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Originally designed as an alternative to the 4th edition of Dungeons & Dragons, Paizo Publishing's pen-and-paper Pathfinder Roleplaying Game was released back in 2009. With its robust fantasy world of Golarion and a rich ruleset based on the modified 3.5 edition of D&D, it's quite surprising that we're getting our first Pathfinder cRPG just now.
Released on September 25, 2018 after a successful Kickstarter campaign, Pathfinder: Kingmaker is that game. It was developed by Owlcat Games, a Russian studio that consists of numerous industry veterans and Pathfinder enthusiasts, with the help of such notable individuals like Chris Avellone and Inon Zur.
During the campaign, Kingmaker was said to be inspired by Baldur's Gate, Fallout, and Arcanum, and after spending roughly 100 hours with the game, I can safely say that those weren't just marketing buzzwords, even though Arcanum's legacy is mostly represented by an abundance of bugs of all sorts. Still, out of all the games released in the past decade or so, in my opinion Kingmaker comes closest to recapturing the magic of those classic cRPGs.
Quite an endorsement, I know, so if you're interested in a detailed breakdown of what makes Kingmaker worthy of such praise, you should read on.
Rules of Engagement
If you're at all familiar with Dungeons & Dragons or any video game that uses that particular role-playing system, figuring Kingmaker out will feel like putting on a pair of cozy old slippers.
Some people call Pathfinder “D&D 3.75” and that comparison is fairly apt, I think. Without any prior Pathfinder experience, it didn't take me long to familiarize myself with Kingmaker's rules, create a character, and jump into the action.
The biggest differences you should be aware of, and this combines both Pathfinder rules and Kingmaker's implementation of them, are that single classes are now more desirable due to strong class-specific abilities, you get way more feats, each basic class comes with three distinct archetypes, and teamwork feats are a thing. The latter give your characters considerable bonuses when two of them have the same feat. There are plenty of other minor differenes, but if you know the basics, you should be able to figure those out with some experimentation.
For someone who enjoys character building above everything else in an RPG, just seeing all the options filled me with absolute joy. Multiply that by twenty levels of progression and a party of six, and you get a game where you can spend hours just on the character creation screen alone. And the best part there is that the game doesn't hold your hand and allows you to make bad decisions. This sort of thing leads to highly memorable playthroughs where in order to win, you first have to deal with an extra bit of challenge you have no one but yourself to blame for. But, if that doesn't sound like your thing, you can also just pick a premade build and be sure that it will be at least somewhat competent.
Now, when it comes to difficulty, Kingmaker offers six difficulty settings ranging from Story to Unfair with plenty of custom options on top of that. You can adjust the damage your enemies deal, the severity of their crits, their armor class and saving throws, and so on. Whatever your skill level may be, you can fine-tune the game to offer you the right amount of challenge.
What you should also keep in mind is that when the game says challenging, it means it. You won't need to play on the highest difficulty level just to avoid left-clicking your way to victory. In my experience, the “Challenging” difficulty should be your starting point if you're familiar with the classic cRPGs - you'll get some fairly tough encounters and will need to plan ahead and use your resources with some consideration, but you won't need a min-maxed party to finish the game.
Speaking of encounters, the game's combat follows the classic real-time with pause formula seemingly taken straight out of Baldur's Gate. It even includes the good old 6-second rounds intended to simulate the turn-based nature of the pen-and-paper game.
Thanks to the existence of these self-contained rounds, the game's combat is easy to read and follow, so you're rarely confused as to what's going on and what your characters are doing at any given moment even when things get pretty hectic. Which happens fairly often. The game's enemy variety is absolutely fantastic and you keep encountering new enemy types and sub-types all the way till the very end of the game. You have to constantly adjust your tactics based on who or what you're facing, be it a fort full of bandits, a house-sized owlbear, a bunch of tiny venomous spiders, a cyclops lich, or an army of angry barbarians.
At times, you may even feel overwhelmed, but let me offer you this piece of advice - no matter how grim things may seem, your spellcasters have all the answers. An appropriate buff, a couple of touch spells, or a well-timed barrage of magic missiles can win even the toughest of fights. Now, you may perhaps be disappointed to not find any complex mage battles in Kingmaker like you remember from the Infinity Engine games, but even so, Kingmaker's spellcasters are immensely useful and you should never underestimate them.
Magic items are also an important component of your success, and Kingmaker has plenty to offer in that department. You will find sackfuls of enchanted gear on your journey, and while a lot if it will just offer you simple numerical bonuses, there's no shortage of unique items that you can build your entire playthrough around. For example, early on you'll be able to find a certain bow that despite its measly +1 enchantment can stay with you till the end of the game and bring more to the table than most of its +4 or +5 counterparts.
With Kingmaker's fantastic class variety elevated to the next level by all the cool gear you get your hands on, I had to constantly fight the urge to restart the game and just play around wth different build and class combinations. To me, this is a mark of a great game.
Mind you, the adapted ruleset and its practical combat applications aren't perfect. Some class and ability descriptions are lacking or downright confusing, certain feats may or may not work correctly, there's no way to preview a prestige class in-game before a character qualifies for it and there's not that many prestige classes to begin with, sneak attacks are perhaps a bit too strong, and so on. Still, compared to everything that the game does right, issues like these are relatively minor.
And finally, the last thing I want to mention when it comes to Kingmaker's rules is the new player experience. What if you're someone who never played those old games? What if you don't know how armor class stacks or why you would use a scythe over a greatsword?
Well, some may say that this game is not for you. I disagree. I still remember playing Baldur's Gate for the first time. Back then I had zero familiarity with Dungeons & Dragons, didn't know how things worked or why having less armor meant you had more armor (oh THAC0). And you know what? Figuring all that stuff out was some of the most fun I've ever had when playing a video game. And if you're in that position right now, you have all that fun ahead of you. Just choose a lower difficulty level and don't be afraid to start over, and trust me, you'll master the game in no time.
Story and Exploration
The game's story is based on an established Pathfinder adventure path that revolves around Golarion's troubled Stolen Lands region where nothing ever seems to go right and you, as the region's new ruler, are tasked with sorting it out. From my understanding, the original adventure path is fairly well-respected, so as the bare minimum, the game's story should have been alright.
Alright wasn't enough for Owlcat Games, so they expanded the original story with a new chapter, tightened the main story arc, introduced numerous memorable characters, and added plenty of choices and reactivity into the mix.
Now, I don't know the exact extent of Chris Avellone's involvement with the project other than he wrote one of the companions, but regardless of who's responsible for what, I greatly enjoyed the game's writing. It doesn't assault you with never-ending overly verbose paragraphs nor does it devolve into a barrage of zany quips. It's just a solid old-fashioned fantasy story that doesn't take itself too seriously. In this day and age, a story like this, one that doesn't try to subvert or deconstruct anything, comes like a breath of fresh air.
And even though most of Kingmaker's writers are Russian, the game doesn't feel translated. Sure there are numerous typos here and there, but no more than you can expect to find in any other western RPG from the past few years where it's obvious the developers decided to cut corners and not hire any dedicated editors.
This is especially impressive since there's quite a lot of text in the game, be it the traditional multiple-choice dialogues that feature plenty of skill checks and allow you to reply based on your character's alignment, or the popular these days choose your own adventure sections.
The game's story companions also deserve to be mentioned. Totaling at 11, they all have their distinct backgrounds, personalities, and voices. And despite some less than stellar first impressions, after learning a bit more about the companions during their personal quests, I was struggling to decide who to take along when going out adventuring.
Still, if you don't find the story companions to your liking, you can always just hire some mercenaries and create whatever custom party you want. Just be aware that you should do it sooner rather than later, because as the game goes on, the mercenaries become more and more expensive.
But regardless of whether you go for companions or hire a band of mercenaries, you'll spend most of the game exploring the vast and detailed map of the Stolen Lands, discovering all sorts of areas and points of interest, stumbling onto random encounters, and delving into various dungeons.
All that exploration takes time, quite a bit of it in fact. To the point where the game has actual dynamic seasons. It's a relatively minor touch, but it adds to the sense of this grand adventure that spans multiple years, and so your journey from a fledgling adventurer to a powerful king doesn't just happen in what feels like a couple of weeks.
The passage of time also means that many of the game's quests are time-sensitive. And even though the timers are more than generous, they add a sense of urgency to everything you do and make you think twice before taking frivolous detours while your kingdom is being ravaged by marauding trolls.
And that's just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. There are numerous other features that ensure that Kingmaker feels like a labor of love and not just another by-the-numbers “product.” For example, the game's journal is not a dry checklist of quests, but instead a book your party's bard writes to document your journey; resting isn't just a button you press, but an involved system where you assign camping duties to your party members; and even the monster miniatures that represent random encounters on the map don't just disappear when you defeat them, but instead they fall over and roll away.
At the same time, Kingmaker is definitely not a perfect game and has plenty of room for improvement, be it in an enhanced edition of some sort or even a potential sequel.
Despite the fact that the game's story dungeons are nothing short of stellar and some of its side areas are pretty decent as well, a lot of its optional locations are tiny and offer just a single encounter. The game clearly lacks some more involved side quests. And while Kingmaker's dialogues offer plenty of alignment-based options, its class and race reactivity is close to nonexistent, which is a shame.
Some of you may also dislike the absence of a mega city with numerous districts and quests, but personally I always feel lost in those, so I didn't mind that one very much.
And now, let's get to what I think is the game's biggest flaw - its ending that feels rushed and lacking in content, which is honestly a strange thing to say when talking about a game as massive as Kingmaker.
Still, the fact remains and is especially obvious in what can be considered the game's final dungeon that combines horrible encounter design with a lack of sense of direction and some fairly obtuse mechanics. It's like that whole area was slapped together without much consideration or testing and as a result, it can sour your overall enjoyment of the game right when you're about to complete it.
I also want to mention the unfortunate lack of item descriptions. Most of them are extremely basic and do nothing for the game's atmosphere. A sword is just a sword and a mushroom is just a cooking ingredient. Maybe it's just me, but having at least a few sentences of flavor text for each item, no matter how mundane, would make the game much more enjoyable. Tell me a bit about Golarion's sword traditions, explain the culinary uses of mushrooms, that sort of thing. Otherwise, the world feels a bit too mundane and sterile.
Other than traversing the land and dealing with all sorts of evils, in Kingmaker you also get a barony, and then a kingdom, of your own. Managing this kingdom is like a game within a game, a little side dish of simulation to go with your RPG.
As a baron, you will develop your lands, build and upgrade towns and villages, and make sure your people are content and well-protected. You will also need to assemble a council of advisors and use them to deal with whatever miscellaneous problems and opportunities may arise.
Another part of kingdom management are the royal artisans that act as the game's crafting system, exchanging quests and favors for valuable pieces of gear. As someone who generally doesn't like crafting, I didn't mind dealing with the artisans, and the items they created were usually worth the hassle.
All in all, kingdom management is not too complex, but it plays an important part in making you feel like a proper ruler and not just some upstart who magically solves any and all problems with a few sword swings.
Now, if you don't like the idea of managing a small kingdom, then you also have an option to let the AI manage it for you, but I don't recommend it. As an experiment, roughly halfway through the game I turned on the auto mode and soon discovered that without the kingdom parts, the game becomes a bit disjointed, where at multiple points you have to just sit in your throne room, skipping time between important events.
And now, let's finally address the elephant in the room. The game launched in a sorry state comparable to an early beta. The bugs were numerous and ranged from minor to game breaking. And regardless of who we blame for this - the developers, the publishers, or the Unity engine - this sort of thing should never be encouraged.
Still, even though the bugs are many, I honestly think that their ubiquity is greatly overstated. I started playing Kingamker roughly a week after it launched, installing new patches as soon as they became available and this allowed me to play through four out of the game's seven chapters without any major issues and just a single crash. When I got to chapter five, I experienced some finicky interactions, had a few broken side quests, and was forced to improvise some workarounds during the main quest, but the game was very much beatable.
And according to the recent patch notes, most of the bigger issues have since been addressed, so if you pick the game up right now, you should have a more or less smooth playthrough with maybe an occasional visual glitch or some minor bug here and there. At the same time, take everything I say here with a grain of salt, as this review is based on my own experiences and nothing else, and when it comes to bugs, a sample size of one is not what you'd call extensive.
Moving on to the game's visuals, while not overly impressive, they're more than competent and have a certain rustic charm to them that helps reinforce the game's fantasy atmosphere.
The sound design, on the other hand, is pretty great. Even just the opening notes of the main theme you hear when launching the game are filled with power and determination. The rest of the music, some of it composed by Inon Zur of Baldur's Gate II and Icewind Dale II fame, is not far behind. And while the game's voice acting is limited to important dialogues, party banter, and chapter introductions, it sounds great and shows plenty of character.
Another thing I want to mention is how the game handles saving. In theory, Kingmaker ticks all the right boxes - it has an adjustable number of quick and auto saves and also allows you to save the game at will. But with this being a Unity engine title, while initially saving and loading is almost instant, as you go through the game, that time can easily reach roughly 20 seconds per loading screen. I won't lie, it's less than ideal, especially when you're trying to manage your kingdom.
I really hope something can be done about this in the future, because during the tail end of my playthrough the lengthy loading times were honestly more annoying than all the bugs combined.
Even today, games like Baldur's Gate, Fallout, and Jagged Alliance 2 stand proudly as benchmarks of their respective genres, since for whatever reason, video game developers spent the past 20 years not building upon the foundation of those games, but instead streamlining and simplifying their mechanics.
No more, says Owlcat Games with Pathfinder: Kingmaker. It's time to move forward, to take the old classics as the baseline and expand them, add more features instead of taking them away. Massive, complex, and immensely fun, even a heap of bugs was not enough to diminish my enjoyment of this game.
If you like isometric RPGs, you simply owe it to yourself to play Pathfinder: Kingmaker.