Review: Pathfinder: Kingmaker – One Hit-and-Miss Wonder

If I had to define Pathfinder: Kingmaker in one word, it would be “exhausting.” I have exactly 170 hours clocked on Steam. I’d also been playing offline to avoid the latest 1.2 patch, as I thought it might break my progress. I’d say that puts my playtime well over 200 hours for a single playthrough, though I actually restarted the game after about 20 hours, as I’d lost access to two companions after neglecting a quest. This should give you a rough idea of what kind of game Kingmaker is. It’s a more accurate idea than my original impressions.

It will require a major investment of time and patience to get through it, even if you’re very knowledgeable about the Pathfinder RPG system, which I am not. It helps if you’re familiar with CRPGs and the basics of the d20 system, which I am. However, I still had issues with the difficulty, considering that I tend to experiment with RPG systems rather than focus on a tried-and-true build that can annihilate one and all enemies in my path. Kingmaker doesn’t reward experimentation; it only rewards experience with the Pathfinder system. It also seems like a very literal implementation, in a way that doesn’t account for the plasticity and flexibility of the tabletop experience, though this is something that all CRPGs are guilty of to a degree.

Stumbling upon a crag linnorm in a random cave, there was no way to prepare for it at all.

Don’t be a hero, play on Easy

So, if you’re completely new to the Pathfinder or the d20 system, do yourself a favor and play on the Story mode difficulty, which will offer you predefined builds and spare you a lot of frustration. You can occasionally change it to the Normal mode if it gets boring, and then change back to the Story mode when it gets too rough again (it will). I started on the Normal mode, then, after Hargulka, the Wake-Up Call Boss, I got tired of the grind and switched to the Story mode. When it got boring, I switched back to the Normal mode, and stayed that way for most of the mid-game. By the endgame I threw the towel again as I faced swarms of pests and Wild Hunt Scouts who left my characters blinded and paralyzed. Life is just too short to grind it away like this.

However, the core issue is that I just don’t like pausable real-time combat. I can tolerate it if the game has a great story, as Baldur’s Gate and Pillars of Eternity do, but I generally find it a frustrating grindfest. My view is that in turn-based combat you can find a way to defeat your enemies step-by-step, using each one of your characters methodically. In real-time you have to micromanage all of your characters at once, buff them up, and watch them hack and miss many, many times, hoping that RNG doesn’t mess them up too badly. Sure, at least with real-time you can go on autopilot during minor battles, but still, it’s not the optimal combat mode for CRPGs. It’s tolerable at best, and I’ve tolerated it for far too long already.

I can’t speak to how balanced the combat is, as I still think I have a superficial understanding of the Pathfinder system, but my impression is that Kingmaker boasts difficulty for difficulty’s sake. There are so many pointless battles, so many seemingly endless swarms of trash mobs, and not much in the way of pacifist solutions. It feels exhausting to just think about it. And even if you play on Easy, there will be battles where you’ll be clueless as to how you can beat certain enemies, especially in the final chapter. There is an audience for this kind of hardcore difficulty, but I doubt they make up any form of significant majority that would render Kingmaker a commercially viable game.

How my choice affected this NPC… it’s kind of cool, but inconsequential in the big picture.

All work and no roleplay

As I mentioned, I often wished there were ways to avoid battles; to outwit my foes. This ties into the overall lack of plasticity and flexibility that the tabletop experience offers. There isn’t much in the way of trying different approaches to solve a quest. While you do get a lot of choices and consequences in dialogues and quests, the quest design is such that you won’t be able to experiment much with skills and spells to attain a solution. Usually most quests are very clear-cut, and all you have to do is connect the dots. There are a few puzzles and quite a bit of skill checks in dialogues, but the vast majority of quests have the exact same solutions no matter what. Of course, I don’t expect every single quest to have multiple solutions, but at least some flexibility to mirror the tabletop experience. 

Even though most of the quest solutions are simple, you can easily fail some of them, or at least fail some of their objectives, though you might try to do everything you can to avoid it. Many of them have timers, and while you’re working on solving a quest, time might run out for another, then you’ll have to reload an older save to avoid failing that quest. Especially by the end, in the House at the Edge of Time, it seems like unless you do everything in the exact same sequence that the developers devised, you’ll get bugged out of some quests with no resolution. It’s as if they expect players to guess what they were thinking. The quest book often gives you incomplete information, not pointing out locations, or only pointing them out in broad and vague terms.

One of the game’s many literal dead-ends, and that’s just in the world map.

Obviously, nobody expects hand-holding in a classic RPG like this. We do, however, expect that a game doesn’t waste our time. Kingmaker seems to waste your time on purpose with anachronistic design choices, as if it was designed for people who have thousands of hours to spend on a single game. While that may have been the case back in the 90s when Baldur’s Gate was released, it just doesn’t reflect the current state of the industry. Most CRPG developers from the past few years realize that the genre must evolve beyond nostalgia to survive. Kingmaker is still very much stuck in the nostalgia mindset, which only garners the acclaim of a very small subset of old-school fanatics. If that’s intentional, fair enough, but then it’s likely that Kingmaker will be the first and the last of Pathfinder CRPGs.

On the other hand, there are several cases where there is some amount of hand-holding. For instance, one quest suggests that the player should bring invisibility potions to a particular encounter. Did they need to spell this out so obviously? I don’t think so. Instead, I wish they would focus on making in-game directions clearer and more specific. If the player can’t find certain NPCs without Google, there is something wrong with the game. Especially when you often have to go back-and-forth between NPCs to complete a quest, it’s imperative to make it so that NPCs are easily located. Instead, I often found myself having to scour huge levels in search of a single NPC in order to complete a quest. Honestly, it’s a bit insulting to do this to your players.

Seriously… no idea what’s going on here.

Remember, no Russian

In the midst of so many obsolete design choices, the overall narrative design often feels cluttered, overelaborate, and convoluted. Since the game was based on an actual Pathfinder Adventure Path authored by different designers, the adaptation feels very inconsistent. The first chapter often tries to be funny in a way that will annoy some players, as it annoyed me. It just didn’t seem to fit the setting, especially contrasted with some of the other chapters, which are much more serious. When the Pathfinder lore and worldbuilding prop the story up, it can have excellent moments. My impression is that when the Kingmaker developers tried to be original, the illusion was lost.

Let’s not forget that most of the game was originally written in Russian, then translated to English, and it shows. The writing is full of broken sentences, awkward phrasing, and omitted articles. The structure of Russian writing often seems imposed on the stilted English translation, which is something I’ve also observed in other games by Russian developers. Kingmaker desperately needed a qualified American or British editor to sort through all the dialogues and storybook events, making sure that they read like proper English. In a game like this, a rushed and often botched translation is just as harmful as messy mechanics.

Valerie’s struggle with the goddess Shelyn’s fanatics is probably one of the best story arcs.

Misery loves companions

In spite of all these flaws, there are moments when the story seems to come together, especially when you spend a long time with the companions. That’s probably where Chris Avellone’s narrative design directives come in. The companions in Kingmaker sometimes reminded me of Planescape: Torment in the way their story arcs evolved. In spite of its extremely shallow and lackluster combat, Torment became a cult classic, widely considered by some as one of the best RPGs ever made. Kingmaker definitely won’t reach those heights, but if there’s one thing that can redeem it is how it approaches companion relationships and the way they change along the way.

In CRPG circles this is called reactivity, though it doesn’t just mean how your companions react to your choices and actions, but to all NPCs’ in general. There are some decent examples of reactivity throughout Kingmaker, but it doesn’t seem like it was a strong focus point during development. Most of the consequences are an afterthought along the way, pointed out to the player through the same pop-up dialogue boxes that help expand on the lore. As with the vast majority of RPGs dealing in choices and consequences, the most important consequences only come up in the final slideshow, and they’re mostly predictable. Your choices have little impact during the campaign itself, except as a way to remind you what you chose.

There are apparently quite a few different endings, but some endings take a lot more work than others. About halfway through the game I just wanted to get it over with, so I didn’t put a lot of thought into possible ending scenarios. From what I’ve read, you may be able to seduce your main antagonist in the final showdown, as long as you’ve done a lot of research into the curses you unravelled along the way. While this seems interesting, I don’t think I would’ve tried it even if I were able to allocate the resources that this research requires.

No matter how good a manager you are, your kingdom will end up like this.

My kingdom for a horse

This brings us to the one of the worst parts of Kingmaker: the kingdom management mode. Once you attain the title of Baron of the Stolen Lands after your first main quest, you start managing your realm through a separate mode that can also be set to auto. I was actually interested in it because it’s quite unique in a CRPG, so I didn’t set it to auto and tried to make sense of it. The main problem is that the resources necessary to do anything in your kingdom, the Build Points (BP), are ridiculously scarce, and it takes a lot of time until you’re able to build a kingdom that can generate a decent BP income. Until then, you actually have to go out in the isometric mode and buy BP from a street vendor with your gold. Instead of giving you a more easily manageable way to gain income through your kingdom, you have to get out of your palace to buy the BP. It’s this kind of ridiculous design choice that makes Kingmaker an awful drudgery.

If Kingmaker has any chance of making it as a moderately successful CRPG in today’s overcrowded market, the developers have to completely overhaul the kingdom management. It’s not enough to give you a more manageable income of BP, the tasks and the stats need to be significantly improved in a way that they actually matter in the overall scheme of things. I would also change the RNG factor from tasks and incorporate some storybook skill checks into them, which is an actually fun way to approach this kind of scenario. This would make kingdom management engaging and not just a tedious nuisance on top of an already sufficiently frustrating game.

I did give them a second chance, but Linzi doesn’t care.

Remake Kingmaker

Most of my playthrough was on the 1.1.6b version, which has now been superseded by the 1.2 patch. I can’t speak to how the game should play right now, but apparently the loading times have diminished a bit. I was often Alt-Tab-ing in and out of the game because the loading times were excruciatingly long, even with the game installed on my SSD. Some of the levels are very large, and it’s understandable that they take a while, but even so, there’s some serious technical issues when you have to wait over a minute to load a small level as well. If these issues haven’t been sorted out yet, it should be an immediate priority. Never waste the player’s time if you can avoid it.

As it stands right now, Kingmaker is seriously bloated and stretched thin. I would much prefer a smaller and more self-contained game set in the Pathfinder universe, as long as the overall experience was polished and less abstruse. There are still so many other little issues in terms of UI (outdated), level design (way too many traps everywhere), cringey humor (I still can’t stand Linzi), often bad voice acting (especially Linzi’s), and so on and on. Levels like the Womb of Lamashtu had me pulling my hair as I faced irritating trash mobs and overwrought puzzles. This kind of sadistic design should not be encouraged in games.

This gorgeous illuminated tower shield from the endgame is worth showing off.

At the end of the day, it’s a hard game to play and to keep playing, and even harder to recommend. Even if you’re a die-hard Pathfinder fan you’ll find it extremely rough around the edges. Baldur’s Gate had its own issues in that sense, but it prepared the player for its challenges in some way. Kingmaker is a thoroughly punishing and sadistic crash course on the Pathfinder world and system, and sadly I don’t really feel enriched by the experience. I’m just glad it’s over, and proud that I survived it.

There was a lot of potential in Kingmaker, but also a lot of wasted potential. The developers might still be able to salvage this potential if they listen to criticism and are willing to overhaul the game in every possible way. First of all, revise the entire text and make it sound natural to an English-language audience. Then find ways to prepare players for the many challenges in difficulty; make the quests clearer and more specific; make the kingdom management meaningful and engaging; give players the means to avoid drudgery; and keep solving the many technical issues and time-wasters. I believe it’s still possible to make Kingmaker a great game with the potential for sequels. Otherwise, this is an obstinately poor debut and possibly a one-hit wonder only for a very small audience of grognards.

Richard reviewed Pathfinder: Kingmaker on PC via Steam with a copy provided by the developer.

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