraid to dive deeper into its characters, showing quiet, intimate moments where, for example, Jack learns about his upbringing or Philip writes letters to his brother. The dichotomy between these two layers keeps you--for the most part--intrigued along the way.
A large cast of unique characters fleshes out this tale, adding secondary layers of motivation to the game's story. Within the first few minutes, you meet all of the the monks at Kingsbridge cathedral, where Philip has been named Prior. Each of them has a unique relationship with Philip, and it's your job to navigate their conversations and form alliances whenever possible. Furthermore, Jack's uncertainty about the world combines with his childhood curiosity. These moments are helped along with strong voice acting and a wonderful script that's packed with emotion.
And yet despite the interesting characters and stories that await, it's still difficult to wholeheartedly recommend Pillars of the Earth. While it's certainly not uncommon for adventure games to forego action for narrative, The Pillars of the Earth moves at a snail's pace. There is drama, but little in the way of tangible tension.
And unfortunately, there are a slew of technical issues to contend with along the way. Loading new environments often slows the framerate down to a chug (on Xbox One), and characters would sometimes talk over one another, making it difficult to follow either line of dialogue. The game also enters a load screen nearly every time it plays a new scene, which is a lot. For a game with an already slow pace, this can really hinder a lot of interest as you're forced to sit through extra screens and endure poor framerates just to get to the next story beat.
It'll be interesting to see how The Pillars of the Earth evolves over its next two episodes. As of right now, it's crafted a fascinating story full of great characters. It might not be a game for everyone as it deliberately chooses to take its time getting to the point. However, if you enjoy gripping dramas, and don't mind sitting still for a bit, The Pillars of the Earth will reward your patience with the beginning of what appears to be a fascinating tale.