Actually, Pathfinder: Kingmaker IS Bullshit

Here’s a bit of free (read: unsolicited) advice for anyone looking to get into the video game blogging racket: Seriously, give yourself enough time with a game to make sure you have your opinion of said game fully sorted out before taking to the internet to make sweeping declarations about it for all to see.

It’s been about three weeks since I examined Pathfinder: Kingmaker in this space, and back in those innocent, halcyon days, I saw fit to praise the game generally, but also take it to task for a variety of issues. Some of these issues are major (terrible early-game encounter balancing, compounded by the needlessly excessive difficulty of finding recruitable party members), and some of these issues are minor (an overwhelming surfeit of build options), and some of these issues are both major and minor at the same time (for the absolute last time – stop making tactical RPGs with a completely fixed camera perspective!). At the time, I felt I had survived the worst bits of the early game, and was looking forward to finishing up the first chapter and moving on to (theoretically) bigger and better things.

I completed the first chapter a day or so after publication, and I’ve barely touched the game since. The game pissed me all the way off again, and this time I fear that there shall be no reconciliation. I return to my own soapbox a broken man, ashamed to admit that I must use my platform to issue a corrective blog post and tell the world that, unfortunately, it turns out Pathfinder: Kingmaker is kind of bullshit.

I touched on this in my initial post, but Kingmaker‘s big gimmick is that, from the second chapter onwards, your main character is given a territory to rule, thus opening up an entire secondary game mode in which you manage your newly acquired lands. This struck me as a weird addition to the game; while I’m certain there’s probably a lot of people who are interested in both party-based, character-driven Western RPGs and base management-style strategy games, I had never heard any clamoring from anyone in any of my travels that would suggest there was much of a market for games that combine the two.

Then again, party-based tactical combat plus base management is a pretty apt summary of what the unimpeachable XCOM: Enemy Unknown is all about; perhaps, much like the dev team behind Shadowrun: Returns, the dev team behind Kingmaker figured that the more their game can be compared to XCOM at all, the better off they would be. Whatever the impetus was for smushing these two genres together may have been, it’s certainly not something I would have chosen for myself, seeing as I’m pretty alright at party-based Western RPGs but pretty crap at base management strategy games, but I went into Chapter Two of Kingmaker with an open enough mind, ready to meet Kingdom Management (as the game calls it) head on, and on its own terms.

So uh…yeah, about that. I’d be lying if I said that Kingdom Management is the sole reason I’ve bailed on Kingmaker (hold that thought), but what a mess of a mode it is, one that manages to underscore just about everything else I’ve found annoying and vaguely demeaning about the Kingmaker experience.

Kingdom Management is a sprawling, unruly beast of a game mechanic, but for the present purpose I’m going to break it down into three separate modes. The first of these is Building Mode. In Building Mode, you use Building Points (BPs) to, well, build villages in your kingdom. Each village has a set number of empty locations that can be filled with buildings. Each building type gives you some sort of bonus to a particular Kingdom Resource (Kingdom Resources include things like as Military, Economy, Culture, and so on), and certain buildings gain additional bonuses from being adjacent to certain other building types.

When I went into Building Mode, I actually had a pretty easy time of it, to my surprise and delight. Since I couldn’t build one of every building type available to me, I decided which buildings I wanted to start out, placed them in such a way that I would gain adjacency bonuses from them whenever possible, and fucked off to do whatever else during the seven in-game days it would take for most of the construction to get done. When I finished assigning building construction for the first time, I was well pleased. The Building Mode interface was intuitive, the Kingdom Resources were easy to understand (both in terms of what each one does and which ones are most important), and it was easy to get good building placements that gave me those sweet, sweet adjacency bonuses.

The second mode, hereafter referred to as Advisor Mode, is where things got screwy. In Advisor mode, you staff a cabinet – including positions such as General, High Priest, and Treasurer – from a pool of NPCs and playable party members. Naturally, some characters are better in certain advisory positions than others; each position is tied to one of the six ability scores (which, just in case you need a refresher course, are: Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma), and each potential advisor gets a bonus to that position equal to their modifier in the associated ability score. For example, Regent is a Charisma-based position, so a character with a +3 Charisma modifier gets a 3-point bonus if installed as Regent.

You would be forgiven for concluding from this that stocking the cabinet is a straightforward proposition. Find someone in the pool who gets at least a decent bonus at the position, then use that character to fill the position. But! For no readily apparent reason, you cannot simply grab anyone from the character pool to staff a position. The game only lets you pick characters for a position that have been deemed worthy to hold said position. There is no transparency to this process, whatsoever; the game does not tell you why characters are deemed suitable or unsuitable for a given position. However, it’s clear that simply having a positive modifier in the position’s relevant ability is not sufficient for worthiness. To make matters worse, the loading screen advice blurbs have made it clear that Treasurer is the most important position, and guess what? You don’t start out with anyone in the pool who can serve as Treasurer. I have a Rogue/Wizard with a +5 Intelligence modifier (naturally, Treasurer is an Int-based position) who, to the best of my knowledge, could do a perfectly fine job, but the game won’t let me install her as Treasurer, because…reasons. Great job, Kingmaker! Nothing about this is absolutely fucking infuriating!

The third mode is what I’ve decided to call Project Mode. Project Mode is a heck of a lot like Advisor Mode. You pick characters from a pool of NPCs and party members, but instead filling permanent positions, you assign them to complete a variety of odd jobs around the realm (for lack of a better term) – temple restorations and farming assistance and such. Again, the game decides for you who is suited to a project and who isn’t, so if you don’t have anyone available to do a given project you just have to deal with it (although blessedly, none of the initial projects appear to be time-sensitive). Anyway, Project Mode is fine enough I guess, but it still managed to piss me off. Late in Chapter One, I spoke to a priest who offered to build a temple in my first village for free. I had to pay for my temple in Building Mode, which I thought was weird but I figured it would sort itself out. Nope! Turns out, getting my free temple requires completing the Free Temple Project, which takes multiple days to complete and also, the Kingdom tutorial whisked me off to Building Mode and told me to start building before even showing me the damn projects! WHY!?!?!? Why are you like this, Kingmaker!? All of this stress is compounded by the fact that, if you make enough mistakes in Kingdom Mode, your Kingdom will collapse, and if your Kingdom collapses, it’s Game Fucking Over, regardless of how the rest of the game is going. No pressure!

Anyway, I need to move on and move on quickly, because while Kingdom Mode is indeed a confusing wad of pre-chewed strategy gaming gunge, my real frustrations with Kingmaker don’t even directly pertain to Kingdom Mode at all! Again, I acknowledge that base management isn’t really my thing, and heck, the game lets you disable Kingdom Mode entirely at the click of a button without penalty (beyond missing out on Kingdom-based achievements, but seriously, who cares). On the one hand that’s a very nice gesture from the dev team, as it acknowledges that the Venn diagram of players who want a party-based RPG and players who want a base management game is not a perfect circle. But, on the other hand, if you can disable Kingdom Mode entirely and not significantly alter the RPG part of the game by doing so, what’s the point of having Kingdom Mode in the first place? Why does it need to be in the game at all? What does it actually bring to the table? What, exactly, would the dev team say Kingdom Mode does here?

No, the real problem I’m having with Kingmaker is that, once Chapter Two starts, it doesn’t give you anything to do (except for Kingdom Mode malarkey). You’re shown Kingdom mode, you’re told that some bad shit is gonna go down at a nearby location in like, 45 days, and an NPC (one you’ve previously met) asks you to travel to a specific location, and asks that you travel alone; that is, just your main character by themselves, which is in no way extremely suspicious, and how dare you think otherwise. You’re also given a directive to find additional people to serve as advisors, and expand your kingdom such that you need to fill new advisory positions, but are given no directives, or even hints, about how you might consider going about such a thing. What fun!

I suppose you could explore the surrounding region – after all, that’s what you do in RPGs when you’re not sure what else you should be doing – but remember, it takes at least a couple days to make a round trip to basically any point of interest on the map, and you’ll be subject to random encounters during your travels, and while you’re not under an extreme time crunch at this exact point, you’re still under a time crunch! You have to be back in town once your construction is done to order more construction and manage your projects and so on and so forth. It’s not overwhelming pressure, but it is enough to disincentivize poking around to see what’s what for its own sake.

Nevertheless, I decided to start exploring nearby anyway, largely out of boredom and confusion. Actually, that’s not true; before I started exploring, I decided to trudge on over to this remote location where that one NPC told me to meet her. (Spoiler ahead!) Getting there in the first place was an endless ordeal. First, I had to unload all the stuff I didn’t need at my base, since my dwarf cleric is not strong enough to carry all of the shared party goods by himself. Thus, I pared my inventory down to however many scrolls and potions I could carry. But, my dwarf cleric is also not a skilled hunter and this location was three days away, so I also had to bring rations! Rations are heavy as hell and I would need six days’ worth at bare minimum, but with some creative inventory management I was able to free up enough carrying capacity to bring seven days’ worth. With that, I was just shy of my absolute carrying limit.

So, I set out, and immediately got duffed by a random encounter, as I ran into a group of bandits designed for a six-character party of 5th-level characters, not a single 5th-level character of any class, let alone one that mainly functions as support. Hooray! Eventually, I was able to sufficiently save scum my way through the three day journey without getting pantsed (and I’m sure we’re all familiar with how much fun and rewarding save scumming is), grumbling the whole time in bitter amazement that someone on the dev team thought this quest was good idea. When I got there, I was pleasantly tickled to learn that the obvious trap was in fact obvious, and my reward for slogging to this, the only real quest on my plate, was a fight with three monsters who I was too weak to take on by myself. Super cool!

Having wasted an hour of play time or three trying to complete such a stupid quest, I then started poking around nearby areas to see if I could find anything cool, or a side quest perhaps, or something. Alas, I could not. I don’t think “give the player at least one thing to do that they can do right now” is an unreasonable request, but it seems Kingmaker would disagree. The internet told me that, in one of the areas I poked around in, you can find a recruitable party member who can also serve as Treasurer, but this character will not appear for some amount of time after Chapter Two starts. Sure enough, I waited six in-game days, went back, and…the character still wasn’t there. Cool cool cool. So, I backed up my save to the end of that six-day wait, went somewhere else a couple days out that was also purported to house a character that is maybe a recruitable party member but is definitely a potential member of the advisor pool, and that character wasn’t where they were supposed to be, either.

This was the point where I decided enough was enough. I had more than my fill of Kingmaker‘s specific brand of horse shit. I stepped away, and have yet to return. If I do go back to it (and, let’s face it, I may yet do just that, because if 10-year-old me could suffer through Street Combat out of sheer boredom then surely 35-year-old me can find a way to have something resembling fun with Kingmaker, which has plenty of flaws but is nowhere near as awful as fucking Street Combat), I will first need to decide what to do about Kingdom Mode. Do I leave it on and tough it out at the risk of fucking it up so badly it causes a Game Over, or do I turn it off and give myself even less to do? Both answers seem kind of crap, turning me even further away from the game.

While part of me admires Pathfinder: Kingmaker for its ambition, most of the rest of me feels that ambitious game design is only admirable if the game does a good job fulfilling those ambitions. Kingmaker emphatically does not. The early game is needlessly frustrating (even by the standards of Western RPGs, where early game frustration is normal and expected), the quests are needlessly sparse and often under-designed, and the game throws a bunch of elements together without making any apparent effort to fit those elements into a cohesive, well-thought-out whole. This is a game that makes itself as hard to like as it possibly can, then doubles down on its own inaccessibility.

I said earlier that I find my experience with Kingmaker vaguely demeaning, and I’m not using that term lightly. (OK, maybe I’m using it a little lightly, but only a little. I try my best to take emotional abuse as seriously as I can, and while I’m not your supervisor I believe you should, too.) To the extent that Kingmaker, when taken as a whole, seems to have been designed with specific goals in mind at all, it was designed specifically to cater to what is almost certainly a very small niche of extremely, almost unthinkably dedicated hardcore players, and it does everything in its power to push away anyone and everyone who does not fit in entirely with this clique, or who finds their resolve to enjoy the game tested. It’s mean and it’s nasty and it demands you get on its level and deal with all of its half-baked bullshit. If you can’t handle Kingmaker when it rolls a 1, you don’t deserve Kingmaker when it rolls a 20, I guess. I wouldn’t know, I’m still waiting on that latter clause. So far, I haven’t seen it do better than maybe a 16. Remember, before playing Kingmaker, I had spent years waiting for this exact game (minus the Kingdom stuff), and I consider myself part of the niche of gamers the game is catering to, and I still feel the game has done everything in its power to get me to stop playing.

I thought I was in this niche, and I’m emphatically not. It’s too much, and odds are I’m either done with entirely, or will be soon enough. There’s another Pathfinder game coming out in September, subtitled Wrath of the Righteous, and for some (quite possibly perverse) reason I’m actually kind of interested in it. It seems to be all about killing a bunch of demons, and nothing in the advance materials I’ve seen for WotR to suggest it also wedges in any unnecessary secondary gameplay modes. In theory, this would leave only a bunch of quests and a bunch of (no doubt ludicrously difficult, because demons in Pathfinder are no joke) combat. I could almost get behind that, even if the battles are outrageously difficult; really, I could get behind it if it just shows some actual fucking focus instead of slapping a bunch of crap together without bothering to integrate any of it. Then again, even if WotR is a lot more focused, I’m willing to bet it will still have a fixed camera, so you still won’t be able to position your party exactly the way you want to.
Perhaps that will finally scratch my Pathfinder video game itch, but after this experience, I have no rational reason to be optimistic. I gave Kingmaker every chance I could, and in the end, I still had to walk away. It hurts, but I’m sure it’s for the best.

5 thoughts on “Actually, Pathfinder: Kingmaker IS Bullshit

  1. Clearly you can’t have a rogue be the treasurer, because there wouldn’t be any treasure afterwards. Duh…


    1. She’s CG, so presumably wouldn’t steal from public funds without a good reason. Also, this being post-3.0 and all, there’s no inherent kleptomania assumed as part of the class, and the character in question seems to have become a rogue less out of desire for treasure and more out of practical necessity.

      More importantly, my point is that you’re simply not given any reason(s) the game has for deciding this character can’t fill this position. Is it because rogues can’t be trusted around money? Fine, but f***ing tell me that! And again, I don’t see how that generalization holds water, here.


  2. Hi Rob,

    I just found your blog (through the tecmo bowl rankings – which are great by the way) and I’ve recently been replaying through Pathfinder: Kingmaker. I don’t agree with all your criticisms and praise here but I can see about 90% of it being true for 90% of people, which I would say is a pretty high degree of accuracy. I almost quit the game at the exact point you’re talking about (the bullshit quest to go solo to the nymph’s lair). I did it on my first run and ignored it on my second run – turns out it doesn’t really matter that much. Telling which quests matter and which don’t is hard in this game, but once you’re willing to not try to be a completionist and to just meander and enjoy the scenery I’ve found that the game gets exponentially more enjoyable. Also, that is the worst quest in the game hands down – it gets better.

    As a long time Pathfinder player I was really surprised at how accurately and deeply Kingmaker adapted the Pathfinder rule set. I do agree that if you’re not already a Pathfinder wizard that you’ll be confused as hell though. If I might make a suggestion, restart the game (yes seriously, even when you’ve put this many hours in) and just make your own PC’s as part of your party instead of the PC’s the game give you. I find it much easier to customize, manage, and build up a party like this when you have an idea in mind. Plus, any of your custom made PC’s can function as advisors in Kingdom Management mode (albeit at a -4 penalty, which more or less comes out in the wash if you’re min-maxing). This makes the Treasurer slot much easier to fill and helps as more advisor positions get unlocked. I think that Pathfinder: Kingmaker is NOT bullshit, but it takes some getting used to…

    Kingmaker aside, the true intention of this post is to ask if you’ve ever played the Temple of Elemental Evil rpg by Troika Games (RIP). I know you dogged on 3.0/3.5 in the last post, but I had the same opinion on those rule sets until all the interactions were automated for me through the computer. ToEE is the best adaptation of the 3.5 rule set I’ve seen yet. It came out in 2003, so there’s some inherent buggy-ness to it (as with all console games of that era), but other than that I think it’s a great way to replay the old 3.5 rule set without having to do all the math yourself. Would love to hear your review about it.

    Anyway, thanks for reading through this long post. I’m excited to follow your blog and see what comes up.


    1. Hey no problem, thanks for sharing your thoughts!

      To your point about hiring out party members, trust me, I wanted to do that very much, but it felt prohibitively expensive. When I first got to Oleg’s I figured I could maybe hire one new person to round things out, but I crunched the numbers and that would have left me broke. I would have loved to hire an entire party of people, but there was no way to afford it. Hell, I barely could by the time I did hire a paladin for extra front line oomph, and if memory serves I was near the end of Chapter 1 when I hired him. I don’t know if you’ve played Pillars of Eternity, which I had not when I wrote about Kingmaker (I picked it up later this summer and finished it last week), but Pillars has a very similar system of hiring party members, but the prices are much, much more reasonable.

      That’s one of my underlying beefs with Kingmaker; seemingly everything is as big a pain in the butt as it could possibly be, and while I was almost able to appreciate that eventually the whole game just broke me. It’s a shame, because Kingmaker gets so much of the little stuff right (I thought the general aesthetics, music, interfaces, and such are fantastic; I especially like how they designed the class tables, which made it easy to understand what each class gets when, making it relatively easy to plan out multiclassing builds), but I really do think the big picture gameplay design is a mess. I don’t think I can go back to it at this point, but I might give Wrath of the Righteous a shot if I can get it cheap. From the sounds of things, it does a better job of the big picture game design stuff.

      Anyway, to answer your question, I never played Temple of Elemental Evil but it is on my radar and I am intrigued. I’m not nuts about 3.5 in general but a lot of that is 3.5 as a tabletop system. 3.5 video games are a different kettle of fish, although I’m not nuts about 3.5 combat in real time with pause format; I can absolutely see myself getting into it, especially if the combat is turn-based which I think it is maybe? Anyway, perhaps if it’s on GOG or something I’ll pick it up at some point because I am interested.

      Liked by 1 person

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