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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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Pathfinder Kingmaker Review

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

‘AVICII Invector Encore Edition’ Review: Rhythm and Melancholy

‘AVICII Invector: Encore Edition’ is a music and rhythm game perfect for newcomers and fans of the genre.

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AVICII Invector Encore Edition Review

Developer: Hello There Games | Publisher: Wired Productions | Genre:  Rhythm | Platforms: Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Steam | Reviewed on: Nintendo Switch


In terms of a pure adrenaline rush, nothing tops a well-designed rhythm game. Good rhythm games let players feel a euphoric sense of flow and even excitement. But the best the genre has to offer taps into the heart of music itself. AVICII Invector Encore Edition is a rhythm game perfect for newcomers to the genre but also works as a moving tribute.

I can’t tell where the journey will end
But I know where to start

Whether it’s tapping buttons in time with the beat, smashing feet on a dance pad, or moving an entire body in front of an IR camera, rhythm and music games have always been popular. AVICII Invector Encore Edition takes inspiration from music games that came before it but stands firmly on its own. It’s wonderfully accessible, truly a music game for anyone. From diehard fans of the rhythm game genre to people who are simply AVICII fans who also have a console, Invector checks a lot of boxes.

Levels across AVICII Invector play largely the same. The player picks a track and a difficulty level, and is off to the races. They control a slick spaceship moving forward along a track, and must tap or hold buttons as the ship passes over them. This “falling jewel” style has been popular from the Guitar Hero franchise and beyond, but Invector finds ways to make it feel unique. The art direction is breathtakingly stellar, taking players on far-out trips through cyberpunk-esque cities and crumbling pathways. There are even portions of each level where the player can steer their spaceship Star Fox-style through rings and around pillars to keep their point multiplier up.

Invector feels like it’s trying to affect as many sensory inputs as it can. Though Encore Edition is fully playable on handheld mode on Switch, Invector shines brightest on a big screen with a thumping sound system. The neighbors might get annoyed, but who would hear them complaining?

Tracks are divided up by worlds, with four to five tracks each. Worlds must be cleared sequentially, by scoring at least seventy-five percent on each level in that world. While this may sound initially restrictive, Encore Edition gives players access to two extra worlds with five tracks each right out of the gate, so players have plenty to play with at the start.

There are three difficulties available, and each mode offers a different experience. For players who just want to experience AVICII’s music in a low-stress way while enjoying amazing visuals and ambiance, Easy mode is the way to play. Anything above that amps the difficulty up significantly, with Hard mode escalating the required precision to an unbelievable degree. Building up a competitive high score can only be achieved by hitting multipliers and keeping a streak going. At higher difficulties, Invector feels challenging but exhilarating. Scoring above ninety percent on any difficulty mode above Easy feels extremely good, and the online leaderboards are the perfect place to boast about that achievement. During high level play, earning a high score feels transcendent.

Worlds and levels are strung together with brief, lightly-animated cutscenes. It’s a slim justification for a rhythm game, but they’re better than nothing and provide just enough context to keep things interesting. AVICII Invector is both visually and aurally pleasing, but even if the player isn’t a diehard fan of EDM or House music, there is plenty to love.

This world can seem cold and grey
But you and I are here today
And we won’t fade into darkness

AVICII Invector is a truly fantastic rhythm game. But it’s also more than that. It is impossible to play Invector and not feel a twinge of melancholy. The game is a tribute to a hard-working perfectionist, but the man behind the music had his demons. Though the visuals are enticing and the gameplay electric, it is difficult not to feel sad from the opening credits. It is to Invector‘s credit that all throughout, the game feels like a joyful celebration of Tim Bergling’s music. It is a worthy tribute to a man who revitalized and reinvigorated the EDM and House music scene.

At the end of the day, almost every aspect of AVICII Invector reflects a desire to connect. For players connected to the internet, global leaderboards are a great opportunity to share high scores. Invector is much more forgiving than Thumper or Rez or even anything in the Hatsune Miku catalog. Players can cruise through this game on Easy mode if they want, and they won’t be punished. The Encore Edition even includes a split-screen multiplayer, which is fantastically fun.

In his music, Bergling worked across genres to expand what pop music could look like. With Invector, music lovers and players of nearly any skill level can have a pleasing experience. In video games, that’s rare, and it should be celebrated.

According to publisher Wired Productions’ website, all music royalties from AVICII Invector Encore Edition will support suicide awareness through the Tim Bergling Foundation.

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Game Reviews

‘Tamarin’ Review: Monkey Trouble

Like Yooka-Laylee before it, Tamarin flounders in its attempts to recreate its source material for a more modern audience.

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Tamarin Game Review

Developer: Chameleon Games | Publisher: Chameleon Games | Genre: 3rd Person Shooter/Platformer| Platforms: PlayStation 4, PC | Reviewed on: PlayStation 4

You have to be of a certain age to recall a game like Jet Force Gemini. One of Rare’s one-off titles of the N64 era, like Blast Corps, Jet Force Gemini never earned itself a sequel but was a fun sci-fi adventure for its time. It’s this same energy that Tamarin, from Chameleon Games, attempts to channel.

Made up of former Rare staff, the folks at Chameleon Games are almost certainly the best team to make an attempt at rekindling such a long dead franchise with their spiritual successor. However, as can be the case with retro throwbacks, sometimes it’s better to ask whether you should bring back an older style of gaming, rather than if you could.

As we’ve seen with games like Yooka Laylee and Mighty No. 9, it often seems that the idea of an older game or franchise being resurrected for modern audiences is better to imagine than to actually play. While the occasional Bloodstained does come along to buck the trend, more often than not we get a game which is too faithful to its sources to make a mark or too different to rekindle that old love and nostalgia.

All of which is to say that Tamarin, while very faithful to its inspirations, never quite hits the mark that brings it to the next level. Part of this is the natural aging process, particularly of the first era of 3D platformers and adventure games which spawned on the PlayStation and Nintendo 64. While many of the games of that generation packed in endless hours of fun, so too have many of their mechanics aged terribly.

Tamarin Game Review

This accounts for Tamarin‘s weakest point, which is undoubtedly its combat. The shooting sections of the game, while channeling another Rare franchise that balanced cuteness with cartoonish violence, are just so mechanically terse that they drag the game down egregiously each time they crop up.

Like with Jet Force Gemini, players will spend much of Tamarin battling troubling insectoid enemies that threaten the peace of all of civilization. Also like the game which was such a clear inspiration for Chameleon, Tamarin brings back the clunky 3D aiming reticle. Not only is the shooting janky here, it feels downright unwieldy when you first get your hands on a firearm.

Though players can get the hang of it with a little effort and some reworking of how they see shooters, there seems to be little point in doing so. Tamarin‘s braindead AI and sparse few enemy types make combat feel like much of an afterthought to the experience, despite how central it is to progressing through the game.

To be fair, Tamarin does also bring some of the good from its spiritual forebear. The gradually growing arsenal of laser guns and rocket launchers does feel fun to play with, and the game is peppered with plenty of upgrades for the guns along the way. Sadly, then another of the Space Invaders style mini-games will pop up and derail things all over again.

Yes, there is a strange reference to yet another long gone gaming franchise here. Unlocking certain doors requires players to start from the center and aim the analog stick around firing at hovering, shifting rows of bugs. Again, it feels very unwieldy, and by the end most players will simply settle for spinning the analog stick wildly while firing with the machine gun for maximum ease.

Fortunately, more successful are the platforming sections. Making up the other side of Tamarin‘s coin, is a game more inspired by Banjo-Kazooie and Donkey Kong Country 64 than anything else. As players travel through the outside world, gathering collectibles and gaining new abilities as they go, Tamarin shows much more variety than its combat sections.

With clear cues marked on the terrain to denote which areas require upgrades or new abilities to traverse, Tamarin is generally able to point you in the right direction across its world, though a map or minimap would help matters considerably. Though the game is split into many separate areas, they often look so similar that it can make the game hard to navigate and harder to remember where previous markers were for exploration. Even a rudimentary map feature would make this far less of an issue.

Alas, the exploration flounders on occasion as well. Jumping sometimes feels a bit too flighty and can even break the game at times, allowing players to jump off of surfaces they shouldn’t be able to normally. Further, the need to hold down a button and press another to grab certain collectibles is totally unintuitive and is another feature that seems to be more or less pointless.

As such, for all of it’s cute mascot spiritedness and lovingly attributed influences, Tamarin ultimately falls short in bringing back some of the best franchises of yesteryear. Though the effort is a valiant one, Tamarin, hampered by the flaws of the games it attempts to emulate, is just too clunky in its execution.

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Game Reviews

‘Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles Remastered’ Review: Some Games Age Like Milk

Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles Remastered fails due to problems that existed in the original title, as well as flaws in this remastered edition.

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Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles Remastered

Developer: Square-Enix | Publisher: Square-Enix | Genre: Action-RPG| Platforms: Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Mobile | Reviewed on: PlayStation 4

There’s a bit of a storied history between Nintendo and Square. Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles Remastered is an important part of that history. Or rather, the original version, released in 2003, was.

While it might seem to younger gamers like Square-Enix and Sony have always been close, Square had a different best friend for much of the 80s and 90s: Nintendo. Though a rift developed between them when Square opted to focus on CD-roms rather than cartridges for Final Fantasy VII, that rift only lasted for about 6 years. The game that signalled the end it? Well that was a new release exclusively for the GameCube: Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles.

Though Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles was released to relatively positive reviews 17 years ago, the game has not aged well. The quest of a caravan of crystal bearers to refill their crystal’s power and protect their homes from a deadly miasma, Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles Remastered fails due to problems that existed in the original title, as well as flaws in this remastered edition.

Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles Remastered

The first, and most considerable, problem with the game is that the quest at the heart of Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles Remastered is tedious and repetitive. Players ostensibly go from area to area on a world map, exploring uninteresting towns and beating lackluster dungeons. If this wasn’t enough, players are also forced to replay these levels over and over again in order to gain enough upgrades for later levels.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: all RPGs ask players to level up in order to succeed. You’re not wrong, it’s simply the structure of levelling up that makes this experience so trying. The only way to level up in Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles Remastered is to beat the entire level again. Players are not rewarded experience for killing enemies but instead can choose one stat to upgrade each time they complete a level. What this means is that every tiny upgrade to your character can take 10-15 minutes at a time to get.

This wouldn’t be as trying on your patience if simple, basic flaws in the game weren’t so egregious. Hit detection is incomprehensible at times because, even when your character seems to be standing right next to an enemy or boss, they often fail to connect their attacks. Even worse, rather than mapping different attacks to the face and shoulder buttons, players must cycle through them one at a time, with the attack button standing in for defense, magic, healing or food consumption.

Of course, much of this has to do with the format of the original game. Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles was meant to be played with link cables and Game Boy Advances connected to the GameCube. Each player would have a different bonus displayed on their GBA screens and, as such, players would work together in local multiplayer, aiding each other with their unique screen information as well as their combat skills.

Naturally the GBA had only two face buttons and two shoulder buttons, hence the layout. However, it’s been 17 years, and it’s pretty egregious that Square-Enix didn’t even think of giving players an option to rework the button layout. Doing so would make combat much more dynamic and help to fix the often clunky feeling of battling the game’s monsters.

Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles Remastered

Adding to the tedium are unskippable cutscenes all over the game. Every single time players challenge a boss, they are forced to sit through the same cutscene introducing the boss. Further, there are random events that occur on the world map which are also unskippable, even if they’re repeats of events that the player has already seen. Haplessly tapping the confirm button to skip through dialog that we’ve already heard should not be an issue in a game released in 2020.

These flaws were mostly a part of the original release as well but what’s the point of remastering a game if you haven’t fixed anything? Even the visuals in Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles Remastered have failed to receive much polish. The game looks murky and fuzzy rather than sharp and clear. If Square-Enix could clean up Final Fantasy VIII for its gorgeous remaster, what stopped them here?

This is without even mentioning the loading times, which are frankly absurd for a game nearly two decades old. Again, it seems that getting this remaster out the door trumped quality control for Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles Remastered, which does nothing to help the game’s case.

Though the game is markedly more fun when players join you to take on a level, even the online connectivity has serious issues. To make matters worse, if a player chooses to use the multiplayer, they’ll have to carry a chalice around themselves if no one joins them, picking it up and putting it down all through the level.

Since single player has an AI character who will carry it for you, this option could be easily added to multiplayer, disappearing when (or if) someone actually joins you. This would allow the structure of the game to remain static regardless of whether someone joins your game or not, instead of making the game harder if no one decides to pop in.

While game director Araki Ryoma has promised to address the issues with Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles Remastered, the game has aged so poorly that, even without the flaws of the remaster, it’s hard to recommend it to modern audiences. Sad as it is, some games are better left in the past. Such is the case with Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles.

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