I’m really, really late to this one. Pathfinder: Kingmaker is a Kickstarter-funded CRPG with some serious narrative klout. It launched in 2018, developed by Owlcat Games based on the Pathfinder tabletop RPG. If you’ve heard of it, that’s probably because you read Rock, Paper, Shotgun or keep an eye on goings-on in the RPG world. It doesn’t have nearly the same market share as action RPGs – or shooter RPGs – or the more widely-known RPGs like Fallout or Dragon Age. What it does have, though, is plenty of challenge, frustration, and – at its core – the heart of a really, really good game. Let’s go into it, shall we?
For those of you who don’t know, Pathfinder is a tabletop RPG based on D&D 3.5e. The game’s got a bit of a reputation as being inaccessible – especially in comparison with the massive changes to the D&D system in its Fifth edition – and, personally, I can count on one hand the number of people I know who’ve played it. (And on one finger the amount of people I know who enjoy it.) If D&D 5e is an accessible, fun game that you can pick up and roll with after some time learning some eccentric terminology, Pathfinder is – by all accounts – like trying to join a clique in high school that’s been together since they were born, has their own language, and is open to you hanging out with them, but only if you pass their very odd tests of character. Needless to say, as someone who hates combat in tabletop RPGs and considers “Story Mode” the greatest creation to enter the games industry in the last decade, Pathfinder does not seem like it’s for me. However. If you’re into combat, detailed rules, heavy, and strategic and tactical combat, you should check it out.
Enter Pathfinder: Kingmaker. For the last several months – since the pandemic started, really – I’ve been scratching a deep CRPG itch. First, it was Divinity 2: Original Sin, an excellent game that does a great job of creating something like a tabletop game, down to having a narrator as one of the primary – though unseen – characters. I played through that, started furiously following the news about Baldur’s Gate 3, and bought Baldur’s Gate 2: Shadows of Amn for the third time. (The first copy being on disks, the second copy being one I used on a Mac, and the third one being a Steam copy.) That game’s scope was enough, when added on to the fact that I’d already played it, to turn me off of getting too far past the second chapter. It’s a fun game, but as I played through it, there was no sense of discovery. The memories seared into my brain from the first time I played it, before I knew what “1d8” meant and spent more time in item editors trying to create something overpowered and called “The One Ring”, started creeping back in and I stepped away.
Then came one of the Humble Bundle sales and Pathfinder: Kingmaker on sale for $15. I remember reading decent reviews of its core gameplay – ranging from familiar party-based adventuring to more broad-scale kingdom management – and thought that $15 seemed like a reasonable price. And such was the humble beginning of a very complicated relationship.
See, I’ve realized – and leaned into – the fact that I tend to like games that frustrate me. There’s a sense of overcoming a challenge – be it difficult tactics, complicated strategy, or just getting the damn thing to start. Pathfinder: Kingmaker has all three. I, further, have realized that I have a threshold for crunchiness in rules and, over this threshold, I tend to tap out regardless of how rewarding the game might be. Essentially, my rule is: If your game has a Scroll of Protection Against Alignment, it’s too crunchy for me to fire up on my desktop and play through. By and large, I don’t want to spend my time in Pause mode, thinking about if the enemies I’m fighting are Lawful or Chaotic, and if I throw out such and such scroll at this time, I’ll be able to add +3 to attack rolls, while suffering -1 to etc etc. That, you see, is the meat of Pathfinder, Kingmaker, and a good chunk of tabletop RPGs outside of the Genesys or Fate systems. Even D&D 5e has it baked into its bones, even if it doesn’t fully engage alignment on a regular basis.
And yet, despite so many of the game’s encounters hinging on that sort of preparation that would turn me off of the game, I still played it for over 50 hours. Partly, I think, it was because Kingmaker has a tendency to introduce cool things just as often as it introduces incredibly frustrating things. Just when I was on the verge of quitting because I couldn’t fully rest without X amount of rations, it goes and throws a goblin party member at me, and everything is grand again. Partly, too, this frustration at fantasy crunchiness is offset by the kingdom management portion of the game. Essentially, throughout the game you are given control of a patch of land, then claim surrounding areas until you have a bona fide kingdom around you. You manage this through advisors who come to you with dilemmas that you have to solve – either by taking their advice or rejecting it. Annexing lands and building towns in those lands gives you an opportunity to set waystations along roads, something that makes adventuring a lot easier by virtue of acting as permanent shops, rest stops, and – later in the game – teleportation nodes for when you can’t be asked to zip around the map and engage in the random encounters.
Ah right, let’s talk about random encounters, shall we? They go a way toward explaining how the game does a good job of simulating the tabletop experience – as well as making everything slightly more frustrating than it needs to be. As you travel around the map – obviously necessary to get from point A to point B in quests, or to claim nodes of farms or ruins on the map to boost your kingdom stats – you have a chance of random encounters. These run the gamut from bandit ambushes to meeting a friendly skeletal salesman with a fiery horse who will sell and buy stuff to and from you. As above, just as you may be tired of running into kobolds for the nth time, you then run into the salesman on the road and all of a sudden it’s a worry-free chance to rest your party and offload a bunch of stuff you might have picked up along the way. But, in nearly every other instance, random encounters serve no other master than to simulate the tabletop experience. Whether or not you like that or find it a waste of time and barely-disguised grind mechanic acts as a litmus test on whether or not you’ll like this game.
The map layer, on which your party travels and you manage the higher-level bits of your kingdom is, in my opinion, the best-designed element of this game. Whether or not that’s because the layer was QAd appropriately, designed from the onset, or just straightforward enough to not fail is something I cannot, however, answer. I’m inclined toward the latter, however. It is, you see, simply a map.
Let’s take a look at the difficulty options, here, because that is – ultimately – the reason that I uninstalled the game at the very end. After this, we’ll touch on the story, how the difficulty options interact and enable/stymie player interaction with the story, and, finally, we’ll talk about why I uninstalled the game before finishing it.
When you fire up the game, one of the settings you can tweak is a pretty detailed difficulty screen. This involves enemy strength, damage dealt to your party, the effect that critical hits have on your party, and a lot more. As I was just interested in the story, I turned everything down to minimum except for the kingdom management aspect of the game. What I hoped would come of this was a game where I could click the things until they died, then move to the next bit of the story, and rinse and repeat. And, for most of the game, that’s what happened! My character, Putz McGhee, was able to roll through the game with his companions, essentially skipping over fights while still having to think about skill checks, ways to approach social checks, and all of the bits that I actually enjoy about CRPGs. The game mechanics – notwithstanding dumb stuff like needing camping rations to rest – mostly stayed out of my way so that I could enjoy the story. And then came the end of the game.
Consider this your story warning. I’m not going into heavy details, because this isn’t a book report and, frankly, the story isn’t that good, but there will be spoilers.
After establishing your kingdom, you learn that the person responsible for periodic otherworldly attacks from the First World is, herself, cursed by a larger entity known as the Lantern King. The Lantern King cursed her until she destroys a thousand kingdoms, after which point, she will be free. And what’s more, your kingdom and your neighbor’s are the final two that she needs destroyed. Because you are the player character, it should not come as a surprise that you wind up taking over the other kingdom, adding it to yours, and bringing her, thus, one step closer to being freed from her curse.
After you annex the other kingdom – Pitax – you are attacked by the Wild Hunt. Unlike in The Witcher, these are not a bunch of Death Knight-type things, but are, instead, very, very challenging-to-beat fey folk. I say very, very challenging even on story mode. When you first encounter them, they have a very, very good chance of paralyzing your characters. The only way to stop your characters from being paralyzed is to cast a Freedom of Movement spell on them before the fight, at which point they will not be paralyzed and you can proceed with the game as normal. It took me a few tries of saving, loading, scanning through spells, then, ultimately, Googling to figure that out.
Frustrated after an hour of that, I got past the fight and then went about the last chapter focusing on kingdom management only to ultimately figure out that, because I had not min-maxed my kingdom stats (on story mode!) I could not fully rank up my advisors, thus – probably, given this is a Pathfinder game – ultimately resulting in my kingdom failing because my spymaster, magister, and high priest didn’t have an “X” next to their names.
So, after focusing on that for 200+ in-game days, and not adventuring, because I had to pass time in the kingdom management layer working on projects and ranking up my advisors, it came time to fight the end game boss. I sallied out, finding the portal to the boss’s endgame sanctum, and then hit my next big difficulty snag. Some kind of phantasmal guard ambushed my characters and chain-feared everyone except for my cleric, who I managed to keep alive by quaffing potions and spamming damage undead spells and stuff like “Bonebreaker.” Finally, I got past that fight and made it through the portal.
Once in the portal, my character was separated from everyone else, tasked with finding them, and then went down a magical well and found a bunch of those ghosts who chain feared my character until he died. I gave it another shot, had the same result, and uninstalled the game.
Now. Here’s why: I fully agree that the end of the game should be challenging. It should make you think of ways to surmount difficulties that are different from the way you’ve gone about it until that point. Or, at the very least, be interesting. Instead, what I got was another dungeon crawl, this one reminiscent of story beat in Divinity 2: Original Sin, but with the added difficulty of having no fucking clue what was going on and being unable to damage some brutal enemies because they kept chain-fearing my character.
So, what gives? Is this a camouflaged grind check that I failed? If so, why in God’s name are the kingdom stat rank-up times as long as they are? Shouldn’t the player have the ability to get their stuff to Rank 10 within the amount of time given by the game and do the adventure-y bits? If not, surely the fact that the game was on Story Mode should have an effect on stuff like those Fear checks. Something, perhaps, that brings the duration down from 45 seconds to 5 seconds, or makes the Will checks needed to not be in the Fear state easier to pass? I don’t know, because I was too busy uninstalling the game to check out what was going on in the combat log.
To summarize, because I got a little ranty: At the end of the game, my party was separated, I wasn’t given any indicator of what was going on at the other end of the portal, and because I took a left down a hallway, I got into a fight with five or six spooky ghosts who obliterated my monk. Some searches on Reddit and Steam led to this conclusion: I should git good, re-roll, and prep.
Here’s the thing: I don’t want to do that. I don’t give a shit about min-maxing characters either in tabletop games or in computer games. What I’m interested in is story. If your Story Mode is still at the point where your game is unbalanced to the point where your Story Mode players need to treat it like Dark Souls and quick save/load their way through the end dungeon, then what you have is not Story Mode. It’s something else. Nightmare mode, perhaps, because it’s something like a dream but is so far away that it is horrific. You have, essentially, gated a perfectly enjoyable story behind the guise of arcane mechanics put in place because you wanted to remain true to form to a tabletop game.
Put another way, even Baldur’s Gate II’s Story Mode allows you to face-roll your way through combat so that you can get through the story. And that game is built on an even clunkier tabletop ruleset!
And that’s ultimately the point of this 5-6 page ramble: Pathfinder: Kingmaker is a perfectly enjoyable game hamstrung by crunch-focused mechanics. There is no reprieve from that, even in Story Mode. Even then, you are forced to look into a mirror and, in your reflection, you see not your face but a Scroll of Protection from Alignment, and your only response is to despair.
I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
– Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ozymandias”