Tabletop iconoclasts had reason to rejoice this month when Owlcat Games announced they were making a single-player PC version of fantasy role-playing game, Pathfinder. A few days later, the team announced the game's upcoming Kickstarter campaign which will fund as many “extras” as they can stuff into it. Called Pathfinder: Kingmaker, the game promises the kind of rich role-playing experience tabletop gamers have come to expect. But what does that mean, exactly? We met with Narrative Designer Chris Avellone (of Planescape: Torment and Fallout 2) and Creative Director, Alexander Mishulin, and they were happy to explain.
Game demos a mere nine months in development generally have a functional but ugly interface and a short chunk of rough-looking gameplay. The Kingmaker demo by contrast, was an amazingly polished, three-to-four hour-long “vertical slice” representing the complete second chapter. We began by choosing a male Sorcerer. Character creation wasn't available during the demo, but Owlcat said players will be able to choose among seven races and eleven classes taken straight from Pathfinder's core rule book.
Whatever character you choose, your future holds a series of perilous adventures and tough decisions. Chapter two showed our hero in a captured bandit lord's fort, resolving disputes among his newly-acquired subjects. These gave us the chance to establish the tenor of our rule, either by supporting the populace or looking out for ourselves. Avellone said the game allows you to evolve your kingdom, as well as select and assign advisors to govern parts of it. He also said your kingdom changes depending on your policies. And while your advisors can give you insight into what various decisions will mean for your kingdom, it's important to learn how to interpret their advice.
“You're playing this secondary personality game with them,” Avellone says. “So [you have to ask yourself] wait a minute, I know this guy is very, very cautious, almost to a fault. Is he really offering me good advice?”
First impressions from in and around the bandit lord's fortress; the game looks incredible. The in-progress menus are attractive and orderly, the environments lush and vivid, the character portraits appealing and refined. What voice acting there was, was convincing and professional. One of our favorite features was the collection of tool-tip style pop-ups lore-hounds can use to fill out their Pathfinder knowledge base. Having them makes perfect conceptual sense since Owlcat's goal is to remain true to the Pathfinder franchise while giving players more insight into the Pathfinder world. Along with accessible lore, the team's plan is to expand upon the best Pathfinder moments through companion interaction.
As an example, during the demo we encountered a cantankerous gnome called Jubilost, whom Avellone describes thusly: “He's kind of a jerk, but he's your jerk.” Avellone went on to say, “He's smart and he knows a lot of the lore of the region so we made him a companion character. One aspect [of expanding upon the Pathfinder world] was interweaving the companions into the storyline. The second was, you've got all these NPCs and characters from the original adventure path. [We looked for ways] to move them around to create new situations, so people who've played Pathfinder say, 'I recognize that guy and now I see why he does what he does.'”
Anyway, when we encountered Jubilost, kobolds were attacking, and his cart was stuck in a river. We stepped in to help, first taking out the kobolds. Combat in Kingmaker is real time (but can be paused to make decisions) and with its auto-AI or micro-managing options, is reasonably accessible. Kobolds defeated, we used our high Perception to maximize the looting. (High Perception reveals hidden loot as well as containers and points of interest that low-perception players can't see.)
Post-plunder, we tried to rescue our gnome friend's cart. Using the skill system, which lets you come at problems from different angles, we tried to use Intellect to save the day. Kingmaker let us know which character was likeliest to succeed, but even with that inside knowledge, our chosen strategy failed, the cart was lost, and Jubilost the gnome refused to join our merry band. .
After that disappointment we needed a rest, so Creative Director Mishulin described how the system works. Though it's yet to be created and is dependent on a successful Kickstarter campaign, Mishulin said Kingmaker's rest system will offer actual gameplay instead of a load screen. During rest periods, players will be able to send companions out to hunt, thus reducing the need to buy rations, and will be able to set traps and alarms. They'll also be able to assign companions to guard against random attack.
This is a cool feature to include since for some players, random occurrences are what make a fantasy world come alive. Avellone said Kingmaker will have a healthy allotment of randomness, and we experienced some of it. In one instance, an old guy was stuck in bandit territory among a slew of dangerous traps. Too scared to move, he was resigned to die until we shocked him into making a run for the road. In another encounter, we entered a sadistic wizard's lab where experiments were being carried out on trolls. Events like these present rich opportunities for role-play, not only by letting us choose dialog that reflects our character's personality, but by giving us the chance to make tough moral decisions.
Though menus in the demo were far from final, they included a rudimentary alignment meter that lets you track your moral progress and an expandable, graphic novel-style bio for each character that grows along with their story. Owlcat said they're working on multiple difficulty modes including a story mode for people who just want to see what the next plot point is and, Mishulin added, “For those who like to min-max, there's a Core Rules setting. It's rather ruthless. [Beyond that] we'll be providing an even harder mode for players who want to play with just one save. We want to cater to all kinds of role-players.”
From what we saw, the demo set the stage for a fantastic role-playing experience; unfortunately, we've got a good while to wait since Pathfinder: Kingmaker won't be out on PC until some time next year. Furthermore, there's no information yet regarding price, and a Mac release depends on a successful Kickstarter campaign. Even so, there's a lot to look forward to, including eleven classes, seven races, two genders, fourteen regions, five companions, a forty hour main storyline, and twenty to forty hours of fun side content. Sounds like it's time we dust off that +2 mouse and get ready to re-invent our best role-playing memories.