A Revival of a Genre?
Pen and Paper RPGs have a long, often bizarre history. From the dystopian metropolis of Shadowrun to the Satanic Lucifer summoning potential of Dungeons and Dragons, this unique blend of rules and imagination has enthralled many to join the hip and happening hobby. The ’90s were brimming with PC recreations in the glorious form of Baldur’s Gate, among many others, however times are tough and as the decades have come and gone, the genre mostly went silent. Until fairly recently that is. Pathfinder: Kingmaker is the latest in this modern revival worth a gander?
No – but not from lack of trying. The game has oodles of systems and mechanics in place that certainly do an admirable job at giving the game a serious amount of spit and polish, therefore giving the player a soon-to-be-crushed sense of hope. But ultimately, things fall apart quite quickly, and never really pick up. Although, I should probably give some context as to why, and how.
Creating a New You
One of the games strongest aspects is absolutely it’s terrifyingly deep character creation screen. As an avid Pen and Paper player in my teens, this multi-faceted wall of dense, girthy text was not quite as intimidating as it may be for newbies, but it still gave me quite a shock on startup. To create your main character, you have to choose between 9, before picking a class from a list of 16…with each having 4 distinct subclasses bringing the actual total to a hearty, Nintendo approved, 64. Then you have 11 skills to ponder over and then a few feats to choose, of which there are about 50 available to trawl through out of a whopping 100+. Now, if you made the decision to be any magic-using character you even get the joy of picking schools of magic, what spells you want to start with etc. etc. It took me about an hour to get through this on my first try, and I inevitably scrapped the character several times before settling on the charming, Toast The Suave Bard. He was a charmer of ladies, confuser of men, and master of mind-bending illusions – just like in real life.
If all of this is a tad too confusing, or you simply want to jump right into the game, then Pathfinder: Kingmaker comes with 5 premade characters that cover your basic RPG archetypes like a Fighter, Cleric, or Wizard. Whilst a nice inclusion, it would be nice if there had been a few more characters to choose from, especially as there are so many classes available. Five simple feels a bit too limiting.
Opening the Story
Once all of that kerfuffling has been dealt with, you can dive into the game and its story. You have been invited to join an expedition to reclaim the “Stolen Lands”, a place of brigrandry and monsters. A bandit chief known as “The Stag Lord” needs to be ‘convinced’ to bugger off and in return, you will be granted supreme power over what one can only assume will be renamed to the “Reclaimed Lands”. Things go awry quicker than a Neverwinter Nights expansion when assassins start assassinating…well…your team of assass-I mean diplomats. Talks of spies, betrayal, and tomfoolery get thrown around and you set off on your merry journey with a few survivors.
The plot starts strong. It is fast-paced, has plenty of action, intrigue and introduces a bunch of characters very quickly, and immediately gets their unique personalities to shine…apart from Valerie who I only wish I could have left to burn with the rest of the wood during the introduction. After replaying this section, it even has a surprising number of optional dialogue that only crops up if you go out of your way to actively avoid some of the deception that goes on, which is a nice touch indeed.
What’s more, the story remains very strong throughout. It may seem like a generic, run-of-the-mill fantasy plot, but it quickly proves to be more than that, and with the focus on backstabbing gnome todger wombles at the start, helps break that ‘been there, done that’ vibe. When the soon to be discussed Kingmaking gets introduced, things really start picking up in terms of grandiosity as well, which again, keeps things interesting. The issue the story has however, despite its strong opening hour, is pacing. The game grinds to a halt constantly, especially during the middle portion of the game, and this comes from a mixture of poor storytelling and gameplay grievances.
Gameplay With Issues
You see, despite having deep customization, and a pretty interesting plot, Pathfinder’s gameplay, specifically its combat, leaves an awful lot to be desired and ultimately hindered my enjoyment of the title by quite a bit. Like titles of yore, Pathfinder’s combat is real-time, although you can pause at any time to issue commands and survey the battlefield. This allows you to engage in tactical thought, plan positioning and drop abilities and spells with ease during the heat of battle. Problems start cropping up when you factor in difficulty.
Simply put, combat in Pathfinder: Kingmaker is either too easy or leans on the side of somewhat difficult. Most combats require 0 input by the player. You can let your party run forward and hit whatever gribbly is in your way, and you will win with minimal damage and no strain on your resources. When things get hard, your input increases, but your engagement remains mostly the same. This is because when enemies get tougher, you die immediately, or you drop buffs and then destroy them with ease. What this boils down to is running into combat, killing everything without issue until you bump into something that kills you. Reloading, buffing your party to high heaven, and then killing everything without issue. It is never satisfying, and I got incredibly bored, incredibly quickly. The game does come with an optional turn-based mode, however this does nothing to fix any of the issues the game has. If anything, the game gets worse as combat gets even slower. An interesting, but disappointing inclusion.
The tedium doesn’t end there however, as even the act of exploration verges on self-inflicted baldness inducing. Dungeons and larger outdoor areas are a nightmare to navigate due to their sheer size (dungeons more so). These areas are jam-packed with enemies and are covered in traps that do nothing but hinder your progress. If your party doesn’t detect a trap, be prepared to be in for a world of hurt. If they do, be prepared to wait for your designated trap disarmer to fiddle around for a few seconds. Of course, they can mess up, forcing you to wait longer, or when things get really bad, trigger the trap anyway.
These traps do a number of annoying things, such as drain your health forcing you to burn through resources or impede you in a number of frustrating ways. The most annoying of which are web traps. These buggers cover an area in webs, obviously, and then your party will be trapped there for about 5 minutes. Sure, every now and then your characters can take a test to overcome the sticky gloop, but I can assure you with almost 100% certainty that your dwarven cleric will fail this test, forcing you to wait the full 5 minutes. Pathfinder has no way to speed up gameplay, so you are quite literally doing nothing, for five minutes, at regular intervals.
Bad game design that only gets worse when you factor in the solution to this problem. You can cure this ailment with potions, enchanted equipment, and spells. Easy, until you realize that these potions are rare and prohibitively expensive, equipment with the specific enchantment is rare, and likely not going to be found early on, and the spell required only become available after many, many hours of play, and is only castable by specific characters you might not have with you. These hindrances start cropping up within the first hour, depending on what route you take through the game’s quests.
Needless to say, Pathfinder: Kingmaker has zero respect for your time, which is made all the clearer when you start to get frustrated at the game’s unchangeable speed. Characters move around the world as if they’re slowly sinking into a bog making backtracking, exploring, and existing at all a chore. This is made even more apparent in combat as things seem to move even slower, and attack animations take an eternity to even startup, let alone collide and do damage. Spells can take well over 10 seconds to cast and nothing ever feels like it has weight or impact. Your barbarian wielding an ax 5x the size of the gnome you are about to hit may as well be holding a fistful of overcooked noodles.
Thankfully the art of Kingmaking manages to be both deep, interesting, and easily the best aspect of the gameplay. You have a surprising number of things you can do and allocate your time to. Stakes are also a factor, as if you don’t pay attention to your fledgling lands, it will literally burn to the ground quicker than you can cast magic missile. It is a shame the game’s story takes a hit in the pacing department during this part of the game, but other than that, it is quite the highlight.
Finally, as this is the Definitive Edition of the Pathfinder: Kingmaker you are graced with a bunch of extra goodies – namely DLC. These extra gubbins provide you with hodds of additional content that ties in perfectly with the events of the main game. If you enjoyed your time with Pathfinder, then the inclusion of even more Pathfinder is certainly a welcome one.
For all of its flaws, Pathfinder: Kingmaker at least manages to nail its presentation. The game is gorgeous with beautiful, varied backgrounds, retro-inspired portrait art, fantastic lighting, and a slew of enemy designs. This is easily the best looking game the genre has ever produced and manages to deliver a modern take on a classic, ’90s style, without sacrificing their distinctive feel. When I saw my spells leaving magical debris on the ground, I knew that I was in for a visual treat.
This comes with a bit of a niggle unfortunately – performance. Whilst I found it difficult to consistently differentiate between whether the game was dropping frames, or just moving at its naturally tortoise-like pace, frames were certainly getting left by the wayside at regular intervals. This is rarely an issue in the grand scheme honestly, especially when compared to the loading times, which seem to go on for an eternity. It can take well over 10 seconds for an area to load up, more if you are saving or loading your game. Hilariously enough, the game has a quick load and quick save feature which didn’t actually reduce the time for either action had you done them normally.
When it comes to its sound design however, Pathfinder: Kingmaker really does knock it out of the park. The music hits every fantasy note you’d ever want to hear and really brings back that feeling of adventure that only this genre can really instill. My favorite aspect has to be the brilliant voice acting though. Every actor is fantastic and hams up their performance just enough to give off this sense that they could be starring in a pre-Lord of the Rings movie production. It’s great to listen to, and I found myself wanting more voiced lines, as unfortunately, most interactions are silent blocks of text.
I did not enjoy my time with Pathfinder: Kingmaker for the most part. DLC aside, if you wanted to play this game to completion you are looking at a whopping 200 hours or so of content, but when you factor in padding, bad game design, slow everything, and pacing issues then that 200-hour mark feels like a lot of wasted time – which is Pathfinder: Kingmaker in a nutshell really. What this game does well is dragged down by the myriad of things it does poorly. This is simply not a game I can recommend.
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Many thanks go to Koch Media for an XBox review code for this title.
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Forged in the rainy wilds of northern England, I carved a path of mediocrity through generations and genres. My play style is often described as: “optimistically awful”.