Review – Pathfinder: Kingmaker

After being launched unlauded in a month filled to the brim with games, with nonexistent advertising campaign, and having started with a Kickstarter that nobody knew happened (this is my favorite genre and I only found out due to luck), Pathfinder: Kingmaker is a way better game than it has any right to be. As this year has seen the fantastic Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire and the Definitive Edition of the sublime Divinity: Original Sin II, Kingmaker finds itself with some extremely stiff competition as it is. The chances for success with Pathfinder’s first attempt at a proper CRPG, from a brand new and unknown studio, did not look promising all things considered. Yet, against all those odds, it manages to not only trade blows with its brethren successfully, it brings enough to the table on its own to make it a serious contender for any RPG fan’s time.

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There’s plenty of skill check shortcuts around the larger maps, making travel faster IF the dice are on your side.

The Pathfinder ruleset was created after the disastrous launch of Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition alienated many players who wanted something more traditional. Built upon 3.5, Pathfinder made its name on its class building complexity, breadth of the rules, and its overall number heavy play. Somehow Owlcat Games managed to successfully carry all that over into Kingmaker, making one of the most complex RPG’s after Neverwinter Nights. One look at the character creation screen, which is one small step away from a straight up Character Sheet, is enough to tell you what kind of experience you are in for.

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A single class’s level path. Not even counting for Class Archetypes…….

With a staggering 14 classes, each of which has 3 other variants, and 6 prestige classes on top of those, all a 1 for 1 with the table-top for progression, numbers, and choices to make, the character creator is one of the most robust ever put into a game. Multi-classing is of course present as well, further increasing the insane number of choices you can make at any time. All of those hideously broken combos from table-top have a new place to thrive. There’s a total of 8 races to choose from as well, 11 skills to train in, and your standard 6 attribute system. Character creation can take a very, very, very long time.

Once you’re past the monumental milestone of making a character and reach the game proper you’ll notice two things at first. A. that the game’s fun, but it’s nothing special except for………B. WOW this game is unbelievably punishing. The former is an issue, as it does indeed take a few hours of “Baldur’s Gate, but not” in order to get to the Kingmaking part of the game, but after that things change up for the better. However, the latter is a significant issue and directly caused by being such a faithful Pathfinder conversion, it comes with the absolutely brutal low level play. The game does include a very impressive array of difficulty options to try and help, but even on Very Easy, you are going to have a bad time. On top of that, the timing, movement, and line of sight rules are all ruthlessly enforced in combat, to a much higher degree than almost any other RPG. This is an unexpected level of complexity for most CRPG fans that will make things even tougher.

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The camping system is especially cool (and a huge step up from Pillars), with you assigning your party to specific roles to hunt food, stand watch, camoflauge it, or other specialized tasks. It feels like really making camp.

The main game after the lengthy prologue is split into two parts. You spend most of your time running around the wilds, claiming new regions for your growing kingdom, righting wrongs (or committing them if that’s your choice, the game’s very flexible about that), and otherwise doing CRPG things. The other half of the game is what sets it apart: the King part. Meeting with your advisers, taking requests in your throne room, making alliances and treaties (to conveniently break if you so choose, something your “allies” won’t hesitate to do as well), and doing those things that people who build kingdoms do.

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Interludes and some game segments are told via storybook Choose Your Own Adventure style, ripped straight out of Pillars, where they are a fantastic way of delivering more personal storytelling and working skill checks right into main play. 

The best part of it is how authentic the power progression feels. The game does a damn fine job on the Kingdom level, making you feel like you’re making decisions and then dealing with the resulting consequences. Time is your most valuable commodity and not your friend, unlike virtually every other RPG out there. There’s no running away from the main quest for 30 hours and then returning at your leisure. Quests have time limits, or a specific time before they activate and usually bad things happen if you ignore them. The same applies to Kingdom events. You have to regularly return to court, take requests, build things, and appear engaged, otherwise your populace will grow restless. When populations grow restless, history shows they enjoy rioting. Naturally this is a bad thing and can lead to the destruction of your kingdom, which is also an actual event you have to worry about.

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If they’re not with you, then they’re your enemy! Or something.

While it sounds like a lot of busy work, it works so damn well you don’t even notice it. There’s a sense of urgency usually absent from the genre and you find you want to participate. Juggle your adventuring life with your rule, choosing what kind of King you are and what kind of Kingdom you foster. Choose to focus on expanding your borders politically or militarily, or ignore expanding for the moment and focus on building up your power base. It’s not quite on the level of an actual strategy game of course, but is by far the definitive version of the merging of Kingdom Building and RPG, which is good because Spellforce 3 was a resounding disaster. It doesn’t feel like two separate modes, the two merge and interact beautifully.

Pathfinder: Kingmaker is exactly what many fans of the genre have been asking for years for. A fantastically in-depth RPG that’s a near conversion of the entire table-top ruleset, accompanied by an equally in-depth kingdom building tool that allows for real decision making both on the throne and in the wild. While not perfect and with a high barrier of entry both in its high difficulty at lower levels and the quantity of rules and situations most RPG’s streamline, once you master them you’ll see it manages to go blow for blow with some of the genre’s best.

Graphics: 7.0

The effects are eye-catching and the backgrounds are nice, but the character and monster models seem simple and cheap. However, all equipment shows up on you which is a welcome change from most CRPGs. The UI is both fantastic looking and functional, while the parchment style of the menus helps add greatly to the game’s immersion.

Gameplay: 10

 Table-top rules are all there and enforced correctly, character customization and build options are almost unprecedented. The Kingdom building layer manages to meld naturally with the game and actually feels like you’re making choices building and expanding. The monster variety is great with powers and abilities scaling up with difficulty, not just HP or numbers, making for a smarter tactical game.

Sound: 6.0

This game is plagued by generic fantasy music that you’ve heard everywhere else, though it’s by no means bad. Voice-acting on the other hand, is mostly awful, with a few exceptions like Linzi. It’s for the best that less than half of  the dialogue is spoken. Sound effects are no better or worse than you’d expect.

Fun Factor: 10

This is tough. For fans of the genre, this is a near perfect representation of the format in digital form. No punches pulled to streamline the ruleset, dice rolls can ruin your life, character gimping is very easy, and the game is just plain hard. The feeling of success against all odds though makes it all worth it and the power fantasy of ruling is well conveyed. For those willing to put the time in and learn the rules will have a good time, but for those who prefer a more simple experience stay well and far away.

Final Verdict: 9.0

Pathfinder: Kingmaker is available now on PC through GOG and Steam.
A copy of Pathfinder:Kingmaker was provided by the publisher.