Wednesday, April 01, 2020

Fileloser Queenbreaker

I think we're all finding our own personal silver linings to the current social-distancing, sheltering-in-place regime. One of mine is guilt-free gaming, and specifically buckling down and playing through the finale of Pathfinder: Kingmaker. It actually did end up feeling a bit like a neglected household chore: I thought "Oh, I'm so close to the end, I should just finish it," then winced at the thought of enduring one more tedious, frustrating battle against the Wild Hunt. But, much as I've finally fixed that one chair and repaired that one electric light, I've finally done the necessary and defended my queendom.

I would say that for me, the game roughly breaks down to be about 30% awesome, 40% fun, 25% fine and 5% aggravating. Which is not bad! But it's a long game, so that 5% leads to hours and days of lulls. But countless more hours of wonder and excitement. It's almost certainly the longest story-based RPG I've ever played, and, notwithstanding its warts, one of the most satisfying.

Before dipping into spoilers, here are a few random thoughts that may be of interest to others playing the game. They aren't, like, the most important thing of "5 Things I Wish I Knew Before Playing Pathfinder: Kingmaker," just a couple of items of personal interest.

Regarding romance: You can advance most romance content by just talking with your love interest at the capital, but certain romance scenes will only play while the two of you (and others!) are camping inside a quest area. They do not play when camping on the world map, which is where I camped like 98% of the time. I think that you may need to get these conversations to get the conclusion to your romance.

Regarding builds: Your party is well-balanced, and you can pick from up to 11 companions to fill 5 available slots (12 companions with the Wildcards DLC, and infinite companions if you want to generate your own from the Pathfinder Academy). Much like the earlier BG games, this means you can be whatever you want, and honestly can be kind of useless and let your party carry you. I doubt that I'll play again, but if I do, it would be interesting to be a Monk: You find some cool unique weapons and robes that only Monks can wear, and there are no Monks on your team. (The other "missing" classes are Druid, Paladin, Slayer and Sorcerer, but I didn't see any similarly unique equipment for those.) There are two times in the game when you're on your own without your party; you shouldn't plan around that, but it's worth holding onto extra potions or scrolls or things for that.

Okay, let's get into it! We'll call these


Things I Liked

Romance. I would have liked more romance content, and for the romances to be deeper - but I say that about literally every RPG romance, and Pathfinder is better than most. It did what it tried to do and was sweet. I especially want to call out the very cool polyamory angle for some of the romances, it was designed very well and made sense, both in terms of the story, the characters and the mechanics.

Characters. What I liked best about your party is how dynamic they are: everyone gets some good growth and evolves over the course of the game, as a result of their experiences and conversations with you. I'm thinking of stuff like Harrim's journey, which in the early chapters seemed kind of boring and one-note, but ended up being really nuanced and interesting. This is the rare game to strike the balance between giving your party members agency, and giving your player character influence over them.

Villains. There are a lot of them, but they are each distinct and have sensible motivations for why they do the things they do; I especially appreciate that some of them have Good or Lawful alignment while still threatening your reign. There are also some good roleplaying options while encountering them, and you often have the option to bring them to your side or otherwise help determine their fate.

Voice acting. The amount is inconsistent throughout the game, with plentiful voiceover during plot-critical dialogue and then long periods of silence during other conversations. But I like that for this style of game which is so text-heavy. It does add a lot of character, particularly bringing alive people like Linzi and Amiri.

Music. It's super-memorable and catchy and atmospheric. It's really remarkable that I never got sick of it with as long as the game is. There's great development of themes over the course of the game, too; it's very cool to hear the kingdom theme in a new mix near the finale.

Core mechanics. The crunchy numbers and rules feel really solid. They're varied and interesting, with lots of useful options to choose between. They are definitely complex, but the similarity to D&D helped a lot. It doesn't feel excessively balanced like Pillars of Eternity did, but also doesn't offer just "one right way" to approach builds.

Kingdom management, sort of. It felt really good to have an ongoing connection with the people in your barony, on a macro as well as a micro level. There are a few interesting choices, both in the level-up throne room events and in how you choose to resolve various problems. Some of the mechanics were fun, and I still really like the dice-roll with bonuses and maluses that resolves political events.

Things I'm Lawful Neutral On

The economy. It does pass my primary test for an RPG: there are things that are worth buying, and not enough gold to just buy everything. That said, there is lots of jank and needless complexity: some  stuff, like books and bottles of alcohol, is completely useless but not considered "junk" and thus you need to manually search for and click to sell dozens of items scattered through the hundreds of things you're carrying. And on the other hand, a few items (like an Emerald) is actually required to complete a quest, but is considered "junk" and will almost certainly be sold by you. I hate inventory systems in RPGs in general, but Pathfinder: Kingmaker isn't worse than most.

Choice and consequences. Early, seemingly random decisions can have huge and devastating consequences 150 hours later. I'm thinking now in particular of Kanarah and Kalikke's fate, which is based on a single choice you make much earlier in the game. To its credit, the story does make sense, and the consequences flow from the choices, but it still feels rough. Even rougher for me was losing Jaethal: I'd taken her side consistently throughout the game, varying from my standard Good approach to indulge her Evil tendencies and always backing her up. In contrast, I'd sided with Tristan only maybe 50% of the time. But, in the end I lost Jaethal and kept Tristan, which was a hit to the core party composition I was planning to run with through the end of the campaign. From reading online, it's possible to save both, but requires a very specific route through their respective personal quests and some metagaming knowledge. I dunno... I do really like your choices having impacts and your decisions having meaningful consequences, it just feels frustrating when they seem tenuously connected and temporally distant.

Things I Disliked

Saving times. Loading saved games and loading new areas takes a while, which I'm used to, but even a "quicksave" will freeze the game for a good 10+ seconds by the end of the game. This did get a bit better once I installed the Cleaner mod.

Kingdom management, sort of. After an initial giddy thrill at all the subsystems and options, it's very deflating to realize that so much of it ends up being useless, both mechanically and narratively. 95% of buildings are pointless. Opportunities are pointless. About half of the Economy projects are pointless, and about a third of the Other projects. 100% of Curse projects are pointless, except for one particularly obscure ending of the game that you won't be able to get unless you also follow a few other specific metagaming routes. Story-wise, it's frustrating to invest so much effort and so many resources into improving your kingdom, and seeing all your stats at maximum levels and all your advisors reporting how awesome things are, and then as soon as a story beat happens it shifts to "Everything is falling apart! Your citizens are abandoning you! Everyone has lost confidence in your rule!" Which... I mean, what's the point of having a Loyalty stat if there's zero difference between Loyalty I and Loyalty X when the manure hits the windmill?

The Darven/Hellknights quest. It's really weird and dumb. I told Darven to go away and attacked him, then Linxia acted like I had allied with him. Most of the quests in PF:K can provide at least the illusion of meaningful choices, so it's particularly jarring for this one particular quest to be so railroaded. The rewards at the end are good, but it's such a nothing story filled with annoying characters, aggravating all the way through to the final slide about it at the game's end.

Things I Hated

The Wild Hunt. Bullshit, terrible, un-fun, grindy fights. It reminds me of playing Dragon Age 2 on Nightmare difficulty: not at all rewarding or interesting, just a slog to get through. It's especially infuriating since the boss fights in this zone are so underwhelming: I killed the Wriggling Man and the Knurly Witch and the one other tree guy in about 10-20 seconds each, but the "trash" fights leading up to them drag on for minutes. There are so many of those fights and they're all the same and they're all terrible and boring and I hate them.  It really sucks to have this be one of the last things you experience in the game, which up until then has generally fun, varied, interesting combat. It's right up there with Vampire: The Masquerade: Bloodlines in souring the ending by throwing tons of bad guys at you, burning off the goodwill the game has painstakingly built up up until the finale.

That's It!

I should probably summarize the story, so here we go:

I played as Guchok, a Half-Orc Bard. She started as Lawful Neutral and gradually drifted into Lawful Good over the course of the game. This is mostly because, like vintage D&D, the moral choices in PFK lean towards "be a decent human person or be a terrible psychopath?". But I like to imagine that it's also because Guchok grew as a person, shifting from primarily being self-interested in establishing a base of power to feeling personally involved in the needs of her companions and subjects.

I romanced Octavia, which was a great and really interesting romance. I didn't invite Reoganar to join in, but also never pushed Octavia to break up with him. So I guess we just had kind of an open relationship, since I was technically also dating Kanerah on the side; that relationship didn't seem to ever conclude, but I'm not sure if that's because the Octavia one pre-empted it or if it was because I rarely quested with Kanerah or something else. When Octavia and Reoganar finally split I was super-supportive, we had some sweet talks together (where I bit my Lawful tongue and sided with her Chaotic whims), and it ends up being surprisingly traditional, which, given where it started, was entirely unexpected.

I had good relationships with pretty much everyone and did all of their personal quests. Valerie fought and defeated her tormenter, got a scar, then forgave the Shelyn crew and adopted a laissez-faire attitude towards their faith, getting healed in the process. Amiri killed her old chief, elevated her friend to lead the tribe, and made peace with the spirit who owned her sword. Octavia rescued the Technic League prisoners, tracked down her mother, reconciled and got her title. Linzi recruited her old teacher, exiled her old bully, and wrote a searing expose on abuses within the Academy. Jaethal was pure evil, resurrecting her foes against their will, taking forbidden knowledge on dark rituals, and making her daughter into a thrall. Kalikke used Kanerah as bait to save the Sweet Teeth from the Soul Eaters, then Kanerah wanted to voluntarily join the Forefather, and quit angrily when I killed him anyways. Harrim came to accept his role of creative destruction, and first grudgingly but eventually with some satisfaction. Jubilost won the Inconsequent Debates and selflessly donated his prize to a random deserving gnome. Ekundayo turned away from the path of vengeance over his dead family and started a new life with the tavernkeeper. Okbo is a good boy. Nok-Nok retained his high opinion of himself, gaining even more confidence and embracing the title "Hero," all while openly worshiping Lamashtu and erecting statues of himself and Guchok. Reoganar killed his Technic League captors, grudgingly let his "owner" escape, and found the depopulated tribe that had birthed him. Tristan stole the Oculus, then rejoined my team, and pledged to return to Sarenrae after the quest was complete.

Running through main-plot stuff: I made peace between the mites and the kobolds. I killed both the kobolds and the trolls. I saved both Jhod and Kesten, then burned the Everblooming Flower. Tristan took the Oculus before I could stop him. I killed Vordekai and then annexed Varnhold, bringing Maegar Varn into my court. I pursued Amiri before Tristan, rescuing her, then finding Armag and defeating the Sisters. I spared Armag's life but made Dugath the new chief. I was generally polite but unyielding towards Pitax, pressing back hard against libel while avoiding violence as long as possible. I convinced all of the various Pitaxian stakeholders to support my conquest; once done, I executed the drug-dealing thieves guild leader, turned the Academy management over to new blood, and reinstated the old nobility to govern Pitax. I fought both the Knurly Witch and the Wriggling Man, convinced Nyrissa to join with me, fought the Lantern King, and defeated him by relying on the strength of my kingdom. I turned down the offers of immortality at the end, severing the link between the Stolen Lands and the First World, and was an awesome queen for the rest of my life the end.

Favorite Companion: Amiri.
Favorite Romance: Octavia.
Favorite Voice: Linzi.
Favorite Main Plot: Troll Trouble.
Favorite Villain: Nyrissa.
Favorite Dungeon: Vordekai's Tomb.
Favorite Class: Alchemist.
Favorite Prestige Class: Arcane Trickster.
Favorite Spell: Legendary Proportions.
Favorite Summon: Barbarian spirits.
Favorite Weapon: Lots of great choices! I'll probably give the edge to Vanquisher, but the Unstoppable Khanda and Devourer of Metal are excellent, too.
Favorite Feat: Outflank.
Favorite Skillcheck: Persuade (Intimidate).
Favorite Enemy: Adamantine golem.
Favorite Advisor: Jubilost.
Favorite Building: Aviary.
Favorite Region: Toss-up between Tors of Levenies and Glenebon.
Favorite Project (Economy): Trade Agreement with Surtova
Favorite Project (Other): Land Defenders


Pathfinder: Kingmaker deeply impressed me. By about the 80% mark I was thinking that this was my favorite RPG since Baldur's Gate 2. By the 90% mark I was hating every minute of it and going for days without playing because the thought of yet another Wild Hunt fight bored me to tears. I'm very glad that I pushed through that rough slog, though. By the end they turned it around and stick the landing with a very satisfying final chapter.

Steam says that I've played this game for over 200 hours, which seems insane. I'm not sure that any game is worth 200 hours of our precious, limited lives; but if you're in the mood for a deep and complex fantasy role-playing game, this could be perfect for you! As I reflect back on it, it doesn't feel so much like an absurdly long RPG as like like 8 full-length RPGs that you're playing back-to-back, automatically importing the same character and progression along the way. I think that helps keep the pace and momentum a lot higher than you would expect, with nicely self-contained arcs and story beats throughout, which do finally all together in the end.

I did enjoy this enough to get in on the Kickstarter for Wrath of Heaven, and I'm highly optimistic about the sequel. Based on my scouring of the patch notes for Kingmaker between its initial release and when I started playing it, the team at Owlcat has been very receptive to feedback and made drastic improvements in the gameplay of Kingmaker, and it sounds like they're taking those lessons to heart for WoH, while also pushing forward with some major innovations (army combat, anyone?). Kingmaker was an insanely ambitious first game for a new developer and they accomplished something incredible with it, so I have very optimistic hopes for their next outing.

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