The last few years have been a treat for fans of the long under-served CRPG genre. After a drought of story focused, isometric role playing games during most of the 2000's, a slew of crowd funding projects tempted many an adventure hungry gamer to gamble their cash in the hopes of experiencing some quality questing. The likes of Pillars of Eternity, Torment: Tides of Numenara, Wasteland 2 and Divinity: Original Sin have arrived in the time since, each demonstrating what's possible when applying modern technology and design principles to well loved and established tropes, sating an appetite for adventure in some and introducing the CRPG genre to many others.
Now, with the success of that first wave of CRPG games having inspired a round of sequels that have further refined the genre and set high standards, Pathfinder: Kingmaker has arrived in their wake with an attempt of it's own to take the rules of a popular pen and paper RPG and translate them to a digital setting in the most complete and uncompromised manner yet. It's a lofty goal and, I'm sorry to say, the execution is every bit as satisfying as it is frustrating.
Pathfinder: Kingmaker places you in the shoes of a mercenary poised to heed the call of a local authority - The Swordlords. A portion of land has been targeted for colonization and the hard work ahead requires a capable leader to stake a claim, fight back bandits and wildlife that infest the area and build the infrastructure required to turn long crumbled villages and settlements into thriving homes for humanity once more. You join a small horde of potential rulers, gathered in a grand hall, as it's noted that the task will be long and dangerous - so much so that the land itself must be offered up as incentive, removal of the threat it harbors acting as a service to it's neighboring territories. Alongside a cast of characters that positively reek of potential as team mates and rivals, you take up the challenge of proving yourself worthy as a leader and begin forging your legend.
After escalating events at this gathering force everyone involved to push on with their plans a little faster than they might have expected, you'll be sent out into the world to make your way. Over the next few hours, you'll be tasked with a selection of suitably simple tasks for someone just starting out - checking in with a local trader and helping him with a bandit problem, getting to know the lay of the land, gathering allies and eventually removing the threat posed by a rival equally set on leadership. Then, with all who might challenge you dealt with in whatever way you deem fit, you may begin to build upon your territory.
One of the unique aspects of Pathfinder: Kingmaker that truly differentiates it from other CRPGs is kingdom management. With each territory you seize and control, you'll be given the chance to build a settlement and choose what amenities it will focus on. Each facility within a settlement offers up a stat bonus, such as +1 Economy, Military or Culture, more so if placed alongside a complementary building. Each settlement map has a limited number of tiles to build upon and, with more choices for building types than there are spaces on a given map, specializing settlements is a must.
This choice of what to build is of course welcome, extra nuance in an RPG rarely being a bad thing, but the sense that you might be gearing toward one potential future blindly while the game's scenario has other, impossible to predict surprises ahead is strong. As with other aspects of Kingmaker that are soon to be mentioned, there's a strong feeling of gambling resources and time without knowing quite whether you're doing the right thing.
Of course, before any of this adventuring malarkey can even begin, you'll need to create your character and get your first taste of Pathfinder's rules. For those not intimately familiar with the tabletop game this step is likely to be daunting, even for those with solid CRPG experience. There are a lot of character defining choices to make set alongside potentially familiar concepts, albeit with different rules attached to them if Dungeons and Dragons or other similar games are what you cut your teeth on. Compounding this tough process, the amount of information and guidance toward a viable set of traits is limited.
The choice you have then, is to either lean on pre-defined and presumably balanced characters suggested by the developers, or do a lot of reading before tentatively selecting a class and building your own set of techniques, feats and spells in the hope that no interesting companions will turn up with the same setup or that your focus will fit the combat you're soon to encounter and the equipment available. A fragile mage with no protection spells or a rogue sniper wont do well if every early fight involves a horde of heavily armoured soldiers, nor will someone who focuses on an unusual weapon like a sai if they can't find one. During a tabletop game a GM can do things to fix problems like these in the moment and make unusual character builds work, but in video game form there's little room for forgiving poor choices and aiming for less than optimal character builds.
Preparing for the unknown is a difficulty most CRPG games share when it comes to jumping in and making the right choices immediately, but more recent examples such as Pillars of Eternity 2 or Divinity: Original Sin 2 set a high standard in terms of providing interesting, varied and viable character build choices as well as balancing their earliest challenges to suit. They do well not to drive players away with excessive, impossible to mitigate difficulty. Pathfinder: Kingmaker, brand new and just out of early access as it is, is currently struggling with this aspect from the off and I and many others are entirely likely to end up starting over with a new character simply because of making unknowingly bad choices at the very start of the game. Understandably, that's not a particularly appealing idea when many an hour has already been spent getting interest in the various plots and quests.
Wandering the map is a dangerous prospect, or at least it can be if you're very unlucky. At first the map is a selection of unconnected points, lines joining them as you travel, occasionally revealing new points of interest to visit or resources to claim. Each journey between these points is an invitation for a random encounter and a potential headache. In my experience, the encounters ranged from packs of pointlessly weak bandits right through to the horror of an Elder Elemental cropping up and slaughtering my totally under-leveled and unprepared crew.
During the two weeks or so since it's release, Pathfinder: Kingmaker has received a lot of effort from the development team to patch and fix it's punishing level of difficulty in the early game and it's been interesting to play throughout the process. With each patch I could see aspects of infuriating difficulty lessened, broken moves and damage calculations were fixed and things that no one playing on Normal difficulty, with it's "Slightly Weaker" enemies and 0.8 enemy damage multiplier, ought to have been dealing with. The over leveled random encounters lessened but were replaced with time consuming cannon fodder for the most part. It's safe to say there's more work to be done, either in terms of making the random encounters more than a passing distraction or simply giving the option to turn them off altogether.
In other respects, Pathfinder: Kingmaker's combat has all the hallmarks of an Infinity engine inspired game, for better or worse. Realtime combat with the option to pause or marginally slow time is what's on offer and, as ever with this way of representing a fight, it suffers from feeling chaotic and random. The ease with which a few unlucky rolls can make a party crumble might well be appealing to the pen and paper crowd and people looking to scrape and struggle throughout, but for people looking to progress quickly and enjoy the story at a pace that maintains some decent momentum it feels like punishment for not knowing exactly how to build your class or exactly what the weakness of a given enemy is. Worse still, that enemy information isn't readily available in the game's bestiary, it focusing on lore over game rules, so reading the Pathfinder rulebook itself seems like the only way forward right now.
Conveying game rules is, in general, another aspect of Pathfinder: Kingmaker that's behind the times. Beyond the aforementioned lack of information on how to deal with enemies, item descriptions are often a combination of lore and rules, forcing you to read every word carefully instead of being able to quickly see the relevant details at the top of the item's description as you would in just about every one of the other recent CRPGs. Some techniques stipulate the use of a light weapon, but weapon descriptions make no reference to any weight class. What might be labelled a key item in another game is lumped in with everything else, inviting you to free up space and sell them only to later find out that they're worth a lot more to one specific vendor. Items like rope and crowbars have no stated function in their item description but are absolutely useful for solving some situations.
It's a steady frustration that I've felt throughout my time with the game, being constantly invited to set myself up for a fall without any warning or guidance given, of being the victim of the game's rules rather than being guided by them. I've lost and reloaded too many encounters with new enemy types, each time failing without any chance to get my bearings or seek knowledge to avoid disaster. The feeling that knowing Pathfinder's tabletop rules would alleviate a lot of this frustration only does more to compound any ire when considering what could and should have been done to welcome the uninitiated.
What I've already described doesn't even cover every irritation, with aspects of managing your land being poorly unexplained chances to gamble time and resources on lengthy tasks, some seemingly innocuous dialogue choices representing lasting decisions and numerous time consuming design choices persisting even in an era where every other similar game has evolved and recognized that convenience over staunch adherence to rules is more appealing to a majority. That anachronism extends even to the point where the main quest has a time limit and can be outright failed if it's not attacked head on in time, placing time pressure and a sense that exploring as one might wish could lead you astray, leaving you with too little time to level up and prepare properly. It's an infamously bad idea, with the prime example being the decades old Fallout 1, and I can't fathom the fact that it's made it through to the full release - it's a definite fun killer.
The worst example of taking liberties with a player's time and not keeping with modern expectations of game design is particularly silly. If it rains, as it does regularly and seemingly at random, your characters all slow to a crawl. There's no speed up option here, unlike with Kingmaker's CRPG contemporaries, so you're left to wait and watch a thoroughly uninteresting stroll across a location you might well have visited a few times. This oversight and the ones listed above often begin as minor annoyances, but after more than thirty hours of play and ready examples of other games avoiding such problems with ease, it's too easy to think that the progress I've made with the story has been punishingly slow, that I've gotten about fifteen hours of real, enjoyable play out of the game and waded through another fifteen of reloads, loading screens, slow walking and random encounters.
It's a shame to have struggled so much making progress with the core story because what Pathfinder: Kingmaker is doing with it's characters and in terms of giving players agency to rule a fantasy kingdom is interesting and well written. Much as many characters present an overt moral leaning and philosophy, there's enough depth in the available responses to provoke some unexpected and often insightful musing from team mates or to parlay a seemingly impossible scenario with the correct diplomatic approach and reading of a situation. Characters presenting as potential allies to your cause give hints of divided loyalties, inviting a kind of paranoia over accepting their assistance too readily. Each instance of subverted expectations and unexpected problems builds a stronger appreciation of what leadership in such chaotic times might well involve and that's not something I can readily say about many other games in the genre, perhaps with the exception of Obsidian's Tyranny. And of course you can run around saying nasty things and being nefarious, though I didn't sample that particular style of story telling to know if you're able to be a satisfyingly arch, evil overlord or simply a murdering psycho with no friends.
In time, with further patching to balance gameplay, speed up movement and better educate new players before throwing them into the deep end of the role playing pool, Pathfinder: Kingmaker can and likely will become a thoroughly satisfying CRPG with enough unique appeal to stand shoulder to shoulder with it's contemporaries, but right now it's mired in enough time consuming frustration to distract from it's otherwise shining core.