I was pretty excited to play Pathfinder: Kingmaker. It’s based on the ruleset of the tabletop RPG Pathfinder, which I’ve never played, but the fact that I’ve never actually played Dungeons and Dragons hasn’t stopped me playing countless other CRPGs based on that ruleset either. The game promises an epic story, dungeon crawling, loot, countless spells, even political intrigue! Anything that has both political intrigue and giant spiders is always worth a look, in my opinion.
Originally releasing on PC almost two years ago now after being crowd funded in 2017, the Definitive Edition release for consoles comes with expansion packs and other DLC that was added after release, making it somehow even bigger. Make no mistake, Pathfinder: Kingmaker is gargantuan. The world map is split up into 13 regions and I spent all of chapter one (which took me five days to finish) in just two of them. That might give you an idea of just how big it is, but even outside of the actual size, the ambition behind the game is staggering.
On top of the whole RPG thing, which some might say is plenty complex already, there’s the management of a kingdom to think about as well. If you want to and you know what you’re doing, you can conquer and rule the whole continent. Thankfully, its difficulty is customisable, so if you don’t want to spend time managing your kingdom you can make it easier so it doesn’t take up so much time, or just set it to automatic and focus on the combat. It’s worth giving it a try though, as it is very rewarding, both in regards to acquiring cash or loot and it gives you a unique perspective on how the overarching storylines are playing out compared to other games.
Kingmaker comes with 16 classes that include all the usual suspects and then some. The more unusual of these are the Kineticist, who channels elemental energy, or an Alchemist who can throw area of effect explosives. Each class then has four archetypes, so instead of a “standard” Rogue you can have a Eldritch Scoundrel, who can not only use a rogue’s finesse weaponry to score sneak attacks, but can actually channel touch spells like Shocking Touch through it as well. I settled on an Eldtrich Archer, who does the same with ranged touch spells like Ray of Frost and his bow, and proceeded to immediately make mistakes in designing my character. Thankfully there is a respec option available, which now works after a game update.
Character creation is detailed and flexible, provided you know what you’re doing. Occasionally the game neglects to tell you certain things during creation, such as when I was making a cleric with a side of fighter to gain their armour proficiencies, only to learn that the archetype of cleric I’d chosen couldn’t wear any armour at all. Much like kingdom management, if you’re a bit overwhelmed by managing the stats and skills of your character and all your companions you can set them to automatically level up, which will do just fine for a playthrough on standard difficulty.
Soon after you start playing, you’re booted off to the Stolen Lands on a quest to defeat its current ruler, bandit leader The Stag Lord, and then take over the region. This initially seems like the main story and it could be in another game, but in Pathfinder it turns out to be the very beginning of a much grander plot.
The gameplay really opens after conquering the Stolen Lands, letting you roam the world map and even capture resources in your territories. Mercifully, it is an actual map that you use to travel between locations rather than just a gigantic world to walk around, though you’re open to random encounters whilst travelling. Once you enter a location, combat will start once an enemy sees your party, and here’s where things get a little odd as Kingmaker has two combat systems.
Either you can let your party of up to six characters manage themselves in real time, pausing and giving orders when necessary, or you can slow things all the way down and play turn-based. The turn-based mode was added after release, though the game apparently simulates the turns under the hood when you are playing real time anyway. It feels far more tactical and gives you more control, so I actually stuck with it, but you can swap between real time and turn-based at will.
The only real issue I’ve had with combat is that harder battles tend to manifest their difficulty by having your characters constantly miss; you can go through multiple rounds where multiple characters will fail to hit with every attack. It’s obviously down to the luck of the simulated dice rolls, but it’s immensely frustrating. There’s also a bug I kept bumping into where I occasionally give an order to a character to attack, so they should walk to the target, then attack, but the character just wouldn’t attack after approaching, despite the UI telling me that it was within distance. Sometimes they wouldn’t even move, but either way you basically miss out on a turn for that character whenever it happens. You can remedy this by not trusting the game’s UI and manually doing the walk and attack separately, but that shouldn’t be necessary.
Eventually you will unlock kingdom management, at which point you basically find a decent strategy game in its own right layered on top of everything else. Events appear that can affect the wellbeing of your kingdom, dignitaries from other kingdoms will visit to play politics or throw barely-veiled insults, and you even build upgrades in settlements that receive bonuses based on how you arrange the buildings, which then all has knock on effects on the kingdom as a whole. You assign party members and other characters to advisor roles, then assign those advisors tasks and jobs, each of which takes a certain amount of in-game time. Then you wander off and go adventuring whilst they’re doing it, hopefully returning just as they finish but more likely a week after them and… Oh! Now the kingdom is on fire. It’s deeper than it has any right to be and it is honestly a little overwhelming, but as mentioned earlier, it can be customised to be easier or just be automatic. Just don’t neglect it entirely, because if your kingdom falls, it’s game over.
That’s where I have a bit of an issue, though. The timing of those advisors’ tasks against the length of in-game time spent in dungeons is often just a bit annoying. You can’t manage your kingdom from a dungeon, so you’ll just have to hope nothing serious happens while you’re busy fighting 20 trolls. It takes more than a few in-game days for your entire kingdom to fall into ruin, but you never know, you could just be mid-quest when the weight of all your poor decisions comes crashing down upon you. Those last few days could make the difference and having a game over on the end of many hours of involved strategy and seems like it could result in a save file that’s in an unwinnable state. Thankfully, you can make your kingdom invincible in the difficulty settings to ensure that doesn’t happen.
What’s not so great are the continuing reports of broken save files and progression halting black screens, despite a recent update aimed at fixing them. Personally, a respec bug has now been fixed, but I’ve lost progress through game crashes after the patch, and taken to saving before leaving areas and accessing kingdom management. We shouldn’t really have to fight against the game to experience it properly.
Perhaps the most important element in this genre is the writing and Pathfinder really doesn’t disappoint. Kingmaker is good at making characters seem like people, rather than lore libraries and quest givers, but I also enjoyed how funny it can be at times – the alchemist Jubilost has made me genuinely laugh aloud at his wry comments, which is a nice change of pace. Should you need a little help tracking the conversation, there’s a glossary that you can access during dialogue to explain any bolded words and provide background information on other territories, history, or factions.
Outside of all of this, Kingmaker makes many of the sacrifices typical of the genre: a fixed camera that can’t be rotated, graphics that could run on an integrated GPU, and dialogue that isn’t part of the main story remaining unvoiced. Whilst the occasional storm looks pretty good, after playing Divinity: Original Sin and its sublime sequel, returning to a CRPG that makes those sacrifices just feels like a step back. The music, however, is quite a bit better, especially battle music which is full of fast, deep strings and excitement to go along with all the troll punching and skeleton raising.