Pathfinder: Kingmaker Review
"Hope will prevail!"
A huge cheer erupted from the crowd that had gathered as Queen Sarenith finished her proclamation. The crown weighed heavily on Sarenith's head, but a smile emerged on her face as she spotted her trusted companions and advisors amongst the crowd. Who would have guessed it would take a bunch of mismatched adventurers to achieve the impossible, to tame and transform this harsh and cursed territory into a fine kingdom? Sarenith swore to do everything in her power to protect her people and her kingdom, regardless of the hardships they would face.
Pathfinder: Kingmaker is a cRPG inspired by classic RPGs like Baldur's Gate, Fallout and Arcanum. Based on Pathfinder P&P adventure path modules, the game features a unique kingdom management system which forms a crucial part of gameplay, allowing the players to experience the role of both adventurer and ruler of the land. Will you become a benevolent ruler of the land as Sarenith or reign as an evil overlord?
Just do what you consider right and let others discuss it. You know, not everyone gets a chance to become a baron, so discussing a baron's action is actually all the unlucky ones can do - Jubilost Narthropple.
Kingmaker was first announced via Kickstarter in June 2017 by a new developer, Owlcat Games, based in Russia. My initial reaction to this Kickstarter campaign was sceptical to say at least, especially following the severe disappointments I had experienced with previous games that claimed to be the "spiritual successor of Baldur's Gate". However, Owlcat Games provided solid updates throughout the kickstart campaign, which eventually led me to pre-purchasing the game at an early access tier.
To my surprise, Kingmaker far exceeded my expectations, and provided me with more than 100 hours of immensely fun gameplay. I was given a plethora of options to create a character of my desire to explore the vivid and rich world filled with colourful and mysterious characters, and was captivated by the amazing story-telling. However, the game is not without its flaws - Owlcat Games appeared to have bitten off more than they could chew with their ambitious first project - a buggy release, mediocre kingdom management system and atrocious end game design marring an engaging and deep game. A furious post-release patching schedule has seen the most glaring technical issues resolved, allowing players to experience the full scope of Owlcat Games vision. For me, Kingmaker is the true spiritual successor of Baldur's Gate, a feat no other games have achieved up until now.
The game starts on a simple premise - you are one of the adventurers hired by the Aldori swordlords - a group of quasi-nobles that aim to restore order in the much-contested region known as the "Stolen Lands". In exchange for driving out the bandit leader who currently holds sway, you are promised the noble title of Baron/ess to rule this part of the land. Sounds straightforward, right? This arrangement led me to restart my initial playthrough, as I realised I needed to create the perfect heroine for this epic story - a mix of class, race and alignment that would best fit a brave adventurer as well as an aspiring Baroness.
I was almost paralysed with delightful indecision as Kingmaker provides players with myriad of character building options. The game offers 14 base classes with 3 archetypes per class, where each variation plays out quite differently to one another - for example, instead of utilising charisma as its main stat like D&D games, the empyreal sorcerer utilises wisdom which opens up different options to build your sorcerer. In addition, there are 6 prestige classes available which can be unlocked depending on your base class, stats, and skill/ability choices.
The layout of the character sheet is the best I have seen in games so far. It is chock full of information, and yet is organised in a way you can easily locate information and plan out the character progression.
There are the usual primary stats utilised in this game; strength, dexterity, constitution, intelligence, wisdom and charisma. These stats not only affect the effectiveness of your character's spells and combat abilities, but also have an impact on secondary stats - known as skills - such as persuasion, trickery, perception which in turn affects the outcomes of dialogue choices, camping abilities, and spotting hidden items and locations. For your companions, the primary stats also contribute to how well they perform as kingdom advisors. All the available skills find a use in Kingmaker, so it is important to both ensure that your party has a wide range of skills, and that individual members are focused on a number of core skills to pass some difficult skill checks later on.
While the spells and abilities in Kingmaker sound similar to those available in D&D 3.5 edition, there are certainly differences with Pathfinder's own twists and charms, which give players the sense of discovery and challenge without losing the feel of familiarity.
The first chapter acts as a tutorial, where you will get a good feel of how everything works in Kingmaker, with the exception of kingdom management system which is introduced in the second chapter.
Within the first few hours I was presented with situations to make several choices, and delighted by the real consequences that followed. The game even checks items you are wearing to determine outcome of certain events. The hidden timers are also incorporated with many quests, as it checks how quickly you've reacted to certain events. For example, some companions may be locked out of the entire first chapter depending on how quickly you went after them.
In addition to the traditional dialogue options, story book events also invites the players to roleplay accordingly by providing various skill check choices. These events range from ordinary to wacky, and are presented in a gorgeous inked-book style which I found particularly interesting and charming. Be aware though, as these events have some serious consequences - your characters can be injured, cursed or even killed when you fail to pass the skill checks.
Are you up for a goblin mead drinking challenge? Or climbing a tower with no rewards in sight?
The game opens up more once you leave Jamandi Aldori's mansion and are given a chance to explore the Stolen Lands. You will navigate through the world map by choosing the arrow pointing to the direction you want to go, and enter the local area by reaching the appropriate node. Establishing the network by discovering and connecting nodes will allow you to travel more freely on the world map.
Travelling between locations takes time and party members will eventually get tired and suffer a penalty to their strength and dexterity. This in turn will impact the maximum encumbrance allowance for both individual characters and the party. Encumbrance reduces the party's travel speed and "fatigue time tolerance", and lowers the maximum dexterity bonus to armour class for each encumbered character. Once you exceed the maximum encumbrance allowance, the character will be immobilised and the party won't be able to travel in the world map. Therefore, it is worthwhile keeping an eye on your character and party's encumbrance meter which can be found in the inventory section.
The good news is the game provides several means for players to manage the encumbrance and fatigue. Many merchants sell a "bag of holding" which reduces the weight of the party inventory and you will find items that enhance your character's strength and constitution throughout the journey. Of course, stopping at a beautiful location for a night is the easiest way to dispel the fatigue of the long roads!
Camping is allowed in both the local and world map; however, you will miss out on companion interactions (which is particularly important if you are interested in romance) and the great atmosphere if you choose the latter option. With a little bit of imagination, you can picture something like this. It's a balmy evening. Two of your companions proceed to skin and clean the spoils of the hunt as they argue who scored more kills during their hunt session. The smell of your favourite dish in the pot is irresistible. You wait patiently, working on assigned tasks of hiding the camp and watching out for signs of hostile creatures. Finally, the party gathers around the fire, and you enjoy the delicious meal as you watch the cute animals nearby and listen to merry conversations of your companions.
Or... you could be eating horribly charred food due to the assigned cook's incompetency and may even end up fighting off the ambush in middle of the night, thanks to the smoke of burnt food that revealed the location of your camp to hostile creatures!
Cooking a companion's favourite dish rewards them with a unique buff in addition to the party-wide buff from the well-cooked meal. There are also special role perks that come with each companion which can be extremely useful in different situations.
Kingmaker features real time with pause combat which I found extremely fun and challenging - even on the normal difficulty and I had to come up with an appropriate strategy each time to walk away as a victor. It may even be frustratingly challenging for those who aren't familiar with Pathfinder or D&D rule set, so don't hesitate to lower the difficulty down if you are having a rough time. Having a good understanding of your abilities and the opponents can really change the outcome of the battle, so take the time to read, plan and experiment. Also, don't be shy to use items in your disposal - potions, scrolls, and wands aren't just vendor junks in this game, that alchemist bomb in your possession may be just the thing you need to turn the tide of the battle. Some spells require specific reagents (e.g. diamond dust) so be sure to keep track of these items as well.
The Stolen Lands is a harsh place, and you will encounter many different creatures ready to maul, zap, poison or burn your party to death. Fortunately, you can learn more about your enemies and deal with them accordingly if you pass the relevant skill checks (e.g. nature lore check for beasts) - to do this, simply select the inspect option (eye icon), located in the lower left-hand side. As with the character sheet, the game UI is very intuitive - all available spells, abilities and items in the belt are neatly organised and can be accessed by simply pressing "S", "A" and "B" buttons respectively. For those who doesn't like to flick through the spell books for each encounter, there are also plenty of quick slots available for your convenience.
Kingmaker features exceptionally gorgeous graphics - love these spell effects (especially, the wings!)
Owlcat Games utilised the (dreaded) loading screens as a space to provide useful tips, particularly for those who aren't familiar with the Pathfinder universe, so pay attention to gain some invaluable information - like the fact Crag Linnorms can only be finished off using the cold iron weapons!
You will obtain a good variety of unique weapons and armours throughout the game, by progressing through the story, delivering the notable artefact fragments to the "storyteller", inviting and supporting artisans in your land, or solving puzzles - while I found the puzzles in Kingmaker rather fiddly and annoying to solve, the rewards can be worthwhile.
The storyteller also pays good amount of gold for the items in the notable section, so make sure to hold onto them.
Some items and spells not only have useful enchantments, but also add roleplaying and cosmetic values - for example, you will receive an actual royal crown of your own during the coronation! The royal crown is not restricted to your character only, so one of your companions can pretend to be the ruler of your lands the whole time without any consequences!
There are 11 potential companions in Kingmaker to share the road with and while you will cross path with most of them early on, some won't show up until you are well into chapter 2. The first DLC, The Wildcards, introduces an additional companion(s), who joins your party from the second chapter as well. Each and every companion was endearing in their own way, and I thoroughly enjoyed their company. It may appear that the companions are rather one dimensional early on but you will get to learn more about them as you bond, and take part in re-shaping their personality, relationships, and even fate.
The companion quests are divided into parts and told across the several chapters - naturally, failing each part will prevent the further story progression. While most of the companions go through rather bittersweet development, there were also some truly hilarious and heart-warming moments. The beautiful music score really helps set the tone of their story, and some of the companion quests were extremely well integrated to the lore of the world and the main story line.
The mismatched bunch of adventurers gathered to celebrate their friendship. I never knew I would warm up to the smart-arse gnome and the stench-y evil goblin companion!
For those of you who prefer not to travel with these companions, there is an option to create custom characters providing you can spare enough gold - also beware that these custom characters cannot act as kingdom advisors unlike the pre-generated companions.
With the help from your companions and friends, you will be given an opportunity transform the barony you've earned into a thriving kingdom. Of all the challenges you will face, the most notorious is this ancient curse that will continue to haunt your lands. These curses will come in various shapes and forms - it may come as a fearsome monster invasion, a mysterious disappearance of the neighbouring lord, or as a bitter betrayal of those who you trusted. The main story revolves around how you address this series of curses which kept me engaged throughout the game. There are a lot of interesting twists along the way - just who would have thought the fun hunting game with the nobles from the neighbouring regions will be the beginning of such a surreal, horrifying and yet thrilling events!
Of course, there is a central villain driving these horrible events who comes with a woeful story of its own - as with your companions, the dialogues are delivered via excellent partial voice overs - and you can really feel all that emotions it tried to lock inside. How you deal with this character may open up further story line with the optional chapter 7 - and depending on choices you've made throughout the game, you may be presented with the option to end the game in most satisfying way... or bring down another hardship on your kingdom in exchange of the mercy shown to a villain.
The main story affects more than just you and your travelling companions - the curses have a large impact on your kingdom - most notably, it reduces the kingdom stats and deteriorates the kingdom mood if you don't deal with curses quick enough.
There are 10 kingdom stats each supervised by relevant advisors. Most of your companions are eligible for advisor positions (except for poor Nok-Nok), and you will also be able to recruit other candidates along the way - show mercy or be patient with some NPCs, or you may never gain their services.
Only 17 or so obtainable candidates, which means some positions will have only 1 eligible candidate!
Initially, only 5 advisor slots are available to your kingdom, the rest of the positions will open up naturally as you increase your kingdom stats and expand the borders. For example, once the military stat reaches the appropriate rank, your General will advise you to hire a Warden.
For every 20 "values" you raise per each kingdom stat, you will gain a chance to reach a new rank - this is achieved by completing the project which will lock you and the relevant advisor out for 14 days each time. Thankfully, there will be an opportunity to reduce the time required to 7 days, once you raise the kingdom rank 40 times. The kingdom value can be raised each time you successfully address the kingdom problems and opportunities. Typically, most of the kingdom missions appear in the beginning of the month, and must be addressed before the month is over. It is recommended to deal with problems as a priority - neglecting them will result in negative outcomes more often than when ignoring opportunities.
To deal with the kingdom affairs, simply select the advisor who's capable and available for the mission, and press start. The success or failure is determined by the dice roll check of the mission difficulty vs. the advisor's capability - this means, your kingdom's fate is more-or-less determined by the luck, and the series of failed missions can really put your kingdom in a rough place.
The bad: Your preferred advisor is always locked out dealing with another mission. The good: your subjects actually remember and celebrate your birthday!
Your advisors' performance can also be affected by unrest in your kingdom, which is a measure of your subjects' happiness - this provides a bonus or a penalty to advisors' chances of success when assigned to a mission. There are 6 stages of unrest, ranging from "serene" to "crumbling", with the game ending if the level of unrest ever falls below "crumbling". The kingdom unrest is largely determined by the stability rank, but other factors like negative funding can also have an effect, which is determined by the kingdom specific currency known as "building points".
One thing that baffled me was that the game lacks proper kingdom tutorial or guidance, providing this is such a crucial part of the game given it is easy for your kingdom to end up in a rough place. Fortunately, Owlcat Games is continually improving the game and some useful kingdom quality of life improvements were added with the recent hot fix 1.1.3. For example, placing the mouse over the kingdom status on top left side of the screen will now show what factor caused your kingdom unrest to deteriorate. Prior to this, players had no idea how to get their kingdom back to positive status ("stable" or "serene") and would eventually fall further below "worried" status. Once you reach "troubled" stage, the only way to recover quickly is to spend a whopping 1,000 building points to throw feast for your subjects - to put it in perspective, that's equivalent to 80,000 gold!
The building points are collected as a form of kingdom's weekly income, which increases as the kingdom stats improve, particularly with the economy rank. It is used for many kingdom improvements, such as settlement upgrades and building constructions. You will find that your kingdom improvement will often be hindered by lack of funding, which means you will continuously pour in your gold to purchase the much needed building points from the capital merchant. Also, some events and decisions you make can put your kingdom in debt - when this happens, make sure to top up on building points before the day is over to avoid an unrest penalty!
Decisions, decisions! Now, which layout should I use for this village to maximise the stat benefits?
Sounds complicated and annoying? Well, for me, it provided the satisfaction of getting hands-on being a ruler as well as a sense of pride as my capital evolved from a small village to a grand city. Under my rule (neutral good alignment), my capital was always filled with cheerful music and I could almost imagine people out on the street, merrily dancing and chatting with each other all the time.
The evolution of my proud capital, Aielund Gate! This graphical evolution meant much more to me than just the bunch of numbers shown in the kingdom stats sheet.
I also liked that my advisors, companions, or other patrons request an audience in the throne room every so often to discuss urgent or personal matters - it's just not immersive to be able to deal with all kingdom matters while I'm out adventuring. This may feel like the game is restricting you from exploring the world freely, especially since there are timers associated with many quests, however I found it quite manageable to juggle both the role of adventurer and ruler given that the timer duration for the major quests is quite generous.
In the throne room, your advisors will bring forward the issues that require your decision, and will also offer their view or preferred solution. While you are free to choose whichever solution you seem fit, if you continue to disagree with your advisor's proposal they may leave your service forever. Often the issues are something as simple as "would like to build a hospital or a garrison?", but on occasions it will trigger quests that are directly tied to the main story or companions. These kingdom quests that are interlinked to the main quests must be addressed as soon as possible as it will often have dire consequences for both the story and the world at large.
However, apart from a few quests, the results from the missions in the kingdom system rarely impact the world and therefore feel disconnected rather than an integral part of the main game. Most of the kingdom events result in kingdom stat number changes that may eventually lead to minor buffs or advantages - for example, achieving high stability reduces the chance of random encounters in your territory. You can also receive small benefits by turning each of your regions to specialise in different things, for example, establishing a horse breeding centre lets you travel faster in your lands.
The kingdom management system can also be accessed in the world map when you are close to one of your settlements - this lets you deal with the kingdom missions while you are adventuring with the exception of quests or projects that require your presence in the throne room.
One of the most common complaints with the kingdom system is that that it requires multiple loading screens to navigate through - fortunately, with patch 1.1, the loading time has been reduced significantly.
Another well-known criticism towards the Kingmaker is that it was released in a buggy state with some features missing. Owlcat Games have been working tirelessly to fix the issues since the release, and it appears that most of the critical bugs are addressed with the patch 1.1 - however, given the complexity of the game, some may encounter more numerous or serious issues than others, depending on their play-style and luck. As for myself, I started playing Kingmaker at its release and finished the game with the patch 1.1 - while I have encountered several bugs, including some major ones, none of them were game breaking, and it did not dampen my enjoyment of the game.
The real issue I had with Kingmaker was the atrocious end game design, specifically the chapter 6 and the optional chapter 7. The end game really showed the sign of things being rushed, and there were only scarce amount of content available in chapter 6 - the majority of time was spent looking after the kingdom, which quickly became very tedious. When the main story finally kicked in, it led me to hunt down the villain in its residence, which was filled to the brim with repeated combat encounters with nearly identical groups of overpowered creatures - this section was extremely tedious and really soured my experience, having to go through such tedium right before the final show down with the villain - I just wanted it to end.
Unfortunately for me, I had unknowingly chosen the option to continue the game into the chapter 7, which shared the same issue with the previous chapter, minus the annoying puzzle which requires phasing. I wasn't even able to unlock the best ending, and found it was much more satisfying to finish the game in chapter 6 by choosing a different dialogue option.
I debated hard on the final score of this game. I really enjoyed the ride, more so than any other games I have played since Baldur's Gate II - not even bugs, long loading times, hidden timers and an obscure kingdom system that lacks feedback to player could ruin my enjoyment with Kingmaker. However, the end game was something that I could not overlook or forgive which essentially brought down the final score from "very good" to "good". Hopefully, Owlcat Games will improve the end game experience by reducing the number of repeated, same-y combat encounters and introducing more content in the final two chapters with future patches and DLC.
Pathfinder: Kingmaker is an extremely complex and fun cRPG despite all its flaws, and I highly recommend it to all cRPG fans, especially for those who yearn for a true Baldur's Gate like experience. For players who are hesitant because of the kingdom management aspect, you can turn on the automatic or invincible kingdom option and focus on adventuring - Kingmaker offers several highly customisable difficulty settings to suit your play-style. For those who are concerned about bugs, it may be worthwhile to wait for patch 1.2, which is planned to be released in early 2019.
Review Update: February 7, 2019
With the release of the patch 1.2, Kingmaker's rating has been updated to "Very Good" as issues mentioned in the review have been addressed - most of the bugs are ironed out, the loading time has been reduced significantly, the end game encounters are more balanced with extra XP rewards, and many other QoL improvements has been added including more kingdom management feedback.
Information aboutPathfinder: Kingmaker
Developer: Owlcat Games
Combat: Pausable Real-time
Regions & platforms
· Platform: PC
· Released at 2018-09-25
· Publisher: Deep Silver
- Fun and complex character building and combat
- Lots of meaningful choices and consequences
- Fantastic story telling and well written characters
- Innovative camping system
- Customisable difficulty settings
- Buggy release
- Kingdom system lacks player feedback
- Kingdom system feels separate to main game
- Terrible end game experience
- Several and long loading screens