The CRPG Revival began in the Age of Kickstarter with crowdfunding campaigns for Pillars of Eternity, Wasteland 2 and Divinity: Original Sin. All of these games have been successful, and were followed by equally or even more influential sequels. Since then, other developers have sprung up, and though some have done better than others, the CRPG genre has been reestablished as a steady niche for independent RPG developers, both big and small. And so Russian studio Owlcat Games premieres its first title, Pathfinder: Kingmaker, licensed by Paizo Publishing and published by Deep Silver.
There is a great weight of influence on top of Kingmaker, all the way back from the classic fantasy CRPGs Baldur’s Gate, Planescape: Torment, and Icewind Dale, but also from the most recent and most successful, which I already mentioned. The developers took as much as possible from all of these games and tried to forge their own unique CRPG, which so far seems quite promising. There have been issues upon release, and some of those issues are still in the process of being ironed out, but they don’t detract from the overall experience I’ve had so far, which is quite positive.
As a caveat, I must say that I’ve never played the tabletop Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, and so my impressions are based only on my brief experience with the versions 1.0.4-5 of Kingmaker. I have no frame of reference, and no expectations in that sense. I understand that some fans of the tabletop game are disappointed, as I've observed in some Steam reviews such as this one, but I have very few complaints myself so far.
Gorgeous Art Direction - The environment art and the character art look really beautiful. In both interiors and outdoors, everything looks richly detailed, bright and colorful, full of nuance and life. The textures look glossy and sleek, which the superb lighting enhances. I thought Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire looked beautiful too, but Kingmaker is on another level when it comes to this sophistication in the art direction. It made a great first impression as I explored the first levels. The 3D models also look very detailed and in keeping with their appearances. One of my companions bears a huge shield that she carries on her back when not in battle, and I just love the way it looks as she walks. There are also quite a few animals, and they are beautifully sculpted and animated, very lifelike.
Monumental Worldbuilding - Obviously, the credit in this case goes to the tabletop version, but the implementation of this worldbuilding in Kingmaker is excellent so far. Like in Deadfire, the dialogues and UI include little pop-up windows with lore summaries to help those who are totally new to the world of Pathfinder, or even those who need some reminders here and there. And it is a truly unique fantasy world with a lot of interesting details and history. Although it builds upon the inescapable influence of Dungeons & Dragons, there’s also so much in this fictional universe that turns the tropes on their heads and subverts my expectations.
Deep Character Customization - It’s very deep indeed, and that’s great, but it can also be a bit overwhelming. Although I’m familiar with character sheets in RPGs and how most systems work in general, I’m still wrapping my head around Pathfinder’s system and its implementation in Kingmaker. I’m impressed, and I look forward to learn more about it and make full use of it. It took me a while to get used to the UI in that sense. There’s a lot of reading to do here, but sometimes you can just skim through and get the gist of it. I really like the leveling system, it looks very flexible and versatile.
Excellent Dialogue Writing - Now, full disclosure: Chris Avellone is one of my favorite game designers and writers, and he was involved in the narrative design in Kingmaker. Well, it shows. I spent the best part of an hour just talking to characters, especially my companions, and most of them were really interesting, telling lots of well-written stories. In that sense it’s very influenced by Planescape: Torment and Pillars of Eternity, which have some of the best writing in games I’ve ever seen. There is one character I found kind of annoying though: Linzi, the Bard. It didn’t help that the voice acting was really cringey; it sounds too contemporary, almost like a valley girl. Apart from that, most of the dialogue was excellent and didn’t feel like a chore to read through.
Unbalanced Combat - The initial battles were super easy, even as I faced a lot of enemies. Then, as I started exploring the land, I had my companions knocked out by a couple of giant spiders and giant lizards, like they were made of sugar. And of course, this is real-time with pause combat, which I really don’t like in general. Give me a good, punishing turn-based combat system anytime over watching characters swing-and-miss over and over. This is more of a personal gripe with pausable real-time than a dissatisfaction with its implementation in Kingmaker, but the developers have their work cut out for them. Pillars of Eternity received balancing updates well over two years after release, and Kingmaker shouldn't be any different.
I really want to spend dozens of hours exploring the world of Pathfinder. It’s a truly fascinating fantasy universe, and from my perspective it looks very faithfully recreated in Kingmaker. Of course, I understand that hardcore fans may feel disappointed, and I hope the developers keep improving and supporting it in the long term so that it may live up to its full potential. Still, as someone who’s almost totally new to the world of Golarion and its worldbuilding, I’m really impressed and eager to continue my adventures. And when I feel that I’ve seen as much as I could, I will write a proper review to analyze its strengths and weaknesses in greater detail.
Richard covered Pathfinder: Kingmaker on PC via Steam with a code provided by the developer.