I’ll admit I didn’t have the best start with Pathfinder Kingmaker. It’s an isometric fantasy RPG in the style of Baldur’s Gate that’s based on an obsessively literal adaptation of the well-regarded Pathfinder variant of the D&D ruleset. Specifically it’s an offshoot of the 3rd edition D&D rules, which I’ve intensely disliked just about everywhere I’ve encountered it (both Neverwinter Nights games and both KOTOR titles) for reasons that I’ll explain later in the review. Still, it looked very attractive and had an outstanding interface that actually tried to break down all of the 3rd edition bullshit in a halfway understandable fashion, and I quite enjoyed the first hour of the game where you do the tutorial in a mansion that’s under attack by assassins. Once you get into the game proper, though, the very first side quest you’re given is to retrieve some berries from a cave for a hermit alchemist. Not exactly glamorous stuff, but hey, you’re a Level 1 Adventurer, and you don’t get to battle gods and dragons until level 17 at least. Berry hunts are how you work your way up the adventuring ladder.
So I went to this cave, which was, somewhat predictably, full of giant spiders. Cut my way through the first couple of waves. Got in sight of the fabled Berry Bush. And it was at this point that a new enemy appeared: a scuttling collection of dots that, when moused over, revealed itself to be a “Spider Swarm”. This is a collection of normal, regular-sized spiders, and it wiped out my entire party because:
- It can’t be targeted by normal weapons. What good is a longsword going to do against a house spider?
- It can’t be targeted by single-target spells either. Only AOE spells and abilities will damage it, and since you’re level 1 you don’t have any of those yet.
- Because it’s a swarm it can hit multiple characters at once with every attack. It only does 2 points of HP damage, but — again — you’re level 1. Your biggest, beefiest fighter has 12HP. Your mages have 4HP.
- And because these are poisonous spiders each attack drains your stats, which is how the Pathfinder system represents poison. The more you fight it, the weaker you get.
In hindsight, now that I know the game, all of this makes sense. It’s even perfectly representative of the kind of game Pathfinder Kingmaker is to spring this kind of enemy on the player at level one: it relies on you knowing its systems and enemy types in order to beat a given encounter. If you don’t know, it expects you to learn, and this is why there are now tooltips in the game encouraging you to save your game a lot. You’re going to run into this type of encounter semi-frequently in your time with Kingmaker, where your previously competent adventuring party gets totally demolished by a creature with a gaze attack or a charm spell or which webs you to the floor, and where you have to replay the encounter slightly differently in order to counter these dangerous abilities that you now know it possesses.
At the time this struck me as a terrible, downright unreasonable way to design a videogame, where trial and error is built into the concept. I still think the release version of Kingmaker was pretty unreasonable; I ragequit from the game after the spider swarm encounter and went to the Steam Discussion boards to discover that half the threads there were complaining about being mugged on exactly the same encounter. The other half1 were complaining about bugs of a different kind; Kingmaker did not sound particularly polished, with plenty of broken quest logic and NPC triggers and ways to get your game into an irretrievably incompletable state. And so I decided to leave it for a while to see if developers Owlcat Games could do anything to make their hardcore Pathfinder experience a little more functional and friendly to those of us who don’t know the ruleset by heart.
Fast forward a year and Pathfinder Kingmaker has received a lot of patching, along with several chunks of DLC and an Enhanced Edition rerelease that has gone some considerable way towards making it a little bit kinder on Pathfinder newbies such as myself. For example, the hermit alchemist you get the Spider Swarm quest from now tells you about the existence of the Spider Swarm, the correct method of killing it when you’re level 1 (use fire bombs or torches) and hands you a stack of five bombs to make sure you don’t get stuck up a spider-infested creek without a paddle. It was still a huge pain in the ass to kill it, because your level 1 party is composed of cack-handed yokels who only score a direct hit with a bomb on every other attempt and you’re taking a bunch of ability damage in the meantime, but it was doable. The relative absence of similar pitfalls in the opening hours indicates that Owlcat have taken the criticism quite seriously; there’s no point in punishing players for not knowing the game when they’ve only been playing it for an hour. It’s still full of incredibly tough combat encounters that will dismantle your party in an instant if you don’t know what you’re doing, but it’s less bullish about scattering them across the critical path during the early stages of the game when you don’t have the tools to adequately handle them. Now Pathfinder Kingmaker at least gives you the breathing room to get a few levels first, which is enough to transition it away from the realms of sheer bullshit and into something resembling an interestingly knotty tactical problem.
The important thing was that I was now able to get far enough into the game to encounter Kingmaker’s key hook: you’re an adventurer who is being sponsored by the city-state of Brevoy to enter a lawless portion of the world called the Stolen Lands, depose the current bandit lord who is causing them problems, and set up your own barony on the ashes of his corpse. Once the bandits are dead you get to take over their stronghold and start building up the province, dealing with all manner of opportunities, political intrigue and monster-related crises along the way. Most things you do in Kingmaker revolve around improving your barony, whether it’s by ploughing vast amounts of money into physically constructing buildings that increase your barony’s stats, by appointing and assigning advisors to combat problems (excellently these can be the companions you don’t bring with you in the actual party, meaning they still have something to do), and by going out questing yourself to e.g. resolve the issue of trolls plaguing your lands by killing all of the trolls.
It turns out that context is important in an RPG. If you take away Kingmaker’s kingdom-building context, then the plot is actually kind of bad. Not terrible — definitely better than the garbage I just sat through in The Outer Worlds — and the moment-to-moment writing is better than I was expecting from a first-time developer, but it doesn’t flow. The game is split into seven or eight chapters, each of which throws a new crisis at your kingdom. The first crisis is the aforementioned trolls. The second crisis is huge and angry magical creatures appearing out of nowhere to attack your population. The third crisis is the rise of an undead empire. None of these crises are really connected in any way; there’s the thin thread of an overplot running through it all that finally comes to fruition at the end of the game, but otherwise its a series of standalone problems that, in other games, would seriously smack of padding or make-work. I’d be asking myself why exactly I as an adventurer cared about these trolls, and why I was consenting to be a glorified monster janitor for Brevoy. In Kingmaker there’s an easy answer, though: you’re doing it to build your kingdom, and after you’ve built it you’re doing it to protect it while acquiring some more lebensraum at the same time since defeating a crisis usually makes a new territory available for annexation. You have a personal investment in getting this shit done, not least because the kingdom-building interface is the single biggest money sink in the game and it’s where most of your ill-gotten adventuring gains get spent. It’s also refreshing to be dealing with stuff that isn’t a world-ending threat. The trolls are just trolls being trolls, even if they are being put up to it by a third party. The politics you have to deal with are the politics of human nations with human ambitions and nothing more. It reminded me quite favourably of the original Baldur’s Gate, where your primary opposition isn’t a horde of orcs or a flight of dragons, it’s a simple merchant house with an unhealthy amount of political ambition and an agent provocateur working behind the scenes.
Unfortunately the execution of the actual kingdom-building mechanics doesn’t quite match the promise of the idea. There’s a light city-builder side to it, where you invest absolutely ludicrous amounts of gold to plonk down buildings that boost your kingdom stats. Every twenty points in a stat lets you rank it up, which is desirable because each kingdom stat is associated with an advisor (usually one of your unused party members, which at least gives them something to do), who you can assign to solve problems and handle opportunities that crop up in a Facebook-esque timer minigame. A problem will take a week or two to solve — occasionally longer — and, because this is based off of 3rd edition D&D, the advisor resolves the problem by rolling a D20 and summing the result with his relevant character stat (so the Military advisor adds their Strength bonus) and the rank of the kingdom stat, and then comparing it against the problem’s Difficulty Class. If the advisor scores higher then the problem is resolved successfully and you get a permanent boost to multiple kingdom stats as a result. If they score lower then they fucked up and you get a permanent penalty to those same stats.
Watching some numbers go up or down based on a dice roll is not a particularly edifying way of representing a kingdom’s growing pains, as it turns out, especially because the way it’s set up is as a self-sustaining feedback loop that can go in either direction. If you pay attention and sink a ton of money into the city-builder side of the game early on you can get your initial kingdom stats high enough that an advisor will succeed on the dice roll around 80% of the time. This increases those stats further, which results in more dice roll successes, which increases those stats further, which results in more dice roll successes, and so on. At the end of the game all of my kingdom stats were 250 or more, and I’d say that maybe 60 points of that came from the city-builder minigame. The rest of it came from the dice rolls; if you put in the work (and the gold) early on, then you cannot help but succeed. The reverse is also true, since if you ignore the city-building side of the game then you’ll get caught in a death spiral where dice roll failures tank your stats to the point where you can’t solve any problem. If you just ignore a problem and hope it goes away on its own you end up taking the penalty anyway, and if you screw up too many problems the mood of your people worsens considerably, and this is very bad because if your people rebel it’s a Game Over. This is, if anything, even more bullshit than the brutal Pathfinder-brand combat I described in the opening of this review. At least if you encounter something that inflicts a Total Party Wipe you can reload and try again with a different strategy, or come back later; you’ve lost minutes of time at most. If you don’t get a good start with the kingdom building then the point at which it becomes obvious the situation is irretrievable is going to be around a dozen hours past the point of no return. And if you don’t have a save from that far back, well, have fun restarting the game.
Or at least that’s how things were on launch. Fortunately this is another area where Owlcat have made some subsequent improvements, as you can now check a box in the difficulty options that effectively automates the kingdom management out of the game so that you don’t have to worry about it getting in the way of your dungeon crawling adventures. It’d be a bit of a shame if you did, though, because Kingmaker does at least do a good job of framing your kingdom with the correct trappings. Every time you return to your capital you’ll sit through a couple of minutes of receiving various supplicants and ambassadors in your throne room and make various narrative choices about how your kingdom should progress, which is a nice way of surfacing the political side of being a ruler without having to add too much mechanical cruft. You can find and employ master crafters and artisans, and once you’ve done their sidequest and given them somewhere to live they’ll periodically gift you legendary weapons and armour2. The visual look of your capital city changes as you upgrade it from a village to a town to a city. Most importantly of all, the kingdom management is the core method of how Kingmaker communicates the passage of time; there are many kingdom projects (mostly involving infrastructure) that not only require an advisor, but which also take fourteen days of dedicated work from the player character — i.e. time instantly fast-forwards two weeks.
The passage of time is a big part of Kingmaker; unlike other RPGs that unfold over the span of a few months at most, Kingmaker takes just under a decade of in-game time to play to completion. This is appropriate to the scale of the task you’re undertaking — building a kingdom up from nothing — and gives you a lot of time to invest like this with a curious structure where each chapter of the game is effectively time-locked. Take the troll problem in chapter 2 as an example; the trolls are an immediate crisis and if you don’t deal with them relatively quickly (say within half a year) then your kingdom will fall and you’ll get a Game Over. However, killing all of the trolls doesn’t automatically start chapter 3, and you’ll have another six months in which you can either explore Kingmaker’s excellent world map, or else spend building up your kingdom before the next crisis hits. Unlike most modern CRPGs the world map is huge and filled with well over a hundred locations — even if most of them are small areas based around a single monster encounter — and travelling around it is slow with journeys to even adjacent regions taking days at a time, and so the game does need to give you a large time buffer for exploration. It gets a lot easier later on once your kingdom is big enough to build mage towers and teleportation circles that let you instantly travel between your various towns, and that removal of most of the travel time did create some odd situations where I dispensed with a given chapter’s crisis in the first month and then had to effectively twiddle my thumbs for another year before the campaign advanced, but Kingmaker does at least try to leverage that time semi-effectively by using the throne room events to set up future chapters in advance and keeping a couple of layers of political intrigue bubbling along in the background as the game unfolds.
Mechanically the kingdom management is a bit of a disaster, then, but thematically I think it’s something of a qualified success since it does give Kingmaker a markedly different flavour than just being a mediocre attempt at making Baldur’s Gate 3. Without the kingdom building theme to anchor it the main campaign would otherwise fall a little bit flat; it’s perfectly workmanlike but not particularly coherent since it is basically just five separate adventure modules capped off by an endgame dungeon. It has a decent balance of overworld exploration, above-ground encounters and scripted events followed by gruelling expeditions into dungeons where your ability to rest is limited by the quantity of rations you brought along. The isometric 3D engine looks very nice in a rather understated fashion and there’s a lot of neat little visual flourishes, like your adventurers having all of their weapon sets strapped to them as well as carrying backpacks that presumably contain the vast quantities of loot they’ve picked up along the way. The writing is forgettable but at least avoids the offensively awful depths plumbed by certain AA and AAA developers this year, and the companions who accompany you on your adventures are quite competently handled; at the start of the game I was convinced that some of them would be nails-down-a-blackboard annoying, but was surprised to find them growing on me. Outside of its combat encounters Pathfinder Kingmaker is an extremely solid but largely unexceptional CRPG that I might not otherwise recommend.
It’s the combat encounters that will make it or break it for you, though, and here Owlcat’s greatest failing is coupled with their greatest success: they have obsessively ported across pretty much the entire Pathfinder ruleset, enemy selection and encounter design so that it is 100% accurate in every respect, or as close as they can get to it in a computer game. If you have a problem with a particular fight or bullshit mechanic, such as the Spider Swarm, then it is not really Owlcat’s fault, strictly speaking; that’s how the Pathfinder ruleset says a Spider Swarm should work, and so it does. Of course it is ultimately their fault for not questioning the wisdom of whether or not an unmodified version of the Pathfinder ruleset was really suitable for a CRPG in the first place, but it’s difficult to pull them up on how flabby individual mechanics are because they didn’t design them.
Still, I said I was going to rant about Pathfinder (and by extension 3rd edition D&D) so I might as well make good on that promise, since I think my experience with the 3rd edition D&D ruleset in Neverwinter Nights is where my hatred of tiny numbers in RPGs started. Pathfinder loves tiny numbers. When you level up a character in Pathfinder, you will never see any single stat increase by more than one. Many of the Feats you can pick — which most characters only get every other level up — give you a whopping +2 bonus to rolls on a single very specific stat. In another RPG these would be marquee abilities that change the way you can play the game, but in Pathfinder it’s just a tiny number. And because the stat increases and bonuses are so parsimoniously small, Pathfinder compensates by having roughly a million of them. To examine a Pathfinder character sheet is to stare into a yawning abyss full of bewildering numbers, none of which make even the slightest lick of sense even compared to the notoriously byzantine 2nd edition D&D ruleset that Baldur’s Gate was based on. Take armour class. You thought THAC0 was bad? Trust me, it was a fucking breeze to understand compared to Pathfinder’s take on armour class, which splits it into a bewildering array of different sources. You’ve got your Dodge bonus, your Deflection bonus, your Natural Armour bonus, your Shield bonus, your Morale bonus — and because Pathfinder hates you none of these bonuses stack, so if you have two items that give a Deflection bonus to AC then it’ll just apply the higher of the two and throw the other one away.
This makes fine-tuning a character build sheer hell as you try and figure out what the game will and won’t let you do, and makes levelling up a crapshoot as you’re never sure what will stack and what won’t. My Barbarian’s Natural Armour bonus from their innate class ability did stack with the Natural Armour bonus from their amulet, but that’s not explicitly stated anywhere and I had to check and double check the character sheet before and after levelling up to make sure it had worked the way I wanted it to. This is an experience repeated with just about every single stat in the game, and on release it was staggeringly easy to fuck up your characters in a way that was impossible to undo unless you had a handy save from before you levelled up3. In terms of accessibility, intuitiveness and player satisfaction, the Pathfinder and 3rd edition D&D rulesets might just be the worst RPG rulesets I have ever seen.
Now, as far as Pathfinder Kingmaker’s implementation of the ruleset goes there are some mitigating circumstances. First is that Owlcat do their best to ameliorate the complexity by giving literally every single number in the game — from the character sheet to the combat log — an incredibly detailed tooltip that tells you exactly how that number was calculated. While this is a good thing for any RPG to do it’s absolutely essential for Kingmaker and I don’t think the game would even work without them; nevertheless it’s pleasing that Owlcat have recognised this and have gone into such detail while keeping things relatively presentable. A second related point is that they’ve chosen to represent the class progression for Pathfinder’s ridiculous number of classes and subclasses visually; clicking on any of them during character creation or level up will bring up a chart that progresses from left to right through levels 1-20, with each class ability that unlocks at each level clearly marked (and with an accompanying tooltip that tells you what it does). This doesn’t make the more complicated classes any easier to decipher — I still couldn’t tell you how the hell a Kineticist works despite having walked around with one in my party for a couple of hours — but it does at least let you make informed decisions around planning your character builds for the conventional ones. And third is that during their year of frantic patching they’ve added a respec option so that you can never permanently fuck up your characters; this has an increasing cost attached to it which I usually dislike because it discourages experimentation, but in this case it doesn’t matter because past the game’s halfway point you’ll have more money than God anyway.
As to the combat encounters themselves… well, if you’ve played Baldur’s Gate 2 you’ll probably remember tussling with the vampires in Akathla, who inflict Level Drain with every hit. This is absolutely punishing when you’re new to the game and have no idea how things work and the vampires will tear your party apart in short order. However, for experienced players those same fights are an absolute joke because we know to either equip an item or grant a spell that grants Negative Plane Protection beforehand, which nullifies Level Drain and turns the vampires into not-particularly-effective brawlers. It’s knowing that interaction between buffs and debuffs that turns the encounter, and the exact same is true of Kingmaker’s encounter design. Just like those vampires in BG2, Kingmaker has a peculiar love of spells and monsters that inflict ability and level drain. And just like BG2 these monsters can be rendered all but harmless by casting the right spell beforehand (there’s far fewer massively OP items that grant permanent status effects in Kingmaker, although they do exist). Curiously this is one place where Kingmaker’s tooltips fall down as it doesn’t distinguish between stats that have been drained by poison versus stats that have been drained by undead, and its spell descriptions have been lifted directly from the Pathfinder ruleset too, so it was only because I’ve read the Baldur’s Gate manual that I know the spell Delay Poison actually means “total immunity to poison” and that casting it on my group before fighting giant spiders or spider swarms would make my life a hell of a lot easier. That doesn’t work for undead, though, who need Death Ward instead.
Most other debuffs in the game have counters like this and when you inevitably run into a monster that inflicts a new status effect that crushes you — and you will, many times — it’s inevitably followed by a period of studying your Cleric spellbook to see if there’s some counterspell available. Monster casting Charm on your party? You need to buff your Will save into the stratosphere. Getting caught by Web traps a lot? A Free Action spell will sort that right out. Sometimes you’re up against a monster that hits really really hard against single target or a huge mob that will overrun your fighters, which is a great time to throw a few summoned skeletons into the fray to draw some fire away from your party — one edge Kingmaker has over Baldur’s Gate is that monster summons are actually pretty damn powerful and remain so throughout the game. Sometimes you’re fighting monsters who have a particular love of chucking Lightning or Fire spells around, but casting a Resist Energy spell beforehand will soak up much of the damage. Slowly Kingmaker hammers the lesson home: buffs are your friend in the Pathfinder ruleset, and while some of them are subject to the same annoying stat stacking rules as items (so casting Bull’s Strength on the party is eventually pointless as you’ll have items that provide an equivalent Strength bonus for free) the majority of them such as Haste and Displacement are always useful. The big fights in Kingmaker are always preceded by a thirty-second buffing period where your mages and clerics juice up your frontline fighters with magic drugs before sending them forth to fight some terrifying undead monstrosity, and the wide range of spells and classes mean there’s a surprising variety of tactics available to you once you’ve levelled up a bit.
That last part is key. My enjoyment of Kingmaker’s combat was inversely proportional to the number of levels that my characters had. It’s similar to a typical tactical strategy game in that regard, where the difficulty curve is inverted because you just don’t have any tools to solve a given problem at the start of the game when all your mages can do is fling small blobs of snot at the enemy. As stated, one of the major early game enemies in Kingmaker are spiders, who inflict ability drain via poison damage. And as stated, this is easy to counter with a Delay Poison spell — except you don’t get that until your Cleric is level 5 or so. Until then you just have to take the ability damage and then either sleep it off (each full rest removes a single point of ability damage, which doesn’t help much when you have -10 points to Dexterity) or spend a lot of gold on Restoration scrolls (your Clerics don’t also learn Lesser Restoration until level 5). Once you have the levels then you actually get to experience some of the payoff for the Pathfinder ruleset’s ridiculous complexity, as that same complexity gives you an incredible amount of flexibility in combat strategy. I think it’s fine to sprinkle tough combat encounters that rely on heavy use of the quicksave button into the game just so long as you’re encountering them at a point where the character system has opened up a bit and you have a range of tools available to solve it. Until that point you’re really struggling for any edge you can get, to the point where the most effective early game ability you have is the clowny Grease spell; cast this on a mage and there’s a fair chance it’ll keep them flat on their ass for most of the combat while you concentrate on the fighters.
This criticism is somewhat nullified by probably the most important and actually videogame-y thing Pathfinder Kingmaker does: it has one of the most comprehensive set of difficulty customisation options I’ve ever seen in a CRPG, and they’re adjustable at any time. For example, if you’re finding the game’s obsession with monsters that inflict permanent ability drain cumbersome, then you can just nip into the difficulty settings and turn on the option that lets you heal all ability damage on rest. You can lower the total stats each enemy has; you can lower the amount of damage your party takes; you can make it so that character death is never permanent (death is normally quite difficult to fix); and you can even make it so that your kingdom never falls to unrest caused by failing on those random Problem dice rolls. This would serve to smooth over many of the game’s most egregious pain points and design missteps if you chose to make use of them; that I never felt the temptation to do so past the first six-odd hours of the game indicates that the Normal difficulty level might actually be quite well pitched for a Baldur’s Gate veteran.
For all of its reputation as a brutal CRPG that borders on being downright unfair at points, I found the bulk of Kingmaker’s combat quite stimulating and Kingmaker itself surprisingly accommodating. It might have been lumbered with the awful Pathfinder ruleset but it at least tried its best to present that ruleset in a way that a human being can actually parse while providing some escape routes that let you avoid its hidden character build pitfalls, and I think that’s entirely down to Owlcat games spending the last year doing what they could to improve the experience for people who aren’t Pathfinder grognards. As a result I think Kingmaker is one of the better CRPGs I’ve played in recent years. The writing isn’t the strongest, but it does do the job and the unconventional premise gives it an unexpected degree of staying power. It still feels rather messy in places and the polish level drops slowly as you progress through the game, but it never craters and you cannot possibly say that the combat lacks depth in the way other recent examples of the genre have. Pathfinder Kingmaker is probably the game that the phrase “worthy effort” was invented for; it didn’t achieve all of its goals and doesn’t quite belong on the top tier of CRPGs, but it does enough right to be considered respectable. Put that together with their willingness to take criticism on board and I’ll definitely be watching with great interest to see what Owlcat do next.
- I’m subtracting all of the threads that inevitably ask for multiplayer in a game that’s absolutely not designed to handle it, as well as the racist/misogynist/ableist threads that make up a significant proportion of any Steam Discussion board because capital-G Gamers are a gigantic pile of trash. ↩
- Which does break the item economy somewhat, but there’s nothing that’s really worth buying in shops anyway. ↩
- It goes without saying that you should always make a hard save before levelling up in Kingmaker. ↩