You may be wondering where my (Bill Murphy’s) review is for Pathfinder Online. As I mentioned a while ago in a comment, I just can’t bring myself to play the game anymore, and I don’t feel I’ve given it enough time to really put a score on it. So, like a boss, I’m torturing our own Steven Messner with the task of going in with fresh eyes to see how he feels about the game. Read on for his own first impressions and more of my reasoning behind switching writers.
As I said in one of my review in progress pieces, I know and like Ryan Dancey as a person. Being the CEO of Goblinworks, I’m beginning to feel like I’m too close to the game to give it a fully unbiased review. That said, flat out, if I were to score it today? I’d probably give it in the lower half of the “Out of Ten” scale we use. Still, I want Steven, someone completely new to the game and thorough as a writer to give this one a look. In about two weeks he’ll give us his final review, and we’ll see where he ends up. I have a sneaking suspicion that he won’t be far off from what I feel. But you can read so for yourself below.
Steven Messner’s First Impressions
If playing EVE Online has given me one thing, it would be sympathy for the brutal first impressions a sandbox game can make. They are often overwhelming experiences that, for better or for worse, throw you into the deep end and expect you to swim. Pathfinder Online, by Goblinworks, is no exception. But, unlike my time spent wandering the stars in EVE Online, there is no majesty or wonder, no sense of scale that inspired me to dig deeper. Instead, my first several hours roaming the desolate stretch of the Riverlands was merely confusing and, ultimately, boring.
The comparison to EVE Online wasn't made to merely make a point. In many ways, Pathfinder Online takes plenty the ideas championed by CCP Games spacefaring MMORPG and translates them into a fantasy setting. There are no rigid levels that define the relative strength of a character, the world map is largely open to being controlled and contested by a variety of player-made factions, and setting tangible goals to guide your time spent in the game is largely up to you. Of course, when you learn that Ryan Dancey, the CEO of Goblinworks also spent three years as CCP Games Chief Marketing Officer, the vision behind Pathfinder Online begins to make sense.
But unlike EVE Online, Pathfinder Online is far from finished. In fact, despite already charging players a hefty subscription fee of $15 USD a month to play—not to mention the $1 million that was received via a successful Kickstarter campaign, Pathfinder Online feels like a husk of a game with barely anything worthy of the subscription fee. Goblinworks is calling it Early Enrollment, a phase of development that allows players to buy in and help give feedback on the game. Their emphasis here is, understandably, on developing the foundation rather than making it look pretty.
For starters, it should be no surprise that a game this early in development is lacking almost entirely in polish of any sort. Menu systems look laughably archaic, including a character creator that requires you to use drop down boxes to view the different options from a rather limited set. If you're hoping to tap into your inner pen and paper nerd by crafting the ultimate avatar, you'll be sorely disappointed in Pathfinder Online's paltry options. Furthermore, in game systems are barebones at best, with many sorely needing fine tuning.
When I first arrived in the Riverlands, the wide expanse of land waiting to be explored and conquered by players in Pathfinder, it was obvious that this was a game not for those looking to be awed by high fidelity graphics. The forest I spawned into was as off-the-shelf as they come, lacking any particular inspiration in its design whatsoever. In fact, most of what I saw in Pathfinder Online seemed to replicate the same feeling: haphazardly slapped in place without any personality stitching the greater world of the Riverlands together. The settlements and cities that dot the all too barren stretches of the Riverlands don't evoke any of the scrappy personality of Pathfinder's spinoff roots.
Characters, like the jumble of motionless automatons in the settlement near to where I spawned, are lifeless, typically only serving as glorified ways to interact with the crafting or leveling interface. The handful of tutorials I progressed through helped me understand basic functions, like equipping armor and spending my experience points to earn new feats, but Pathfinder has a habit of dumping information into your lap without much instruction on how to use that information effectively. Though I read the tutorial screens multiple times, I would still be at a loss to adequately describe the various systems like feats and keywords. Let me just say this: if the idea of reading 40 pages of beginner's guides doesn't seem like fun, I won't blame you. But that also is a tragedy because once I began to grasp these systems, I also glimpsed a bit of what lies at the heart of Pathfinder Online, and, honestly, I like what I see. Combat is deeply nuanced and original, forsaking the era of hotkey rotations for a system that requires thoughtful use of abilities that exploit various states you can place your foes in.
The leveling system is also staggeringly robust. In a similar vein to EVE Online, every hour you earn a set rate of experience points that you can then spend on feats that augment your character both actively and passively. Though the system obviously benefits veterans over new players, the lack of levels also leads me to believe that, like EVE Online, a newer player isn't inherently a worse player.
But my problem, as it stands with the several hours I've invested thus far, is that any glimmer of hope I can see in Pathfinder Online seems buried under just how incredibly underwhelming it actually is. Even when I began to embrace the nonlinear nature of Pathfinder, the whole experience was so terribly dull that I can't recommend it—especially at the steep price of $15 a month.
Quite frankly, I resent the way Goblinworks is handling their "early enrollment" period of the game. Their beginner's guide would have you believe that, by participating in this stage and giving Goblinworks money to develop the game, that you are somehow receiving the benefit of peeking behind the curtains to experience the wondrous sight of watching an MMORPG be built from the ground up. But nothing have I seen so far has given me any such reaction. At its best, Pathfinder Online seems to have some interesting ideas guiding it. But those ideas, unique as they may be, are hardly worth the price and trouble of dealing with a MMORPG that can barely stand on its own legs. Some games lend themselves well to the idea of "early access" and crowd-development, but Pathfinder Online has me thinking that it is simply not one of them.
That said, sandboxes are incredibly deep games that, like I mentioned, can make horrible first impressions. They rely heavily on emergent content and player experience, and I am far from writing off Pathfinder for good. I have only just joined an in-game company, Pathfinder University, who specialize in introducing new players to the game and helping them get started, which will hopefully give me my first true taste of what Pathfinder Online is all about and get me involved in the more social aspects of the game like PVP.
I want Pathfinder Online to succeed in its ambitious aspirations, but at this time I am deeply skeptical that the game will ever reach them. But as the Goblinworks has saw fit to charge money to enter the game, I feel compelled to render my impressions based on what is available and not what potential there may be. My final review of Pathfinder Online will be turning up in the coming weeks, but as it stands, I wish I had more positive things to say. Simply put, Pathfinder Online feels years behind in any aspect, and any remarkable core element it might have is overshadowed by how unpolished and unfinished so much of it seems to be.