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Nelson Schneider's Video Game Reviews (477)

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Pikmin 4 4/5
No Man's Sky 4/5
Dragon Quest Monsters: ... 4/5
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Rayon Riddles - Rise of... 0.5/5
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Bug Fables: The Everlas... 4.5/5
Front Mission 1st Remake 1.5/5
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Ruzar - The Life Stone 3.5/5
Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin 3.5/5

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Pathfinder: Kingmaker   PC (Steam) 

Balance, Schmalance    2/5 stars

Way back in 2016, I got all excited when Paizo – the tabletop RPG publishing company that started as a third-party contractor for Wizards of the Coast, but managed to take the Open Gaming License and make a real name for themselves with the Pathfinder Core Rulebook – announced that they were working with a videogame developer to create a series of tabletop-to-cRPG conversions for the Pathfinder Adventure Path modules released between 2007 and 2012. While, at first, it seemed that Paizo would be working with the veteran cRPG developers at Obsidian Games – now a subsidiary of Microsoft’s Xbox Division – when everything shook out at the end, it was revealed that Paizo would be working with a brand-new, upstart development team going by the name of Owlcat Games, formed from castoffs from Nival Interactive and, and based overseas in both Cyprus and Russia.

I immediately became worried about Paizo trusting their valuable IP to such green, untested developers, and when Owlcat released the first fruits of their labor on Steam and GOG in 2018, “Pathfinder: Kingmaker” (“Kingmaker”) was greeted with a wide range of negative and mixed reviews. Much of the acrimony seemed to focus on technical issued and bugginess, but there was a strong underlying current of criticism pointing out “Kingmaker’s” poorly-balanced gameplay and poorly-implemented kingdom-building sub-sections.

The game was pricey at launch, with a hefty $40 tag attached to the “base” experience, and enough upcoming DLC to easily double that. So I was content to wait for both the pricing and the complaints noted by early adopters to sort themselves out. Thus, it wasn’t until the Steam Summer Sale of 2021 that I decided to pull the trigger and purchase the “Imperial Edition” bundle of the “Enhanced Plus Edition” and its DLC for around $20.

It was $20 NOT well-spent.

At first glance, “Kingmaker” looks like a pretty decent, modern cRPG. You’ve got your full polygon engine rendering environments and characters instead of pixilated, pre-rendered things. There’s a nice lighting engine for visual effects, which changes depending on what time of day/night it is in-game. There are a few restrictions put in for the sake of nostalgia, such as the fact that the game features a fixed isometric camera that can’t be rotated, and barely zoomed in-and-out. Likewise, while character models do show off all of their equipped gear (not doing so would be a huge step-backwards even from late ‘90s cRPGs), the character models themselves are fairly simplistic, while the visible weapons and armor tend to have rather cheesy particle effects showing off their magical qualities. Fortunately, monster models are much more detailed and interesting than playable humanoids.

Audio-wise, “Kingmaker” is pretty decent. The game isn’t fully voiced, but features voiced dialog for all of the major scenes featuring key allies, villains, and story events. The vocal cast is the type of low-budget, unknown-actor-driven thing that I approve of, in that the performances all range from adequate to great, without destroying the development budget hiring celebrities or known voice-actors. The soundtrack is also surprisingly enjoyable, and with the theme of kingdom building at the core of the game, I was pleasantly reminded of Konami’s ‘Suikoden’ series at times. Background ambient audio is also extremely well-done, which may not seem important, but after my awful experience with “Avadon: The Black Fortress” is not something to be ignored.

Technically, “Kingmaker,” even after an extra 3-4 years in the oven with numerous patches, updates, enhancements, and plusses, still isn’t all that great. While it is true that the game didn’t crash on me, nor did I personally encounter any game-breaking bugs, quest-ending glitches, or other issues, the entire game just doesn’t perform all that great. Big areas with lots of enemies and lighting effects can make the game engine chug and stutter (on cutting edge hardware!). Slain enemies (especially in the final two dungeons) tend to ragdoll into glitchy strands of taffy. Load times tend to get longer and longer as the game runs on, largely due to an issue with the save files themselves becoming bloated monstrosities. Perhaps worst of all, from my perspective, is that, even after the game was ported to 8th Generation consoles, and allegedly had the controller support from those “Definitive Editions” back-ported to the PC version, I couldn’t get the native Xinput support to work, so I just used my Steam Controller.

“Kingmaker” is based on the Pathfinder Adventure Path of the same name, which was originally released as a series of 6 tabletop modules between February and July of 2010. Our (custom) hero is called to the city of Brevoy by the leading noble house. These nobles have a very interesting proposition for a would-be hero: The Stolen Lands are a wild, uncivilized region bordering Brevoy, and a bandit leader, who has set himself up as a self-styled Stag Lord, is threatening the stability of neighboring regions with his gang. Brevoy will back the legal claim of anyone who can clear the Stolen Lands of bandits, granting them the title of Baron and using its own coffers to stabilize the newly-claimed region. This offer of landed nobility, naturally, attracts a wide array of would-be rulers to Brevoy, filling out a supporting cast of a diverse range of backgrounds, races, and alignments.

Our would-be Barons plan to set-out as a group to take the Stolen Lands from the Stag Lord, and figure out who gets to be the Big Cheese afterwards, but the night before the expedition is to begin, a huge group of assassins show up at the Brevoy estate and try to kill everyone with dreams of Barony. Naturally, the assassins are rebuffed, and all parties involved learn that they were sent by another nation bordering the Stolen Lands, which clearly has its eyes on conquest as well. With two of the would-be Barons fingered as accomplices in the assassination, the entire group divides into two, with a comically evil Italian gnome leading one team and the player’s character leading the other. Thus the race is on to take out the Stag Lord and become the newest member of the nobility…

… and that’s just the prologue!

After what amounts to a 20-hour tutorial, the player is plopped into the position of Baron of a new nation carved out of the heart of the Stolen Lands. As a ruler, our hero must appoint advisors to various governmental positions, while also dealing with crises as they occur… and the Stolen Lands are just one crisis after another. Whether it’s an invasion of fire-proof trolls, a plague that causes owlbears and manticores to burst out of people for no visible reason, an infestation of undead cyclopes, fey creatures running riot, or neighboring rulers engaging in run-of-the-mill subterfuge, the Stolen Lands are literally cursed with a never-ending stream of BS to deal with… and always on the clock.

“Kingmaker” has the dubious honor of being the first cRPG based in Paizo’s original campaign setting of Golarion. Much like the Forgotten Realms or DragonLance campaigns, Golarion is a fully-fleshed-out world. Unlike the best campaign settings, however, Golarion is not really focused, but instead is kind of a ‘kitchen sink’ setting where the world includes every conceivable fantasy trope and concept, but compartmentalizes the weirder ones to specific regions. With the Stolen Lands being the focus of “Kingmaker,” we get to learn a lot about the fey (the technical term for fantasy creatures most normal people would call ‘fairies’ and related species) and the First World (a parallel universe that’s the equivalent of a ‘first draft’ left over from when the pantheon of Golarion’s deities created the world) where they still reign supreme, but by a completely different set of physical and metaphysical laws than even a fantastical place like Golarion. Visitors to the Stolen Lands tease the wide array of exotic locales in the world, but the player is never given a chance to visit them.

While “Kingmaker” appears, once the tutorial is over, to be a non-linear experience, it actually isn’t. While the player can freely wander around the relatively huge map of the stolen lands, the core questlines and story beats all happen in the same order, and always at the same time. Remember a couple paragraphs up where I mentioned always being “on the clock”? Yeah, “Kingmaker” takes time management VERY seriously, with each “chapter” of the story taking place within a window of roughly 200 in-game days. Failing to keep track of time or deal with crises within their rigid time windows can result in an abrupt and unceremonious Game Over, which can be really painful in a game that easily takes 100 hours to get through, with 120 hours feeling more reasonable for a blind run.

This tight adherence to time limits brings up one of the game’s biggest glaring flaws: While the individual story arcs and the characters involved in them are interesting and well-developed, the game’s pacing always feels simultaneously rushed and plodding. It should be impossible to feel two polar opposites simultaneously, but somehow “Kingmaker” makes it feel like the player never has enough in-game days to accomplish what they need to, even while nothing much is actually happening.

As if the base game weren’t bad enough with regard to rushing and plodding, the DLC is even worse. One of the DLCs, “Beneath the Stolen Lands,” is a 50-floor dungeon slog that just acts as a gigantic time-sink, while the other story-based DLC, “Varnhold’s Lot,” seemed like it was more tightly integrated into the base game… except it wasn’t. At all. There’s just a base game chapter that revolves around the town of Varnhold, while the DLC is an entirely separate thing that I never discovered and completely missed out on due to in-game time constraints. It’s very poor form to sell extra content for a game, then either make it impractical to experience or difficult to even discover. So much for the extra cash I spent for the “complete” game!

“Kingmaker” appears, on the surface, to be a faithful clone of the old Infinity Engine games from the late ‘90s and early ‘00s that made BioWare and Black Isle famous. You’ve got your six-person party of heroes, you’ve got your click-to-interact interface, you’ve got your auto-journal to keep track of quests and occurrences, and you’ve got your locations filled with Fog of War that recedes as you move your party of characters across it. Combat was, at launch, strictly a Real-Time With Pause situation, just like the Infinity Engine games, but Owlcat kludged-in a truly turn-based option during the game’s bug-fixing-and-feature-adding phase. Unfortuntely, neither combat system works particularly well, with RTWP turning into uncontrollable chaos most of the time, while Turn-Based drags encounters out with far too many boring turns spent doing the exact same actions as the previous turn (and watching characters miss repeatedly). All characters can have AI toggled on or off, which generally isn’t “intelligent” by any stretch, as it simply causes characters to start targeting the next-closest foe after the one they’re battling dies, instead of standing around doing nothing.

There are some noticeable cuts made to the basic template that the Infinity Engine games laid-out: There’s no pickpocketing, and “stealing” things from NPC’s homes isn’t acknowledged, relegating Rogue class characters to disarming traps and opening locked boxes. Seemingly to make up for this lack of roguish talent, Sneak Attacks (the 3.x Edition term for ‘Backstab’) have been wildly overpowered, allowing much easier flanking than the tabletop rules, and allowing Sneak Attack damage to work on both Undead and Construct enemies, which are supposed to be immune to it. These quirks in Owlcat’s adaptation of the Pathfinder rules really aren’t a big deal, though, even when considering some of the bizarre and esoteric third-party content – such as the Slayer and Kinetecist character classes – that made its way into the game.

Unfortunately, the cuts that should have, but were NOT, made to the Rules as Written in the Pathfinder Core Rulebook revolve around fatigue, travel, and encumbrance. While traveling the world map, time passes, and as time passes, characters get tired, first becoming Fatigued (taking a -2 penalty on LOTs of dice rolls) then becoming Exhausted (taking a -6 penalty and becoming unable to move at more than a snail’s pace). Horrifically, even in the tutorial, I ran into an egregiously-designed side-quest in which a ghost appears in the hero’s dreams, preventing the hero from sleeping. So while everyone else in the party can recover their spells and health by resting, until this particular quest step gets resolved, the hero becomes absolutely worthless… the words “I feel tired” now cause me to become triggered.

Ironically, while loot is pooled together and total party encumbrance is based on the party’s total Strength stats instead of individual carrying capacities, even while showing the party traveling across the map on horseback, the game never stops to consider the fact that the party doesn’t just cram 25 looted breastplates and 50 daggers into their personal belongings, but would load that stuff onto a cart or into saddlebags while traveling. Likewise, why would a character be penalized by encumbrance in combat if they drop their pack (why else could they no longer access things inside it?) on the ground temporarily while engaging? This kind of pseudo-Gygaxian attention to pointless minutia is annoying, but ultimately pales in comparison to the game’s other soul-crushing design flaws.

No, the real problems with “Kingmaker” are two-fold, and they have nothing to do with the Pathfinder core rules.

The first, and most-commonly-cited complaint about “Kingmaker’s” gameplay is the Kingdom Management system that becomes available after the prologue. While the game has an option to turn-on tutorial pop-ups, these tutorials typically pop-up and incessantly rag-on a few of the core rules, while failing to explain the Kingdom Management system – which ISN’T an adaptation from any of the Pathfinder rulebooks on my shelf – which is complex, vague, poorly explained, and essential. It’s necessary to add advisors to various kingdom positions as they become available. However, there are frequently 0-1 suitable candidates for each position within the main character’s social network, and there is NO explanation whatsoever regarding how to unlock additional positions. Ranking up the various positions – such as Economy, Military, Divine, Stability, etc. – is a straight-forward matter of picking an occupied advisor position and spending two weeks of in-game time (during which the player is completely locked out of doing anything else) to improve the position, but getting the rank-up projects to appear in the list of possible kingdom tasks is left an absolute mystery.

The other major flaw in “Kingmaker” is the combat encounter design, which is absolutely inexcusable. Back when BioWare first released “Baldur’s Gate,” as a young Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition player, I was blown away by how well-balanced and designed everything in that game was. While the 2nd Edition rulebooks left everything vague and opaque regarding what kinds of foes and how many a typical party of player characters should be pitted against, BioWare demonstrated their familiarity with AD&D as well as their skills as Dungeon Masters by carefully designing a mix of easy, moderate, and tough encounters, but never anything overwhelming. Owlcat, on the other hand, has demonstrated a complete lack of familiarity with Pathfinder and the 3.x rules in general, as they completely ignore the black-and-white, codified rules for encounter design that can be found on pages 397-399 of the Pathfinder Core Rulebook. In Pathfinder, the Gamemaster must always keep in mind the Average Party Level (APL). An ‘Easy’ encounter is the APL-1, an ‘Average’ encounter is simply equal to the APL, while ‘Challenging,’ ‘Hard,’ and ‘Epic’ encounters correspond to APL+1, +2, or +3, respectively. Furthermore, every monster in the Pathfinder Bestiary series of supplemental books has an assigned Challenge Rating (CR). So an ‘Average’ encounter is one where the CR of the baddies equals the APL of the player(s). Adding more baddies of a given type doesn’t always scale in a linear fashion, with another table revealing that adding more creatures increases CR of the encounter by varying integers, with 16 creatures in an encounter increasing the base CR of that creature by a significant 8 points (in a game system where the level cap is typically 20).

Throughout the tutorial, “Kingmaker” never throws out combat encounters lower than ‘Challenging,’ which can be grueling when dealing with them back-to-back, while also dealing with the need to rest and recover frequently, all while being pressed by the game’s incessant in-built countdowns to failure. The tutorial is rough, but I managed to get through it with a lot of teeth-grinding and save/load shenanigans. Unfortunately, in the first chapter of the “real” game, the encounter design goes from tough, but do-able to practically impossible due to the fact that Owlcat’s designers completely ignored the encounter design rules OF THE ACTUAL GAME in favor of doing whatever they felt like. Thus, in the very first chapter past the tutorial, the player will have to slog through nothing but one ‘Epic’ encounter after another, culminating in a boss fight that, in the actual tabletop game, should be considered ‘Impossible,’ since the CR for the encounter is DOUBLE – seriously, just think about that for a second, DOUBLE! – the APL, resulting in a foe that, even after applying every party buff the Cleric can come up with, can only be hit on a Natural 20, while the foe himself can land all four (!) of his attacks on the party’s best Tower Shield Fighter tank on everything but a Natural 1.

But poor encounter design that completely disregards the rules for balance is only half the problem. Owlcat also took it upon themselves to fool around with the stats for many monsters, making them far more ridiculously dangerous than they have any right to be. Owlbears – clearly the studio’s favorite beastie – are supposed to have 5 Hit Dice (e.g., monster levels) and a CR of 4 (since they don’t really have any weird powers or supernatural abilities). The Owlbears in “Kingmaker,” however, have 11-14 Hit Dice. Now, “Kingmaker” never explicitly shares the CR of its monsters, but after 15+ years of being a Dungeon/Game Master for 3.x tabletop campaigns, I can tell you off hand that a group of 3 or more of those pumped-up Owlbears would be a poor match for a group of players with an APL of 5-6. And that doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the BS that Owlcat applied to its bestiary of monsters, ranging from Giant Spiders with permanent Blur magic cast on them (a flat 25% chance that any hit the player scores against the Blurred target will be converted to a miss after all), permanently enraged Owlbears with double the Strength stat they should have (allowing them to one-shot all but the tankiest characters), and invisible giant lizards who (somehow) ignore player-cast spells such as Glitterdust and See Invisibility. There’s even an encounter in an unassuming cave a stone’s throw from the Capitol city where a low-level party can get gang-raped by a level 8 Rogue Wererat, his retarded level 4 kid brother, and their level 8 Alchemist friend – this is before the party will typically have access to any magic to reduce the fire damage from the Alchemist, and with the easy Sneak Attack rules benefiting monsters as well as players, this is just an incredibly poorly thought-out fight.

And it’s not like Pathfinder doesn’t include rules for making monsters more dangerous: It does! The tabletop rules include a huge number of monster “Templates” that allow for formulaic additions of extra Hit Dice, stat bumps, damage immunities, supernatural abilities, etc. It’s also codified in the rulebooks that any “sentient” monster can take character class levels to pump itself up, resulting in a basic gameplay system where even lowly Kobolds can keep up with the Joneses (the players) by having character levels applied to them to keep both sides on an even footing. Owlcat very liberally applies character levels to ALL SORTS of monsters – even non-sentient ones – but always goes overboard, resulting in encounters that, in a tabletop setting instead of a min/max-ing, save scumming computer game, would literally be impossible, relying on the quantum improbability of the player team rolling an unbroken string of Natural 20s on their dice, while the foes roll an equally unlikely string of Natural 1s on theirs.

Owlcat heard the early criticisms of both the Kingdom Management System and the poorly designed encounters and addressed them… in the most half-assed way possible. They added a number of difficulty sliders, two of which simply drop enemy stats by a few points each (leaving many of them still in the ludicrous range), while a third difficulty slider treats finely-tuned RPG system mechanics the same way the litany of half-assed Fake RPGs like “The Witcher 3” and “Destiny 2” do: The player can simply elect to take a percentage of the damage enemies dish out, with 20% being the minimum, 80% being the default for playing the game on “Normal” (*snort*) difficulty, and options for real masochists to take up to double damage from foes. This sort of numerical manipulation and jiggery-pokery is an absolute insult to all the people at Paizo who worked on the Pathfinder tabletop game, and to all the players who enjoyed it. If Owlcat was working in good faith, here, they’d have used the actual in-built systems within the Pathfinder game system to dynamically populate encounters based on the APL – this is the type of situation where an electronic Gamemaster can more quickly and easily shift gears than a real person, so long as the encounters are correctly designed in the first place. Sure, leaving a handful of super-tough monster lairs for players to return to “later” is a perfectly valid option to use occasionally, but if you aren’t going to allow players to manually add pins and notes to their map, you’d better damn well design your encounters to be do-able as the player stumbles upon them.

Likewise, the Kingdom Management System received a similar bit of lazy, uncaring post-launch support, in the form of difficulty options, a toggle to make the kingdom “indestructible” no matter how incompetent the management goes, and – perhaps most cynical of all – the ability to simply turn-off Kingdom Management altogether, missing out on a significant portion of the game.

While I hatefully turned down combat difficulty all the way (and still found far too many difficult fights that required thought and skill after I’d already given up on the game being “fair” in any way), I still managed to get through the game with the kingdom difficulty on “Normal” (though I did make it indestructible, it never came close to crumbling). Out of curiosity, when my kingdom advisors suddenly found themselves with 0% chances of success on far too many kingdom events, I turned the difficulty down to Easy, then to Effortless, only to find that my success chances only went up to 5%, at best, so back to Normal I went.

Ironically, “Kingmaker” has a difficulty setting called “Unfair.” The developers describe it as requiring absolutely perfect character builds (impossible, with the gimped starting stats all of the companion characters have) AND lucky dice rolls. As far as I’m concerned, with the way encounters are designed, where encounters are placed, and the ridiculous time constraints placed on the player that must be divided between adventuring and governing, every difficulty should have the dubious honor of that description.

“Pathfinder: Kingmaker” is so full of amateur-hour mistakes and poor encounter design that it absolutely, positively couldn’t have had anyone involved in its making who actually plays – let alone serves as Gamemaster for – the Pathfinder tabletop game. If a flesh-and-blood Gamemaster ran a tabletop session the way “Kingmaker” is designed, I’d stand up and walk away from the table (possibly leaving the GM with a bloody nose for good measure). As such, this single game has shattered any illusions I may have had about the positive future of Paizo-based cRPGs or anything coming out of Owlcat Games. Normally, I’m willing to give the benefit of the doubt and allow for three strikes, as in baseball or prison sentences. “Kingmaker,” however, is such a poor representation of the Pathfinder rules, such a poorly-balanced, poorly-paced disaster of a game, that it used up all three strikes on its own. Unless Paizo pulls the license from these clowns and gives it to a competent team, Pathfinder cRPGs are dead to me.

Presentation: 3/5
Story: 3.5/5
Gameplay: 1/5
Overall (not an average): 2/5



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