When I think about the vision behind Pathfinder Online, it's hard for me not to get excited. As a fan of Iceland's greatest export, EVE Online, I have spent the last few years pining for an MMORPG that takes the sandbox structure of EVE and transports it to a more familiar fantasy universe, and what better universe than Paizo Publishing's wonderful pen and paper RPG, Pathfinder? On paper, Pathfinder Online seems like a sandbox fan's dream come true: ambitious and nonlinear; a total deconstruction of the tired tropes that have come to plague the genre since World of Warcraft paved the way for countless others to follow. But in practice, Pathfinder Online struggles to bring to life much of what it aspires to achieve—for now.
It bears mentioning that, at this stage, Pathfinder Online is still in the development oven, which is to say that many of its ideas and finer details are a doughy, undercooked mess. Goblinworks, the developers, have elected to build Pathfinder Online in a way that, as they claim, revolutionizes the development process. Called "crowdforging," Pathfinder Online is being built with the intention of creating just the basic foundation, and then expanding on it with input from the community. It's a unique idea, and one that, on its own merits, will likely appeal to those wanting not just another MMORPG, but a game that they can actively invest themselves in the development of.
My biggest concern however, comes from the hefty subscription fee associated with that privilege. Pathfinder Online isn't just one more game hopping on the bandwagon driven forward by Steam's controversial Early Access program, it actively escalates that controversy by charging its devoted community members monthly so that they can help test and develop the game—a transaction that traditionally saw the money going the opposite direction (but maybe I'm just old fashioned). As more and more subscription-based MMORPGs collapse in on themselves, I cannot look at Pathfinder Online without calling its value proposition into question.
Regardless of how I feel, if the idea of helping test and build and MMORPG from the ground up seems inviting, then Pathfinder Online is a game worth looking into. At this stage in development, things seem to be rapidly progressing, and I have to applaud how approachable and interactive Goblinworks is with their burgeoning community. My time in Pathfinder was often underwhelming and dissatisfying, but there is an undeniable sense of community that binds it together, one that will appeal to those tired of the isolated single-player experiences many MMORPGs are rapidly becoming.
Reviewing MMORPGs can be tough on its own, but a sandbox presents its own struggles. They thrive on emergent experiences, the result of vast and complicated layers of social interaction that are capable of giving two players wildly different experiences. Because the content of a sandbox game is then largely interpretive and unpredictable, you cannot simply judge it based on those experiences the same way you would judge a more static MMORPG like Final Fantasy XIV. Instead, you judge how well the game supports creating these emergent experiences and how quickly it takes you from first logging in to becoming an active participant in its world.
Sadly, at this stage in its development, Pathfinder Online fails on both accounts. It constantly required more from me than it was willing to give in return, a transaction that became exhausting after spending weeks trying to crack its dense outer layer. For starters, Pathfinder Online is desperately lacking in any structures designed to help new players parse its extremely complicated character progression and combat systems. You are thrust into the Riverlands without any sense of direction, and even when you've completed the meager helping of barebones tutorials, there is nothing to point you in any direction—no way of knowing how to go from a new player to a contributing member of Pathfinder Online's society.
Doing so either requires hoping that a friendly face is online to help you get started, or jumping onto the Goblinworks forums to begin prying through the countless guides designed at breaking down Pathfinder Online's myriad of systems. As someone who has spent far too long reading about things like transversal velocity in EVE Online, I am not shy about doing some homework. I can certainly appreciate the irony of a MMORPG based on a table-top pen and paper game requiring just as much reading to understand, but there is no denying that Pathfinder Online is an overly demanding game to play.
The problem is that Pathfinder, unlike other sandbox games, rarely rewarded me for the extra effort. The world of the Riverlands is, on its own, a boring stretch of lifeless forest with static groupings of monsters waiting for you to wander just a little too close. There is little artistry present in Pathfinder Online's visuals. Character models, armor, buildings—everything looks drab and uninspired. Considering how much vibrant personality the source material has, this is a real tragedy. But visuals aren't where a sandbox game's sense of immersion is sparked, though they certainly help. Instead, Pathfinder failed to draw me because of just how profoundly boring so much of it can be.
Joining a company and playing with other people is a must if only because any of the myriad of activities you are likely to engage in are so shallow and rudimentary in nature that it requires a group of players to distract one another from the slog. One night, a group of us ran escalations, a special type of dynamic content that sees monsters taking over a certain area and growing in strength until eventually spreading outward. It's a great concept, but amounted to little more than a two hour stint of running around to various static camps of monsters and engaging them (not counting the thirty minutes it took for me to run to where the escalation was happening). For a game that prides itself on forging a path antithetical to themepark MMORPGs, Pathfinder Online certainly has its overwhelming share of grinding.