On Pathfinder: Kingmaker, the CRPG

This is the best computer role-playing game. This is the worst computer role-playing game.

Do you want your decisions to matter? Do you want a challenge, with a real risk of loss? Do you want ambiguity? Do you want adventure? 

Do you want to spend a lot of time reloading saves? 

The Game

Pathfinder Kingmaker is a computer role-playing game based on a series of adventure paths written for pathfinder. An adventure path is designed as a series of scenes preceding planned combat encounters, until the characters reach the end of the path. From "Stolen Land" the first adventure path in the kingmaker series:

". . .these things are called “Adventure Paths” and not “Adventure Lots Of Little Paths,” . . . an Adventure Path is first and foremost a story. While your players will have plenty of opportunities to help shape such a story’s development, on a certain level the story’s going to happen one way or another."

This is, perhaps, useful for very busy people who enjoy building characters to overcome challenges, but seems to limit agency, adventure, and the possibility of wonder, but I'm not throwing stones—many people like this style of play.

Kingmaker was their attempt to not do this. Is this why it's one of the best selling adventure paths they have published AND the one neophyte company Owlcat decided to turn into a massive digital role-playing games? Who can say? 

Me. Yes. Adventure paths are interminable compared to player-driven play. But not everyone can have an above average IQ and people who have trouble with abstraction should get to play D&D too.

The reality of this can be quite upsetting. In the computer game, you can find and run into hydras and manticores and more at level 1 and 2. The correct option here is to flee, and return later (or find specific ways to manipulate the pathfinder system to target the one weakness of the creature). The downside is that the appropriate way to play is save-scumming (reloading constantly for better results), because there is no way for a player to know ahead of playing when they are going to get smote by a monster at level 1.

This continues onto the rules themselves. Pathfinder is a very rigid design, with certain mathematical expectations. For balanced encounters, it's expected that players will die during combat around level 7, which is why clerics get access to spells that bring the recently deceased back to life. It's been baked into the math since early 3rd edition. Skill checks are the same way, difficulties are in the mid 40's by the end of the game, which means unless you've specialized to hit them, you are unlikely to succeed. 

But if you're playing Kingmaker, you're already all in on this. It does implement the rules (for the most part) in a correct way. For example, if you are over-encumbered, your speed decreases on the world map. And on the battle maps. Take off your armor if you get the chance before making athletic checks. You might not roll a high enough perception check to locate an adventure site, and then you fail. 

Finally, there's the time limit. After the first chapter a clock starts (1600 days), and doesn't stop. Events happen, and it's best to address them directly, opposed to the usual video game technique of "do all the sidequests first and save the main quest for last". When quests pop up, like "Rescue my child" or "Stop the troll invasion" you have to address them quickly or things will go badly. You do the main quests first, and then split the remining time between Kingdom management and exploration and side-questing. 

To wit: There is a camping screen, where everyone in the party has a job. This camping screen was a draw to the game. During my game, I let my hunter hunt for rations. This can extend the camp time past 8 hours for a poor roll. 18 hour camp here, 12 hour camp there. These extra hours over the course of the game added up to enough time that I wasn't able to completely develop my kingdom for the 'best' ending. I lost so much time, that I wasn't able to completely raise the secondary stats of my Kingdom to 10. I ended with Divine, Arcane, Stability at 7, Culture at 9, and Espionage at 6. I walked places when I should have teleported. I explored. Once I left the screen on and was in other apps for a few hours, and time passes in the game, so I lost several days there.

The Grind

All of this is very cool, right? Weather happens and affects the maps. Your choices matter, not just in conversation, but in what you choose to address and what you let go. 

But the endless tedium—You're always poor on gold, but encumbering yourself with loot will add hours to your trip. You do this for every quest, you lose weeks of time over the course of the game. Here's a piece of advice for the game written by reddit user u/YogoshKeks

"The only thing that affects the time you have in act 2 is the time of day you speak to Oleg to close act 1. Do it at 16:00:01 after having fully rested. That starts act 2 just after midnight, so you get the full use of that first day. 

With that full day, you can claim Outskirts, run to Oleg to recruit Bokken, claim the resources just north of the capitol, rank up counselor and have about 40 minutes left to start that first bald hilltop 1 day event card."

There is no point in the game where these things cease to matter. Every time your characters level, you need to know what you're going to need in the future to insure you don't 'screw up the build'. (what favored enemy should you pick?) The pathfinder ruleset is incredibly brutal, and unless you are engaging in significant min/maxing, it's unlikely you will win most combats easily. Combine that with needing to rest and recuperate more often if your system mastery isn't there. . . 

The game simultaneous pulls in three separate directions. You need to devote lots of time and money to kingdom management, you need to take time to go around and explore various areas, and you need to be prepared to complete the main events when they occur. These three goals conflict with each other, and create a stressful experience. There are a couple of sections where you have some time to work on your kingdom, where you might spend three or four hours just dealing with kingdom cards and solving kingdom problems. Out of my (strangely enough) exactly 100 hour playthrough to beat the game, 20-25 hours of that was spent in kingdom management. It's relevant to note that this was far from my first playthrough—many ended when I had a problem with a build. This was the run where I decided I needed to beat the game. I would expect a first playthrough to take upwards of 150 hours of real time, using help to avoid getting stuck and considering reloads

Even in the definitive edition, years after release, the game is full of weird non-game breaking bugs. My robe stuck out on either side of the doll like waterwings. Sometimes you'd fail a roll that shows you succeeded. Feats work in unique ways (crane feat being active even when wielding weapons and shields in both hands). Once I enchanted a belt that didn't give a bonus. The game is almost impossible to complete on console due to technical difficulties, but this is not really a factor on the PC version.

The above seems negative, and there's more. The last dungeon (The House at the End of Time) is possibly one of the most frustrating and tedious dungeons ever made. Pathfinder design makes it both difficult and necessary to cover all the bases you need to handle different monster types (swarms, fey, gaze attacks). Tactics on higher difficulties result in tedious and repetitive tactics often requiring reloading to get the roll you need. The load times are long. There's weirdness with some abilities and turn-based play. There are several events that require you meet someone somewhere on a certain day or time, and there is no in-game calendar available for reference. The system and game is by FAR the most punishing to low level characters, making the beginning a arduous ordeal for new players who must have familiarly with the pathfinder system to avoid problems. (You can't hit because you didn't take precise shot and you're firing into melee. Do you have a way to deal with swarms? et. al.) 

The Gold

All that said, this game is brilliant. It's a working real-time with pause/turn-based engine that implements the pathfinder ruleset in a true way. It doesn't consider 'good video game design' and instead only considers honesty to the 'rules as physics' as a primary design goal. There's a roguelike dungeon you can take on with created parties over and over. You can fill your party with characters you designed yourself. The voice work and writing is pretty good, and greatly expands on the original Adventure Path material with exactly the kinds of things you would expect.

There are a ton of puzzles, that are really sharp. You can solve them different ways. An early puzzle has you manipulate sword arms on statues. Once you get them all facing the same way, you get access to a secret room and treasure. Most people then move on, not knowing that if you make them all face the other way, you will open a different secret room with different  treasure. There are puzzles and they aren't terribly difficult to figure out, but the game has no problem letting you move on, none the wiser. Many, nearly all of the puzzles in the game are like this. 

Also, you can solve them in different ways in a traditional sense. You can talk your way to a solution, or fight your way there, or sometimes even avoid the problem. The majority of the game is optional, as evidenced by the sub-four hour speedrun.

And ultimately, your kingdom represents your choices. I've played a Chaotic Neutral psychic, a Lawful Good Dragon Paladin (who walks around in huge dragon form all the time), a party filled with just dragon people and pets, a Lawful Evil hellknight, and more. Each campaign had the world and situation react to my choices. Events, commentary, people's opinions, who's even in the game and around, are all up to choices you make. It's an amazing amount of replayability for a game with a 100 hour playtime. 

And that is indeed its greatest strength and its biggest weakness. Do you want to replay a 100 hour game? Do you want to live in a world where you have to gain an ability and then take a feat for the ability to work? Do you want to enter a brutal world where monsters threaten humanity, and even when giving your best effort you may still fail?

The answer to those questions is something only you can decide.

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