Platform: PC (reviewed)
Pathfinder: Kingmaker is a complex game to review – not just because there’s a lot to it, but also because it’s still evolving.
Your experience may be quite different than mine, as it will probably be a very different game. With that said, my experience leaves me with two regrets. First, playing the game in its launch state was a chore and constant slog, as I fought showstopping bugs and questionable game design choices.
Second, based on what I experienced of the game so far, I can see the fantastic game that Pathfinder: Kingmaker will eventually become. I wish that experience was my only one, because that game is the kind of cRPG that will be spoken of with reverence, in the same breath as titans of the genre like Baldur’s Gate.
Finding the Path
I grew up playing the Bard’s Tale series on a Commodore 64, worked my way through (most of) the Gold Box games, and played a handful of the Ultima series from III to VI. It’s necessary to mention this because Pathfinder: Kingmaker hearkens back to a golden age of gaming where the visuals were meant to bring tabletop Pen-and-Paper experiences – complete with dice rolls and other mundane mechanics – to life. Younger gamers may not appreciate those qualities. Those of us who hold Baldur’s Gate as one of the giants in cRPG gaming will understand why there’s so much to enjoy in P:K.
Gamers who are familiar with the Dungeons & Dragons rules – specifically 3.5 – will feel right at home with P:K. The gameplay is styled as a tactical RPG presented in an isometric top-down view. The player controls a party of up to six characters that travel to various areas to interact with NPCs, go on quests, and engage computer-controlled opponents in pause-and-play tactical combat. This means that the player can pause the action, give orders to characters, and then un-pause the action and watch his or her characters execute those orders.
Success or failure for almost every action is based on dice rolls relative to character attributes. For example, picking a lock may require a dice roll of 20 to succeed. However, if the character attempting the lock pick has a high Trickery stat of 15, then a successful roll is 5 and up. This concept continues through other aspects as well, including attacks, speech checks, and contextual actions like determining if a character successfully crosses a log spanning a rushing river. It can be heartbreaking to fail a lock pick and have to wait until the character levels up to try again.
The player begins the game by choosing from a set of pre-made characters or by constructing their own. If the player chooses to make their own character, then he or she is soaked in a deluge of meaningful character choices but not given much guidance in making those choices.
There are seven races to choose from, each with their own advantages and disadvantages, which is straightforward enough. But then a class or profession has to be chosen, and there are 14 that are initially available. Each of those 14 classes further breakdown into four specialties, and present their unique character progression to the player via icons at determined levels.
Because those icons do not sufficiently explain how they impact the character, the player has to mouse over the icons and read lengthy tooltips. After that, the player allocates ability points to six attributes, like strength and dexterity. Going above certain values costs more initial ability points, but also nets higher modifier values that are added to dice rolls. There are also skill points that need to be allocated to 11 skills that also affect actions, like disarming traps or being able to use a magic wand. There’s so much to take in here, that newcomers will probably end up spending points haphazardly just to get to the actual game.
Gameplay is spent mostly in four areas: dialog, travel/exploration, combat, and kingdom management. Depending on the player’s playstyle, these areas of gameplay won’t be equal. Nevertheless, the categories don’t need much explanation. The player speaks to NPCs to learn about their needs and be sent on quests. Travel is handled by a map system that gives a tabletop PnP feel and opens up areas for more comprehensive exploration.
During those times, the player comes across monsters and other opponents that need to die. Finally, when the player acquires some land, he or she has to make decisions about how to rule, assigning allies to certain tasks, and picking specific structures to be built in certain locations. There is a lot to do in P:K, and this is a game someone can lose themselves in.
A Refinement on a Winning Formula
Pathfinder: Kingmaker is probably the closest spiritual successor to Baldur’s Gate to date. Dragon Age: Origins captured much of the same spirit, but also felt too streamlined to accommodate a different audience. Pillars of Eternity felt like a return to form, but missed the mark on the writing, seemingly aiming more for Planescape: Torment with overly described actions and expressions. Instead, P:K just feels right, offering the right blend of role-playing and “roll playing” with archetypal characters that are easy to relate to.
Of course, there are vast improvements that make P:K a more refined experience. Inventory management is improved, providing encumbrance concerns without having to search individual party members or containers for specific items. It’s also pleasant to see NPCs react to the player character as he or she walks by. In fact, it’s just nice to see more personality throughout – even party members have unique emotes when they’re idle.
Graphically, the game takes a step further in crafting a moody experience. Foreground objects like tall trees or ruins sometimes obscure the scene, helping to convey a real sense of space and environment. Foliage reacts to characters as they walk through, spells look truly fantastic, and weather effects add another dimension to the world. The game probably won’t win any awards for its presentation, but it definitely leads the pack in this genre.
One area that was very impressive was the amount of customization available to the player in regards to the experience. There are several levels of difficulty to choose from, ranging from story to unfair. As you can imagine, story takes most of the difficulty out of the challenges, while unfair is simply punishing. Beyond that, the player can customize the difficulty even further, increasing some aspects while decreasing others. My PC-gamer heart was warmed by all of these options.
At the time of this writing, there is some debate on whether or not the difficulty is just right or filled with spikes and needs balancing on the Steam forums for P:K. The developers claimed that Normal difficulty was how the game was designed to be played, so that’s why I ran with for my rogue. I immediately felt something was wrong when my character was getting killed during the prologue. One of the issues is that the game doesn’t start the player off with a “tank” companion. So, if the player roles a glass cannon, then every encounter is going to be unnecessarily hard. And at level one, glass cannons are just glass. So, when my meager party of a rogue, mage, and bard got wiped by three attackers, I assumed it was unavoidable and part of the story. Nope. They just got killed by a superior force. I’d have to fight that battle several times, doing my best to game the AI in order to continue.
Issues like this kept popping up and slowing down my progress. Sometimes I’d be traveling and run into a random encounter of werewolves without any silver weapons to fight them with. Other times, I’d run into simple bandits who could chop through my team in two rounds. It didn’t make sense that my level two party would be encountering such ferocious enemies. Keyboard warriors on the forums simply advised to run away. While that’s certainly an option, it does take away from the heroism aspect of the game when your party can’t even handle a few bandits.
Other design problems included fighting enemies that could only be killed using certain methods which were not clearly explained. One early quest has the player exploring a cave full of spider swarms. These swarms can only be damaged by area effect weapons and spells, like acid flasks or torches. So, if you’re party wasn’t equipped correctly, you were essentially dead. Add bugs that would crash the game to desktop, and the initial experience left much to be desired.
Continuous Support from the Developers
Despite the technical and gameplay issues, Owlcat Games has been engaged with the player community to address the problems. Patches have been released at a steady clip to squash bugs and add story elements to help balance out some of the design problems. For example, an NPC will now warn the player about the spider swarms and equip the party with acid flasks to combat the monsters.
Because of Owlcat’s determination to make Pathfinder: Kingmaker the best game it can be even post-launch, I am confident that the experience will continue to improve. It’s just a shame that paying customers had to help bring these issues to light. Perhaps it’s wise to wait a few more weeks before adding this game to your library.