Finally, a worthy successor for Neverwinter Nights 2
I had been putting off reviewing the game for quite some time. Finishing the main story, I felt exhausted, yet satisfied that I couldn’t write a comprehensive review straight away. Afterwards things kept happening, forcing me to push this review further back. Now that things have finally slowed down for the holidays, I can catch up and give my thoughts on the game.
As the sub title reads, Pathfinder: Kingmaker is a spiritual successor to Neverwinter Nights 2 and other asymmetric CRPG (Computer Role Playing Game) of the type. The genre had lost its prominence in the early 2010s, as large studios and publishers pivoted away from what was one of gaming’s staple genres and to first person military shooters (Call of Duty clones), butchering beloved intellectual property (*cough* Bethesda *cough*) or making mediocre third person science fiction shooters (hello BioWare).
By the middle of the decade though, the genre was seeing a revival with Shadowrun Returns unironically leading the charge, followed closely by titles such as Divinity: Original Sin, Torment: Tides of Numenera, Tyranny and The Age of Decadence to name those I managed to play. However none of them managed to capture that feeling of epicness that the Neverwinter Nights series held for me. That is until Pathfinder: Kingmaker.
Pathfinder: Kingmaker is set in the world of Golarion, a fantasy world that would be familiar to any fan of Neverwinter Nights though there are many subtle changes and different histories involved. As I wrote before, its an asymmetric CRPG employing modified D&D (Dungeons and Dragons) rule set. I haven’t played either the original or the Pathfinder tabletop versions but from my playthrough the skill system is far more simplified and some changes were made to mechanics such as poison (which I will whinge about later on in the review).
Like any CRPG, the game starts with the player creating their custom character, picking appearance, class and putting points into skills and attributes. Nothing out of the ordinary. There isn’t a huge choice for customization, reminding me of the original Neverwinter Nights but considering the fact the game had been crowdfunded, easy to forgive. The meat of a CRPG, after all, is in the story.
That said, the Pathfinder system seems to have several interesting classes that differ from the D&D third edition, with some enticing multi classing options that would thrill veterans of the genre. I am not ashamed to say that I was tempted at times to deviate from my pure, two handed backstabbing rogue build, though I persevered.
Once done customizing the character, you begin the game in the starting location which serves both as a good tutorial and a hook for the story.
The player starts in the city of Restov as another adventurer lured by the call of the Spellswords, the rulers of the city, to form an expedition to the Stolen Lands; a region bordering several kingdoms that none had been able to lay, or more importantly maintain, claim to. Now a stronghold of bandits, the Spellswords wish to clear the area and install a friendly regime in place to keep the peace.
Of course, in the company of outcasts, mercenaries and vainglorious adventurers, tension rise from the start only to be further exacerbated by an attack on the mansion by unknown assailants seeking to disrupt the expedition. Indeed, there is something ominous about the Stolen Lands and their reputation, not to mention that the Spellswords seem to have an ulterior motive for sponsoring the expedition.
Under such ill portents the player and a small party of adventurers set out to the Stolen Lands to pacify the region and build a kingdom. Unknown to them, the Stolen Lands are not named so lightly, and many secrets lay buried under their surface.
Reading the setting, its easy to see why I love the game’s story. It hooks you in with intrigue, mystery and of course, a deceptively simple premise. Adventurer called to clear some bandits and set up an outpost in the wilderness is a great framework to hang a story on and the developers took full advantage of it. The story itself grows almost organically from this simple start, each twist and turn not just surprising, but fitting and makes sense when put in context of the greater narrative.
I don’t want to reveal too much since I feel any further detail written may spoil and thus detract from that first, crucial, playthrough. However since story is the life blood of a good CRPG, its important to at least discuss some of it. Pathfinder: Kingmaker has a great story, filled with that epicness I wrote about earlier on. It may start as a simple, almost bog standard quest but it saws seeds of mystery and intrigue from the start that pay off later on. I can’t recall a single plot thread that didn’t end up with some satisfying pay off or led to the grand reveal near the end.
This is no small praise considering just how long the story is. We are talking easily 60-120 hours of gameplay, depending on individual ability, difficulty and whether or not the kingdom feature is enabled and all side quests are pursued. To make a story so grand and interesting that I’d still be invested in it even after a lot of repetitive busywork speaks volumes on the quality of the writing, and it is superb.
Characters in particular are well crafted. Considering the size of the game, you come across a great deal of them and each is written with interesting backstories, side quests and even satisfying resolutions (depending on choice). The companions in particular feel like real people, with differing ideologies, philosophical stances and motivations. They even interact with one another during travel and camping, adding more flavor.
A party is only as good as the people comprising it and the game furnishes you with ten characters (11 with DLC) to choose from. Though you have an option of generating generic companions via the Pathfinder Society (in exchange for gold, of course), the base game, I feel, supplies you with good enough characters that I never took that option. The companions are AI controlled but can be given orders by the player, have their own classes and can be either level’ed up by the player for those who know what they are doing, or automatically level’ed up by the computer.
Each of the companions have their own reasons for tagging along for the adventure, their reasoning revealed in their quest chains. These side quests hold revelations about the companions and can influence them. They deal with many themes such as societal rejection, letting go of the past, finding out one’s roots, enacting revenge and suffering its consequences and so forth. Each and every companion story was an emotional roller coaster that felt at times satisfying and horrifying. Some of these companion quests can be quite tragic. Not every story has a happy ending.
The player can have up to five companions with him on an adventure, the rest remaining in the main hub area when traveling. The companions can be customized with gear, their AI tweaked and their inventory filled with whatever necessities (or junk) the player needs. There is also a communal chest to put gear in that is accessible for all the party, requiring less tedious micro-managing and item swapping between inventories. That said, the “size” of the communal trunk depends on the collective strength attribute of the party. Companions can also serve as advisors in the kingdom.
One of the main features of the game is the kingdom interface. Once you pacify the Stolen Lands, you become their ruler, awarded with a keep, construction points and the task of ruling the region. The game does well to meld the kingdom management aspect to the overall story. That said players who wish to focus wholly on the adventure aspect can turn off the kingdom management if they wish, a useful feature, especially for replay.
The kingdom can be managed through the kingdom interface tab, but only from the throne room, requiring the player to visit their capital frequently (like a true ruler). Every month there will be problems and opportunities. Problems are negative events that will hurt the kingdom, decreasing stability and affecting various stats such as community, military power, culture, commerce and so forth. If continuously ignored, the kingdom will be destroyed and the game will be over. Opportunities on the other hand can be ignored as they only give bonuses to the kingdom and if skipped, won’t result in any issues.
To resolve problems or pursue opportunities, the player must assign an advisor to deal with them. Companions can be appointed as advisors, as well as certain characters the player encounters throughout the story (some of which even I didn’t know you could recruit!). Once an advisor is chosen and assigned, they will resolve the event within the allotted time. In-game time passes either through the kingdom tab or via traveling in the overmap.
As the game progresses, the kingdom will grow, necessitating more advisors, expanding territories and founding villages which act as rest stops on the map for the party (as well as places to settle vendors). These villages, and the capital, can be upgraded with various buildings that affect the various kingdom stats. Building them is tricky as they require Construction Points (CP for short) generated by the kingdom on a weekly basis (or by converting gold into CP) and have adjacency bonuses if placed near other buildings. Since the building screen is grid based, and changes depending on terrain, it can get messy.
Sadly, buildings do not change the look of the villages or the capital, which is a missed opportunity. The system itself isn’t too complicated and can be rather shallow at times. As much as I did enjoy some of the events and stories contained within, I don’t find them as memorable as the main story or the companion quests. I feel like there is something that, in a future iteration, may be expanded upon, but I don’t begrudge anyone turning off the feature.
I mentioned the overmap before. The Stolen Lands, where the game takes place, are a region with many points of interests. Each place is a crafted level, with travel facilitated by the overmap. The overmap won’t show every location as it is shrouded at the start and only through travel will the player discover various places that can be visited and revisited throughout the game. Travel as written before, involves time and is done on pathways.
The party will grow weary the longer they travel, thus camping is necessary to rest and replenish. The camping mechanic is well implemented, allowing character interaction and assigning roles such as cooking, guarding, hunting and so forth. Different companions have different skills which may fit specific roles, with some more suited to cooking while others make great guards for example. A well rested party will get positive combat modifiers. Camping, depending on setting, also allows healing and restoring, cancelling modifiers received in combat.
A player may push their party onward but risks incurring worse and worse negative modifiers. Characters will voice their displeasure and beg for rest and you’d feel pretty guilty not granting it. Of course time is important and sometimes you must push your companion forward.
Of course the overmap will only increase in size as new lands are incorporated into the kingdom. This leaves plenty of places to explore and many quests to pick along the way. That said, there isn’t as much map variety as I’d like, and by the middle of the game you become so familiar with certain woodland clearings and mountain passes you just want to scream your frustration. Also encounters on the overmap become tedious by the late game and feel more of a nuisance slowing down progression.
I have tried avoiding talking about combat as long as I could but there is no escaping it. Combat in Pathfinder: Kingmaker is both generic and frustrating in equal parts. I already eluded to it when talking about story but Pathfinder: Kingmaker doesn’t really do much with its combat mechanics, using instead the template that many CRPGs use, that is turn based combat playing out in real time with option to pause and queue actions.
While being generic as it gets, for the first couple of playthroughs I tended to die a lot, almost giving up at points. Now I am not the most elite gamer, putting myself squarely in the average category, but I have experience with CRPGs and I never recalled dying as often in other titles as I did in Pathfinder: Kingmaker. Thankfully the game comes with a robust difficulty setting, allowing you to pretty much tweak everything.
Part of the problem is the way poisons are implemented in the Pathfinder system. It seems poisons not only affect attributes, but can stack. Since every second creature in the game uses poison, you often find yourself quickly losing all your attribute points in say, strength or constitution, leading to your character’s death (or if you decreased difficulty, unconsciousness). This led me to both despise poison and prize any item that gave me protection from venom.
Even after tweaking with the settings and getting better at not dying from poison, the game kept being rather difficult. The difficulty can spike if you ignore certain events, such as a troll invasion early on. I kept thinking that I could concentrate on kingdom building while ignoring it but it soon ballooned, not only threatening my kingdom but infesting every area in the map turning every visit to a level into a glorious last stand against a tide of green and gray, forcing me to restart the game.
Even in my next playthrough, I didn’t really experience a breakthrough until chapter four. I was still struggling with the difficulty, clearing a final dungeon and getting wiped out time after time. After the umpteenth attempt and death, I loaded a save before the start of the dungeon and traveled back to my capital where I bought all the scrolls, potions and weapons I needed. After re-configuring my party I traveled back to the dungeon. I won’t say that I immediately triumphed but I would later clear it with only a couple of attempts (after wiping to the final boss). It was this moment that led to an epiphany of sorts. The game wasn’t difficult on purpose, I was simply playing it wrong.
Its the curse of modern gaming that makes you believe that however you play the game, you could win every engagement with a bit of ingenuity and some luck. The “play it your way” design has atrophied my brain because Pathfinder: Kingmaker isn’t that difficult the moment you prepare properly for the encounter. The game gives you all the tools to defeat its dungeons, but you need to put the effort.
There is a reason why the game gives you four weapon slots, unlike the usual two most games of the type allow. There is a reason why there is a communal trunk, not to mention bags of holding for extra storage. There is a reason why there are different groups of weapons outside of just proficiency, such as cold iron or silver. Once you realize all of that and do your homework in the game, you are more or less set to defeat every challenge the game throws at you, so long as you employ your brain. With this shift in perspective I was able to enjoy the game and die a lot less, which I think is a point in the game’s favor. That said, that point gets sullied by the repetitiveness of combat, which as I pointed before, can get dismal at later levels.
That said, anyone that played the game on unfair difficulty with the Last Azlanti option turned on and actually finished the game is a god among CRPG players. That or an extradimentional being.
Saving Private Scum
Talking about difficulty one must talk about the robust save system Pathfinder: Kingmaker employs. I haven’t seen such a good system in years. The game will auto save before entering a level, keeping up to three concurrent saves at default. This means you never lose too much progression upon wiping out. It also has a similar quick save system. Both can be increased to up to 25 each, giving you plenty of choice if you need to reload or take a different path.
At this point the system is so good that I pretty much going to look down on future CRPGs that lack it. It is indispensable and another point in favor of the game, as well as a mitigating factor with its difficulty (unless you play Last Azlanti at which point you are pretty much a mad person). Its also quite useful for dealing with the consequences of story and side quest decisions that may ripple unfavorably for you later on.
I wrote that the lifeblood of a good CRPG is its story and writing. While this is true, what really separates a good story, from a truly epic one, is not just the scope of writing, but its depth. This involves the situations and choices the game confront the player with. Not just powerful enemies and bad odds, but unavoidable choices and laws of unintended consequences. The game has both in spades, not once forcing me to confront what I deemed moral and good.
This is aided by the alignment system. Alignment is a feature of most D&D games and though I have some issues with the concept, I do understand its necessity. That said in Pathfinder: Kingmaker the alignment system is fluid, rather than strict. Though not a new concept, Pathfinder: Kingmaker implements it quite masterfully with an alignment wheel that allows the player to track the change in their alignment.
Alignment is important in D&D both for magic, deity influence and of course, decisions. Some decisions in the game can only be unlocked through your current alignment, while others will affect your alignment. The game uses this extremely well, in particular with a few companion quests. Since companions have different alignments and viewpoints, its no surprise that their aims and wills will run contrary to the player, their quest lines reflecting this. There are some hard choices to be done. The real mastery is making a hard choice and feel justified with it, but at the same time regretting it. Without spoiling, Pathfinder: Kingmaker has these as well.
On Graphics and Other Things
By this point I pretty much exhausted most of the things I wanted to mention and discuss in reviewing the game. Its no surprise I left graphics to the end because its so miscellaneous in comparison to everything else that I really didn’t see the point in dedicating a section for it. The graphics are what you’d expect from an asymmetric CRPG from the late 2010s – pretty. The graphics are okay. They are passable. They never detracted from the experience but I don’t think they added anything to it. Both them and the art were passable and did their job. There was never a moment I thought “gosh, this is ugly” but I never had a moment where I thought “gosh, this is beautiful”.
The only thing I can mention in regards with graphics is some glitches with cloaks but this is just getting petty.
Other than that there isn’t much else to say. I did play with some DLC (Downloadable Content) and expansions such as Beneath the Stolen Lands which added a dungeon in which you must clear levels and go deeper into the belly of the earth to slay a creature of pure nightmare and madness. It had good writing, good loot, plenty of challenge and many tragic tales as you learn of the fate of previous adventurers that braved the dungeon. The Wildcards adds another character with interesting backstory and its own quest line and resolution within the story. The other expansion, Varnhold’s Lot adds a ~20 hour campaign where you get to play the events leading to chapter four from a different perspective that I didn’t touch because the main game had exhausted me enough and I felt satisfied with the ending I reached.
I mentioned crashes, and the game did crash for me a couple of times but always after extended playthroughs (after more than six hours) which I don’t think many gamers would run the risk of incurring. Thanks to the save game system I didn’t lose much progress.
Its hard to sum up such an epic game and I feel like my review left a lot to be desired but if I continued to rattle off this post would be as long as a novel. Suffice to say that Pathfinder: Kingmaker is an epic fantasy CRPG with great story, interesting characters and terrific writing. It has bog standard combat system with some difficulty issues but a great save system to compensate. Its not graphically or artistically exceptional but does its job and I have enjoyed it immensely. That said combat can get tiring near the end, and many locations are repeated. Also at launch it seems to have been quite buggy but I played more than a year later during the v2.05 implementation and didn’t encounter any bugs.
I feel safe recommending this to any CRPG fan or gamer who wants to experience an epic story done right, a la Lord of the Rings style. I don’t want to do scores but if you twisted my arm I’d give it a 9 out of 10, deducting a point due to the repetitiveness of combat. Enjoy!