by Sergio Brinkhuis
reviewed on PC
A strain on new love
Pathfinder:Kingmaker is an experience that has you experience the highs of sheer joy and the lows of extreme frustration. It has the potential to charm a generation of cRPG players and touch upon the greatness of Baldur’s Gate, a game that in my mind is still unequaled after two decades. It has some bugs and balancing issues that keep it from reaching that bar, but if you let that stop you from playing, you’re doing yourself a disservice. Let me tell you why.
It took me all of about 10 minutes to fall in love with Pathfinder: Kingmaker. The presentation is absolutely fantastic; The interface, the in-game aesthetics, the writing and the voice acting - everything felt warm and atmospheric in such a way that I felt I was living a rich fantasy tale. I had flashbacks to when games were still a marvel to me, when each new game I played showed a leap forward in design, storytelling and was full of new ideas waiting to be explored.
Shortly after, Pathfinder was starting to put a strain on that love. Frequent bugs, crashes when loading saved games and a complete lack of difficulty balancing during the opening act tortured me to the point that I almost gave up on the game. I persevered and continued playing, as much for the sake of this review as for wanting to find out what was beyond the first act where kingdom management promised to kick in.
Like freshly baked cupcakes
That extra play time gave the developers time to patch some of the bugs, but they did little to bring balance. In my first half hour of play, a random encounter had me facing off against some Matriarch Spiders that I could not harm at all, not with weapons, not with spells. As I was on a timed quest - for some unholy reason Pathfinder has a few of these - I loaded up an early saved game and proceeded my rush along the map to complete a plotline quest before its deadline ran out. I got stopped dead in my tracks, again, by a giant, near impervious monster that ate up my party as if it were made up of freshly baked cupcakes. After the umpteenth attempt at killing it I decided to give up. On default difficulty settings, situations like these are par for the course. I have never loaded saved games this much in my life!
I started reading up on why the game was so punishingly hard. The developers released a statement that it was intended to be really hard and recommended players to save often. I’m not convinced. I feel there’s been a bit of “developer blindness” going on, or perhaps there was no time to do proper difficulty balancing. Presenting new players with such impossible odds does not motivate, it deters. Fortunately there is a way to incrementally lower combat difficulty. One notch down was enough to make me relish the challenge of meeting enemies in combat without yanking my hair out. That impervious monster was still making mashed potato out of my guys so I had to come back to him later, but at least I started winning more and loading less.
Fewer loads proved to be a turnaround in how I felt about Pathfinder. It’s the long load times that are Pathfinder: Kingmaker’s biggest scourge right now. Between the frequently lost battles and the constant switching between the main game, the campaign map and the kingdom management mechanics, the game seems to conspire against keeping its players immersed. Needing to load so much less helped staying immersed in the otherwise wonderful game world that Owlcat Games has crafted for us.
Do an epic pose
With my frustration levels sinking, I started enjoying what the game had to offer. There’s so much goodness here, it’s hard to know where to start. The voice acting is incredible and while the interaction between characters is somewhat limited, what is there is both really well written and excellently performed. I particularly enjoyed Linzi, a chaotic good halfling bard that chronicles your travels. You’ll see her spinning her tale after major events, but she’s equally enjoyable when she’s just out adventuring with you. I had my first good chuckle in the game when, in the midst of battle, she asked my party to “do an epic pose” because she needed inspiration and her banter has not gone stale after 80 hours in the game.
Pathfinder: Kingmaker also features some of the best day & night cycles and weather influences I’ve ever seen. When the rain pours down, you’ll feel miserable and depressed, when the sun comes out, the warmth on the screen will fill you with joy and purpose. And the weather is not just for show either. Your party will move much slower and lose effectiveness in the rain.
I also loved how many of the fights simply do not play out the way you think they will when they start. The first time I noticed this was when I encountered a random group of bandits who I decided to tackle head on. I rushed my tanks into their line and directed my ranged fighters and spellcasters to pick off their mage. I was so focused on that mage that I did not realize that two new melee bandits had popped up behind my ranged guys until one went down. In another encounter, six simple-looking kobolds had me surrounded. My team now experienced enough, I figured it would be like taking sheep to the butcher. It turned out that all of them were grenadiers throwing ‘area of effect’ fire grenades. I almost lost my party. And those are just examples of random encounters. Boss fighters are fun and surprising almost without exception.
Care for the kingdom
Where Pillars of Eternity dabbled in kingdom management, Pathfinder: Kingmaker puts it center stage. Your position as ruler is fully dependent upon your ability to make your subjects thrive and keep them safe. You’ll be building multiple settlements and be tasked to deal with threats and follow up on opportunities. Some of these are simply a case of assigning the right advisor to a specific task or problem, at other times they involve new storyline quests that see you adventuring out in the world with the party of your choice. It’s a constant balancing act in which your choices, victories and failures determine whether you’ll still be ruler tomorrow. You let control slip and you’ll lose your kingdom.
Best of all, you’ll care. When word arrived that trolls started raiding villages, indiscriminately killing my people, I instantly felt protective and wanted to go out and deal with the threat myself, which the game allowed me to do. In another occasion, I angrily stampeded off towards some witch who was said to have abducted a child. Once there, the woman was not someone I’d have a cup of tea with, but I wasn’t convinced she had done anything wrong either. I had to get to the bottom of this!
Care for the game
When I first started playing, Pathfinder: Kingmaker drove me bonkers – I was ready to give it a low score. I even figured I had to be suffering from some mild case of masochism to keep coming back to a game that was actively working against me enjoying it. The slightly lower difficulty setting saved the day though, and with the patches released to date, Pathfinder’s (still many) strengths far outweigh its shortcomings. Still, I cannot help but feel there is a 10 out of 10 game on the other side of my issues with Pathfinder: Kingmaker. It still has a way to go before it reaches its full potential but the vision the developers had for the game is starting to come through; A punishingly hard game, quite unlike anything we’ve seen, that satisfies craving for a deep, engaging and well written cRPG.
Deep, engaging, and potential to grow
Many bugs, poor difficulty scaling, atrocious load times