I’ve always wanted to delve into the intricate and complex world of Pathfinder – I have the Beginner’s Box gathering dust on my bookshelf, have a few location maps, and have even created a character with my absolute beginner’s knowledge… But never have I had the chance to actually sit down, learn all of the required mechanics, and get a proper campaign up and running…
…So imagine my surprise when I was given this key to review.
Pathfinder: Kingmaker is a CRPG (Computer Role-Playing Game) in the same vein as Diablo and Pillars of Eternity, developed by Owlcat Games and published by Deep Silver, this Kickstarted title aimed to introduce the wonder and strategy of the original tabletop RPG, and translate it into the medium of videogames – No mean feat, at all, especially where so many other tabletop franchises have lived and died by the sword of poor reception in the gaming sphere. Allow me to preface this review by being totally honest – My inexperience with Pathfinder as a franchise coupled with my inexperience with CRPGs doesn’t bode well, but as my first CRPG experience, how does Pathfinder: Kingmaker fare?
For one, I feel I need to start off with my first impressions of the Pathfinder world and extensive lore, and it’s translation in videogame form, then move onto my experience of Pathfinder: Kingmaker as a CRPG – To begin, Pathfinder: Kingmaker is an absolutely gorgeous title in terms of graphical fidelity – Environments are lush, nicely detailed and extremely well lit, with beams of light coming through cracked rocks and holes in caverns, flickering torches burning crisply, and weather being rendered excellently; this, however, gets paralleled with what I can only call dated character models – Creatures and beasts throughout the world are sizeable and extremely well detailed, but player character models are extremely blocky, and have a limited range of customisation options (More on character creation later) – It’s probably a moot point, as this was most likely an intentional decision to cut down on performance impacts due to the scoped-out camera, but it does look a bit off in character viewing menus like your inventory.
Character creation is translated near perfectly into the videogame format, with you allocating skills, stat points, spells, classes, equipment, race, character portraits, subclasses and so much more. It’s almost baffling looking at the vast amount of information that’s thrown at you at once, making the game a tad bit inaccessible for newcomers into the CRPG and tabletop formats… But what did you expect? Tabletop titles are notoriously complex, so it’s no wonder why character creation is this detailed. Saying this, however, the actual character customisation leaves a lot to be imagined – You can select one of five preset characters, or create your own, where you can choose one of 28 different character portraits (Also shared a few major and minor characters in the story), 12 hair colours, 7 skin tones, 3 body types, 6 face types, and 10 hairstyles… Including 9 beards if you choose a male character, at the expense of 1 additional hair style and 3 more face types…
It’s honestly slightly upsetting to see such a lack of customisation here, especially given the extremely diverse and mythical lands of Pathfinder’s source materials; I was seriously hoping for at least a few RGB choices for my character’s hair and clothing, but in the end of the day these are the cards dealt to you. The number of classes, however, does eclipse this issue somewhat with it’s pure scale – There are roughly 80 classes to choose from, once you’ve unlocked everything, making your journeys throughout the 5 default difficulty modes, and customisable difficulty mode, all the more sweeter – It’s just a shame that no matter what, the basic story will always be the same. It would have been good to have an option to start anywhere in the world and try to make your own way out of whatever situation you land in, however the plot of Pathfinder: Kingmaker, and the game design, would unfortunately prove this to be an impossible feat.
The main concept of the story is, initially, that a tyrannical bandit king known as the Stag Lord has taken domination over the Stolen Lands, a sort of non-political dead-zone that lies between opposing kingdoms; a mysterious Swordlord by the name of Jamandi Aldori has tasked a hall full of budding adventurers with taking down the Stag Lord, claiming the Stolen Lands, and ruling over it as a new nation, with her assistance and political interests at heart – Soon after this, the manor where this conference is being held is ravaged by assassins, seeking to eliminate Jamandi, killing off a majority of the attendees and guards in the manor, leaving but two small teams to navigate the Stolen Lands and to defeat the Stag Lord, with the team who return victorious claiming ownership of the new kingdom – From there, you’re able to build up your kingdom and explore the inner mechanisms and politics of the world of Pathfinder, and advance on more and more dangerous quests, both combat-wise and politically.
The issue with this narrative, however, is that you get a three month time limit imposed upon you; fail this, and it’s game over. Simple. With this, the game becomes far more about prioritising your navigation and finding suitable encounters to overcome and to level up as much as possible for the final acts of each narrative thread instead of exploring, taking time to sink into the world, and to appreciate the finer details like the characters or narrative; everything you do in the game is tied to this overarching time limit, with movement, camping, exploring, resting, fighting and all combat grinding down this ever-present timer – This issue is magnified, however, when you pair it with the game’s bad difficulty scaling, or lack thereof, and the requirement to hit a specific level to be able to comfortably finish the current narrative act in enough time; encounters come in two forms, either tied to a quest or specific location, or randomly by traversing the overworld – The problem here, though, is that you soon run out of enough quests to do, and end up having to farm random encounters to grind your experience up – It’s a bit annoying as all that time is potentially wasted time, but there’s no way to control it other than forcing yourself to do every quest possible.
This moves me to my second issue with Pathfinder: Kingmaker’s design – There’s no indication about level requirement or difficulty upon entering an area, or even a random encounter. Too many times did I run into a quest area, and quickly get totally eviscerated in a series of blows because I wasn’t meant to be there yet. It was extremely frustrating to have to retry even random encounters over and over again because of bad RNG or the enemies just being vastly superior to my feeble characters. I suppose, however, that this is par for the course with hardcore tabletop RPGs, especially one translated into a CRPG. For the record, as well, I was playing through on the Normal difficulty, so God help whoever challenges this game on Unfair.
In terms of narrative, Pathfinder: Kingmaker is a bit of a treat for fans of traditional branching dialogue trees – Much like Morrowind, the game features a number of diverse morality and skill-based dialogue choices affected by your stats and class, important information or quotes being able to be investigated in more depth for reminders or to look further into the lore – It’s a form of dialogue choice I’ve sorely been missing from modern games, and I’m extremely happy to see it return – Even if a few of the dialogue choices can be exceptionally cruel or drearily heroic – It’s an appreciated touch and one that can help newcomers like me really delve into the lore of this world at our own pace.
The supporting cast, as well, offers a diverse range of dialogue that can range from abysmal to actually extremely enjoyable – Take for instance Amiri, the Berserker, who can be boiled down to “I hate men” and “Bring me meat”; it’s extremely one-dimensional, however on the other side of the coin you have the Bard Linzi, who goes to great lengths to indulge you in her passion for recording the ‘true history of heroes’, reviling at the modern interpretation of a victor’s events and for autobiographies being purely positive reflections written “By a friend of a friend of a friend”; it’s odd to see, but you can see where the focus lied when they were crafting the main band of heroes and villains for the story.
Pathfinder: Kingmaker is a bit of an odd beast for me to summarise my thoughts on – For one, I feel that my inexperience with CRPGs and Pathfinder in general will impact my overall decision, but there are genuinely glaring positives and negatives coming from this title not only mechanically, but also narratively and systematically – Pair this with a lot of backers having experienced a number of bugs throughout their journeys, from saves corrupting, to them automatically and randomly being deleted, to balancing issues, and it makes this choice an extremely hard one. Note, however, that throughout my current playthrough, I’ve yet to experience any of these issues.
The range of customisation for the underlying systems is extremely impressive, with it having some of the most extensive difficulty customisation I’ve seen in a good while, character creation that is ramped up to 11 (Even if it is let down by poor character customisation), a varied number of narrative routes and locales to explore, and a cruel and relentless difficulty that feels rather imbalanced, all compressed under a strict time limit for the most part. For my first CRPG, Pathfinder: Kingmaker tore me a new one, but I’d be lying if I said I had an unenjoyable experience – It’s made me interested in a subgenre I’ve yet to explore, and introduced me into a mystical and lore-filled world full of interesting characters and narrative journeys to embark on.
For the criticisms and praises above, I’ll be giving Pathfinder: Kingmaker an: