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Review in Progress #2: Misguided Player Agency

William Murphy Posted:
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A couple weeks back, we began our review in progress for Pathfinder Online, since it’s both a.) in early access, taking money and b.) not wiping progress anymore. The review will be going on hiatus for a couple of weeks while I review The Witcher 3, but nevertheless this week I have some additional thoughts as I make my way through Goblinworks’ sandbox MMORPG.

One of the chief points of sandbox games is to let players find out how and what to do in the world. Pathfinder definitely lends itself to that ideal, as once the first few tutorial quests are over, you’re basically left to your own devices to figure out where to go. That’s not to say there aren’t quests. In this early iteration, the game’s NPCs do offer objectives and essentially point you in certain directions that may be of interest to you.

You just won’t find a bunch of !’s and ?’s littering the landscape. While I do wish that PFO’s NPCs had a little a lot more life, there’s something refreshing about not needing to worry about quest hubs and instead just go explore the world.  But therein lies the problem I think I have with Pathfinder’s overall progression system. You don’t earn XP by doing things in PFO. You earn XP at an hourly rate for the life of your character, whether you’re online or off.

This sounds like a neat idea on paper, but in practice I find myself wishing it was only done for offline characters when you set up a series of things for them to do or train in while you’re offline.  I created Begud, my dwarf, at the game’s Early Access launch, and when I logged in again to start this review, I had way too much XP and nothing to really spend it on. PFO gates you from just spending all of that accrued experience by making you finish achievements in the corresponding skill.

Want to use those higher level spells and weapon skills? Better get to using them on mobs in the wild, effectively grinding through a bunch of kill quests, though the game won’t call them that.  I like the fact that this means players can’t just offline their characters and log in years later to be the best, but it kind of defeats the purpose of offline experience gain. In my own non-developer opinion, players should have to at least log in to set up what they want to train in, instead of just arbitrarily gaining tons of experience. 

I like that you have to use your skills to get better ranks, but there’s a disconnect between how you earn XP passively, and how you actively have to pursue making your character better. A middle ground would be offline skill level ups, if the player sets a training regimen, but it must be limited and players should have to log in and set up next skills to raise.  Sure it’s cool that I have all this XP to spend… but it’s a really moot point and a tad anticlimactic if I can’t really do anything with it yet. It’s a surefire case of great idea, bad implementation right now.

Now, I’d also like to touch on the open PVP aspects of PFO. I have yet to encounter anyone just out for blood. Most everyone is helpful and kind, and that’s what I’d expect from such a small close-knit community.  But if and when PFO makes it to a wider release, hordes of PK-ers will descend upon PFO. And that will make the River Kingdoms an annoying dangerous place. But, like all PVP games, PFO is not meant for the solo adventurer. If you want to keep your hide and your gear, you’d best bring friends.  That said, I’ll keep you posted on whether my experience so far changes. I expect it won’t, as PFO’s community is small enough that PVP really only affects those looking for a fight.  It’s not the wild west in PFO, thanks in part to safe zones and flagging, but it can still be a bit scary when you see an unknown PC on the horizon.

Now whether a Pathfinder game should even be open PVP is another story. I know what kind of game Ryan and his crew are going for, but even I’m skeptical that a tabletop dungeon-crawl IP should be turned into a PVP MMO. Sandbox games can be about PVE. I wish someone would try that one day.

When I’m done with Witcher’s review and make my way back to PFO, I hope to explore more of the world, tinker with the Holdings and Outposts system, and find out what draws the game’s hardcore fans to the River Kingdoms despite its rough current state. I’ll admit there’s an undeniable charm to the game as it stands, but man do I wish it was further along and more polished. It’s hard to really devote myself to the adventure when the combat is flaky and unresponsive as I mentioned last time. Two things are important in any game, and especially MMOs: combat and movement. Both have to be fun to play, and right now both are kind of roughshod in Pathfinder Online. Before anything else changes, that would be what I’d fix first.

Stay tuned in a couple weeks when I pick up our review in progress with part three.


William Murphy

Bill is the former Managing Editor of MMORPG.com, RTSGuru.com, and lover of all things gaming. He's been playing and writing about MMOs and geekery since 2002, and you can harass him and his views on Twitter @thebillmurphy.