Pathfinder: Kingmaker - One Year Later
A bit over a year ago, I reviewed the woefully undercooked Pathfinder: Kingmaker, an experience that I called crudely stapled together, not ready to be released. Despite being arguably the least-functioning game I have played still to this date, I ended up still managing to be fairly positive on the whole, at least from a relative standpoint. I felt that the intended experience was visible through all of the bugs, lack of polish, and outright broken systems, and closed out by saying that Kingmaker could be amazing, if and when things finally got sorted out.
Well, I'm here to make good on that possibility, and give this one a fair shake. After the Enhanced Edition and other DLC packages came out over the last 12 months, alongside several dozen other tweaks and fixes, it was time to revisit the Stolen Lands -- an endeavor that ended up taking over 100 hours and markedly improving my opinion of Owlcat's CRPG.
There will be minor spoilers for some story aspects of Pathfinder: Kingmaker below:
In addition to the developers at Owlcat Games working to position Kingmaker into a better place to be reassessed, I also positioned myself into a place to more knowledgeably review it. While I had played more recent similar offerings like Tyranny and was just coming off of an initial playthrough of Pillars of Eternity II the first time around, I had not played anything so directly inspired by a pen-and-paper game like Pathfinder. However, since last year, I have (finally) played through all of the classic Baldur's Gate entries, all the way from Candlekeep to the Throne of Bhaal. I wasn't originally intending for that to be 'research' for anything related to Kingmaker, but the firsthand experience of one of Owlcat's most direct inspirations ended up being incredibly valuable to accurately framing where Kingmaker ended up, especially in comparison to where it started.
Baldur's Gate, despite its age, is probably the most similar experience to Kingmaker, rule differences between Advanced Dungeons and Dragons and 3.5 Edition/Pathfinder aside. The similarity also positions Kingmaker to be a potential title of interest for those impatiently waiting for new details on the incoming Baldur's Gate III. Last year, I would not have earnestly recommended playing Kingmaker due to the state of its release. Upon revisiting it, however, I feel like it's an incredibly interesting and oftentimes impressive title that makes me equally eager to see what Owlcat is working on next.
Now that my party members aren't instantaneously disintegrating upon entering town or mysteriously duplicating in my party menu, one key highlight of Kingmaker that wasn't so obvious last year is how strongly character-driven it is. Kingmaker boasts an impressive dozen party members, each with their own alignment, disposition, and even a wide array of voice-acted dialogue. While there isn't a ton of effort to highlight potential disagreements between characters of conflicting alignments, each party member is given a three to four-part questline related to their backstory -- an endeavor that can make similar efforts among Kingmaker's contemporaries seem almost meager.
One of the most impressive and interesting parts about these companion relationships is how strongly they interact with the main questline in some instances, yet also stand as compartmentalized stand-alone stories in others. The ex-slave duo Regongar and Octavia don't really interface much with the main story, but each of them shows a different perspective on the actions of the Technic League and the impact of slavery on various cultures in the River Kingdoms. Other companions like Amiri, Linzi, and Tristian have stories that directly interact with important key plotlines of the game, while the remaining cast land somewhere in between, though more closely to the later.
The main plotlines also weave together in a way that is unlike what I've seen in most other RPGs. Each act of Kingmaker is initially framed as a unique threat to the player's newfound kingdom, ranging from trolls to barbarians to the undead. However, within each chapter, a layer of the central conflict is slowly peeled away, revealing the connective tissue underneath. While on paper, this might not seem altogether revolutionary -- a similar style of escalation from chapter to chapter is present in Baldur's Gate as well, for instance -- but it's executed in a way where it's impressive nonetheless.
Since so many of the companion story arcs are so intimately tied to one or more of the conflicts that highlight each act, to tied the story arcs themselves together in this way does more than just wrap things in a nice bow, but it places real stakes and investments for nearly every character present. This is especially true considering that each companion questline can have multiple outcomes on their own to affect the main narrative in turn. To cap this all off with a multifaceted antagonist like Nyrissa is just a bonus at that point. Nyrissa herself is a remarkably interesting character who could be the subject of a whole study in her own right. She's not quite at the level of someone like Knights of the Old Republic II's Kreia, but I wouldn't hesitate to put her in the same conversation.
Under the hood, Kingmaker brings so many elements of the pen and paper experience to the CRPG format in a way that's very similar to Baldur's Gate, only thankfully ditches THAC0 for a more traditional Armor Class rating. I personally only have a small amount of firsthand experience with traditional tabletop RPGs (limited to a few games of D20 in high school), but luckily Kingmaker has a slew of difficulty toggles that can scale the game up or down to most any experience level, though it doesn't always do a great job of teaching many of the systems itself.
The sheer number of classes and archetypes available in Pathfinder are almost paralyzing, and there isn't initially a clear delineation about what separates a Magus, Sorceror, and Wizard for instance, let alone the numerous archetypes available underneath, not to mention Prestige Classes on top of that. Learning the nuts and bolts of combat and classes requires a lot of trial and error and experimentation. It's rewarding for those who take the time to dig into the systems to see how all the cogs fit together, but I often found myself wishing that progression in this sense was pared back just a tad -- I was unlocking new spells and feats faster than I could learn how to use them and understand their overall utility.
Kingmaker does have an interesting reliance on "Teamwork Feats" which seems to be borrowed directly from the tabletop game. This is a selection of combat feats that require two party members to have the same ability in order to gain passive bonuses when they're both flanking the enemy, or both wielding shields, or a similar shared condition. It's an interesting enough dynamic, but I found myself often dumping the same teamwork feats to multiple characters in order for them to remain useful. If you swap out one of the party members with a teamwork feat, the character remaining in the party no longer benefits either. I think this could be reworked a tad to provide passive bonuses of a diminished nature even if only one current party member possessed the feat.
Another odd quirk is the Weapon Focus family of feats, which gives a passive Attack bonus to any specific weapon type in the game. That is, you pick the feat once if you want a bonus for using Scythes, then again if you want a bonus for using Longswords, and so on. It provides an interesting dilemma, in which the most optimal way to use this feat would be to purely specialize in one weapon type and never bother with an alternative weapon selection -- using any other weapon would essentially mean sitting on a dead-weight feat that's no longer benefitting you. Late game enemies have such high AC values at times that it essentially makes every bonus to attack rolls essential, and Kingmaker throws so many unique and powerful weapons at the player that you're never short of an up-to-date weapon of your current specialization for any given party member.
While I walked away from Pathfinder: Kingmaker in 2019 impressed at several things that I wasn't able to appreciate a year ago, one aspect that I found myself unmoved on was that of Kingdom Management. Kingmaker is, as its title can maybe suggest, also a part-time sim of sorts, where a good chunk of my 100-hour playtime was spent in menus and maps, updating stat values like "Economy" and "Military" by engaging in what amounts to flavorful dice rolls. While there are aspects of this component of the game that I enjoyed, I still feel like the overall impact of this game mode is minimal at best and detracting at worst. "Parasitic" was the word I used last October, and while maybe needlessly dramatic, still reflects how I feel about the mode overall.
This mode is parasitic because it requires a lot of input from the player in terms of both time and resources, without providing a whole lot in return. The currency of Kingdom Management is Build Points, or BP. Early on in the game you won't need a lot of BP but the costs for even moderate improvements end up skyrocketing pretty quickly. The quickest and most effective way to earn BP is to simply sell all unused unique gear from your travels and trade for gold, which can then be used to buy BP outright. Since feats like Weapon Focus nudge players to specialize to only a select few weapon types anyway, it's usually pretty easy to know as soon as a new weapon drops as to whether or not it can be immediately sold. While eventually having a stable kingdom can provide some interesting passive benefits such as bonuses to certain conditions in owned-territories, it ramps up very slowly and the benefits feel incredibly marginal at best until near the very end of the game.
Kingdom Management does serve a moderate narrative purpose: the whole premise of the game relies on the fact that the player-character be placed at the head of an emerging new kingdom, but I don't feel like this alone necessitates most of the gameplay systems put into play, and could have been abstracted a bit into a more traditional format. As it stands right now, the implementation of Kingdom Management results in an incredibly awkward cadence to the plot progression - every hour of dungeon crawling or questing is followed by 90 minutes of calendar flipping. There are a handful of unique mechanics at play here, such as with the unique weapon vendors you can build workshops for, and I wouldn't want to immediately discount the system entirely due to one imperfect implementation -- but I do hope the system sees a lot of tweaking before any eventual followup were to occur. Luckily it can be automated outright for those that wish to do away with it entirely.
I'm not sure Pathfinder: Kingmaker made it to the point of being 'amazing' as I had once thought it might -- some of the design decisions behind Kingdom Management, quest timers, and the like aren't the sorts of things that can be ironed out purely through bug fixes and a year of polish. But in many ways, Kingmaker is now a much more impressive game in practice instead of merely in potential, which is a success in its own right and not a fate all rocky launches end up sharing.