Pathfinder: Kingmaker Review - IGN (2024)

A great tabletop campaign requires a special understanding between a dungeon master and their players. The players supply their creativity and enthusiasm, and in return, the DM provides a fun story, fairness, balance, and, perhaps most importantly, a well-designed adventure. Pathfinder: Kingmaker takes as mighty a swing at capturing that tabletop experience as any game I’ve played, mostly delivering on giving you the tools to fulfill the player’s side of that deal. But when it comes to upholding the DM’s end of the bargain, it falls short.

Pathfinder: Kingmaker takes the sometimes byzantine rules of its tabletop source material and translates them soundly. It adopts one of Pathfinder’s most treasured Adventure Paths as the central story. Clinging tightly to the source material was a good design decision as it ends up oozing authenticity, which is attractive and exciting in the early hours.

But an authentic recreation of the Pathfinder experience suffers tremendously without the guiding hand of a Dungeon Master. Simply put, Kingmaker doesn’t feel properly balanced.Its dungeons are mostly poorly designed trapfests stuffed with monsters to kill and little else of interest to do, and several of its core systems conspire less to keep things interesting and more to keep progress slow. The combat encounters, dungeons, and additional mechanics like kingdom management are flawed, uneven, and wildly divergent in quality.

In an early sidequest, you encounter an enemy type that may very well defeat a party that doesn’t have the appropriate method, or knowledge, on hand to beat it. In a tabletop campaign, a good DM could present an interesting alternative to prevent the frustration of a complete party wipe at the very start of the evening. In Pathfinder: Kingmaker, the party just dies, and often does so repeatedly.

Cleaving and Casting

I fought too many battles in Kingmaker on repeat. My characters weren’t poorly designed or built, because I still found myself powering through many encounters well enough. My worst defeats, the kind a tweak in strategy or methodology couldn’t save me from, came from being ground down by long dungeons and hordes of enemies that applied “permanent” debuffs that could only be removed by resting. Without rations, there is no resting in these labyrinths, and watching my very limited supply of rations dwindle became a doomsday clock. I stayed in some dungeons for hours, slogging through the same encounters and situations, dying again and again, only to conclude that I just didn’t kit out properly or bring enough supplies. Thus, I had to abandon all progress and load a save where I could re-provision before giving it another go, wiser and considerably more annoyed.

This is a shame, because Kingmaker does a great job of portraying the pen-and-paper abilities of a Pathfinder character. Having a powerful wizard let off a salvo of mighty arcane artillery blasts fills the screen with a well animated fireworks display, and figuring out how to use melee fighters and other support classes together effectively can create exciting moments. Combat in Kingmaker is good-looking and expansive, and, when the encounter is worthy and the party is fresh enough to fight to something approaching its peak strength, quite fun. It’s frustrating that other unnecessary mechanics and poor encounter design often jarred me out of its otherwise solid isometric RPG combat.

Uninteresting and frequent delays become moments of boredom far too often.

Getting from dungeon to dungeon, or area to area, has pitfalls as well. Traversing the world map means literally waiting for your party to move across it. It means waiting for it to load, watching your party move at a snail's pace across the impressively sized map, and stopping very regularly to fight or rest. These uninteresting and frequent delays become moments of boredom far too often.

Thankfully, the Pathfinder experience has some rewards for the patient. Notably, the story is very, very good -- one of the better I’ve played in an isometric RPG. It leans into the high fantasy trappings of the setting, with magic and monsters and mystical curses, while also bringing a healthy political dynamic to the proceedings. The story of a lowly adventurer ascending to nobility and dragging a backwater barony with them to glory could easily become stale if there was nothing more to the plot, but Kingmaker throws quite a few unique and interesting stories at you over the course of its roughly 75 hour campaign.

The pacing can be disjointed by numerous delays, but Kingmaker’s story maintains a sense of weight and variety. Your barony feels like a fledgling state in its birthing pains, under assault from within and without, and it doesn’t take much at all to become invested in its survival as greater, shadowy forces scheme for its destruction. Diving into the main quests as they arrive and the many, many side quests and errands available rapidly presents an avalanche of content.

Settling the Stolen Lands

I’d have preferred a little less to do, truthfully, or at least the opportunity to do it all with the in-game clock being less of an enemy. At one point I had to let nearly a year of my barony’s time tick by, stopping only to put out fires along the way lest my kingdom crumble to unrest, before a new chapter of the main storyline triggered. It was in these moments that some of my sidequesting felt burdensome, and the amount of random events slamming into my fledgling state felt overwhelming.

I’d hone in on the story, then have to watch my barony bleed from a thousand cuts as an avalanche of event cards and crises diced it up. Taking a myopic view of the most pressing matters threatening the barony can lead to certain side quests expiring because they weren’t addressed in time. The clock always felt like my enemy, and I felt pulled in many different directions. That certainly feels like being the ruler of a troubled infant state, but getting beaten over the head with a deluge of never-ending problems is less a cool feature and more a source of stress and aggravation.

11 Screenshots from Pathfinder: Kingmaker

You have complete control over building your barony, from choosing which buildings to put in its towns and cities to appointing advisors to deciding how to respond to threats and challenges as they spawn. Early on, I found myself spending too much time on construction and questing, only to see my barony literally crumble without much warning hours later because of choices I didn’t know were wrong at the time. It can be fun being the lord of the manor, receiving visitors and events in the throne room and deciding how things should be run, but sometimes having to tend to my holdings lest they literally burned down while I was away became a drag on the story. You can adjust the difficulty of kingdom management to alleviate some of the pressure, and there is an auto-management mode ostensibly present to provide an option to wash your hands of kingdom management, but the one time I tested it out, I ran into a bug that broke my ability to progress.

Kingmaker is not above throwing more crises at you then you can possibly handle, leaving the events screen of my Kingdom management inundated.

Taking the reins of the kingdom doesn’t guarantee a better outcome. Kingmaker is not above throwing more crises at you then you can possibly handle, leaving the events screen of my Kingdom management inundated. You solve one problem, only to see two more take its place, or see an advisor fail a critical task you set for them. Watching my hard-won progress in statebuilding erode while I literally had no options left to stop the stability hits brought about several game over screens for me; I even reloaded a save and willfully surrendered two hours of progress just to reverse my decision to spare the life of a certain creature. Killing it was completely against my moral alignment, but I needed to avoid the repeating migraine and kingdom cancer that creature became later.

The characters themselves are a highlight of the experience. Character creation is delightfully deep and complex, as faithful an import of a tabletop creation process as I’ve ever encountered. The sheer amount of information present and mechanics to worry about might overwhelm the incurious and inexperienced, but as a Pathfinder fan and a lover of tinkering with RPG character creators, shaping my protagonist and his allies was an absolute treat.

This is a life or death matter. A poorly optimized character who hasn’t been making good decisions during their level-ups will run into serious difficulty. While there is no perfect template, there are some wrong ones, which may graduate the experience on Normal or Hard from very difficult to nigh-impenetrable. I found Hard mode to be almost masoch*stically difficult, and Kingmaker doesn’t hold hands as far as its nuts and bolts are concerned. Surviving long enough to experience the famous Pathfinder power creep is a great reward for the time spent in the character screen. After grinding to level 15 or so, and after some of the difficulty present earlier in the experience, suddenly being able to kick wholesale tail as my character build finally came together was extremely satisfying.

I encountered some unfortunate technical issues that were warts on my experience with Kingmaker. Load times are fairly long for an isometric RPG of this sort, and the framerate dips during fights where the screen fills with enemies and activity. I suffered several ill-timed and unfortunate crashes during transitions between areas. As I played post-launch, bugs were patched and hotfixed often, technical performance did significantly improve, and some new features were added (like an “invincible kingdom” difficulty option that would have been nice to have from the start), but Kingmaker still felt a bit unstable and under-optimized. In a large story with a ton of delays already built into the experience, the time I spent dealing with these issues was most unwelcome.

Kingmaker soars when your party is comfortably exploring its gorgeous map before the ticking Kingdom clock arrives, conversing with other characters that shows off its well-written dialogue, and participating in storybook cutscenes a la Pillars of Eternity that read like a high fantasy novel. It just suffers from a few too many design flaws to stay airborne. Without the guiding hand of a human brain across the table, Pathfinder: Kingmaker has wildly inconsistent difficulty, balance problems, and a lot of technical frustration. The kingdom building is a promising idea, with well written scripted events and interesting town-building, but comes with excruciating low points, with damaging events coming at times faster than they can be beaten back, and some buggy execution of its quest-related events. I had some fun playing Kingmaker, and it delivered an authentic tabletop experience in terms of both the feel and the mechanics, but it suffers for that commitment as much as it shines.

Pathfinder: Kingmaker Review - IGN (2024)


Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Jeremiah Abshire

Last Updated:

Views: 5773

Rating: 4.3 / 5 (74 voted)

Reviews: 81% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Jeremiah Abshire

Birthday: 1993-09-14

Address: Apt. 425 92748 Jannie Centers, Port Nikitaville, VT 82110

Phone: +8096210939894

Job: Lead Healthcare Manager

Hobby: Watching movies, Watching movies, Knapping, LARPing, Coffee roasting, Lacemaking, Gaming

Introduction: My name is Jeremiah Abshire, I am a outstanding, kind, clever, hilarious, curious, hilarious, outstanding person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.