Review: Pathfinder Adventures09 May 2016 35
Review: Pathfinder Adventures
Released 27 Apr 2016
Pathfinder Adventures has arrived on our tablets at long last, and it's wonderful. For those with an interest in genealogy, Obsidian Entertainment has delivered to us a digital evolution of a card game based on a tabletop roleplaying game which forked the Dungeons & Dragons community, preserving the more classic pencil-and-paper feel of D&D 3.5 over the more video-gamey D&D 4.0. So Pathfinder, which wouldn't even exist but for opposition to the influence of video games, is now a video game. Would you all prefer a reference to Sophocles or The Godfather III? I thought about combining them, but "Just when I thought I wasn't going to kill my father and marry my mother, I killed my father and married my mother" is a bit lacking in the prose styling department. Thwarting the fates has a bad reputation, is my point.
The basic idea of the game is quite simple: you assemble a team of pre-generated characters (who do a good job of picking from the standard menu of fantasy character traits while combining them in novel ways) and proceed to make the world a better place, mostly by tracking down and killing bad guys. Scenarios involve exploring some number of locations in search of the principal antagonist or their henchmen (or -women, or -monsters, or even hench-inanimate-objects). Only when you find one of these and defeat it do you have the opportunity to close that location, preventing your primary target from escaping there in the future. All of this is represented using cards--every Sword of Snicker-Snack +1, Otto's Disturbing Macarena spell, or other useful thing a character might have is a card in a deck. Run out of cards, and that character is defeated (killed, if you're using permadeath). Everything you encounter in those locations is also a card, with each location having its own small deck. Characters also have the standard character traits, Wisdom, Constitution, etc., and special abilities which aren't dependent on their cards, and there are certainly polyhedral dice, but cards are involved in every turn and virtually every action.
What's strange about this structure (and why the genealogy is relevant) is that you're basically playing a game the theme of which is another game. It's not like Loot and Legends, in that you aren't playing as a player of another game, so there's no Cheeto-related humor. But there is a fairly self-conscious attempt to include enough callbacks to the tabletop RPG source material that people won't get too worked up about the fact that there are such stark differences. You don't generate characters, only develop them; there's a very limited array of possible actions, nothing like freeform narrative; and, despite some clever writing and mechanical innovation, the common mission structure would strike most players as a sign that their Dungeon Master had developed peculiarities even more extreme than those of most DMs. But rolling those polyhedrons to pass a DEX check so you can open a chest, and finding a sweet Deathbane Light Crossbow +1 evokes a modicum of the joy of success in such games, and that's enough to make an otherwise quite good game feel particularly special. Plus, you start off at an encounter in Sandpoint, and I'm sure I'm not the first person to find the subtle Star Trek parallel amusing.
At this point in the first draft of this review, I registered my lack of amusement at the bugs with which the game shipped. I had real difficulty getting the game to register my swipes to roll dice, had several game-stopping (but not progress-corrupting) bugs, and couldn't get the quest mode to work at all. Fortunately, just after I sent that draft in for editing, Obsidian released an update, and I haven't seen any of these problems since. Though the speed of that is impressive, the existence of substantial post-release support was very likely, as the game ships with promises of four more adventures to add to the three available now and multiplayer to be added. Even the three adventures already out are playable at three difficulty levels, so there's quite a bit of derring to be doing, but the now-working quest mode mixes up the existing components into new scenarios of such multiplicity that no player will ever see them all. Though it may be necessary for game balance, I was disappointed to learn that your characters can only get the unique benefits of each scenario once. These are things like permanent stat bumps, new abilities, or increased deck size, so you could end up with absurdly powerful characters if that weren't true. But it makes quest mode and higher difficulties feel a bit like decaf coffee. Pleasant enough, and comforting in their own way, but a limited substitute for the good stuff.
With bugs seeming largely squashed, the only complaint I have left with the game is that the mechanics, though cool, often leave one with severe thematic challenges. Keith Burgun, designer of games much admired on these pages, said in a 2013 interview with Owen "I think theme primarily is there to communicate game mechanisms to the player. A theme gives you free information: if you give a player a sword, he immediately expects that he can swing it." That really doesn't work in Pathfinder. For example, your deck represents your life total. That's great, because it means that a large hand size, associated with the ability to entertain lots of options, also makes one more fragile--this plays into the theme of characters with different roles, because archetypes like tank and glass cannon emerge naturally. But it also means that your massive ax is easier to lose track of than your car keys, and the healthier you are, the more disorganized your saddlebags. If you find yourself looking for a particular card, it actually helps to walk up to a monster and get hit really hard (because damage makes you discard cards, and you always redraw to your full hand size at the end of a turn, though you can discard at will, as well). The decisions this puts in front of you are interesting, and balancing various concerns tickles the synapses in a very rewarding way, but the theme throws up some interference in that pursuit. That said, trying to make sense of what happens does activate the same part of my brain which I use in inventing fictional situations--for example, how is my rogue, while exploring the underground warrens, going to use her crossbow to help out a combat check across town? Perhaps she comes up for air periodically, to rest and glance over her allies' progress. At this distance, she may not be able to effectively hit a target, but if she cranks it beyond enduring (which is why she's discarding the crossbow rather than using it and keeping it, as is more common with weapons), she can get one shot off which will provide covering fire at a crucial moment (which is why her efforts only add a single D4).
What doesn't bother me, oddly, is that it's technically free to play. You can play it that way if you like, and, honestly, I recommend starting with the free game. Managing a smaller party is easier and the tutorial, while quite satisfactory at introducing the basics, leaves a lot implicit. But there's a $25 in-app purchase for a season pass (which unlocks two adventures now and four more as they're released), and having bought it, I never expect to want to spend another dime on in-game gold to unlock more stuff. Approached this way, I'm getting a premium game for a premium price, with a free demo to make sure I want it. This might be one of the best ways I've seen to simultaneously serve the audience which won't try anything they have to pay for, and people like myself, who'd rather pay developers a fair price and just get our game. With the physical card game serving as a mental anchor for how much this game could have otherwise cost (a lot more, with what seems like a really burdensome amount of shuffling and pre-game deck preparation), you end up with a perception of excellent value from the season pass. How much grinding is necessary to unlock that content without paying is unclear to me, but it seems like it would risk tedium.
I'm really enjoying Pathfinder Adventures, and I don't expect to stop soon. Not only does the game have a ton of content, but each scenario offers prosaic rewards which are sufficiently satisfying to keep me playing, but allow it to reserve the really special gear for rare occasions. For that matter, the writing is similar--mostly, it's fine, but every so often, there's a moment of brilliance--not just something written well, but written with the understanding that some players are going to want to be involved in telling themselves a story. It's not necessary; you can just roll the dice and move along, but if you spend a moment thinking about the situation or the character traits which would be captured by what you're seeing, there's sometimes a great nugget of story packed into a very small piece of game. Combine that with a structure which leads to challenging decisions balancing various concerns and long-term progression which keeps you coming back, and this is one of the highlights of 2016. If the bugs are squashed by November, I expect it to figure prominently in our Game of the Year discussions.