Pathfinder: Kingmaker Review
In a niche genre occupied by the likes of Obsidian, Larian, and inXile, it was not immediately clear exactly how well fledgling Russian developer Owlcat games could make a mark on the modern CRPG space with their debut title. One way to maximize their chances, certainly, was to adapt Paizo's Pathfinder role-playing game, a popular spin-off of the Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 Edition that was even able to outsell the maligned 4th Edition for a time. Part RPG and part management sim, Pathfinder: Kingmaker has some obvious potential and lots of interesting concepts that make it worth exploring. Unfortunately, to state that the majority of this potential is heavily overshadowed by the state the game launched in would still somehow be an understatement. This game was clearly not ready to be released.
The setup for Kingmaker is pretty straightforward. Your player character is summoned by a local Swordlord to venture into a region known simply as the Stolen Lands, and do what no one's been able to for an extended period of time - establish a kingdom that's able to stand the test of time. You see, most of the upstart nations of the area have tended to crumble after a short life for one reason or another, meaning that the first person able to overcome this odd circumstance would find themselves in an immensely influential position of power. Which is why so many people have tried and failed to establish their own sovereignties, and why many others would want to either ally with or undermine the first person that's able to succeed.
In a short prologue section that acts primarily as the game's tutorial, you end up encountering a good number of other like-minded personalities that immediately find their goals and dispositions either aligning or opposing with yours. Upon setting out for the unclaimed territory, It's quickly obvious that the region has a propensity for curses with many of the previous inhabitants falling victim to one tragic fate or another.
In the game's first act, the gameplay is singularly focused into a pretty standard real-time with pause CRPG. You have a party of up to 6 companions, each with a preset class and alignment. Interestingly enough, the companions made available to the player starting off depends on the player's actions in the game's opening hour, and while all of the available characters can eventually be recruited, it can make quite an impact on how the game's first handful of quests and encounters play out - especially on the harder difficulties.
After a handful of hours toppling the haphazardly established rule of the game's first major boss, the game's second major gameplay component is introduced: Kingdom Management. While it initially feels a little awkward to have these mechanics introduced pretty far into the game's runtime -- it took me about 8 hours to get to this point -- it ends up being a major component from then on.
Kingdom management manifests itself in a couple of ways. Party members and quest-critical NPCs can find themselves in bespoke 'adviser' roles, suited for solving many of the kingdom's problems, with curses, bandits, culture, an economy in its infancy, and so on. By keeping on top of both the desires of the inhabitants of your newly ruled region as well as the alliances of other nations, you'll find yourself able to annex more regions, appoint new advisers, and give yourself bonuses for the areas under your control. Some of this involves simply passing a dice check based on an adviser's skill level, while others will involve going out and actually investigating new areas and questing in a more standard manner.
In a lot of ways, the cross-talk between the more standard RPG exploration and combat on one side and the kingdom progression on the other is some of the most interesting and unique that I've experienced. A small number of encountered NPCs can become advisers, giving you access to completing more opportunities at once, while others become artisans that can deliver valuable and unique gear to your kingdom should you choose to ally with them. Well managed regions can give yourself bonuses to attack rolls or other perks such as poison immunity for as long as you're questing in a region that belongs to you.
Towns can be established in newly annexed regions, giving access to new NPCs and errands, and new tasks to be completed in terms of stabilizing these areas and extending the reach of your influence. In the other direction, narrative-focused questlines will have an impact on your kingdom management as well. Early on, straightforward obstacles such as trolls or the undead constantly showing up and causing problems end up requiring a strong military response in order to maintain stability. Later on, the sorts of threats become slightly more varied, such as neighboring kingdoms slandering the legitimacy of your rule and spreading propaganda amongst your people.
What this means is that there's a natural push to spend equal amounts of effort in both modes of the game. Players that ignore the kingdom building aspects of the game will find themselves forgoing the unique gear and questlines that it can open up, as well as the bonuses it can provide. Players who want to completely put off the story-critical stuff until the last moment will find themselves struggling to outpace the constant pressure on the kingdom caused by the current threats. While there's not often a hard time-limit to progress the story forward, there's usually an effective one where players will find themselves overrun if they ignore the threat for too long.
The narrative present here is a highlight, and the classic RPG component of the game is the far stronger of the two, even though the interaction with the kingdom-building is incredibly interesting. Each act has a unique and singular threat ranging from trolls, to the undead, to barbarians, to an enemy kingdom, and there's a natural sense of escalation as players move from one to the next. What starts out as seemingly isolated events ends up coalescing into a single cohesive thread by the games end. The sheer amount of questing to be done is meaty as well, and it took me about 80 hours to get to the game's final act. Enemies and environments are varied, old events are referenced back on when it becomes necessary, and party members often play a surprisingly active role as the story progresses.
Despite there being 11 unique companions available to ally with, the extent of each of their personal stories and questlines is pretty remarkable. Each party member has multiple quests relating to their history, and some of them are directly tied to the main narrative in ways that are pretty impressive. Characters will leave the party both expectedly and unexpectedly clearing stating their personal goals and involving their personal histories. On top of that, the variety of the character quests ranges from simple (and not so simple) fetch errands to hosting a party to simply solving a dispute in your capital. Not every companion's story is equally engaging -- Valerie's is especially dull -- but even the least interesting at least gives the player multiple objectives throughout the course of the game.
Unfortunately, the kingdom-building half of the game is far less engaging on its own, mainly due to a lack of feedback outside of the menus or underlying mechanics. While performing well with respect to solving disputes and undertaking opportunities that arise as your kingdom grows, it never feels like more than numbers on a page.
Upgrading settlements from villages to towns doesn't change how they look when you actually visit them, and they all have the same layout as it is. Ranking up the various stats such as military, economy, and the like provides you bonuses to undertake more difficult challenges, but it is never reflected anywhere except in the abstracted nature of the kingdom menus. Kingdoms with strong economies will find themselves with more build points and stronger advisors in order to pass higher-level bonuses, but there's next to no payoff otherwise.
In a way, it almost feels like a very parasitic relationship between the player and the game in that the player is asked to devote time and resources to this gameplay mode only to be given very little in return. Thorough heads of state will diligently delegate their advisers amongst the tasks best suited and rank up their kingdom stats, but outside of being told that the kingdom's economy is now rank IX or the like, nothing really feels different from hour 1 to hour 20.
In addition to this, some events take absurdly long amounts of in-game time, up to 90 or more in-game days. Traveling across the whole map takes about 3, to put that in perspective. This means when you only have 10 advisers at most (and you only unlock more than 5 a fair ways into the game), you'll often find yourself saddled with immediate problems that you can't solve because the only available advisers to solve the problem are occupied for the next two in-game months.
On one occasion late in the game, I found myself facing a key story-related problem where a curse was affecting my kingdom on a daily basis - each day I left it unsolved damaged my kingdom irreparably. After about 11 days of this, my kingdom crumbled under the weight of the issue that could not be addressed. The only advisers allowed to tackle the issue had been set on long-duration projects that I could not recall them from, so I found myself literally unable to progress, even though their projects had been started several days prior. The build points necessary to complete several projects also feels incredibly high, often resulting in me resorting to selling every unique piece of equipment I had but wasn't using to the shop to simply buy out the available points outright.
Which brings me to the colossal glaring flaw of the current state of Pathfinder: Kingmaker, and that's the lack of a functional game underneath it all. The lack of polish is the worst I have personally experienced in a game to date.
Early on, the bugs present were of the typical variety expected in a game like this, a few stalled quests, some items that failed to spawn, and some kingdom-management side bugs with duplicated projects. It was rough around the edges but not something that couldn't be quickly patched up.
Further and further in, however, I found myself more and more aggravated with issues that increased in size, scope, and impact. Even after story threats were dealt with, the problems arising from those threats continued to attack my kingdom (for instance, troll raids after the defeat of the troll king early on). One of my companions somehow got hit with a disintegration bug, but it didn't kick in until I visited my capital several hours later, causing him to die on the spot.
More quests would break, including several of the companion quests, my rogue's perception somehow fell to negative 250, dialogue options wouldn't engage, certain projects would somehow now be found in triplicate in the kingdom menus, quest-critical objects failed to spawn, my cleric could now channel positive energy 125 times a day instead of 10, certain areas would freeze my characters at the entrance, my barbarian companion somehow got doubled in the party menu, and one of the game's final major acts failed to close out properly, leaving me unable to finish the game outright.
While Owlcat has been patching the game near daily with bug fixes, each fix seems to incorporate several new bugs in a process that felt like an early beta rather than a 1.0 release. It's disappointing that the game is in such a poor state at the moment because the scope and framework of Kingmaker's potential is, somehow, still apparent. There's a high ceiling here, but the walls haven't even finished being built. This isn't a game waiting for the paint to dry, it's still wrapped in caution tape.
I do want to make one thing clear - I enjoyed what I played of Kingmaker so much that losing a companion to a bugged status effect and many numerous resets of several hours of progress to circumvent poorly balanced kingdom mechanics wasn't enough to get me to shelve the game. Interesting companions, a unique framework, and a strong story were all enough to force me to keep going, to hope that I could somehow navigate the bugs, ignore the failed questlines I wanted to finish, and persevere through wonky balancing in an attempt to reach the game's conclusion, only to be stonewalled on the last lap. In 6 months or so, once the many numerous issues are dealt with both on a performance front as well as balance, this game could be amazing. But right now it's not, and sadly, it's not close.