Rule your own kingdom in Pathfinder: Kingmaker, an old-school RPG inspired by the classics of the genre.
If you’re familiar with Infinity Engine RPGs, playing Kingmaker is like slipping into an old pair of boots. The muscle memory I developed playing Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale came straight back to me: Backspace to select the party, space to pause combat, R to rest, tab to highlight objects in a room. The game wears its influences on its sleeve, and even has lauded scribe Chris Avellone on writing duty—but, hey, what Kickstarter-funded RPG doesn’t these days? The game begins with a band of misfits, yourself included, being challenged to conquer and name themselves baron of a territory called the Stolen Lands. The story gets more complicated and you will eventually reach the point where you can construct your own barony. Other than that, this is as standard as CRPGs get, with monsters to slay, dungeons to crawl, and lots of dialogue to read.
Kingmaker is based on Pathfinder, a tabletop RPG released in 2009 as a response to the divisive D&D 4th Edition ruleset. This means the combat, like Baldur’s Gate and its ilk, is based around rolls of virtual dice. On lower difficulties you can almost play it like an RTS, clicking your way to victory, rarely pausing. But nudge the difficulty setting a notch higher, and strategic use of abilities and spells is essential. This is a brutal game in places, to the point of feeling unbalanced, which developer Owlcat is addressing with a barrage of hotfixes and patches.
And yes, there are companions too, each with their own personality, motivation and alignment. Amiri is a chaotic neutral barbarian. Linzi is a chaotic good bard who chronicles your adventures. Jaethal is a neutral evil undead elf with a morbid attitude towards mortality. And if your actions conflict with any of the 11 available companions’ personal beliefs or alignments, they’ll confront you or leave the party altogether. When you create a character you choose their alignment, but it can change over time depending on the choices you make. There’s a lot of nuance to the conversation system, and as you might expect, this is a game where you spend a lot of time talking to people—from chats with townsfolk to life-or-death parleys. In the prologue you’re accused of several misdeeds and have to defend your actions, which is a nicely constructed demonstration of how people will respond to you based on their alignment.
Similar to Pillars of Eternity, some of the story takes place on the pages of a book. These interludes are well written and illustrated, and offer a way for the writers to show you things beyond what the game’s top-down perspective will allow. These also incorporate checks for your party’s skills, which can alter the course of the story. The writing in the game is in general solid, but a bit flat compared to the rich, evocative prose seen in games such as Pillars or Torment— which are, admittedly, hard acts to follow.
As for managing your barony, you can be as hands-on as you like. It’s possible to automate this part of the game, but do it manually and there’s a lot to get involved in. You can give companions jobs, and their alignment will dictate how they approach the role. You can draft trade agreements with other towns, or even pillage them. You can construct buildings, all of which grant income. It doesn’t have the depth of a management sim, but it does set Kingmaker apart from other games in the genre.
There’s a lot to like in Kingmaker, and it’s clear its developers have a passion for the Infinity Engine era of PC role-playing. But it hasn’t grabbed me as firmly as those classics, or recent examples of the genre’s resurgence such as Divinity: Original Sin or Pillars of Eternity. The story, visual design and setting offer little I haven’t seen before. It just didn’t beguile me as much as I’d hoped. It used to be hard to find a good CRPG on PC, but now we’re spoiled for choice and Kingmaker doesn’t quite stack up with the best, even if it does get a lot right and throws a few neat new ideas into the mix.
This is a brutal game in places, to the point of feeling unbalanced