Monday, October 28, 2019

The Princess' Heart's Characters

I enjoy these character rants of mine; they’re a lot of fun. But most of the time, I have to kind of force it for at least a few characters in a cast, really rack my brain for a way to get a quick laugh out of who and what they are as entities of the game. That’s why, comparatively speaking, I don’t do these ones all that often, even though I like them more and more as time goes on and my rants in general get less and less humor-oriented. It just ends up often feeling like I’m trying too hard.

But sometimes it’s effortless. Sometimes, I play a game like Star Ocean 2, and it’s clear that this game’s cast was made for this sort of thing. They’re all dumb enough, or dislikable enough, or involved in nonsensical enough events and/or development, that it all comes together into this beautiful coordination of dysfunction that makes mocking each and every one of them not just simple, not just obvious, but practically obligatory.

The Princess’ Heart is one such game.

Aerin: Aerin is seriously the most selfish protagonist I’ve ever encountered in an RPG. And to lend context to that fact, keep in mind that I’ve played My World, My Way, a game about a girl who literally reshapes reality by pouting about it. Princess Aerin beats that chick at being self-absorbed, and by a wide margin.

Gavin: Gavin is not so much a character, as he is what you’d get if you took the Loyal Protector Knight cliche, threw it in a blender for a bit, then used a sieve to strain all the bigger chunks of Character Depth out of it, so you were left with only the thinnest liquid cliche goo. He’s basically just a shield that says “Yes, Your Highness.”

Thony: Thony is a good friend who always has Aerin’s back, no questions asked. He’ll gladly help her to brave danger in order to win her true love’s heart, and go on a quest with Aerin to save her soul from the devil himself.

Oh, no, wait, hang on, I mistyped all that. Sorry, let me try again:

Thony is a careless enabler who never bothers to stand up to Aerin when she’s clearly in the wrong. He’ll gladly help her to ditch rehab in order to get the devil to force her ex to love her again, and go on a quest with Aerin to worm out of a deal that Thony’s negligence as a “friend” made possible in the first place.

Aerin: No but really, Roseportal Games, do you or do you not understand that you’ve created a game about a violent, alcoholic murderer who sells her own soul to the devil so that she can violate another human being’s right of consent, endangering the souls of friends and an uninvolved bystander in the process, and then embarks on a journey to beat up the devil solely to avoid ever having to face the consequences of her actions?

The game’s developer has indicated that Aerin’s story is very personal to them. I don’t think they realize just how unflattering that connection they’re drawing is.

Liquan: This guy has so little presence as a character, and even in terms of his role in combat, that I tell you, in earnest, that I forgot he existed until a few minutes ago, when I looked at a list of the game’s cast. Does this dude even have a full dozen lines of dialogue in this game? Is there a single player on the face of the Earth who opted to use Liquan in their party?

These are questions I’ll never know the answer to, because even if someone tells me, it will be too late: by the time I finish typing this sentence, I’m pretty sure I’m gonna forget Liquan’s existence entirely once more.

Serena: “Now, let’s see...where would be the best place to keep the enchanted locket containing my very soul, which the most powerful demon in existence is aching to get his hands on? I wouldn’t want to take any chances with the only thing standing between me and eternal damnation.

“Oh, I know! I’ll keep it in a completely unlocked jewelry box, sitting out in the open on top of my desk, exactly 4 steps away from the spot where I bring complete strangers who I’ve invited into my room! BRILLIANT!”

Aerin: Oh, also? She’s also completely unrepentant for everything. There is only a single time in this entire game in which Princess Aerin actually says she’s sorry for something, and that’s at the beginning, when she’s trying to get Tommy not to leave her after slapping him--far more an empty plea for another chance than an actual apology. Everything else? Not a single pardon begged. Not for killing innocent people, not for causing the death of her own loyal guards, not for making a pact with a demon, not for handing over another woman’s soul to said demon, not for brainwashing her boyfriend, nothing! The only regret Aerin experiences is near the beginning, when she laments the fact that her drunken rampage has made a situation worse, and later on, remorse when she’s a little bummed that Tommy’s profession of love for her is probably the curse talking, and not his genuine feelings.* That is the entirety of the remorse that Aerin feels over her actions. Oh, and that whopping buyer’s remorse at the prospect of actually making good on the deal she struck with the demon, of course.

I’ve seen some morally questionable protagonists in my time. Hell, I’ve played RPGs in which the main character is outright the villain of the story! But Aerin’s the first ethically repugnant protagonist so totally detached from empathy and a sense of decency that she just seems outright incapable of regret for anyone’s sake but her own.

Tommy: Y’know...yeah, Tommy is basically the victim in all this, forced by a curse to love Aerin without his consent, and then forced by extension to risk his life fighting against monsters and demons, but while the situation is morally wretched in the objective sense, it is, at the same time, pretty damn hard to actually feel bad for the guy. From what little we can glean of the real Tommy, he’s kind of a scummy douchebag.

Putting aside the possibility that he did cheat on his then-girlfriend at the beginning of the game (which is never verified, and it’s not like it’s hard to believe Aerin would fly into a rage over something she had no proof of), the guy outright poisons his own guards without a shred of regret, just for the sake of getting some alone time with Princess Aerin. Now sure, his intense infatuation with Aerin at that moment is a result of the curse she’s put on him, but I don’t see how that absolves him of the coldblooded murder he’s committed--he hasn’t asked to be made crazy into Aerin all of a sudden, sure, but taking “3’s a crowd” to a fatal extreme is still the decision that he has made in response to this admittedly artificial desire. If someone were to use magic to make me incredibly hungry, like I hadn’t eaten anything in an entire week, that wouldn’t absolve me of guilt if I decided to sate that hunger by gruesomely killing and devouring my neighbor’s pet cat, rather than suffer the minor inconvenience of driving over to Chipotle.

He also subsequently drugs his paramour and her friends with fortunately non-lethal sleeping potion so he can abscond with her comatose ass to a secluded cabin in the woods, which is also bad, but, in spite of being the plot of a tacky psychological horror thriller screenplay and/or documentary on the life and times of Bill Cosby, maybe not quite as bad as the aforementioned apathetic murder thing.

And even if you could prove that the curse Tommy was under was wholly responsible for his decision to assassinate innocent bystanders because he couldn’t be bothered to just hang a sock on the damn doorknob, he’s still a jackass for the fact that he just doesn’t give a shit about it. At no point at the end of the game, when he’s finally regained his senses, does he express the slightest displeasure at having killed his employees with his own hands. And it’s not like the issue doesn’t come up at all, or anything; Aerin notes that she’s in the clear for what she did to Tommy, because if he were to try to tell anyone about it, he’d have to account for what happened to his guards. And Amaterasu forbid someone actually face some consequences for their actions in this rotten story, right? So yeah, best case scenario, Tommy is an apathetic jackoff who couldn’t care less about whether he personally murdered innocent people who put their lives on the line to keep him safe.

The romance of this game is utter trash, but I’ll give it this: you really can’t argue that the conscienceless maniacs involved in it don’t completely deserve each other.

Maota: In most games’ casts, a catgirl party member whose only defining character trait is being promiscuous would be a shallow, deplorably stupid waste whose only function would be to showcase the writers’ failure. In this game’s cast, she’s practically a godsend.

Aerin: Did I mention that absolutely everything works out perfectly for this heartless monster? She gets to back out of her deal with the devil, she faces no punishment for skipping out on rehab for an entire quest’s worth of time (which was itself a punishment for her having gone on a violent rampage, so she’s basically getting out of punishment exponentially), none of her friends hold a grudge for endangering their lives and souls, and the guy she brainwashed, once free, doesn’t even manage to wait a full 24 hours before he forgives her and asks her to marry him. There is literally nothing that Princess Aerin wants that she does not get to have as a result of taking careless, utterly immoral actions that she never offers the slightest apology for.

I mean, damn, Roseportal Games, I know that lousy people come out just fine more often than they should, and I don’t need every game I play to sell me some heavy-handed moral, but maybe you could’ve told a story that withheld even just 1 single thing from the worst person in the world?

Splendora: Splendora is a fairy child, and you’re charged by her mother to find her and bring her home safely. Well, I guess you’d better resign yourself to an incomplete quest log, and add “Kidnapping a Minor” to Princess Aerin’s long list of fine personal qualities, because this kid is going nowhere. Roseportal Games decided to take a page from Bioware’s book, and make “optional” Splendora’s support abilities as utterly indispensable to the player as the equally “optional” Cream’s were in Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood. So if you want to beat this game without breaking multiple keyboards in half out of pure rage at The Princess’ Heart’s ruthless and poorly designed challenge curve, you’re gonna be holding this kid captive in your active party through to the game’s end.

Izdul-Kalag: It says something when your game’s antagonist, a demon from Hell that embodies 1 of the great sins of mankind, does not seem anywhere near as cold and evil as your game’s "heroes."

Elias and Rylm: Elias and Rylm are the faceless grunts who fill out your party at the beginning of the game just for the sake of gameplay purposes, like Wedge and Biggs in Final Fantasy 6. They’re forced, reluctantly, by order of Princess Aerin to assist her in her inebriated spree of violence, and then, once the prologue of the game is over, they’re executed for it, and never mentioned ever again. Pressed against their will to protect and indulge the demands of a selfish, berserk overlord, then put to the guillotine for fulfilling their duty.

That may seem too small a part to even warrant their inclusion here, but dammit, SOMEONE'S gotta remember these two everymen carelessly trodden over by an aristocrat and a plot that both care equally little for them. Who cries for Rylm and Elias? Not the compassionless serpent responsible for their deaths, that’s for damn sure.

* Protip: If at any point you have to ask “Is it him, or the mind-controlling curse talking?” in response to a confession of love, your relationship sucks.

Also, if simulated affection just isn’t going to be enough for you, why the hell did you brainwash him to love you to begin with?

Friday, October 18, 2019

Tales of Berseria's Combat System's Theme

You know what’s really kind of cool? The combat style that Tales of Berseria subtly pushes you toward.

For at least 90% of all turn-based RPGs (and quite a few even beyond turn-based systems), there’s an overall backbone to combat strategy that’s always present: have a character, or multiple characters, devoted to healing, and when your characters’ HP is low, use this/these party member(s) (or healing items, if necessary) to restore the others’ life. There’s all kinds of battle systems and strategies that can be built upon this, of course, and sometimes you can create party setups in which this isn’t necessary...but “Attacker Attacks, Healer Heals” is still the fundamental starting point on which the vast majority of RPG combat styles build, and even the strategies that get around this are usually more akin to finding loopholes than to employing methods intended to be available to you.

There are, however, a few RPGs out there that, in 1 way or another, are intentionally designed to be built on different combat foundations than the standard I’ve described above, and Tales of Berseria is an example of this. While the magic-users in the game do have a trifling few healing abilities, and of course you always want to have some healing items on hand in case things go unexpectedly south, in this game, if you’re controlling Velvet in battles (which one would assume you would be, at least on your first playthrough), going about combat in the traditional attack-and-get-healed sense isn’t very effective. It’s much more fluid and effective in Tales of Berseria to make use of her Therion mode with the Devour attack. Her HP drops constantly while in this mode, but the initial attack restores a chunk of it, and while Velvet’s in this mode, she can’t be staggered or interrupted in her attacks, making enemies’ attacks pretty insignificant as a whole. This is combined with the fact that there are multiple passive abilities to unlock in the game which restore HP when an enemy is killed, and the fact that she can enter this mode almost all the time due to a simple system of dodging attacks or stunning enemies restoring her ability to launch into Therion mode. Put all together with several other details of ToB’s combat system, and you basically have a game which is designed around the foundation of “Stay Alive By Constantly Attacking” rather than the old “Attacker Attacks, Healer Heals” standard. The traditional healing spells and items have plenty of use in certain circumstances, but the huge majority of the time, you’re keeping your party alive by being a self-sustaining whirlwind of destruction on your foes.

By itself, it’s a neat and refreshing change from the standard formula (not to mention a very unusual case of the Tales of series creating a complex system that’s actually intuitive and something approaching fun; Jesus Christ do I hate how these games usually just cram so many damn gameplay features and details down your throat that you choke on them). But it's not something I would feel the need to rant about (I still only find it slightly less boring than the average combat system). BUT: this system is more than just a clever bit of programming--it’s also quite cool for the fact that it’s thematically consistent to Tales of Berseria as a whole!

I mean, think about it: isn’t a system which pushes the player to survive through a relentless offense a perfect match to a story about an aggressive, obsessed demon of vengeance who only holds herself together through the power of her hatred and thirst for retribution? Like, holy shit, how awesome is it that Tales of Berseria is so on point in its every nuance that its developers even went so far as to redesign the fundamentals of RPG combat around its protagonist?

I mean, sure, I’ll grant you that there are plenty of RPGs out there that design themselves or come up with gimmicks according to the game they’re in--Fallout 1 and 2 adapted turn-based isometric combat to a gun-based style, as their successor Fallout 3 adapted the Elder Scrolls gameplay system to the same, while Breath of Fire 5 incorporated the ticking clock of the D-Counter that defines the game’s pace, and Legend of Dragoon involved the Dragoon thing as a mode to activate in combat, as examples. But these are all cases of the battle system adapting surface-level details of their games. The Fallouts adapted a basic fact of their setting, Breath of Fire 5 did so with a constant fact of gameplay, and Legend of Dragoon with an unavoidable part of its story lore. The most any other game does with its gameplay that I can immediately think of is reflect material components of its lore or plot, and most of the time, it’s an obvious and usually explicitly stated connection, like the use of Espers as sources of magic in combat being a clear plot point in Final Fantasy 6 that’s outright told to you.

Tales of Berseria tells you why Velvet has her Therion mode and how it works, yes, but that’s as far as it goes--it lets you take the reins and come to the obvious conclusion that the game’s set up to favor an intelligent but uninterrupted offense for your own. The inevitable strategies formed from this and several mitigating gameplay details are a subtle reflection of Velvet’s character, of her quest, of the overall plot, a case of Tales of Berseria using even its battle system as a tool of character development. And that, in my opinion, is pretty damn awesome.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Pathfinder: Kingmaker

Hey, you know what I haven’t done for a while? I haven’t made a rant encouraging you all to check out an Indie RPG I recently played. Let’s fix that!

Pathfinder: Kingmaker is an RPG I backed on Kickstarter. It’s one of those isometric-ish tabletop-styled games, like the Dungeons and Dragons classics of the 90s and 2000s, or the more recent Torment: Tides of Numenera and Pillars of Eternity. It’s based on the Pathfinder tabletop RPG, which is...basically just Dungeons and Dragons’s Third Edition. Seriously, I don’t know how Paizo Publishing legally gets away with Pathfinder, as I don’t think Wizards of the Coast is getting any money from it, yet it’s using pretty much all the same content, even down to the same spell names and deities and such. I’m someone whose only real experience with Dungeons and Dragons has been with the famous PC games set in its Third Edition like Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale, and I can tell you, settling into Pathfinder: Kingmaker’s gameplay mechanics after years of experience with Third Edition D+D games was as smooth and seamless an experience for me as going from Neverwinter Nights 1 to Neverwinter Nights 2.

Anyway, that’s what Pathfinder: Kingmaker is on (pen and) paper. But what it is to us as an audience, is the most perfect PC RPG adaptation of a tabletop game to date.

This isn’t to say it’s the best tabletop-based RPG, mind you. Torment: Tides of Numenera, Shadowrun: Dragonfall, Neverwinter Nights 2’s Mask of the Betrayer DLC, and Planescape: Torment are all greater products, in some cases far greater. But, they are superior for the truly astounding quality of their storytelling elements, not necessarily for what they are as a whole. Basically, Planescape: Torment, and the others I just mentioned to lesser degrees, is utterly amazing as an intellectual and emotional experience, but that excellence only really connects to its tabletop basis in that it uses certain story concepts of the tabletop game’s lore as a basis on which to build itself. The planes of Dungeons and Dragons, its blood war, and the way that belief and divinity work within it, these are all foundations that Planescape: Torment uses to tell 1 of the greatest and most intelligent stories ever created...but the experience of guiding the Nameless One along his journey of self-discovery is a very different thing from the overall intent and experience of Dungeons and Dragons in general. And the same is true to varying degrees of the other titles I mentioned above as being better RPGs than Pathfinder: Kingmaker--they’re superior in terms of storytelling elements independent of the overall idea and experience of a tabletop game.

But as an overall adaptation of a tabletop RPG experience? Pathfinder: Kingmaker is pretty much the best title I’ve seen, by a wide margin. It rises to this lofty height of quality in 2 ways.

First, the game takes a truckload of the defining qualities and styles of the isometric RPGs that preceded it, and either recreates them, or refines and enhances them to be better. In terms of said recreation, the combat and overall gameplay mechanics are a fluid representation of the classic isometric D+D style, the dungeons and overworld capture the trademark tabletop atmospheres and aesthetics of PK’s predecessors (while also frequently having their own singular nature; the boggier parts of the Stolen Lands and the First World give the game’s settings their own identity), the spells and belief system and lineage and so on all come into play here and there in minor but satisfying ways during interactions, the lore and side-stories of the setting are all readily present and accessible, while never so overbearing that you’ll be lost without prior knowledge of the universe, a soundtrack featuring work by Inon Zur (and several others) that frequently captures the feel of several previous works of his such as Dragon Age 1 and Baldur’s Gate 2 (while still maintaining its own identity)...this game takes the signatures of its genre and brings them forth as a perfectly unified whole.

But Pathfinder: Kingmaker also recreates defining characteristics of its forebears that you wouldn’t expect, might not have even realized were there the first time until you experienced them once again! The search through the Shrike Hills for the Stag Lord in the game’s first chapter gave me the same feeling of exploring an unknown land’s wilderness that I had while traveling the forests of Baldur’s Gate 1, for example (although PK is much less frustrating thanks to having a decent map system to rely on), while the game’s use of kobolds and goblins (and, at times, party member Linzi) reminded me at times of interactions with Deekin and his tribe in Neverwinter Nights 1. Pathfinder: Kingmaker’s full of charmingly nostalgic little moments like that which you don’t expect, atmospheres and events that momentarily recapture a feeling signature to an experience from 1 of the games preceding it in this genre--but always, I want to stress, while maintaining its own identity.

But as I said, in addition to skillfully mimicking defining qualities and atmospheres of the tabletop-turned-PC RPGs that came before it, Pathfinder: Kingmaker also frequently takes signature elements from those games, and actually improves upon them, sometimes by surprisingly substantial degrees. The most notable example of this, I should think, would be the Kingdom Management portion to the game. Though not technically the first RPG to have something along these lines (Breath of Fire 2’s Township thing predated it by 5 years, and there might’ve been something older than BoF, too), Baldur’s Gate 2 introduced a little side-story of ruling over a medieval community with its de’Arnise Keep stronghold that became a big enough hit with the players that various PC RPGs for the next almost 20 years would bring the idea back over and over again, such as with Dragon Age 1’s Awakening expansion’s stronghold and Caed Nua of Pillars of Eternity 1, tweaking the idea here and there, adding mechanics like town-building and the like, but ultimately, even 18 years after, the really enjoyable and notable elements of these iterations of the community-ruling feature inevitably just come back to the idea of guiding a medieval-style community as its sovereign and settling the various domestic and governance issues that get brought before your protagonist as she/he sits upon the throne.

Well, Pathfinder: Kingmaker’s Kingdom Management component completely destroys every other game’s attempt at this idea. It’s a major, constantly present aspect of the plot (I mean, the title itself straight-out tells you the game’s about making you a ruler), never seeming like a side-venture or gimmick, and it’s got a massive wealth of content. Advisors bringing a wide variety of issues to your attention in all fields of government (from matters of community, to your lands’ economics, to local religious practices, to diplomacy and espionage in regards to neighboring countries), supplicants approach you frequently to aid in settling disputes, there are dozens of problems and opportunities of all kinds to send your advising council to deal with, you get to choose what direction to focus your resources and efforts in, you’re given the ability to determine where new towns will spring up and what services can be found in them...ruling your fledgeling kingdom is a massive undertaking, almost as big a part of the game as the actual adventuring is, yet it’s simple to pick up on and satisfying to go through with, a grander and more enjoyable stronghold experience than that of any previous game’s many times over!

And I must say, even though I found the whole thing to be very fun, I really appreciate that the Kingdom Management aspect of the game, in spite of how integral and sizable it is, is completely optional. You know how much I hate mandatory minigames--well, Owlcat Games was kind enough to give you the option to have the kingdom basically run itself, if you’re just not interested in that part of the Pathfinder: Kingmaker experience. I sincerely wish more RPG developers would value their players’ time, agency, and intelligence enough to give us a similar ability to opt out of shit like hauler beasts.

I’d also like to note that Pathfinder: Kingmaker also refines and better executes conventions of newer isometric RPGs, too, not just the classics. There’s been a narrative device I’ve seen in the recent Pillars of Eternity 1 and Torment: Tides of Numenera, in which certain parts of the game take place in the form of narrated, multiple-choice adventure stories similar to old text-based PC adventures from waaaaayyyy back (or, I guess, modern-day visual novels, sort of?). They were an interesting change of pace in PoE1 and TToN (and written especially well in the latter), but if I’m to be fully honest, they tended to be slightly dry and overstay their welcome in both games. Don’t get me wrong, I like the idea and found them really cool most of the time, but there was room for improvement.

And that improvement was made in Pathfinder: Kingmaker! The illustrated book interludes of this game are more fun, and never seem to overstay their interest...partly because the narrator for these episodes is much more personally engaging, partly because you feel like you have more useful agency in your selections and can earn immediate rewards from making selections that successfully utilize the skills you’ve built into your characters, and partly because these little episodes actually seem relevant to the story, since they’re presented as excerpts from the book that Linzi (the party’s chronicler) is writing about the protagonist’s exploits. It ultimately ends up feeling far more natural and smooth than it did in Pillars of Eternity 1 and Torment: Tides of Numenera, at least to me. Just as PK manages to smooth over and refine many notable qualities of the old isometric RPGs, it also takes some of the features of newer entries to the genre and improves upon them, as well.

The second way that Pathfinder: Kingmaker makes itself the best example I’ve come across of a tabletop RPG adapted to the format of a video game, and perhaps the more important, is just how well it manages to impart the heart and soul of the pen-and-paper RPG experience. PK captures the spirit of its universe and the act of playing a tabletop campaign to a degree that I don’t think any other video game RPG has yet managed. I can’t pin down how, but the way that PK’s story unfolds and heightens feels in many ways like the way a long-term, many-sessioned pen-and-paper campaign would, with a lore and overall story in place, but a plot which gives a believable illusion of shifting and evolving as a result of the protagonist’s actions and successes, much like the flow of a D+D campaign whose Dungeon Master has an overall idea of the adventure and story in place, but adapts and grows that idea in response to the players’ actions and decisions as the adventure unfolds. I don’t know how to better describe it--where most RPGs feel like a writer’s story that he/she is dictating to you, Pathfinder: Kingmaker captures the feel of a game master taking you through the story of a campaign that he’s skillful enough to keep generally on track, while reshaping it as it goes according to what the story’s characters do and do not accomplish. That’s probably highly subjective and your mileage may vary, but it was how the game felt to me, at least.

Pathfinder: Kingmaker also sells its tabletop RPG theme in a variety of other ways, too, of course. There’s a tremendous amount of choices to make throughout the game whose consequences range from subtle to highly significant (and generally in appropriate measure to the choice’s weight); there was no part of the game in which I felt that my protagonist’s decisions didn’t have importance. The employment of characters’ Skills in both everyday explorations and in dialogue trees is flawlessly implemented, ensuring that every talent is important and opens up new options to the player, with a frequency similar to that which you’d find in a well-orchestrated session of pen-and-paper gaming. The map screen uses little tabletop-style figurines, and maintains an aesthetic as you move like you’re dragging a piece across a table. Details of your protagonist such as her/his patron deity or race are not brought up often, but do occasionally influence conversations to which they’d be pertinent (for example, in your early conversations with Valerie as she bad-mouths the Goddess of Beauty, Shelyn, your character can point out that she/he is a follower of Shelyn her/himself, if that was the patron deity you selected during character creation for a relevant class). The game provides a full, solid cast with which to make your party, but for those who want to have full control over the details of their entire party from the ground up, you also have the option from almost the start of the game to hire on some mercenaries, silent NPCs that you can yourself design exactly to your wishes. I find such a possibility boring and dumb, of course, because I’m all about story and character development and all this amounts to is having 6 dull silent protagonists instead of 1, but still, those who really liked that element of Icewind Dale can have it again.

The alignment system is just restrictive enough that you feel your character’s beliefs and morality matter, while being flexible enough that you can still play and make decisions mostly the way you want to, only very rarely being locked out of an action** by its consistency to your protagonist’s view on good and evil, and law and chaos. Also, your protagonist’s beliefs can change according to the morality of the decisions you have them make through the game’s course--regardless of what beliefs you initially select for your character, they will, eventually, change to better reflect the person you actually want them to be, according to your own decisions’ direction, which is a neat bit of roleplay fine-tuning.*** Also, Owlcat Games have, amusingly enough, made sure to include an option in the dialogue tree of pretty much every character not absolutely plot-essential to just go Chaotic Evil and kill whoever you’re talking to. Yes, even if you’re that guy in your tabletop friend group, Pathfinder: Kingmaker has got your roleplaying back.

It’s a ton of fine details like these that really bring Pathfinder: Kingmaker to life as an adaptation of tabletop gaming, capturing just about every possible signature to the physical role playing game experience that a single-player video game possibly can. This honestly is just the best RPG I’ve seen so far in terms of being a representation of the pen-and-paper genre.

And finally, I’d like to note that it’s a darned good RPG in the general sense, too! The story is inventive and engaging, enough so that it never felt like it was dragging, which is something impressive in a game as massively long as Pathfinder: Kingmaker--even a lot of the games I play that I really, really love have stretches where I start really feeling their length. I love Tales of Berseria, for example, but there were still moments during its course when I found myself contemplating just how extended its adventure was. The characters, while not amazing (although Nok-Nok is terrifically funny), are all solid and enjoyable personalities, and frequently quite singular. The lore and history of the game’s setting, and the ways it sets the foundation for the game’s events, is creative and fascinating. The overall themes of the story, of redemption and forgiveness, civilizational entropy, and the vital necessity of love within our souls, are all great and well-executed. The villains are captivating and unique, and while I only know for sure that he was involved in writing Nok-Nok, I daresay that the villainess Nyrissa in particular also bears the boon of Chris Avellone’s ever-masterful hand. Shelyn bless that man’s seemingly endless font of great writing and ideas!

Oh, and for what it’s worth: this may be a crowdfunded game and the first creation of its development studio, but it’s got all the polish and aesthetics of a pro, major developer’s work. Obviously an Indie RPG looking the part is not a problem for me (hell, I frequently find myself preferring an Indie game’s aesthetics and style to those of current AAA studios), but if you’re the type that usually cringes a little when you hear “Indie,” there’s no cause to let that put you off with this game.

If you like great RPGs, you should play Pathfinder: Kingmaker. If you like the experience of pen-and-paper games like Pathfinder, Dungeons and Dragons, and the like, then you really should play Pathfinder: Kingmaker. And if you like the classic isometric RPGs like Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights, or are a fan of newer titles of this style like Pillars of Eternity and Torment: Tides of Numenera, you absolutely should play Pathfinder: Kingmaker. My history of backing RPGs on Kickstarter is one of several ups and downs, but this particular project is a solid success that I’m pleased to have helped make possible.****

* Something which, I’d like to point out, I am quite fine with overall. As I’ve mentioned before, linear restrictions to an RPG’s storytelling method allows the writers more control and thus better ability to tell the story they want to.

** Rarely but significantly--the alignment-restricted choices are almost always big ones that affect major turns in the story’s course. But like I said, that’s the kind of uncommon but substantial restriction that makes your character’s beliefs feel important.

*** Hell, this may be a rare occasion in which a video game actually outperforms a tabletop in terms of role playing choices. DMs have a tendency, from what I’ve seen and heard, of using a character’s alignment to confine and deny a player’s choices in an unfair and frankly unrealistic manner. Stuff like, “You can’t show mercy to this vampire no matter how uncharacteristically benevolent she is, you’re a Lawful Good Paladin, it’s against your alignment” and such, as though a person’s overall beliefs can never be superseded by situational factors. PK, on the other hand, still allows an Evil character to make a Good decision most of the time, or a Chaotic character to stick up for Neutrality, and so on, simply adjusting your character’s standing on the Alignment chart accordingly. And hell, even the major options in the game that are Alignment-locked still feel more fair than the standard of real-life roleplay--the fact that your Lawful character doesn’t have access to an option to force a truce (rather than pick a side) between Brevoy and Restov almost feels, to me, like it’s simply not an option that would occur to a character who doesn’t already have a mindset of Neutrality. The result may be the same, I suppose, but PK feels to me in such situations less like it’s discarding your character’s ability to choose a moral stance, and more like it’s reflecting a character who wouldn’t have even thought of such a solution to begin with.

**** This doesn't really fit into the rant anywhere, but I would like to note that if you do follow my advice and get this game, it's worth checking out its mods at Nexus, too. There are quite a few that are good for just quality of life modifications, and I would heartily recommend the Kingdom Resolution mod, as it gives you a lot of freedom to experience all the events and eventualities that the Kingdom Management aspect of the game can provide, letting you get the most out of your experience.