It doesn’t take much more than proclaiming yourself to be like Baldur’s Gate to get me interested. It’s a type of RPG that’s been underserved in the last decade or so, with occasional delights like Drakensang and Dragon Age: Origins mostly edged out by 1st- and 3rd-person action RPGs, which are fine but scratch a different itch. Sometimes you just want to command a small party of fun people in real-time with occasional pauses.
Pathfinder: Kingmaker proclaimed that it would serve this niche, but also isn’t from the 90s, so I decided it was worth a look.
The premise is simple enough: there’s a lawless land full of bandits and monsters and its neighbours want you to get in there and shape it up. You achieve this through a mix of personally tromping round the land slaying said monsters and bandits or convincing them to just Stop It, and sitting in your capital telling other people to clean the place up on your behalf.
On paper, it’s a fantastic idea — after all, while it’s sometimes nice to simply drift with the wind, other times you want to put down roots and build a home.
In practice? Well.
It doesn’t get off to a great start. The game is built on pen ‘n’ paper Pathfinder 3.5e rules, which means that there are far too many mechanics. To be fair, the game does an admirable job of giving you an overview of each class and how it will progress over the game, so you know what you’re getting into, but there’s still so much of it.
Feats. Teamwork feats. Special abilities. Skills. Hyper-specific weapon proficiencies. Additional class-specific resources and spell-casting styles. Flat-footed armour class and dodge bonuses that may or may not apply. Will any of this be useful in the game? Will I meet enough complementary non-player characters? Who knows!
Admittedly, that has always been a problem with the genre: for your first play, you can’t know what to prepare for so you just have to build a character that feels right and hope for the best. (Obviously in pen ‘n’ paper your DM can adjust the campaign to match your characters, but the combinatorial explosion of possibilities means a pre-written game can’t hope to cover every eventuality.)
However, I think it’s worse here because of the number of specialisations and weird variations of traditional classes available. For example, the weapon proficiencies of Baldur’s Gate are categorised into groups like “large sword” and “small sword” so picking one covers quite a wide spread of items; whereas in Kingmaker you need to select between exact weapons such as longsword or falcata. What the hell even is a falcata? Am I ever going to find enough of them to keep my fighter occupied for the game or it something rare and fancy? (I went for longsword, but it turns out those are actually quite rare and I have found several nice falcatae! Sigh.)
Okay, fine, they offer you 3 free chances to totally rebuild your character from scratch at any point through the game, and to pay for it after that point. This feels like a cop-out, and though it’s better than nothing, my answer would simply be: cut the number of possibilities. As tough as it is to develop this volume of content, it’s just as hard for a player to digest all of it.
So you’ve built your hero and it’s off into the wilderness to bash some heads. There is great stock put in the map, as time and territory are important. You’re given three months to complete the first chapter and found your barony, which is about the only instance where the game is generous with its time limits. Roads are revealed on the world as you forge ahead, connecting crossroads and discovering landmark areas, and the more dots you join, the more optimal routes you can find between the tentpole locations.
Stopping off at named areas brings you back into the top-down real-time RPG mode. These areas are great — they’re very varied, both in size and shape, and a pretty mix of lush forests, rocky outcrops and ruins. Sometimes it’s a big wide space to explore, with lots of landmarks and enemy encounters; sometimes it’s a fairly linear dungeon; other times it’s a tight encounter with a single more powerful enemy. This variety of sizes stops the wilderness areas from getting too tiring while maintaining the sense of scale a grand adventure like this needs.
Sometimes there are purely written encounters too, where you need to navigate a few skill checks in a choose-your-own-adventure style instead of tactical combat. These are quite nice because they introduce some tension without the full stress of battle, and are obviously a low-budget way to add some colour to a situation without having to build and animate the whole damn thing.
Skill checks sometimes apply in conversations too, and it’s here that Kingmaker has one of those innovations that seems to obvious in hindsight: rather than locking such checks to “the person that started talking”, it will automatically pick your best party member for the job (or for some of the written encounters, let you manually pick… the best party member for the job). This means that while I’ve sunk all my hero’s points into Persuasion, if he needs some religious or arcane knowledge the rest of the party can chip in. Finally, they’re more than just combat support and scripted banter!
Once you have beaten up the early bandits, you obtain a capital and get to start running your kingdom.
Kingdom management occurs purely in the abstract. Your kingdom has stats that are increased by building stuff and assigning people to deal with events that pop up. All of this takes days, weeks or even months, so for most you can set them going and then ride back out into the wilderness to take care of quests in the mean time.
Except every phase of the main quest has a hidden time limit. Each chapter begins innocuously enough; there’s a threat, it spawns a Problem card and you need to do some stuff. Maybe you ride out and discover it’s quite tough, so you putter around doing other stuff for a while to upgrade your party and your kingdom. After some time, a limit will suddenly crop up: you’ve got X days before your kingdom will be nuked into oblivion by this threat (i.e. hard game over screen). Suddenly the threat is spawning Problem cards faster than you can deal with them, each one missed or unsuccessfully dealt with eroding your kingdom’s precious Stability until it descends into riots and finally crumbles (i.e. hard game over screen).
The problem here is the snowballing nature of failure. Once your kingdom is no longer Stable, you take a penalty when dealing with any event cards; so you fail more of them, eroding your stability further, and so on. Each card takes time to resolve and most can only be tackled by one or two characters, who are often still occupied by other problems, so as soon as you have more than one of a certain class of Problem you simply don’t have anyone free to tackle it so it automatically fails after a certain period.
(And while death in combat entails loading a saved game from maybe ten minutes ago, the timescales involved in kingdom management mean you’d need to load a game from in-game months or even years ago to avert poor decisions.)
Actually there is another problem: the Stability stat makes absolutely no sense. I have huge Loyalty and Community ratings — according to this, the people love me and each other. The Economy is booming. Even Divine and Arcane are doing quite nicely. And yet, somehow, there are also riots in the streets and I’m on the verge of losing the game. There’s a huge disconnect between this kingdom stability mechanic and the other stats, let alone what words characters are actually saying to me in dialogue (they also think everything is amazing).
Yes, fine, you can go to the Difficulty tab and make your kingdom invincible and bust the difficulty down to Effortless. Again, this feels like a cop-out for shaky design. There’s so much to like about this but it’s too poorly balanced to be fun on Normal.
The other problem with the hidden time limits is that the whole point of backing off is to get your party levelled-up in order to face a threat. When the hard time limit appears, you pretty much have to drop everything and blast through, regardless of how ill-equipped you are, because the points of interest are naturally scattered wide across the lands and before you can kill the baddie you first have to get there.
Other peculiar balancing decisions have been made. The amount of enchanted equipment floating around is hilarious — half the monsters in the land have Rings of Protection +1 or even +2, and you barely walk without tripping over headbands that give you +2 to a physical stat. +2! There are about five items that even give you stat boosts in the whole of Baldur’s Gate! I currently have headbands that give me +6 to three stats on half the party! With so much enchanted junk flying around it doesn’t feel remotely special when you find something powerful, and once again, there are so many weird qualifiers like Furious and Keen and Something-Bane that it’s impossible to actually get excited about anything.
The thing is that I want to love Pathfinder: Kingmaker. The characters are all great fun, even if they don’t have the depth befitting a true Black Isle descendant. The artwork is gently stylised enough to be smooth-running but still attractive. The bestiary is delightfully varied and much wilder than any of its compatriots (sadly, there are still spiders). The structure is great, the blend of abstract overland exploration and kingdom management and close-in real-time action really rather compelling — and there truly are lots of neat little improvements and refinements to the small-party-RPG formula scattered about.
But there are also too many rules and mechanics, the deluge of information making it impossible to process and focus on many parts of it. There are too many finicky specialisations that seem to add complexity just for the sake of it. The balance and difficulty curve are all over the place, and the kingdom-level time limits force a breathless rush through the plot while the tactical parts of the game demand cautious advancement.
Recommended? Huh. I’m swinging wildly between enjoying the romp and being brutally frustrated, so at this point, I’m not really sure — which, I guess, means “no”. At the very least, I’ll be interested to see what sequels or spin-offs come from it, because there is gold in these hills.