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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

‘Donkey Kong Country’ – Still As Difficult, Demanding And Amazing To This Day

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Donkey Kong Country

Donkey Kong Country: 25 Years Later

Back in 1994, Nintendo was struggling with their 16-bit Super Nintendo Entertainment System, which wasn’t selling as well as they’d hoped it would. With the release of the Saturn and Playstation on the horizon, the Super Nintendo needed a visually impressive and original title to reinforce its market dominance. After three years of intense competition and heated rivalries, Nintendo desperately needed a hit that could prove the Super NES could output graphics on the same level as the forthcoming 32-bit consoles. They teamed up with Rare to produce Donkey Kong Country, a Mario-style platformer, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Donkey Kong Country is a game held in high regard and with reason. Monumental! Monstrous! Magnificent! Use any term you want, there’s no denying how important this game was for Nintendo and Rare. The graphics for the time were above and beyond anything anyone would imagine possible for the 16-bit system. For a two-dimensional side-scroller, Donkey Kong Country conveys a three-dimensional sense of dept. The characters are fluidly animated and the rich tropical environments make use of every visual effect in the Super NES’s armory. Each stage has its own theme, forcing players to swim underwater, navigate through a misty swamp, swing from vines, or transport DK using a set of barrels (cannons) to advance. And let’s not forget the mine cart stages where you ride on rails and use your quick reflexes to successfully reach the end. Every level has little nooks and crannies too, hiding secret areas and passageways that lead to bonus games where you can earn bananas and balloons, which you can trade in for additional lives. And in Donkey Kong Country, you’re not alone; your simian sidekick Diddy tags along for the adventure. You control one character at a time, and each has his own unique strengths. Donkey Kong can dispatch larger enemies with his giant fists, while Diddy can jump a little higher than his bulky cousin. It isn’t the most original platforming feature, but it works. The two heroes can also rely on various animal friends to help guide them through their adventure. Predating Super Mario World: Yoshi’s Island, Diddy and DK can also ride on the backs of Rambi the Rhino, Winky the Frog, Enguarde the Swordfish and more!

What’s really impressive about Donkey Kong Country is how it has withstood the passage of time. In 1994, Donkey Kong Country’s visuals were spectacular with its rendered 3D models, lively character animations, detailed backgrounds, and a lush jungle setting, and while some would argue the game is dated, in my eyes it still looks great to this day. Kong has heart, and he’s willing to show it in a game made with wit, excitement and moments of visionary beauty. Meanwhile, the soundtrack by David Wise is guaranteed to win listener’s over. Practically every piece on the soundtrack exudes a certain lyricism that has become a staple of Rare’s games – from its upbeat tropical introduction to the unforgettable climax which secures its place as one of the Super Nintendo’s most memorable boss fights. The result is an apt accompaniment to the colorful characters, tropical landscape, and tomfoolery that proceeds.

What really stands out the most about Donkey Kong Country after all of these years is just how challenging this game is.

But what really stands out the most after all of these years is just how challenging this game is. Donkey Kong Country is a platformer you can only finish through persistence and with a lot of patience. Right from the start, you’re in for one hell of a ride. In fact, some of the hardest levels come early on. There are constant pitfalls and Donkey Kong can only take a single hit before he loses a life. If your companion Diddy is following you he will take over but then if he takes a single hit you lose a life and it’s back to the start of a level. Needless to say, the game is unforgiving and requires quick reflexes and precise pattern memorization to continue. This game requires so much fine precision that it will definitely appeal to hardcore platforming veterans looking for a challenge and those that do are in for one hundred eighty minutes of mesmerization, astonishment, thrills, chills, spills, kills and ills. The only real downfall of Donkey Kong Country is the boss battles. Yes, Donkey Kong Country gave us some memorable villains such as Dumb Drum (a giant Oil Drum that spawns enemies after it hits the floor), and The Kremling King (who is responsible for stealing Donkey Kong’s Banana Hoard), but these enemies have very basic attack patterns and far too easy to defeat.

It’s one of the rare, great works of art that stands up endlessly despite repeated playthroughs, each time revealing something new.

Donkey Kong Country

Along with its two SNES sequels, Donkey Kong Country is one of the defining platformers for the SNES. The game looks great and sounds great and the platforming, while incredibly difficult, is still very fun. Rare did the unexpected by recasting a classic Nintendo villain as the titular hero and it paid off in spades. It’s one of the rare, great works of art that stands up endlessly despite repeated playthroughs, each time revealing something new.

The beauty of the original is that there’s more to it than the oversized gorilla. Donkey Kong Country is truly amazing!

– Ricky D

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Game Reviews

‘New Super Lucky’s Tale’ is Polished, Pleasing Platforming

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Streamlined, focused, and tons of fun, New Super Lucky’s Tale is a fantastic reworking for the Switch that absolutely nails the lighter side of Nintendo-style 3D platforming. Tight controls and a nearly flawless camera support running and jumping challenges which more often than not emphasize creativity over complexity, and it’s all set against a colorful, pun-filled, charming world full of quirky characters and light satire. Though the experience is not as epic or razzle-dazzle as something like Super Mario Odyssey, developer Playful has wisely trimmed the collect-a-thon fat that so many others in the genre employ in order to pad play time. The result lasts long enough to satisfy, yet also instills a fervent desire to see more adventures from its fearless, furry hero.

New Super Lucky's Tale carnival

In the fine tradition of its gaming ancestors dating back to the N64 days, the basics of New Super Lucky’s Tale revolve around acquiring arbitrary objects sprinkled through various stages in order to unlock doors and move on to the next area. This time it’s pages from the mystical Book of Ages, which contains the power to travel between worlds, and is the endgame of an nefarious cat sorcerer named Jinx and his gang of cartoonish thugs, the Kitty Litter. As part of a secret organization sworn to defending this kiddie-friendly Necronomicon knockoff, it’s up to Lucky to track down as many of these clover-embossed pages as he possibly can, and hopefully complete the book before his nemesis can get his claws on it.

It’s doubtful that the story will be what compels most players to keep going, and to that end, New Super Lucky’s Tale‘s simple setup also fits right in with its genre brethren. Still, Lucky is an amiable and upbeat fox to follow around, and Playful does an excellent job of surrounding him with a cast of gibberish-spouting weirdo goofballs that includes hayseed grub worms, supremely zen Yetis, loyal rock golems, and slick carny ghosts. Though their dialogue does little to drive any sort of narrative, it is endlessly amusing and often witty in its cheesy wordplay. In other words, the writing has a very Nintendo-like feel in its eccentricities that adds to the overall fun.

New Super Lucky's Tale factory

Those jokes would be less endearing without fantastic gameplay, but New Super Lucky’s Tale delivers some of the best running and jumping this side of Mario. Though this fabulous fox can’t quite match the plumber’s precision, Lucky does feel extremely responsive, and has a nice sense of weight and momentum that never feels out of control. He also comes out of the den with a well-rounded moveset, including a nifty double jump, a swishy tail (a la Mario’s spin punch), and the ability to burrow under ground. These moves can be chained together to create a satisfying flow both when exploring 3D stages and side-scrolling ones alike, and will surely inspire players to use them in creative ways in order to access seemingly out-of-reach spots.

And they’ll have to if they want to find all four pages hidden in each stage. New Super Lucky’s Tale requires a bare minimum of these leaflets to be found (and simply beating the stage merits one as a reward), but it’s in rooting around those nooks and crannies where much of the fun lies, and it gives the developer a chance to squeeze every ounce out of the unique mixture of environments they’ve created. From the assorted carnival games of a haunted amusement park to a beach party dance-off, there are a surprising amount of different things for Lucky (and players) to do here, with hardly any two stages ever feeling alike. One 3D level might task Lucky with casually exploring a farm as he gathers up the members of country jug band, while a side-scrolling obstacle course sees him dodging canon fire from an airship piloted by a feline Napolean. Some stages have a platforming bent, while others emphasize searching out secrets tucked away in mini puzzles.

New Super Lucky's Tale farm

It’s an absolutely delightful mix, and that sheer variety keeps New Super Lucky’s Tale fresh all the way through to the epic battle with fat cat Jinx himself. And though platforming veterans might find the overall challenge a bit too much on the friendly side, a few of the later bosses and and bonus stages may make that 100% goal a little tougher than it at first seems. And yet, it’s hard not to want to go back to incomplete stages or that block-pushing puzzle that stumped the first time around; the brisk pace and clever design will likely compel many players to find every scrap of paper out there.

No, Lucky isn’t the second coming of Mario, but there are few 3D platformers that offer such a polished, concise, joyful experience as New Super Lucky’s Tale. It may have taken a couple of efforts to get there (and for those who have played the original Super Lucky’s Tale, levels and bosses have been reworked here), but Playful has nailed a balance between creativity and efficiency that begs for more. 

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Game Reviews

‘Woven’ Review: Comfortably Soft and Lumpy

Despite those blurry visuals and stilted gameplay, there’s something endearing about this innocent elephant’s adventure.

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With a sincere warmth and fuzziness that conjures up dreamy recollections of 3D games gone by, Alterego GamesWoven mostly overcomes its blurry visuals and technical jankery to somehow create a pleasant, old-fashioned experience. Those excited by modern gaming probably won’t give this lovable hand-me-down a second look, and perhaps they shouldn’t; extremely simple actions and soothing narration support a fairy tale quality that’s probably best suited to younger players. However, anyone willing to look past the well-worn exterior in search of a relaxing break from stressful button pushing may squeeze more fun out of this familiar stuffed toy than they might originally expect.

Woven tasks players with taking control of a meandering patchwork elephant named Stuffy, and guiding him through a sparsely populated knitted world that seems to have met an untimely demise. Because Stuffy has cotton for brains, he is assisted on this journey by a much smarter metal firefly named Glitch (a reference to his role in this story?), who floats alongside the curious-but-clumsy plush toy and provides hints as to how he can use his various abilities. Together, this odd couple will traverse open plains blanketed with colorful yarn grass, maneuver around impassable felt trees and plants, and hopefully discover the secret of where Stuffy’s clueless kin have all gone.

Along the way, the duo will walk great distances (often without much event), solve the occasional environmental puzzle, and generally just keep on keepin’ on.Woven is mostly straightforward in its campaign, merely about getting from point A to B by whatever means the path requires. Most often this involves finding new blueprints that allow players to change Stuffy’s design from an elephant into a wide variety of other animal shapes, each with a set of abilities that come with a new set of arms, legs, and a head. For instance, while the stocky (and adorable) bear can push plush boulders and perform a mighty stomp, the goat and frog can both use their legs to hop, while the kitty cat is able to push buttons on rusted consoles that activate dormant machinery.

However, these abilities are usually only able to activate when context-sensitive prompts from Glitch appear, so don’t expect some sort of platforming freedom. Woven handles a bit clumsily in that regard and others; strolling is definitely the order of the day, as long as Stuffy doesn’t get hung up on the geometry.

But these actions do help provide variety; a tropical bird of some sort (toucan, maybe?) can sing certain notes, while a pelican-thing can fly (sort of) over land and shallow water with great speed. And so, it often becomes necessary in Woven to alter Stuffy’s look with a total reweave. These designs can be applied at various sewing machine-like stations scattered about, which go a step further than just swapping Stuffy the deer for Stuffy the ape. Each blueprint is comprised of five parts, allowing for players to create a Frankenstein Stuffy made up of all the best abilities the player has on hand (or cushioned paw). By mixing certain sets, Stuffy will soon be able to scale mountainside crags, cross piranha-filled rivers, and pick up industrial cogs without the need to make a pit stop and bust out new needle and thread.

Some truly hilarious (or horrifying, depending on your sensibilities) aberrations can be created; seeing Stuffy hobble on hooves as he flaps a wing on one side and swings a muscular gorilla arm on the other, all with the head of a squirrel, is freakishly entertaining. In addition, for those who like to wander off the beaten path, there are a plethora of knitting patterns to discover, tucked away in both obvious and devious locations (and denizens). These cosmetic enhancements can also be applied at the sewing stations, essentially giving players seemingly endless amounts of customization. And these aesthetic changes even get in on the puzzle act every once in a while, especially when a pesky cobra shows up.

But outside the odd ‘connect the power line’ or ‘raise and lower platforms’ objectives, Woven doesn’t throw much at players that even young children shouldn’t be able to handle — and that seems to be the aim. Stuffy’s adventure lives or dies on its wholesome and serene vibe, which players either buy into or they don’t. There’s no combat here, very little to actually do outside hunting down those patterns, illuminating some painted caves, and activating some of Glitch’s ‘memories’ contained by machines hidden in the soft folds. Ongoing narration is pleasant to the ears, often conveying old-fashioned morals and cutesy jokes, but there’s no more story than in a classic fable.

And make no mistake — though the world is certainly bright and cheerful, it’s also quite fuzzy around the edges. The tactile nature of the cloth textures is lessened greatly by the low definition (at least on the Switch version), eliciting memories of the Wii-era. An increased crispness would have really made the world of Woven pop off the screen, perhaps luring in a larger audience who have become accustomed to such. There is still plenty of charm, but it feels like a missed chance at that true magical feeling the game seems to be shooting for.

Other stumbles come when certain worlds try to open up a bit more, which might lead a younger audience to get frustrated by the lack of direction (especially when they keep getting hung up on that geometry!); Woven definitely works better when it’s casually guiding players along, letting gamers of all ages envelop themselves in the easygoing atmosphere instead of requiring tedious backtracking. There’s just something nice about sitting back and relaxing to hummable music, watching the roly-poly amble of a stuffed kangaroo.

Woven will not be for everyone; those who play for challenge or eye candy won’t find either here. And yet, despite those blurry visuals and stilted gameplay, there’s something endearing about this innocent elephant’s adventure. Woven certainly has its share of lumpiness, but somehow remains cozy regardless.

‘Woven’ is available on PC, Xbox One, PS4, and Switch (Reviewed on Switch).

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