I've found the secret hideout of the Stag Lord, the big bad of the opening arc of Pathfinder: Kingmaker and I'm preparing my party of six adventurers for what's likely to be the hardest battle of the game so far.
But we're not alone.
Just outside I met up with a bandit I'd spared in a previous quest, many hours earlier. She's brought her own party, and has agreed to help me with the fight ahead. And after sneaking into the Stag Lord's camp, I spoke to one of his generals, and managed to convince him to betray his master and join me in the coming fracas, thanks to a lucky roll on a diplomacy check.
Yes there are dice rolls and stat checks aplenty, for this is effectively Dungeons & Dragons under another name (Pathfinder having forked from the D&D ruleset several editions ago). Anyone familiar with the classic Infinity Engine games of the '90s (Baldur's Gate, Planescape Torment, Icewind Dale), or the modern re-emergence of the genre (Divinity: Original Sin, Pillars of Eternity), will instantly grasp the basics.
Those unfamiliar with Pathfinder, D&D, or any of the aforementioned games (and Pathfinder: Kingmaker is aimed squarely at people with experience of one or more of them), may struggle at least initially with.... well all of it.
Take character generation for instance. This is a good litmus test of how much you're likely to enjoy the game. Do you want scores of options and specialisations? Do you want to select your own stats, special abilities, spells and feats? Or would you prefer just to pick a hat from a choice of three and set off? If the latter, this is not the game for you.
Even for those of us with a good working knowledge in all the right areas, character generation can be mildly bewildering. What exactly does an alchemist do in combat? How does a sorcerer differ from a magus or wizard?
There are tool tips which give contextual help on these questions and others, but frustratingly they failed to pop up most of the time for me, a problem which has since been patched.
To be fair, if in-depth character creation isn't your thing, there are several pre-built characters to choose from, and you can even go for partial customisation by selecting your race and class, and letting the game fill in the rest.
Squashing bugs and swarms
Back to those bugs and the patching process. The game has been criticised since launch for its bugs, though we haven't found them to be too problematic, nor even especially common. Besides the tool tip issue, the game still warns us that "First time loading may take several minutes" even after more than a week of play.
Other bugs widely reported across Reddit and various forums have largely been squashed by the many patches released over the last week or so; no one can accuse developers Owlcat or not listening, nor taking their responsibilities seriously.
Similarly, some early difficulty spikes have been smoothed off by the patching process. Perhaps the most notorious of these are the spider swarms encountered in a cave in an early side quest.
Responsible for much rage quitting, and the obligatory howls of frustration online, the player is now treated to some sensible NPC advice on how to defeat them, just at the right time (hint: try some AOE attacks).
The game also has an excellent variety of difficulty settings, which go way behind the usual 'Easy, Normal, Hard, Insane'. You can customise just about every aspect of its challenge, including enemy health and how much damage they do to the player's party. Given that some fights remain tricksy even for experienced players, this is a real boon.
But is it any good?
Overall though the game is a joy to play. Yes it's similar to others in the recent rennaissance of the Baldur's Gate-like genre, but we found it somehow slightly more engaging.
The story, and the way it unfurls is strong, serving to draw the player in early on, and keep them hooked with just enough tantalising detail to make you want to see more.
The other notable feature is the empire-building element, which takes the stronghold missions part of Pillars of Eternity (itself built on the foundations laid by Baldur's Gate 2's class strongholds), and fleshes it out. Now you don't just manage a castle, but an entire region, with all the income, perks and troubles that sort of administration should come with.
In this way, as in many of the others, Pathfinder: Kingmaker doesn't shake up the genre, but rather it builds on what has gone before, and comes together in a surprisingly engaging way. We've found ourselves eager to see more of the game, and have enjoyed our time with it.
If you're a fan of any of the similar games we've mentioned already, or just like the idea of a deep adventure well told, then this is well worth a look.
Now we're off to have another go at that Stag Lord, turns out he's a tough nut even with all the help we've managed to accrue along the way.
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