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.