Paizo’s Pathfinder is a spectacular tabletop evolution of the 3rd Edition Dungeons & Dragons ruleset and the latest release carrying the Pathfinder name, Pathfinder: Kingmaker by Owlcat Games, continues the tradition of excellence that Paizo. Barring some technical oddities and simple textual/grammatical errors, Kingmaker is a traditional yet utterly fantastic roleplaying game. Based in the Pathfinder universe, Kingmaker is about your main character just as much as it is about the companions you will meet along the way. While largely a traditional RPG, the focus on your party members with the addition of some kingdom management aspects, Kingmaker is a wonderful evolution of the cRPG genre; let us hope that with its success we see more titles based in the Pathfinder universe.
I will swear up and down that the absolute best release of Dungeons & Dragons is the 3rd edition. While I was introduced to D&D via its wonderful 2nd edition, 3rd edition is what really did it for me. I spent the majority of my high school years playing D&D quite heavily and 3rd edition was where it was at; detailed, full of rich history, and largely focused on TSR’s core player base. Subsequent versions, like the abomination that is 4th edition, and the good, if (in my opinion) overly simplified, 5th edition, seem to have missed something. Perhaps it was the purchase of TSR by Wizards of the Coast, perhaps it due to the extreme growth found in video games in the late-90’s, early-00’s but largely the releases in the D&D ruleset post-Wizards of the Coast release went downhill after 3rd Edition.
Enter Paizo in 2009; after a change in the game license with the release of D&D 4th edition, Paizo struck out on its own, after publishing the Dragon and Dungeon magazines for nearly a decade, and released the first Pathfinder roleplaying game, based on the vaunted D&D 3.5 ruleset. Nearly ten years later, the first cRPG in the Pathfinder universe is released … and it is about damned time, as Pathfinder: Kingmaker stands toe-to-toe with the traditional greats of the cRPG franchise. Easily comparable to the Neverwinter and IceWind Dale games, and in some respects can stand alongside genre-greats like Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn and Planescape: Torment.
Like any good roleplaying game, you start Kingmaker in a character creation screen; anyone familiar with the cRPG genre will be right at home here and will likely spend the bulk of their opening hour or so fiddling with options and recreating characters (I know I did; I have a dozen characters that I started and know the first hour or two of the game). OwlCat does implement a fantastic group of prebuilt character builds to choose from, and for those looking to simply hop in and play through the story without worrying about the more intricate aspects of leveling your character, then you can actually turn on an auto-level feature and instead just focus on getting in and bashing all manner of enemies.
I did, though, find that there is something of a craptastic bug related to the auto-level feature; for example, I set Jaethal, one of your companions, to auto-level but about a dozen levels in (which is no easy task) I ran into an issue where she had 1 skill point left and the auto-leveling function only seems to work if they have 0 skill points left, otherwise the “Next” button does not work to continue through the leveling screen. This forced me to permanently disable the auto-leveling feature and manually level her for the rest of the game. Given how intricate character development is, having to manually manage a dozen characters through all of these levels can be extraordinarily time consuming (hence the auto-level feature …) so running into an issue like this is off-putting.
While on the topic of little issues, I would like to take a moment to shake my head at the pathfinding in Kingmaker. I find it a bit chuckle-worthy that a Pathfinder game has utterly horrific pathfinding, but sweet Mary Moses it is bad; Stand in a room, click in the hallway, and your genius pathfinder will walk to the wall closest to where you clicked and just stand there like a turd. The frustrating part is that you can save the game, exit it to desktop, then reload the game, fire up the save, and do the same thing and *poof*, issue is resolved for a while. Trying to click across the map (rather than macro-clicking throughout an area you have already cleared) can yield interesting results; sometimes the characters will run right to the targeted click across the map, other times they will walk to the nearest obstacle and just stand around.
It is MADDENING.
Other fun little tidbits I found would be that environmental checks (say there is a fallen tree in your path; you can make a dexterity check to bypass the tree, else you would not be able to pass) will frequently have the icon for said check being “stuck” on screen. I ran into an issue during the early stages of the game (the Old Sycamore tree exterior) where the dex check icon simply stayed on screen; I even tried restarting the game but unfortunately that did not solve the issue. Eventually the button went away on its own about three “screens” away. Speaking of screens, Kingmaker could do with a bit more optimization as its loading screens can be a bit long; I ran Kingmaker on two different machines, one running a GTX 1060 the other running a GTX 970 and both were comparable in their loading screens, but some could run 3-7 minutes. I made a bag of popcorn, poured myself a delicious Cherry Pepsi, then came back to the loading screen just about done; seriously, would LOVE to see some optimization … because these little hiccups prevent me from getting into the game, and that is bad, because this game deserves 100+ hours of my time.
Great character creation is not the only reason to spend 100+ hours in Kingmaker, starting in a Lord’s manor, you are essentially tasked with assassinating the neighboring robber baron named “The Stag Lord.” What I absolutely love is that the opening sequence will actually define the first party members that you get. Throughout the tutorial stage there are a series of actions that you can take, both obvious and obscure, and depending on how you react to the actions, the various characters will respond and choose to either join you or will chastise you and go their own way. It is BRILLIANT and it shows the importance of choice in Kingmaker; nearly every action and dialog option can have an effect on your surroundings. For example, you might be a Chaotic Good or Neutral Good character, and Valerie (one of the potential opening companions), who shares Good-aligned aspects, and if you continue performing those actions Valerie will be pleased. However, if you perform an Evil action, like murdering innocents or stealing too much, then she will be combative and may even leave.
There is also the fact that some classes, like Paladins, require you to not only roleplay as a Lawful Good character, but you will also need to surround yourself with Good characters, else you will run into incredible consequences and issues; to be frank, it is GREAT. While I am naturally Chaotic Good, I actually find it far harder to play Kingmaker as an Evil-aligned character, which is normally the opposite of how things go; traditionally speaking playing a “Good” character is more difficult than an “Evil” character (see: Fable franchise, Mass Effect franchise, Dragon Age franchise). Seriously, the focus on choice and consequence is absolutely spectacular and with such a massive range of choices in game, Kingmaker stokes the player’s fire for replayability. While I am currently running as a Sword Saint-build (a type of lightweight fighter that enchants themselves to enhance their stabby-stab and cutty-slashing capabilities; rather than a glass-cannon, it is more like a glass-hammer, since it is melee focused), I am absolutely diving into the Monk, Paladin, and Sorcerer classes next (I may be recording those sessions so keep an eye out for future posts).
Throughout your mission to remove the Stag Lord you will visit various posts, fight random encounters, build and manage your kingdom, but most importantly, interact with your companions. Though the overarching story is excellent and full of intrigue and suspenseful moments, learning more about your characters is where the real “story” is at. Each character has a unique and wildly detailed background; from Valerie’s time in the Order of the Rose, a group of artists and sculptors that value beauty above all else, to Amiri’s self-imposed exile from her barbarian tribe, each companion is rich in history and in some way, small or large, a bit “broken.” Their flaws and oft-tragic backgrounds are what really brings the group together. Just make sure that whomever you decide to party with, you keep an eye on their alignment type; too many choices that oppose their alignment can result in catastrophic consequences with companions.