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Game Reviews

Heavy is the Head: ‘Pathfinder: Kingmaker’ Review

Thanks to a successful Kickstarter, Owlcat games and RPG legend Chris Avellone have attempted to bring Pathfinder to the digital realm. Is this a throne worth sitting on, or just an imitation crown?

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Nearly ten years ago one of the greatest schisms in the Pen and Paper gaming world created the disparate games of Dungeons and Dragons 4e and Pathfinder. The former is often seen as the worst iteration of DnD to ever exist, while the latter is the fan’s reaction and an attempt to update the wildly popular Dungeons and Dragons 3.5e to resolve lingering issues. Since then Pathfinder has gained a solid following thanks to its popular and flexible rule set and it’s open-source nature, but it’s lacked the mass-market appeal that DnD had thanks to games like Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale.

Now, following in the footsteps of these greats, and thanks to a successful KickstarterOwlcat games and RPG legend Chris Avellone have attempted to bring Pathfinder to the digital realm. Is this a throne worth sitting on, or just an imitation crown?

Shockingly the story of Kingmaker starts not in a tavern, but in the great-hall in the middle of a gathering. You are an adventurer, created prior to the opening of the game, who’s answered the call to kill the bandit chief known as the Staglord and claim the Stolen Lands as your own fiefdom. Shortly thereafter the hall is attacked and you’ll need to fight your way out, making decisions and meeting various other adventurers along the way. Finally you’re let loose on the Stolen Lands and after battling the Stag Lord you’ll be in charge of your own little kingdom, dealing with problems like invading armies and what to do with old ruins you find.

The plot of Kingmaker is decidedly less involved than most CRPGs of this nature, although given the combination of gameplay styles that does sort of make sense. As expected nearly every conversation lets you make choices to affect the story, here painted mostly by the different alignments, with some options blocked out if your character doesn’t match that moral pattern. For the most part the individual stories are decently told, featuring a lot of memorable characters with plenty of backstory, although occasionally the background lore of someone might feel muzzle-loaded after they give your their life’s story in the first 30 seconds.

Occasionally storybook sections are used to display action that would be difficult in-engine

The big problem is that the plot almost completely dries up following the first major event of the game, specifically you claiming the Stolen Lands and setting up shop. Were the plot written on paper, at this point it’s put through the shredder and only one or two narrative strands remain. Recent games like Pillars of Eternity and Divinity 2 occasionally suffered from the same thing, but at least in those there was always something left of the main plot to push you forward. Here, if you don’t select the correct events from a backlog, the plot somewhat literally dries up and disappears.

Sometimes Kingmaker just seems to suffer from the Fallout 4 issue of dialog choices, being that you have an option to say yes, an option to say yes differently, an option to say yes as an asshole, and an option to say no and cancel the quest. A good example of where this really falls apart is an early encounter with some slavers, who offer to fight you or buy a companion. Choosing to fight them is incredibly difficult as they’re more powerful then your party is at the time, so you’ll need to sell a companion, which weakens you in further encounters till you get them back. There’s no option to pay the slavers off, scare, or coerce them away, or even send them to easier prey, and its a striking moment showing a lack of depth in the player agency.

That lack of agency carries on, too. Far too many of the quests don’t have multiple outcomes, although some of them offer alternative means of completion. It’s weird to see this step backwards, especially since that’s something that’s been intrinsic to the genre for a very long time. Occasionally you will be allowed to make a bigger choice, especially when you unlock the town-management aspect of the game, but your choices only rarely seem to have any major effect, to the degree that some seemingly major choices in the introduction can immediately be undone a few hours later with no repercussions.

Traveling around the map is done by moving from intersection to intersection, revealing more of the map as you go

Gameplay also shows a lack of innovation. As expected you spend the majority of your time pointing and clicking your party of up to 6 adventurers through different locations, fighting and looting and interacting with people, places, and things. The whole thing is very familiar to genre veterans and anyone coming from Pillars of Eternity will feel right at home. If nothing else what the game does get right is the player feedback, particularly with the UI, with little tooltips offering hints, as well as descriptions and explanations for every item and concept.

However, where the game really takes a step back is in its rigidity. Like Baldur’s Gate this is a game firmly rooted in the rules of its tabletop counterpart, which was fine in 1997 when we didn’t know better. But recent games like PoE2Torment: Tides of Numenera, and Divinity Original Sin 2 have shown what can be done when digital RPGs remove the tabletop element. The answer is really great things, and returning to that rigid format feels frustratingly slow at times.

Where this is most obvious is the ability-heavy classes – particularly magic users. In PoE2 or Divinity OS 2 mixing in casters with martial focused characters feels good because casters can be used pretty regularly, with their abilities either per-encounter or just on a cool-down. Kingmaker returns to the older style of giving casters a set amount per-rest, which means that if you use up all your abilities in a single fight you now need to sleep for 8 hours before going back to work. In a table-top setting this works better, first because there’s much more freedom in how you can use many spells, and second because in most cases you’re only going to be doing 1-2 fights during a normal session. In a video game though, the desire is to constantly move forward, and that’s totally hamstrung by relentless resting.

Weather effects like storms can have an effect on the battlefield, slowing everyone down

Resting itself has a different element to it. Instead of simply taking a nap you’ll need to assign the party tasks to complete, like hunting or foraging for food, preparing meals, or standing guard. The skills of your party members somehow affect this, although it can sometimes seems random, especially when your chef has +8 but fails to make a simple meal every time. It’s these mechanics that give Kingmaker the feel of less of a cRPG and more of a simulator of a tabletop game, albeit without the randomness that the human imagination can bring to it.

If there’s one major standout issue though it’s easily the balancing of the game, which is all over the place. While traveling around the map you’ll often be stopped by random encounters, and these don’t appear to be leveled to your character at all. You could be stopped by a few goblins which are easily dispatched, or stopped by skeleton lords that wipe you out in two hits. Not that the actual levels are much better. The fight with the Staglord is a good example, as you’ll need to battle a small army before attacking him, which likely means you’ll need to take out small groups of enemies, sleep for 8 hours, then move forward again. And this happens constantly throughout the game, once again slowing things down as its held back by its tabletop rules.

Finally there’s the actual king-part of Kingmaker. After a few hours you’re put into control of your newly captured lands and you’ll need to manage the city while assigning tasks to your various cohorts. This is anything from setting up the town fair to researching into where demonic spiders are popping up from, and occasionally this opens up new quests to complete in-person. The whole thing is just OK, but like what we saw in Ni No Kuni 2 it’s mostly a side attraction to the main game.

Combat is often totally overwhelming as you battle groups far larger than your own

Graphically Kingmaker looks really good for the grenre. The amount of detail in the various character models as equipment is added or changed looks great and there’s plenty of work done on both your party and the NPCs of the world. Enemies and monsters look the part when compared to the reference art in any old bestiary book and there’s plenty of visual feedback on spells and attacks. The levels are very well crafted and the mood and tone of each location is done really well.

The audio work is similarly praise-worthy. While not boasting a full voice cast – understandable given the budget and nature – what is here is mostly pretty good. The environmental sounds do a good job of creating an ambience but the real winner is the soundtrack, which does an excellent job of fitting into the world. Again, spells and attacks have a lot of feedback, and overall this is a very technically well presented game.

Pathfinder: Kingmaker would have been a great game, a perfect homage to Baldur’s Gate or Icewind Dale that carried on their legacy… if it had only come out 4 years ago. Unfortunately it didn’t and what did come out in that time have been some of the best games in the genre that have seriously pushed the boundaries forward, specifically further from the constrictive rules of the tabletop games. As it stands Kingmaker just doesn’t hold up in comparison to its contemporaries, and the more you play it the more likely you’ll find yourself desiring to return to these other games. There’s something here for hardcore fans looking for another adventure, but anyone who hasn’t experienced some of the other games mentioned here may want to look there instead.

Andrew Vandersteen has been watching movies and playing games since before he could do basic math, and it shows. But what he lacks in being good at things, he makes up for with opinions on everything nerd culture. A self described and self medicated audiophile and lover of anything and everything really, really terrible, he's on a constant quest to find the worst things humanity has ever published. He's seen every episode of The Legend of Zelda, twice, and thinks the Super Mario Movie was a war crime. When he's not playing games or writing about them, he's messing around with audio or fixing computers. Perpetually one paycheck short of breaking even, and always angry about something.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Zuken

    April 3, 2019 at 10:56 am

    Maybe this is less a case of P:KM not holding up to recent games and just not being your thing? I couldn’t stand D:OS2 partly because of that shield mechanic and partly because it didn’t hold to PnP elements. Same with PoE2, even in 1i was bothered by the incomprehensible calculations for crit rate and accuracy.

    I enjoy playing at the table top, but I come to cRPGs when I don’t have any games currently running at the table and I’m looking to get that experience, or an approximation, in a single player campaign. Maybe that’s just not what you want? To me this is the best cRPG out since BG2:EE, though granted I haven’t played tides yet.

    Your commentary on game balance hits the mark though.

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Game Reviews

‘Coffee Talk’ Review: The Best Brew in Town

Coffee Talk is as quaint as your local coffee shop. It’s relatively short, wonderfully sweet, and absolutely committed to the art form of telling a story through a video game screen.

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It’s 9:00pm. The rain just started coming down softly a few minutes ago, and the street outside is reflecting the lights above it. Neon signs shine brightly in the distance, although it’s hard to make out the words. You unlock the doors to the coffee shop and wipe down the counters in order to get them clean for the customers. The rain makes a soft sound as it hits the glass and passerby speed up their walking pace to avoid it. The bells chime as a tall, green orc walks in and sits down at your table in silence. You wonder what their story is…

I wanted to set the tone for this review because of how important atmosphere and audio/visual design is in the world of Coffee Talk. While it’s easy to boil the game down as a visual novel-type experience, it’s honestly so much more than that. A unique cast of characters, incredible user interface, and a mysterious protagonist combine to form the most enjoyable experience I’ve had this year on Switch.

Coffee Talk
Some of the subject matter can be pretty serious in nature…

Coffee Talk is beautiful because of how simple it is. The entire game takes place within a single coffee shop. As the barista, you’re tasked with making drinks for the patrons of the shop as well as making conversations with them. The twist is that earth is populated with creatures like orcs, werewolves, and succubi. The relationship between the various races is handled very well throughout the story, and some interesting parallels are made to the real world.

Making drinks is as simple as putting together a combination of three ingredients and hitting the ‘Serve’ button. If a unique drink is made, it will be added to a recipe list that can be referenced on the barista’s cell phone. This is where the awesome user interface comes in, as the phone has a series of apps that can be accessed at any moment in the game. One app houses your recipe list, another acts as a facebook for the characters in the game, one allows you to switch between songs, and the other houses a series of short stories that one of the characters in the game writes as it progresses. It’s one of the coolest parts of the whole experience and helps it stand out from other games in the genre.

Coffee Talk is as quaint as your local coffee shop. It’s relatively short, wonderfully sweet, and absolutely committed to the art form of telling a story through a video game screen.

Coffee Talk cycles between talking with customers and making drinks for them. In the beginning, they will ask for basic beverages that can be brewed on the fly. Later on however, they may ask for a specific type of drink that has a unique title. These drinks often have certain descriptive features that hint at other possibilities in terms of unique dialogue. If the wrong drink is made, you’ll have five chances to trash it and make a new one. If the wrong drink is made, don’t expect the customer to be pleased about it.

The gameplay really is not the focus here though; it’s the characters and their stories that take center stage. An elf with relationship issues, a writer that can’t seem to pin down her next story, and an alien whose sole goal is to mate with an earthling are just a few of the examples of the characters you’ll meet during the story. There are tons of memorable moments throughout Coffee Talk, with every character bringing something unique to the table. The barista develops an interesting relationship with many of these characters as well.

Coffee Talk
Appearances can often be deceiving in this game.

Even though serving the wrong drinks can change some of the dialogue, don’t expect any sort of options or branching paths in terms of the story. It’s not that kind of experience; the story should simply be enjoyed for what it is. I found myself glued to the screen at the end of each of the in-game days, waiting to see what would happen in the morning. The first playthrough also doesn’t answer all of the game’s questions, as the second one is filled with all kinds of surprises that I won’t spoil here.


Coffee Talk is as quaint as your local coffee shop. It’s relatively short, wonderfully sweet, and absolutely committed to the art form of telling a story through a video game screen. It’s an easy recommendation for anyone who loves video games, not just visual novel fans. There are characters in the game that I’ll certainly be thinking about for a long time, especially when the setting brings out the best in them. Don’t pass this one up.

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Game Reviews

‘The Touryst’ Review: Vacation, All I Ever Wanted

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There’s an acceptance of a certain rhythm when traveling alone: often an itinerary-less trip will be filled with quiet solitude and uneventful meandering; yet, when those exciting moments of interaction and discovery are inevitably stumbled upon, they tend to be of the highly memorable variety. The latest offering from Shin’en Multimedia, The Touryst, shrewdly captures this relaxing, energizing roller coaster. It’s a quirky little getaway that encourages players to explore its gorgeous voxel island delights at their own pace, letting them bask in the peaceful surroundings and doling out treasure for those curious to seek it out. The result is a soothing weekend sojourn of puzzles, platforming, and mini games under the sun that is also winds up as one of the best indies on the Switch.

There’s no doubt that atmosphere plays a big part in what makes The Touryst so successful, as the vague setup and sparse narrative casts a mysterious aura over the proceedings. Who our mustachioed vacationer is or why he agrees to find glowing blue orbs for some random old man is pretty much left to the imagination. Is the player curious about what they could see and find out there among the green palm trees, sandy beaches, monolithic temples, and sky blue waters? Then they will follow their nose regardless of the lack of any story motivation, and The Touryst has sprung its trap. The urge to see the sights and have an adventure is a must here, and so the wandering begins.

Luckily, The Touryst is filled with charming things to stumble upon around almost every corner, be that a scuba diving boat operator on a Greek isle that facilitates swimming with the fishes, a seaside dance party in need of a hi-tech energy boost, or a bustling business center complete with an arcade, art gallery, and movie theater (for those times when you just need to sit down for a while). Personality abounds, as long as friendly players aren’t shy about talking to strangers (the best way to get the most out of a trip to a new place). No matter where one’s feet take them, there are plenty of mini-stories at play thanks to the native inhabitants and fellow tourists, with these weirdos offering interactions both puzzling and profitable.

But there’s more to life than racking up coins via side quests; there’s something eerily odd buried beneath the tropical destinations of The Touryst that beckons to be uncovered by just the right explorer. Towering mounds filled with ancient devices and clever puzzles hold secrets that promise that this vacation will be one for the scrapbook. These short ‘dungeons’ are the meat of the game, providing a variety of platforming and logic challenges that range from overt to opaque; sometimes even finding the way in to these ominous structures is a puzzle in itself, which only further drives an overarching sense of discovery.

Smartly, The Touryst rarely telegraphs solutions to its tests (or in some cases, that there even is a test), and instead encourages experimentation. Inside temples, players need to determine why certain lights are glowing and others aren’t, understand how sequences work, pay attention to rumbling feedback, and decide just how to deal with once-dormant mechanical creatures that now awaken to stand in the protagonist’s way. Things can seem opaque at times, but Shin’en has managed to hit that sweet spot that keeps poking around from getting too frustrating. But just in case, there are plenty of beach chairs and cabana beds to lie down on and think. Or, just soak in some rays and enjoy the scenery.

Regardless of the difficulty players may or may not have with the crafty puzzles or surprisingly challenging mini games (good lord, surfing and those 8-bit arcade throwbacks can be tough), The Touryst is still a sight to see. Shin’en has created a buttery smooth island-hopping environment that is a pleasure to peruse. Go off the beaten path and enjoy the gorgeous sunsets, gently pixelated waves, crunching grains of sand, and flopping flora. The visuals seem so simple, yet at times can be stunning to behold, especially when spotting some of the smaller details that have been added to make these place come alive. A depth of field style entices players to see just what that blurry landmark off in distance is, and the soundtrack seamlessly shifts between relaxing and intriguingly uncanny. That developers have achieved this with what are surely the shortest load times on Nintendo’s console makes the experience all the more immersive.

Like most vacations, The Touryst is destined to be over too soon for some players, but trips like these aren’t meant to last forever. The five hours or so it takes to see all there is to see is highly satisfying throughout, and the vague hint at the end of a followup will have many Switch-owning puzzle fans looking forward to getting future time off.

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Game Reviews

‘Shovel Knight: King of Cards’ and ‘Showdown’ Review: Really Spoiling Us

It’s a Yacht Club Games overdose this holiday, as the Kings of Kickstarter are back with two new entries in the Shovel Knight franchise.

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It’s a Yacht Club Games overdose this holiday season, as the Kings of Kickstarter are back with, not just one, but two new entries in the Shovel Knight franchise. Not content with just releasing another new character’s twist on the original formula, Yacht Club has also developed their own fighting game in the Shovel Knight universe. It’s to the developer’s credit that two simultaneous releases can be of this quality, but valid questions can also be asked as to whether the original formula has gotten stale, and whether Showdown’s new concept does the series justice. Fear not, for both questions will be answered in this bumper, two-for-one review!

Shovel Knight: King of Cards

King of Cards is the latest re-tread of Shovel Knight, and this time the emperor’s new clothes are the regal duds of King Knight, who is on a quest to become the greatest player in the kingdom of the card game Joustus… without really having to beat that many people at it. After the stoically heroic Shovel Knight, the dastardly cunning Plague Knight, and the broodingly enigmatic Spectre Knight, King of Cards’ protagonist embodies an enjoyable dose of pompous entitlement. His quest isn’t all that noble, and he really can’t be bothered to do a lot of hard graft to reach his goal. Thanks to the typically witty script, King Knight shines as a loathsome oik who doesn’t pay attention to any advice he’s given, and would rather have a fight, or cheat, than actually get better at Joustus.

Shovel Knight
This a late-game bout of Joustus, which shows how complex it can get.

Joustus might not really be all that important to King Knight, but it adds an entirely new element to the traditional Shovel Kinght gameplay. Those players who are a sucker for built-in card games (myself included) will find a lot to enjoy when stepping away from all the platforming and fighting to engage in a round of Joustus. The game is played by placing cards, one at a time, onto a grid with the goal of having more of your cards placed on top of gems than your opponent.

All cards contain abilities and can be used to shove opposing cards out of the way (and off the gems), with advanced cards used to blow up, slam or recruit those of the other player. It all starts off simple enough, but can get really brain-taxing as the story progresses, and grows to be a real highlight of the game – and one of the better card-games-within-a-game I’ve played. Cheat cards can be bought to give you a leg up for trickier opponents, especially as the winner of each game gets to take one (or three if you control all gems at the end of the round) card from the loser.  

Shovel Knight
Platforming at its satisfying best. Y’know, without actually touching the platforms.

Outside of Joustus, King of Cards will feel pleasingly familiar to fans of the series. As in previous entries, the levels all share the same look and gimmicks as the original Shovel Knight, but are reshaped to adapt to the new abilities of King Knight. He has a shoulder barge attack that launches him forward, across gaps if need be, and will send him into a spin on contact with enemies or certain types of walls and blocks. This spin move acts very much in the same way as Shovel Knight’s shovel pogo attack, and allows King Knight to bounce around levels with impressive finesse. Anyone who’s played Shovel Knight before knows the drill now – try and clear every screen by chaining together as many bounce attacks as you can. It’s the law.

Shovel Knight
Familiar foes return, but the way you deal with them is the same!

It also wouldn’t be a Shovel Knight game if there weren’t a ton of unlockable moves and buffs. Amongst the best unlocks for King Knight are a Tazmanian Devil-esque tornado spin that allows him to climb walls and smash up enemies, a hammer that produces hearts with each wallop for precious HP, throwable suicide bomber mice, and the ability to stand still and have a big ol’ cry to regain HP. Something we can all relate to.

The world map returns, and is in its best guise in King of Cards. Levels are now a lot shorter than you’d expect – there’s typically only one checkpoint in the non-boss levels – but there are a lot more of them, and a large number have secret exits to find. They’re interspersed with the multiple opportunities to play Joustus, and with the seemingly random appearances of traditional Shovel Knight bosses who show up, Hammer Bros. style, on the map to block your progress. It makes for a really tight campaign that’s filled with a ton of variety.

The floor is literally lava!

It seems almost arbitrary to say, but if you like Shovel Knight and you’re not tired of the standard gameplay, there’s so much to enjoy with King of Cards. He’s probably not the most fun character to play as (for me, that’d be Spectre Knight), but his game is easily the most diverse. He’s just such an enjoyably unlikeable idiot that you’ll constantly be playing with a smile on your face, bopping along to the classic Shovel Knight chiptunes, pogoing around levels and pausing for the occasional game of cards. Who could ask for more?

Shovel Knight Showdown

Who likes Shovel Knight boss fights? Everyone does, right? How about fighting three of them at once in an amalgamation of Smash Bros. and Towerfall? It’s as chaotic as you’re imagining, and seems like a total no-brainer as a second genre for Yacht Club to transpose their blue, spade-loving hero into.

What seemed like an obviously smart move doesn’t necessarily play out in an ideal way. The one-on-one fights in Showdown are as tightly-contested and entertaining as ever, but the multi-man rumbles are absolute mayhem. There are a few different stipulations applied to fights, and these typically involve simply whittling down your opponents’ lives, or depleting their health bar to briefly kill them off and steal any gems they’ve collected from around the level, with the winner being the first to an assigned number.

Shovel Knight
I found it best to just try to escape in every multi-man level.

Standard fights are more enjoyable, as the simplicity of smacking seven shades of snot out of the competitors keeps things manageable amongst the cacophony of onscreen visual noise. The gem-collecting levels, especially with multiple opponents, are frankly a bit of a mess that I rarely found enjoyable.

Perhaps I’m just not very good at Shovel Knight boss fights, but the game felt overly difficult even on the normal setting. Playing story mode often sees your chosen character up against three opponents on the same team, and when it comes to collecting gems from around the level, they’ve got way more of the space covered and you barely get a chance to breathe with them swarming you from the word go. It’s basically an exercise in getting wailed on while you try to run away and scramble for gems, and it’s just not that fun.

If the whole game were 1v1 I’d have more fun, but it’d be a bit pointless and unsubstantial.

What does add a layer of fun to the game is the chance to play as the complete ‘Knight’ roster of Shovel Knight characters, and the best part of Showdown is learning new moves and trying to find your ‘main’. Perhaps, with more time to sit down and learn the move sets in the practice mode, the game would feel more rewarding than if you just jump in and try to slog through the chaotic story mode as I did.

With a four-player battle mode as the only other gameplay option, Showdown was clearly never meant to be anything other than a brief little curio to give fans of the series’ boss fights an overdose of what they love, but as a complete experience, I found it lacking in both modes and reasons to keep plugging away at the arcade fighter-style story mode. It turns out that the boss fights in Shovel Knight are more fun at the end of a platforming level rather than in the middle of enclosed space filled with flashing lights, random effects, environmental hazards, and three bastards all chasing you down. If you can handle all that stress, you’ll have a much better time than I did.

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