One of our fans, commenting on a different review, said that games should not be reviewed when they first come out, because the developers might be able to keep working on them and make them better. This was for a game that was improved by some post-launch patches, so it made sense. And while there is logic to that statement, we do try to review games here at GiN as soon as they are available. Once they are released and people can buy them, players need to know if a game is worth their time, so most publications try to get reviews done right after (or sometimes before) they launch.
However, there are special cases, and the game we are reviewing here today, Pathfinder Kingmaker, is one of them. At launch, Kingmaker was a bit of a mess. It was riddled with bugs for one. And while the traditional adventuring and dungeon delving part of the game was pretty solid, the revolutionary kingdom management component of the game was hellishly difficult to figure out, and could result in a “game over” even if your heroes were doing just fine out there in the other part of the game. So you could lose the game after many hours of play, not because some dragon got the drop on you, but because you forgot to assign the correct advisor to fix some city-management problem.
Thankfully, the developers at Owlcat Games continued working on Pathfinder Kingmaker, and now, almost nine months after launch, it’s actually a game that we can recommend. Had it been as good as it is now at launch last year, it might have given Pillars of Eternity: Deadfire a run for the RPG game of the year crown. But no use crying over spilt mead. Let’s look at Pathfinder Kingmaker as a role-playing game in the state it is in right now, which is pretty good following the latest (and hopefully) last line of major patches.
First off, players should know that Kingmaker follows the Pathfinder pen and paper RPG rules pretty much to the letter, or at least as much as a computer game could. Now, Pathfinder is not a novice level RPG. It’s more like second edition Dungeons and Dragons that way. The rulesets are immense, difficult to understand, and unless you are an expert in contract law or have a lot of experience with Pathfinder, it’s very hard to predict the various synergies that different classes and powers offer. I am not complaining about that. In fact, once I understood the rules, I was able to use them to my advantage by mixing character classes and abilities in ways that were probably not intended – and which gave even my early party near superpowers in the game world. I am just saying that this level of diving into the rules to try and min/max your team is not for everyone. I had to start the game over several times because my character builds, which seemed like good ideas at the time, utterly failed in the field.
The plot of the game is fairly epic, as all good RPGs should be, especially in fantasy realms. There is a contest to try and tame the so-called Stolen Lands, which is a wild expanse of monster-filled, uncivilized wilderness. The prize for winning the contest is the dream of adventuring parties everywhere: the ability to make the new lands an official kingdom, with you as its ruler. And the neighboring kingdom which sponsored the contest will even support you somewhat by providing you with settlers, building materials, advisors and other resources to get your new utopia started.
But first, you have to conquer the land. You are actually only working with one tract of land, though it is massive. There are two other potential kingdoms in the Stolen Lands that you are not trying to claim, though they will eventually become your neighbors in the game, and potential allies or rivals. There is a huge plot twist early on in Kingmaker where the castle where you are staying (at your host’s keep) is attacked on the eve of the contest’s start. This acts as a tutorial for both the combat interface and some of the puzzle solving aspects. There are even some moral choices in that first mini-module, something you will need to get used to because Kingmaker has an abundance of those painful kind of choices.
Once you get to your potential kingdom, you learn that a rival from the contest has taken things a bit too far. And also, the land is already claimed by a cruel bandit king calling himself the Stag Lord. You will have to resolve both of those issues, and a bunch of other things, before you can start to rule the land. You have a time limit, though it seems that you have more than enough days to accomplish everything, even if you take your time and explore everything like I did.
You can eventually have six people in your adventuring party, so pretty much like other classic games of this type like Baldur’s Gate, Planescape, Arcanum, or more modern ones like Divinity Original Sin, Torment: Tides of Numenera, Tyranny or Pillars of Eternity. And you can have more if you are into summoning magic or get animal companions as part of your class or sub-classes. Travel movement is generally made on the big map and then you drop down into the typical bird’s-eye tactical view to walk around specific areas, explore dungeons or simply to fight random encounters.
The combat is good, and based on the Pathfinder rules. It’s pretty random number generation heavy though, so you can get wiped out due to bad roles from time to time. Fighting is done in real time with pause, so depending on how much you pause the game, or how many auto pause options you set, you can almost make it turn based. It flows really well, and the NPCs make good choices most of the time when you are not directing them, though you will need to micromanage them during tough fights. Otherwise it’s too easy for them to clump up and go scrum versus scrum, which the computer will often take advantage of by lobbing in ranged spells into your ranks. Better to assign specific opponents and even tasks for each party member, and then revise your plans as the battle changes.
There is also a lot of puzzle solving, which is nice to find in a game like this. It’s not overdone and the puzzles are somewhat challenging. A few are pretty difficult to noodle out. Besides the puzzles, you will get to do a lot of role playing, which is, well, why I play RPGs, and I am sure a lot of you feel the same way. There are inner personal interactions within your own party, even a few romance options, and lots of situations where you have to make a choice where there is no perfect outcome. These choices are done both in the field and in your capacity as ruler of your new land. Some folks will be unhappy with your choices, but that is how it goes when you wear the crown – it gets heavy after a while.
Kingdom management happens after you have claimed and named your new land. And as an aside, you are actually a baron and not a king, though I suppose Baronmaker would not sound as nice. Anyway, this is also the area that gave people the most trouble, as bad decisions on something like taxes or food production, or just bad roles from your supposedly smart advisors, could lead to unrest and game failure even 40 hours in. You are still out there adventuring after you get your new kingdom too, so losing a game based on domestic issues seems kind of odd. Thankfully, the latest fixes to the game let you set the level of difficulty that you want. You can even set kingdom management to automatic and the game will do everything for you. That seems like a poor choice since this is about 40 percent of the entire game, but it’s an option now. A better one you can choose might be setting the game options so that kingdom events can’t cause a game over. I would highly recommend this on your first playthrough until you learn how it all works.
Managing your kingdom is almost as complex as building with your characters using the Pathfinder rules, probably more so because even those with Pathfinder experience have to learn the new kingdom system here. It’s actually hard to describe, but what happens in general is that you have a number of options available regarding things you can do in your kingdom. Some of them are no brainers, like expanding your land mass. When you pick an option, it takes so many days to perform the action, sometimes weeks. In addition to planning how to evolve your kingdom, you can also buildout your new capital city. Building has its own rules in terms of resource management, though it’s fairly straight forward, and each completed building provides some kind of bonus. Between the city building and the kingdom management decisions, your barony will grow, which is important because it gives you more options in the future, and also crisis points, which can be spent to resolve unexpected events that crop up quite often.
Those unexpected events are almost always bad, though they can be mitigated or even turned into a positive for you. To resolve an event, you have to assign an advisor to deal with it. Advisors consist of your adventuring party plus a few other NPCs you meet along the way or who are assigned to you, or those who simply offer their services. Each advisor has a skill level, so putting the right person in place is important. You want your barbarian or your paladin to lead your armies, not compute the tax rates. It’s basically random if an advisor succeeds on any given task, with rolls modified by their skill. You can stack things in your favor by spending those earned crisis points, though there are never enough, so spend them on things that you really need to succeed.
And, while you are doing all of this, you can also go off adventuring in your new lands. Pathfinder Kingmaker advances like a normal RPG in that way. Sometimes you will get missions in the capital that you must go and accomplish, things that require an adventuring party and not just an advisor. And sometimes you will just come across adventure. Just remember that you need to return to your capital sometimes too, at least once a month. You may be a budding hero, but you are also a leader of your people and your new land. Balancing both of those roles is a key to success here, and one of the reasons why Kingmaker is so unique, and also so much fun.
Now that the bugs and design flaws have finally been worked out, Pathfinder: Kingmaker has become a solid RPG with a unique blend of adventuring and kingdom management. Give it a try and see how well you do as a dual class hero/administrator.