Reviews

Pretender to the throne — Pathfinder: Kingmaker review

Tabletop RPGs like Dungeons and Dragons have had a tremendous influence on their digital counterparts, from the creatures that inhabit their worlds down to the rules of the game and the words we use to describe our characters. Translating those RPGs directly into video games can be extraordinarily tricky, though, not least of all because no rule set can ever be as versatile as a human game master calling the shots. Most computer RPGs pare down their rules and their scope to accommodate these differences, but Pathfinder: Kingmaker stubbornly clings to its tabletop roots as much as possible.

From its outset, Kingmaker thrusts players into a thicket of arcane rules with next to no explanation, and its meandering narrative comes to resemble a long-running campaign spanning several disconnected adventures. Its refusal to water itself down makes Kingmaker compelling, but in the absence of a game master to benPBSd the rules for the sake of its players, it can also be a punishing, directionless affair.

Kingmaker starts off with what may be the most daunting character creator in video game history. There are dozens of classes to choose from, each with several sub-classes that can fundamentally alter the way they play. When you select a class, you’ll see a roadmap of how it will progress, complete with long, complex descriptions of abilities that you’ll unlock hours from now, then choose your starting stats and skills with equally scant guidance. Even if you’re the type of person who knows that you like to play, for instance, a mage in every RPG, you’re still left with a whole mess of options, from a bow-wielding Eldritch Archer to a disease-spreading Blight Druid. If you’re already acquainted with Pathfinder’s tabletop rules, you’ll be on firmer footing, but the uninitiated can expect a steep learning curve. Even after spending half an hour carefully exploring my options in the character creator, I still ended up abandoning three different characters a few hours into the game before settling on one I could really jibe with.

The game proper will be familiar to anyone who’s played a cRPG before, from classics like Baldur’s Gate to stars of the genre’s recent revival like Pillars of Eternity. Controlling your character and a handful of comrades, you click your way through a variety of beautiful but mostly static backgrounds to solve puzzles, uncover treasure, get into fights with weird creatures, and define your alignment through conversations. Several hours into the game, it also unlocks a kingdom management aspect. Kingmaker doesn’t do anything revolutionary with any part of its gameplay, but all of its separate systems work well. Like most cRPGs, it’s transparent about the ways that you can manipulate its environment, but leaves you enough slack to figure out how to do so. Anything that you can interact with will be marked with some kind of icon. If you can move a statue, crawl through some foliage, or pull a lever, you’ll know as soon as you get close enough to it, but the game will never plop a quest marker over an NPC you need to talk to or give you step by step instructions on how to complete a quest in your journal. The effect of this is that you’re never left wondering whether you’re able to reach a certain area or pick up an object; you’ll only ever have to figure out how to do it.

Your characters’ stats play a big role in how successfully they’ll be able to navigate their environment. When you stop to make camp, which you’ll have to do often to keep your party in fighting shape, your ability scores determine how well you can hunt, cook, and conceal yourself from danger. Climbing cliffs or lifting gates might require a check of your dexterity or strength, respectively. It can be frustrating to be locked out of content just because you didn’t build your characters a certain way, but it also opens up an incredible amount of variety. Approaching the same challenge with different characters can completely change the outcome, depending on their strengths. Realistically, it’s easy enough to represent all of the most relevant skills across your entire party anyway, so there’s not much that will be completely inaccessible. Still, there are enough of these skill checks to make smart stat investments important. When your party comes across an especially difficult or interesting challenge, the game will shift to a choose-your-own-adventure interface and you’ll be asked to make a series of choices, often containing skill checks, to determine how they proceed. These sections are usually when the biggest divergence can happen due to your skills. You might just miss a treasure or take some damage, but in other circumstances, you can change the course of your whole campaign with just a few selections.

Choices in dialogue can be equally weighty, and they have their own kind of gating, in the form of alignment. Though strict alignment systems have fallen out of favor in much of the tabletop world, Kingmaker embraces the concept. When you create your character, you decide where they fall on a spectrum of Good to Evil and Lawful to Chaotic, which represents, roughly, how much they want to help others and how much they respect authority. Some classes, such as Paladins, can only be chosen alongside certain alignments. You’ll sometimes come across dialogue options that you can only select if you’re already inclined a certain way. More frequently, you’ll find that dialogue choices inch you closer to one alignment or another. Pick responses that don’t mesh with your chosen alignment enough and your alignment can shift, possibly closing off certain dialogue options or alienating your allies. While alignment systems can be stifling in improv-heavy tabletop games, Kingmaker’s functions pretty well. Since a computer game already offers such an infinitesimal fraction of the freedom of a tabletop game, there’s less fear of an alignment system arbitrarily cutting off options. It also provides a way to contextualize the small number of possible behaviors in terms of a universally constant alignment. You’re not just stealing from merchants and telling the town guards off because you’re a jerk; you’re practicing the immutable principles of your Chaotic Evil alignment. This kind of guidance actually helps define a consistent character when you’re sometimes forced to choose actions that you don’t necessarily want to just for lack of better pre-programmed alternatives.

Alas, words alone can’t solve every conflict, and that’s why we have magic missiles. Kingmaker uses a real-time-with-pause combat system that lets players decide how much they want to get into the nitty-gritty of each battle. If your party is up against low-tier enemies like a pack of wolves, you can pretty much let things play out on their own and give orders at your discretion, but when you’re facing a barbarian horde or damage-resistant magical beast, you may want to slow things down for more fine-grained control. When you’re in a tough battle and giving lots of commands, combat can be thrilling, but the system has a lot of downtime built in as you wait for turns to end so you can queue up your next action. Over the dozens of hours that a full playthrough will take, combat doesn’t evolve that much, so it inevitably comes to feel like a bit of a chore. Especially when you’re just trying to push through to the next story beat, the game can feel weighed down by the number of lengthy fights against anonymous foes.

Yet even low-level enemies could end your journey if you’re not careful. Kingmaker is difficult in a way that can feel almost negligent. It’s easy to wander into a battle that you have no chance of winning because you don’t have the right gear or the right party members. The world is full of enemies who are resistant or outright immune to different damage types, and it’s not always easy to pin down why your party is doing as much damage as a bee sting to them. There is a combat log in the corner of your screen that constantly tracks all of your actions and their associated dice rolls, but there are so many variables to your chance to hit and damage roll that sometimes it can only really tell you, “you’re doing it wrong.” If you get completely stuck, the game’s difficulty is highly customizable, but buffing your party with an options menu will never feel satisfying.

Like combat, the story sadly abides by a quantity over quality approach. At the start, the writing is great, both in terms of characterization and in laying the groundwork for a plot that will eventually spiral out of control. I wouldn’t even say that the writing gets worse as the game progresses. Like the combat, it simply becomes overwhelming after a while. Once you complete your initial quest, in which your objectives are pretty clear, the story takes on the wandering quality of sandbox tabletop campaign. New threats start appearing out of the mists, from trolls and ghosts to neighboring kingdoms, each feeling pretty isolated from the one before it.

The story starts simply enough: You’re part of a loose expeditionary force being sent into a lawless territory to claim it as part of a violent imperial struggle at the behest of a noble family. So, not the most heroic of endeavors to set out on. The game establishes what it needs to tell a fairly complex story with aplomb, but it relies heavily on long exposition dumps that span several click-through menu options, each laden with lore terms that can only be understood by reading their associated lengthy tooltips. Writing quality aside, at no point does the game try to grapple with the fact that it casts you in the role of a colonizer. Your explicit goal is to kill the de facto rulers of an “unsettled” area called the Stolen Lands and exploit the area for its natural resources, taxable population, and strategic political value. Aside from the bandits who rule over the Stolen Lands, we also meet a merchant family and a couple of priests. Presumably they aren’t the sole inhabitants of the Stolen Lands, but our heroes are unconcerned with what the people living here want. They’re out to tell them what to do, after all. The game puts forth startlingly little effort to sell this as anything other than an expansionist plot by a foreign ruling class. It simply says that this land is ripe for the taking and expects the player not to have any problem with it. It’s not entirely fair to say that no one even voices opposition to your invasion, but those who do are generally nothing more than obstacles to overcome.

Once you depose the region’s leaders, you claim the Stolen Lands as its baron or baroness and start deciding the course it will take. The kingdom management portion of the game certainly makes it distinct from its peers, but it brings a slate of its own problems. To make proclamations, you must first appoint advisors to such areas as military, finance, and religion. Then, you select from a number of projects and events that demand their attention. Some events can be completed by one of several advisors, while others can only be handled by one, and once you commit an advisor to a task, you can’t call them back until it’s finished.

Throwing a wrench in the whole system is the fact that many events have to be solved in a specified time frame, often within a few days of your receiving them. If all of the eligible advisors are occupied elsewhere, you simply can’t resolve that task. And since you need to be physically present in your territory to assign tasks, you can miss out on them just by being too far away when one is presented. Ideally, you can shape the course of your kingdom (as a military powerhouse or one with strong social supports, for instance) by choosing which of your advisors to resolve various tasks, but since their success is based on a dice roll, you’re always better off just choosing the one with the highest multiplier. Further complicating matters, you need to expend a certain amount of Build Points to complete tasks or build structures in your territory, meaning you have to keep progress to a slow crawl to ensure that you can always take on the next project or risk missing out on an important development. At its best, the decisions you make in this layer of the game do have meaningful impacts on the rest of the game; either changing how quests resolve or offering you entire new towns to explore, but the weight of your decisions never goes beyond gameplay. When, early on, you choose whether to ransack a temple to local gods or encourage its use as a place of worship, it does affect your future interactions with advisors and the space itself, but the game again fails to wrestle with the implications of such a choice even being yours to make at all.

Most of the game’s emotional weight falls not on your character’s actions but on their companions, who are a real mixed bag. Your potential party members are a diverse bunch, from the stoic Valerie to the free-spirited Octavia to the megalomaniacal Nok-Nok, so you’ll likely find at least one to get attached to. However, they’re not nearly as reactive to your actions as I would have liked, and building a relationship with any of them mostly just falls to how often you agree with them in dialogues. Not that most games have set the bar higher than that, but it’s disappointing to see how by-the-book the relationship system is. And while these characters do grow to some extent if you complete their personal quests, they’re mostly pretty one-note. To me, the most effective bits of character interaction were the small conservations that take place when you make camp for the night. Your character doesn’t participate in these little skits, but as party members chit-chat while going about their work, you get your best sense of who they really are outside of their relationship to your character.

A lot of my problems with Pathfinder: Kingmaker come from it just feeling stretched too thin. I was excited at the beginning of my quest, eager to tune my character and set out with my party, but that excitement faded step by step. No single element of the game spoils it, it’s just that it goes on for so long without variation, and none of the systems that drive the game are interesting enough to fill the 100 hours it could take you to finish if you stray from the main quest line. It’s a game with a grand scale and royal ambitions, but it never asks you to consider the implications of your unilateral control. If you’re more comfortable in the mantle of a monarch and willing to settle in for a glacially paced journey, you may enjoy Kingmaker more than I did, but there are better cRPGs out there vying for your time.

65

Alright

Pathfinder: Kingmaker

Review Guidelines

Pathfinder: Kingmaker sets up an epic story, expansive world, difficult combat, and lively characters, but all these elements eventually become tiresome. Its unforgiving difficulty and strict adherence to Pathfinder tabletop rules will likely turn away more players than it attracts, and while its kingdom management sim sets it apart from similar RPGs, no part of the game ever feels wholly original. Despite boldly putting players in the role of a king or queen, it never engages enough with the consequences of your decisions, or whether you have the right to make them at all.

A committed indoor kid, Bryan moved from Pittsburgh to Los Angeles for a prettier landscape to ignore. He can be lured outside with promises of taco trucks and film festivals, and enjoys trawling through used book stores for works on the occult. Bryan has been gaming since the SNES era and is a sucker for good pixel art.
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