Developer: Owlcat Games
Release Date: 25 September, 2018
Platform: Windows / Mac / Linux
By Chris Picone, 09 December 2018
Pathfinder: Kingmaker is Owlcat Games’ debut release, and at over a hundred hours playtime, it’s a doozy! Kingmaker is an isometric roleplaying game similar in design to Pillars of Eternity, et al., except that the story functions around an integrated kingdom manager. The game is set in Golarion, which is Pathfinder’s fairly generic default fantasy setting, and the story is based on Paizo’s Kingmaker adventure path. I tentatively backed it on Kickstarter – the game’s epic scope would have been a challenge for a AAA developer, but for an indie to take on something this size is unbelievably ambitious. While the game could have benefitted from a larger budget and a little extra time spent on quality insurance, I was impressed enough that I nominated it as Steam’s 2018 Game of the Year.
The start of the game is pretty bad. I want to get that out straight away, so if you started playing and weren’t impressed, you can at least feel comforted knowing that everyone else thought it was bad too, but at least it’s out of the way quickly and the rest of the game more than makes up for it. You know how pen and paper RPGs normally start, where you and a bunch of misfits are thrown together and set upon the initial quest with some vaguely tenable explanation so the actual game can start? Well, that’s pretty much how Kingmaker starts, probably because the story is based on a pen and paper campaign. You play as an adventurer who has been tasked by the local nobility to take out a neighbouring bandit king. In exchange, they will make you a baron and you get to keep the land you will pry from his cold dead fingers. It’s not that simple, of course. You have a deadline, and competition. So your bunch of misfits – dwarven cleric, undead elf inquisitor, halfling bard, human barbarian, and human paladin – join you because … well, I don’t really know why. Anyway, the tutorial and prologue out of the way, you now have adventuring party and an infant barony, and the actual story starts. Your competition decides the best man didn’t win and tries to take your barony by force and, as it turns out, your new barony is cursed.
Kingmaker’s graphics are AAA quality, comparable to Tyranny, Pillars of Eternity, and similar games, but slightly stylised to look like the illustrations in a book have come to life, which gives the game its own unique feel. Environments are very pretty, particularly when you visit the First World. Character portraits have an almost manga quality to them, but not jarringly so, and Illustrations during story events are top-notch. The only real fault is the amount of recycled resources, which unfortunately makes many of the lesser locations feel very samey. This is understandable – I don’t know how many locations are in the game in total, but it’s a lot, and this is an indie developer after all.
The soundtrack is possibly a little limited, but it’s high quality, and subtle enough that you don’t really notice. What’s really impressive is the amount of voice acting
The music is the sort of orchestral soundtrack you would expect to hear backing any fantasy movie or game. Mostly it’s just mood setting, reaching crescendo during fight scenes or other tense moments, and then going quiet and soft during lulls. High quality; a quiet achiever. The voice acting is mostly excellent; Verse and Lantry were personal favourites. Unfortunately, I found the archons' voices to be over-acted to the point of being ridiculous, but as you can imagine this is a fairly minor complaint.
For the most part, the game plays like any other isometric RPG and, more specifically, is very similar to Pillars of Eternity. The major differences revolve around the setting, and the importance placed on the decisions you make; for example, one of your biggest issues will be trying to balance your relationships with the various factions. If you favour one faction, you will gain respect from that faction but wrath with the other. However, if you try to sit on the fence, you will lose respect from both. There is no place for weakness in the tiers. Combat is pausable real-time, and focuses on a set of cooldown and once-per-encounter/rest skills that you acquire through the game. One of the most interesting aspects of combat is the use of combo skills that see two of your characters work together in a joint attack. These skills are unlocked as you gain respect or fear with the other characters.
The one thing I did find was missing that was present in Pillars was the mini-adventure dialogues when you took certain actions. These felt a bit half-baked in Pillars, and I was really hoping the spiritual successor would flesh them out more, but instead it did away with them entirely. Oh, there are still gaps to squeeze through and walls to climb, but now it's just a matter of pushing a button and you appear on the other side. And the difficulty levels for each of these seems to be set so low that there's no way you can fail no matter what character type you're running, which was an unfortunate bit of railroading I think the game would have been better off without. Again, only minor complaints.
Fun Factor / Replayability
I am absolutely loving the impact decision-making has on the game, it is something that seemed to have gone by the wayside in so-called “roleplaying” games lately, and it is refreshing to see it return. I’m also loving playing an anti-hero. It’s one thing to try and play an evil character in a game that is designed to see you play as a hero, but quite another where issues of morals aren’t portrayed as black and white. It can be difficult to be “good” in the game, as mercy can make you seem weak. However violence isn’t always the answer either. These are really the highlights for the game – otherwise, character development is simple and flexible, although it tends to railroad you down particular skillsets which means that each character could be replayed as entirely different classes if you were to play through again.
In my first playthrough with the Disfavoured faction, I felt like I had made a series of bad decisions and closed doors on opportunities - because that’s exactly what I had done. The game forces you to make those hard decisions, and then makes you pay the consequences for them, which is great. It made me want to go back and play again, as a different sort of character, and make entirely different decisions just to see where they would take me. After playing terrible linear “RPGs” like Fallout 4 where all roads lead to Rome and your decision making is entirely irrelevant, I was thrilled to find your decisions actually had a significant impact on the game. In my second playthrough with the Chorus faction, I was delighted to discover that not only are there multiple ways to complete the story quests, entire regions of the map are closed depending on which faction you play and which decisions you made during the Conquest phase. The game felt a little narrow at times, but it is clear that that was a deliberate decision to encourage players to go back and play the game again.
The lore of the game is well developed, and the only complaints I really had were fourth wall issues where the character seemed to be able to wipe out whole encampments on his own, where the professional army failed. This makes sense later in the game when your character grows into his own power, but the one-man-army stuff starts right from the beginning of the game. It would have been nice to work with one of the armies until you gained the power to stand on your own.
Tyranny brings RPGs back to where it all started; character development and decision making, and does so in a unique and interesting world. The main story arc is on the lean for an RPG (first playthrough took me ~20 hours), but it is designed to be replayed. If you’re already a fan of isometric RPGs, get stuck into it – the return to core RPG principles is refreshing. If you aren’t familiar with that sort of game, give this one a go. Unlike most RPGs, this one doesn’t require you to be familiar with an existing game world’s lore, is considerably shorter than most, and you will probably find the anti-hero aspects engaging. If you aren’t into isometric RPGs or don’t like pausable real-time combat, give this one a miss. The game isn’t without its flaws, but I thoroughly enjoyed it, and can happily recommend it.