A King Amongst CRPGs Seeks to Conquer the PS4
It’s fitting that the roleplaying system Kingmaker is based on is called Pathfinder because, for the uninitiated, navigating its ruleset when you first start the game can be a labyrinthine maze. Kingmaker starts off with you being able to choose between 16 different classes, and most of these give you sub-classes within them to select. There’s also feat progression where there’re well over 40 feats to choose from, many of which are essential to other feats, or need to be taken by other party members to be effective. That’s just character creation. If that seems like a lot to take in at once, just wait till you have to manage a whole party, and then an entire kingdom!
Pathfinder: Kingmaker – Definitive Edition starts off with the player being thrown headfirst into the internecine political struggles of the country of Brevoy. The leader of a powerful house in Brevoy, Jarmadi Armadi, gathers a group of mercenaries to liberate the neighboring Stolen Lands from a gang of bandits. The reward for which will be granting the mercenaries dominion over their own barony. Typically though, Jarmadi’s true motivations are initially shrouded in secrecy and things are made even more murky and mysterious by the arrival of some mysterious assassins who raid her manor. This is where you’re promptly introduced to the battling mechanics.
Combat is made an absolute joy by the addition of a brilliant innovation. With a simple press of the right analog stick, you can change the flow of combat from turn-based to real-time! In fact, you can even switch back and forth throughout a fight as much as you like. This is ideal because some of the tougher fights require precision with positioning your party members and placing your spells whereas in real-time combat, things can get a bit chaotic.
Using the turn-based approach allowed me to win fights with opponents many levels higher than my party. I encountered one skeletal warrior with the ability to mulch my fighters into red paste in a straight-up fight. I outfoxed him by having my bard Linzi cast the “Grease” spell on him, creating a slick pool of oil at his bony feet, sending him slipping to the ground. Then I had her cast a spell that stole some of his dexterity, making it harder for him to rise to his feet as my warriors continued to batter his prone body.
Though I tackled more challenging fights like these with the turn-based approach, switching to real-time combat is great when you’re facing lots of weaker monsters and want to plough through them quickly or to finish off a combat that’s turned in your favor.
Since there’s plenty of opportunity for cross-classing at each level up, the amount of choice you’re given can be borderline daunting and it takes a fair bit of reading up on the various classes to build each party member well. For example, it’s perfectly possible to waste a feat (which you only get every few levels) on focusing on a particular type of weapon or armour to get a bonus in it, only for a shinier, more powerful piece of kit to come along, leaving you specialized in gear that’s less optimal. Research, forethought and planning are well rewarded but it can be altogether a bit overwhelming for those not versed in the Pathfinder roleplaying system.
The cast of characters are a truly stand-out bunch. Most of your companions are introduced early on as fellow mercenaries, who either grudgingly or enthusiastically recognize your character’s role as baron or baroness.
I pretty much fell in love with the brusque barbarian lady Amiri, who left her tribe for its patriarchal attitudes, and now seeks to prove herself by slicing up the most powerful creatures in the land with her oversized bastard sword she stole off a frost giant. When questioned why she wears such skimpy midriff-exposing armour, she notes how, having grown up in arctic climes, she could happily walk around more southerly lands with her “boobs bouncing around” without any worry. Early on, she can get an absolutely devastating feat where she can slash enemies with her sword before following it up with a series of vicious bites. It’s something to behold watching her smash one bandit before her into giblets before tearing the throats out of the next two adjacent bandits with her teeth, all while letting out a primal growl. It makes the moments of vulnerability she has during the story all the more endearing.
The well-developed characters only make the expansive choice and consequence system feel even more weighty. Right from the start, your decisions over whether to act more heroic or pragmatic will effect whether some companions choose to initially follow you or accompany your dastardly gnomish rival, Tartuccio. There were so many moments when a subtle decision I’d made earlier ended up helping or hindering me in unexpected ways down the line. I spared a bandit early on, convincing her it was unwise to follow her leader, the malignant Stag Lord, later gaining her help in overthrowing him later on.
Camping, which you’re required to do to spare your party from fatigue and to replenish their spells and HP, gives a chance to further flesh out the characters as they make (often derisory) comments to eachother around the fire.
The camping section also very cleverly gives you the opportunity to further use each character’s unique skills. The stealth skill, which is used in dungeons for sneaking past unaware adversaries, also comes in handy when concealing the camp, preventing baddies and beasties from finding your party. Likewise perception, which is used for spotting hidden traps and treasure, is also important for the camp lookouts to alert the party to any attacks during the night. Assigning each party member to a particular role in the camp is a very fun and satisfying way to make your sojourns more immersive.
Since Kingmaker can be quite brutal with party members occurring attribute damage in certain combats, having the rather beautiful cleric Tristian use his special ability to gain double the healing for the party can be a particular boon.
As you’d expect, Kingmaker is a truly epic game in both size and scope. Though I was taking my time to do a few sidequests, it took me nearly twenty hours to finish the first main mission quest chain and attain dominion over my own barony, by which point many smaller games would already be done! If you want to explore and conquer every nook and cranny of the Stolen Lands, there’s easily hundreds of hours of adventuring to be done.
Speaking of your kingdom, managing your barony adds a whole new layer of gameplay to adventuring across the land with your party. Each settlement in your barony can be developed by using build points to erect buildings. Build points can be gained by either buying them with your hard-earned gold from adventures, or from your barony’s economy itself.
You can assign advisors to head different departments. Once they’re assigned, they can solve problems or seize opportunities in the kingdom. How well the advisors do on their assigned tasks is affected by spending crisis points to increase their chances of success. It also provides a very interesting new dynamic as assigning party members to certain tasks can cause friction if you don’t agree with their decisions, which can ultimately lead to arguments where they resign their posts.
It takes time for construction to finish and events to resolve themselves so fortunately the kingdom management isn’t too intrusive when you’re questing across the land or dungeoneering. Rather it gives a real framing to the adventure and contextualizes it within a wider world.
As epic a journey as Pathfinder: Kingmaker is, it’s one filled with potholes right from the first few steps because of regrettable technical issues. For a start, the interface is unavoidably much more fiddly on a joypad than it would be on a mouse and keyboard. This isn’t too grievous, but it takes some getting used to, especially when switching between lots of menus.
What also takes you out of the flow of the experience is the frequent and interminable loading screens. Since Pathfinder: Kingmaker is all about exploration and management of your kingdom, you’ll very frequently be staring at slowly filling bars as you switch between modes. You’ll see an admittedly very beautiful loading screen every time you switch from a location to the overworld and every time you switch from the overworld to kingdom management mode. The aging hardware of the PS4, such as it is, struggles to create a seamless experience for a game so diverse.
More lamentably however, this port of Pathfinder: Kingmaker is just flat-out filled with bugs. Sometimes it’ll be something novel like getting stuck in the middle of a conversation or whittling a boss down to no health only for him to become unkillable. My game frequently crashed back the PlayStation menu screen during play, usually around once every few hours or so. Once it was particularly galling because it happened directly after a challenging, atmospheric and – most importantly – half-hour long boss battle before I had the chance to save. Losing all that hard-won progress had me grinding my teeth down to the gums. I even got one saved game that ended up amusingly corrupted, taking away some of my equipment and putting my party a few levels down as if it had somehow merged with one of my other saves from several hours ago.
Pathfinder: Kingmaker – Definitive Edition is a classic fantasy RPG of truly epic scope hobbled only by niggling technical issues on this console release. As much fun as I was having romping across the land slaying monsters, righting wrongs, and making pleasant conversation with the well-written characters, I couldn’t help but feel I wasn’t enjoying the experience on the ideal platform or on a stable build. Still, if you’re a stalwart devotee of swords and sorcery, and these trying times have left you without access to a decent gaming PC, then Pathfinder: Kingmaker is well worth a choice plot in the barony of your PS4 games library.
Final Verdict: 4/5
Available on: PC, Xbox One, PS4 (Reviewed); Publisher: Deep Silver; Developer: Owlcat Games; Players: 1; Released: August 18th, 2020 (PS4 and Xbox One);
Full Disclosure: This review is based on a copy of Pathfinder: Kingmaker given to Hey Poor Player by the publisher