Monday, November 18, 2019

Pathfinder: Kingmaker's Downloadable Content

Blah blah blah unnecessary intro, you all know what this is without me going on about it. Let’s just get to it.

The Wildcards: This DLC adds 2 new party members to the game (or 1, depending on how you look at it), Kanerah and Kalikke, a pair of sisters under the curse of a very unique and specific contract with 1 of the game’s deities, and a small set of character quests for them. Quality-wise, it’s a solid DLC. Kalikke and Kanerah are both good characters who interact well with the game’s events when they’re in your party, and their shared character arc through their personal quests is built on an interesting and creative idea, and makes for a decent story. Much like previous successful DLC characters like Mass Effect 2’s Zaeed and Dragon Age 1’s Shale, Kalikke and Kanerah skillfully tread a fine line between inclusion and separation--they’re a natural fit to the game and the party and never feel like an outside and unnecessary influence on the game’s story and cast, but at the same time, they’re kept just separate enough from the story and characters that the game couldn’t be said to be in any way incomplete without them (which is important for add-on characters; you may recall my anger with how important Sebastian was to Dragon Age 2’s core plot). The potential romance you can have with them is rewarding and genuine, and the side-characters that come along with them (the Sweet Teeth) are charmingly amusing, a welcome addition of minor humor in a game that otherwise has to lean quite heavily on Nok-Nok and the rest of his race for most of its comic interludes. I will say that I feel like Kalikke and Kanerah’s reconciliation towards the end of the game (if you’ve made the right decisions during their character quests) does seem a little spontaneous, but it’s not bad or anything, just something that could have been more developed.

On the other hand, more practically-speaking, this DLC has its flaws. It’s sold at $8, which isn’t exorbitant, but at the same time, you’re definitely not going to get 8 hours out of their specific character quests and dialogue. And no matter how well-separated they are, I can’t help but be more and more leery as time goes on of the ethics of any DLC that isn’t distinctly additional side-content to the main game. Still...the content is worthwhile, and Owlcat Games has clearly striven to implement The Wildcards in a morally acceptable manner, so while the price keeps this from being a must-buy with or without a sale, I’ll give my endorsement to it and say that it is, indeed, worth the purchase.

Varnhold’s Lot: Varnhold’s Lot is a self-contained side-adventure which details the events in the barony of Varnhold during Chapter 3 of the main game, and sets the stage for the main story’s fourth chapter (which takes place in Varnhold). It also subsequently adds a very small dungeon in the main game’s campaign, and a minor event during Pathfinder: Kingmaker’s finale.

There’s just a lot of issues with this add-on that interfere with its value. For starters, it’s $12, and you’re not likely to get even half a dozen hours’ worth of content from it, all told. And sure, I guess I have to admit that the dollar is worth less and less with each passing year, but I think we’re still several years away from an exchange rate of 1 hour of game time per $1 spent on a DLC being an unfair expectation.

That said, DLCs are like guys in bed: it really doesn’t matter if what they’ve got comes up a little short, as long as they’ve got the skill to do something great with it. Even if Varnhold’s Lot doesn’t have as much content as its price tag is, in my opinion, obliged to provide, all is forgiven if what it does have is of sufficient quality. But unfortunately, and also like guys in bed, DLCs are usually disappointing, and Varnhold’s Lot stays true to type on this matter. The plot of this adventure isn’t particularly compelling, and whatever your level of knowledge is with the main game, it works against VL’s favor: either you’re playing it before you get to Varnhold in the main quest, in which case the slow and at times aimless pace of this package makes it feel unimportant by comparison to the crazy shit going down in the main quest, or you play it once you’re familiar with Varnhold’s fate in the main quest, and what little suspense could have been had is lost. Or, I suppose, you play this DLC before you even start the main game, and its rushed introduction and setup fails to invest you in its events.

Likewise, the cast of this add-on is wholly unremarkable. Maegar Varn is a likable enough minor NPC in the main campaign, but he sure as hell has neither the personality nor the depth to carry his major role in this side venture, and the most that the rest of the characters and villains here can aspire to is There Because The Plot Needs Them. It’s also harder to feel a connection to the protagonist you create here, because you’ve got a much stronger connection to the protagonist you’ve made for the main campaign, the latter being a character you’ve had more time and far more choices in action and dialogue to form a personality out of.

Honestly, though, I think the real problem with Varnhold’s Lot is this: no one was asking for it. The summary of the events that led to Varnhold’s part of Pathfinder: Kingmaker’s story was adequate already, and it didn’t have the narrative pull and curiosity that other, successful explanatory side-story DLCs have had. Remember Dragon Age 1? During the course of DA1, you learn certain details of your companion Leliana’s dramatic past as a lover and protege of a master spy, whose subsequent betrayal once Leliana found out a little too much set into motion the events that led Leliana to join the church and cross paths with DA1’s protagonist. It’s a tale of the intrigues of espionage, mixed with a dangerous and unequal love, culminating in bloody betrayal that completely reshaped a woman’s beliefs and views of the world, defined the life that she was to live! Even if her summary of it in the main quest is adequate enough, that’s the kind of history that’s worthy of a more in-depth look; there’s good reason for Bioware to have created Leliana’s Song, the DLC that allowed us to watch her sordid backstory play out directly. By contrast, the Vanishing of Varnhold was merely a happening that unfolded as yet another kingdom-breaking event in a game filled by design with such scenarios, anchored by Maegar Varn, a minor character whose dramatic weight shakes out to no more than a neighbor you like well enough to greet with genuine cheer in passing, and the details of how the matter went down had been more than adequately explained by Vordekai and Varn in the main game. This DLC answers a question that players simply had no real reason to ponder in the first place.

And also, it really has to be said that even if there actually are players who really did want to see the Vanishing of Varnhold firsthand, this add-on still doesn’t satisfy. Varnhold’s Lot straight-out doesn’t do what it tells you it’s going to. While VL implies that you’re going to be seeing just how Vordekai’s return to power went down, almost the entirety of this package is devoted to the protagonist dealing with some semi-related side adventures, which culminate in a large dungeon at the end that turns out to be a red herring! Your protagonist winds up fooling around with the wrong villain in the wrong lair, so the only experience with Varnhold’s Vanishing, the event this DLC specifically exists to elaborate upon, comes from others mentioning it, because you aren’t there for it. Well what the hell is the difference between that, and just having had its events summarized to you in the main campaign?!

Varnhold’s Lot simply has nothing notable about it, there was no calling for it to exist, and it fails to fulfill even its superfluous purpose. Forget even getting it on sale; just give it a pass.

There’s a third DLC for Pathfinder: Kingmaker, but it’s basically an extended dungeon crawl with no plot, and I only cover add-ons with some form of story content, so I’m not gonna bother with it. So we’re done, since Owlcat has only indicated an intention to create these add-ons...although, I dunno, the way PK’s menu and add-on content integration is set up, it feels an awful lot like games such as Neverwinter Nights and Shadowrun, which have the kind of accessible architecture that’s designed for incorporating many additional content packs. That may just be an intention to allow for user-generated campaigns (which would be welcome), but I have a sneaking suspicion that Owlcat Games will be returning to this game with more content, after all.

At any rate, to judge it by what’s here...meh, I guess PK is alright, add-on-wise. I like The Wildcards enough to give it a solid thumbs-up, and for all Varnhold’s Lot’s problems, it at least feels like the writers just made several decisions that they didn’t really think through with it, not that they weren’t trying to make something decent. I’m disappointed that such a strong RPG as Pathfinder: Kingmaker wouldn’t have a likewise strong showing for its DLCs, but at the same time, I guess one has to allow it at least a little respect, for the simple fact that just being “alright” overall seems to be an accomplishment when it comes to RPG add-ons.

But I still miss The Witcher 3’s add-ons.

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