Pathfinder: Kingmaker hit on a lot of my favorite past times in a way that a lot of RPGs of its nature haven’t. Not since Neverwinter Nights have I felt such a rich experience and world that I just wanted to explore more and more. It hasn’t been without its faults, but I can certainly tell this game was built with love and with the player in mind.
The first step of any RPG, character creation, couldn’t have been easier. As a person who has made a lot of tabletop roleplaying game (TTRPG) characters in the past, this can be a bit of a process, especially if you are unfamiliar with the system you are creating them in. Pathfinder has been a system I’ve always wanted to bring to the table but just haven’t had the time or group to do it. Luckily the full ruleset is here in just the right capacity to make me feel like I’m getting the best of both worlds.
As you move through character creation you are presented with quite a few options, but anything and everything you could have questions on have a handy hover-over tooltip that gives you the long and short of what the numbers mean and do. For a person looking for a more Diablo level of hack and slash this may seem daunting, but Kingmaker tries its best to hold your hand if you need it, while still getting out of your way when you don’t. Check out the video below of my run through creating my character.
Once you’ve crafted your character you are also presented with something else that is a breath of fresh air in this game. Customizable difficulty. Kingmaker offers you some preset difficulties to choose from, ranging from Story difficulty for those mostly looking for a nice walk through the story, to more brutal challenging difficulties that make character permadeath a very real issue. It also has a custom difficulty option with more sliders than you can shake a stick at. However you want to experience this game, you can. These can also all be changed on the fly during the course of the campaign so you never have to feel like you’ve made a poor choice.
After you have set up the game you are presented with a grand hall with your character and a couple of others and you learn of an untamed land looking for a ruler. If you want it you have to fight for it. The game lets you interact with this concept on what level you see fit, either allowing you to prepare for battle quickly, or to dig into the intrigue and political reasons for someone of wealth and power to send a band of adventurers into bandit-run wilds to conquer contested land. In a twist to very few, the night before you are about to send off on your adventure the castle you are in is attacked. Though I’ve seen this start to RPGs a thousand times the way this one unfolds is interesting, and it makes it feel like you have some choice on the outcome, but I’ll let you discover that for yourself.
Once you move into the first chapter of the game, you get a big over world map and a piece that looks like a TTRPG figure on a horse. This slides along the map as you move from place to place and it really captures the mix of TTRPG and video game that Kingmaker tries to balance. Even stopping to make camp and rest your characters feels like you are doling out camp roles at a table with your RPG group. Someone is in charge of the food, a watch shift needs to be set, someone can hunt for rations to cover the rest. It melds so well together that it truly feels like a campaign run at a table.
Through the first chapter, you arrive at the Stolen Lands and must find the Stag Lord who has a stranglehold on the region. This means exploring the map, finding new allies, and digging up some clues. The story is solid and by the end of it the Stag Lord feels more fleshed out as a character than I would have expected from a game of this type. His end, unfortunately, comes as little more than another battle, but the setup for the final battle still holds up pretty well. However, I found some aspects of the first chapter setup wearing a bit thin by the end of it.
Sliding along the map, especially with the amount of backtracking done, quickly becomes slow and plodding as there is no form of fast-travel to speak of. You can set your travel to a faraway place, but it still takes all the time for your “piece” to slide across the map to get there, having to stop often for rests or randomized encounters. If these random encounters had higher stakes other than a couple bandits, or a few kobolds, both which can be beaten with little more than 15 seconds of automated fighting, then I would have been happier to worry about running into them on the road. As of now it was a time-waster and a hassle. I also found issue with how vague some of the objectives for my quests were as far as targets and locations.
Vague objectives became particularly frustrating when my main character kept having visions in her dreams that caused her to constantly be fatigued no matter how many times I rested. This became increasingly frustrating because a fatigued character moves at about half-speed, and if one person in your group moves slow, the whole group moves slow. When I would move in a location that also had rain it would make my whole group move at a snail’s pace across the location. It was some of the most frustrating moments as I slowly moved through these locations by the river trying to find the shortest route to anything since everything moved so infuriatingly slow.
In another instance about halfway through the first chapter I realized in my journal, attached to the text for the main quest, was a timer showing that I actually only had a certain amount of in-game time to complete the first chapter. This was hinted at in the dialogue, but I didn’t actually realize there was an actual timer on this until I was trying to figure out the details to the river fatigue situation I just talked about. It’s a cool gameplay mechanic buried from display when it should be a much more presented aspect of the whole first chapter. I want some big ticking clock on the map screen at all times if it is so pivotal to the game.
So with all of these movement and speed issues, the end of the first chapter started to drag. It is, unfortunately, a complaint that many people have. The lack of any form of fast travel, or way to get around faster feels like a big oversight in a game with this much movement around a map like this. However, when you clear the first chapter you find a whole new gameplay set that makes these choices make more sense in terms of game design.
After the first chapter, you hit on one of the most interesting aspects of Kingmaker. Running your own kingdom. You find yourself now the ruler over an untamed and wild region with political enemies and allies all around. The game becomes a surprisingly rich and deep kingdom management simulator. Even more surprising is the level of difficulty you can manage for this part of the game independently of the dungeon crawler game. You can dive as deep or as shallow as you want into the kingdom management landscape. If political intrigue and posturing is your thing you can dive in deep. If you want your advisors to handle most things, sit back and let them.
This brings me to the best feature of Pathfinder: Kingmaker. The ability to play how you want, and the ability to change that at any time on the fly. You can make this game as easy or as hard as you want for the experience you want to have with it. Independent of that you can make the kingdom management aspect as easy or as hard as you want it to be. It’s clear that this game was made to cater to the player, not to some level of challenge the makers of the game saw fit. This fits really well with at TTRPG style of play where a game master can, and should, cater to their players. The spirit of any TTRPG should be for the players to have fun, even if things get hard, it should be fun for the players to win or lose.
Overall I think some of the map stuff could be improved. Early game I don’t even know if you need to have the world map in this game. Simply stringing together these locations for the story would have been just fine. With the map still being there a simplified fast-travel system could really make some of the early game a more enjoyable experience, but for the amount of game you get, and the depth of customizability of that game, this is a solid single-player RPG that holds true to its tabletop roots, blending old and new together in a very enjoyable experience that you don’t have to go through the hassle of trying to wrangle a busy group of friends together to play.
Note: GameOctane editor Jason Germino received a digital code from the publisher for the purpose of reviewing this game. Any code or product intended for reviews is distributed to the team to review and stream for our audience.
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Extensive Story Campign
Deep and Rich Kingdom Management
Extremely customizable difficulty settings
Blends computer and tabletop RPG well
Slow over world movement
Random encounters become extremely repetitive and time wasting