Pathfinder: Kingmaker has the Makings of a Great Game

A long while ago, I pledged to an interesting looking Kickstarter that was described to me as “Pathfinder the computer game.” Now, as the usual Game Master for a few different groups, I don’t get much of a chance to play in any tabletop games, so I instantly pledged to support the project just so I could maybe enjoy a game where I got to be a player. Like most Kickstarters, I pretty much forgot about it until October, when it came out. Unlike most Kickstarters, I shoved the emails into my Kickstarter folder and promptly forgot about it again. To be fair, I was rather caught up in a lot of stuff at work in addition to preparing myself for National Novel Writing Month, so I didn’t really have the time to be playing anything as time-consuming as Pathfinder: Kingmaker. It likely would have stayed in that folder, forgotten until my physical rewards showed up at whatever point in the future (they had a much later delivery date than the digital rewards that included the download code for the game), except I found out my grandfather was dying rather more quickly than I expected and I couldn’t process it emotionally because I’d been kept awake until seven in the morning that day.

After spending a few hours trying to deal with my emotions, eat something, get enough caffeine to pretend I wasn’t basically dead inside from emotional and physical exhaustion, I tossed aside my writing and decided to just find some dumb game to play so I could forget about Chris Amann and all his problems for a while. Which is when I remembered getting the notification email that my download code and digital rewards were ready. It took a couple of hours to track everything down, create accounts I’d forgotten to create. download the game, and figure out how to make it run optimally on my computer, but I got sucked into it immediately. I got sucked into it so thoroughly that I accidentally stayed up until almost four in the morning on a work night, playing it. And then I accidentally stayed up until almost two in the morning the following night. Since then, I’ve only allowed myself to play it on days when I don’t have anything going on the next morning, since I severely doubt my ability to stop myself from getting sucked into this game. I still play it pretty frequently, though. At least once a week, since I still need the escape it provides me. I just make sure to avoid it when I’ve got something important to do the next day that requires me to have gotten enough sleep, like writing.

As far as being “Pathfinder the computer game” goes, I’d say that’s a fairly accurate summary. The developers made some concessions when it came to adapting the rules since Pathfinder is a bit more complicated than most computer game audiences are looking for, not to mention how difficult it would be to program different numbers for all of the easily combined or excluded skills. It makes sense to get rid of crafting and profession skills because few tabletop gamers actually use them. The benefits of trying to implement those systems in a way that fits with Pathfinder doesn’t seem worth the absolute headache (and probably one or more years of development time, since they’re super complicated) including them would cause in everyone working on the project. It also makes sense to reduce the available spells a bit since there are so many “incredibly useful” spells that are actually only useful in one specific scenario that almost never comes up and can be neatly avoided thanks to video game mechanics.

The only real “tabletop game to computer game” issue is how encounters work. In the tabletop version of Pathfinder, encounters are supposed to drain the resources of the party until they are forced to rest in order to restore said resources. This means that only the weakest encounters won’t be a drain on the party and mid-to-low level encounters will still drain the party if they encounter enough of them. Since the rules are drawn from the tabletop version of Pathfinder, this same effect still applies to encounters in the computer game. However, since time is more compressed when one players is making the decisions for every character, you can get through a larger number of encounters in a smaller amount of play time on the computer game. That wouldn’t be a problem except for the fact that a lot of those encounters require expending resources and, since there are more encounters than you’d expect due to video game design logic (players need something to fight or interact with every so often or they get bored), you find yourself needing to rest more frequently than you’d like. Throw in the time management mechanic the game has–stuff like hunting up food for six people can take seventeen hours despite the skill in the tabletop game stipulating that foraging for food happens during travel time–and the fact that camping supplies weigh ten units per single-use (which is measured per-person), and you’ve in the awful position where you can’t bring supplies to cut down on time but can wind up spending over a day just finding food for everyone. I get that the game developers needed to separate the movement speed effects of hunting for food from the “find enough food” effects of hunting for food since it’s difficult to track modifiers like that ahead of time and the computer game actually measures minutes and hours while the tabletop game measures days, generally. Still, it’s frustrating.

That being said, those are my only gripes about the game. Sure, spellcasters feel super weak at low levels, but that’s true in the tabletop game as well. In every version of it. They always have and probably always will. Any problems with using casters in Pathfinder: Kingmaker are a result of the weird resting and camping gear weight issues, so I wouldn’t call that a gripe in its own right. It’s an auxiliary gripe. Given the monumental task the developers set out to accomplish, how well they’ve done overall, how active they are in their fan community, and how often they roll out patches to fix the issues players find, I’m more than will to overlook these issues. In fact, I’m willing to advocate that you buy this game if you want something immersive, entertaining, and downright absorbing. Still, you should only buy it if you actually want Pathfinder the Video Game. It feels so much like the tabletop game that I’ve mixed up the video game with the tabletop game I’m in on Monday nights. I’ve called each character by the other’s name and forgotten who had what magic items frequently enough that I’ve started making lists to keep near each character so I can remember who has what (one is a bard and the other is a sorcerer, so they have a lot of magic item overlap). It feels like a good problem to have.

The story is what really does it for me, though. You’re essentially a mercenary hired by a local noble to take out a bandit lord set up in a neighboring unclaimed land with the hopes of establishing you as the baron of said land once the bandit lord has been killed. There is a great deal of additional political maneuvering behind their move, but you’re never really sure which side is in the right. You could make a snap judgment that one side is good and the other is bad, but honestly it’s more of a “Chaos versus Law” thing than good versus evil. The side setting you up as baron is the Chaotic side and the side trying to recruit you to their cause is the Law and Order side. There’s far more to each side than that, but that’s really the distinction between the two. The chaotic people seem nicer than the law people, but that’s often how it seems to anyone who isn’t lawful. You get a lot of information and a good number of chances to pick a side or help one cause or the other. It’s a lot of fun working through the game with these larger concepts in mind.

The combat is a bit dense at times, but that’s because you’re trying to manage up to six people’s worth of combat abilities and resources. There’s a lot to keep track of and, as long as you think of it as a turn-by-turn combat, similar to how the tabletop game does it, you’ll figure it out just fine. Aside from that, it’s actually really fun to do. I love watching the characters charge across the screen, see them line up their shots, or watch spells go whizzing around the battlefield as they all engage in the chaotic dance of combat. It’s a very cinematic experience, actually. To the point where you need to be careful or else a character might get mismanaged as you try to just enjoy the special effects on your screen.

The skill usage is a little opaque at first, but you figure it out pretty quickly. Everyone makes checks, but the little information ticker only tells you when a passive check (perception, for instance) is successful. Which makes sense, since you shouldn’t know that your characters failed to stop a hidden treasure chest. Active checks are made by finding icons on the screen or as dialogue options when talking to people. The number you’re aiming for is given and the roll plus the math happens behind the scenes. Unfortunately, there’s no part of the game that explains what happens when you fail a skill check, so it can be a mystery as to why the trap went off this time and not the last few times you failed to dismantle it. Unless you’re familiar with Pathfinder and know that failing to meet the Dice Check number by a certain amount or more results in the trap going off, you’ll be unable to figure out what’s going on. That being said, I have players I’ve been DMing for years who still don’t know how this works, despite almost exclusively playing rogues, so that’s not necessarily a failing of the game. Just, you know, keep it mind.

Character management is a bit dense, but that’s mostly because you have to become an expert in six or more character classes so you can manage their upgrades properly. Because of the wide variety of upgrades available in the game, you spend a lot of time reading up on what things do and comparing it to what your stats are. As someone familiar with Pathfinder, I expect this sort of thing but I can see how it might be difficult for someone with less knowledge or willingness to read a few walls of text. I recommend doing all your research ahead of time and rely on forums to help you pick what you should do since people who love to build characters and figure out how to do weirdly specific things are also the kinds of people who like to talk about both those things on dedicated forums.

Honestly, this game feels like a good bridge between the hardcore audience and the more casual audience. There’s everything here the hardcore min-maxing power gamer needs to build his ultimate murder-hobo but there’s also plenty of options that give less invested players recommendations and easy options for powering up. There’s even an option that’ll do the powering up for you, so you don’t need to think about it and, based on my own research into the matter, it actually builds good characters. They’re pretty focused around their core mechanic and lack the sort of weird-but-fun powers you get from a fully customized character, but they’re still very good (as in, they’re both effective and fun to play).

If you want a game that’s got a lot of gameplay hours for you, that’ll suck you in with a myriad of tasks, fun combat, and a great story, look no further than Pathfinder: Kingmaker. I love the game and am constantly looking forward to playing it again. The wide array of characters you can add and the sheer variety of characters you can create means that even multiple play-throughs could be fun and new. I suggest putting this game on your Christmas wishlist. Or just your Steam wishlist, if you think it might be a bit late to add something new to your Christmas one. Either way, get the game. You’ll enjoy it.

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