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Pathfinder: Kingmaker Definitive Edition

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Pathfinder: Kingmaker is the latest PC RPG to make the leap to consoles, transplanting keyboard and mouse gameplay into the realm of the casual couch and comfy trackie-daks. This has been going on for a while, with the likes of Pillars of Eternity and Divinity: Original Sin forging the way to much success, particularly in the case of the latter. That’s not to say Pathfinder is more of the same, mind you, because while there are many superficial similarities with others, this epic title from Russian developer Owlcat Games offers unique twists on a now familiar formula.

Pathfinder is set in the Stolen Lands, and casts you in the boots of a character – either self generated or preset – who will need to gather a party, grow in strength, take on increasingly tough missions and eventually defeat a tough boss. Sounds familiar, right? And it is, with a lot of generic high fantasy tropes executed in a solid but unexceptional fashion. However, once you beat the baddie, a particularly nasty wanker called the Stag Lord, you’re handed a barony and new responsibilities that involve managing funds, building the right structures and keeping the populace happy and safe.

They’ve gone and put a bloody town management game in your RPG! You’ll still be required to go on epic quests, mind you, but now you’ll need to manage your increasing lands as well. It’s… kind of a lot, to be honest, and those who’d rather just dungeon crawl without reading the instructions should possibly look elsewhere.

That said, if you’re up for the challenge (and able to watch a few Youtube videos before you even begin), Pathfinder is an absolute game changer. One of the best aspects is the combat. Is it turn-based or real time with pause? It’s both. And unlike Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire, you can switch between the two on the fly. Mid-dungeon fighting weak arse trash mobs of low level spiders or skeletons? Put it on RTWP and let the AI do the work. Come up against a tough boss that requires a little more strategy and finesse? Notch it back to turn-based and conquer.

It’s a brilliant addition to the genre and one that would be great to see embraced by other developers. Add to that a dizzying array of difficulty customisation options – wherein you can change the level of AI, the fail states and even switch the kingdom management to “automatic” if that sort of fiddly nonsense isn’t your bag – and you’ve got a game that feels like it can be honed to your specific style of play.

The graphics are crisp and colourful, the sound and music solid and even the load times, the inexplicable bane of this genre’s console ports, are better than most. On the downside, the story and script never really rise much above the level of perfectly adequate. You’ll have fun, you’ll be engaged but you’re unlikely to be shocked by something creative and unexpected like Divinity: Original Sin 2. Difficulty spikes can be an issue too, although there’s usually a lateral, albeit nerdy, solution to most problems. The Stag Lord, for instance. Rather than face him head on, you can turn half his lieutenants against him, kill those who won’t be convinced and even rope in his pet bear to join the boot party.

Pathfinder: Kingmaker Definitive Edition comes packaged with all the DLCs, offering literally hundreds of hours of gameplay. While it doesn’t deliver the easiest experience for old school style RPG noobs, careful and patient investigation and experimentation will have your party feeling powerful and ripping through dungeons in no time. Once you get your head around the multifarious systems, Pathfinder: Kingmaker reveals itself to be one of the most nuanced and satisfying RPGs of 2020 and a delightful surprise for those with the patience and time to really hook in.

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Carrion

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Even the most casual gamer will have spent hours of their in-game lives hunting and destroying monsters. Whether the setting is a pristine laboratory, an abandoned warehouse or sinister factory, it’s likely you’ll have splattered an irate organism or cranky xenomorph across it many times over. But what if you weren’t the heroic human in the story? What if, in fact, you were the slime-slicked creature crawling through the vents? That is the premise of Carrion, a game that really shows how much difference a change of perspective can make.

Carrion puts you in the pulsating biomass of a nameless beastie being experimented on in a laboratory. At the beginning of the game you manage to escape from a canister as a small but swift critter, and then it’s time to evolve, increase in size and power, and find your freedom. Oh, and you’ll massacre and absorb a metric tonne of quivering, screaming, terror-scented human flesh along the way.

Of all the many things Carrion does right, its best element by far is the way the monster feels to play. The rapid, slithering, tentacular movement remains exhilarating from minute one to the conclusion four or five hours later. Sweeping out of vents to grab scientists and rip them in half, punching through obstructions like a tumescent wrecking ball and letting out a roar before you engulf multiple victims like a wave of malignant meat is just… wonderful. If you’re of a slightly demented mindset like your humble reviewer, you’ll likely spend much of the game cackling like a cartoon banshee, much to the chagrin of flatmates and cats.

The graphics too, in a crisp engaging pixel art style, tickle all the right retro gaming receptors and are a joy to behold. Slightly less successful is some of the exploration, with a few of the environments reading too similarly to deliver legible landmarks, which can lead to some frustrating and confusing navigation loops, compounded by the lack of a map. Also, players expecting a strong narrative or enticing backstory will likely be left a little cold, because it’s pretty threadbare.

Still and all, the story is not what Carrion is about. This is the type of clever indie game that saw the incredible third act of Playdead’s Inside and went “yeah, let’s do a whole game of that!” and it’s as giddy and satisfying as that sounds. Certainly, the short length and repetitive gameplay will give some pause, but for those who always felt like The Thing from John Carpenter’s The Thing got a raw deal, Carrion will provide splattery catharsis. And in the end, it turns out ol’ mate Friedrich Nietzsche was right: when fighting monsters you yourself do become a monster… and it’s a fucken hoot!

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Disco Elysium

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Disco Elysium isn’t like other games. Oh sure, superficially, the role-playing game from developer ZA/UM resembles titles you’ve seen before. The isometric third person point of view, the ability to level up various character traits and branching conversation trees are all typical of the RPG genre. However, it’s in the details, the nuance, that Disco sets itself apart and offers one of the most unique and fascinating games in recent memory.

Disco Elysium puts you in the well-trodden shoes of a grizzled cop who has such severe amnesia that he can’t remember a damn thing. Not his name, age, location, purpose or what the bloody hell he did the night before. Full of self-loathing and nameless remorse – not to mention some very chatty aspects of your fractured psyche – you leave the skanky, trashed hotel room you woke up in and begin to explore the city of Revachol. There’s been a murder, you see, and it’s up to you and your straight-laced partner Kim Kitsuragi to solve the mystery before tension in the town boils over into violent chaos. Or, you know, not. Because in Disco Elysium you can pretty much do as you please. Prefer to piss fart about getting trashed on booze and goey? Have at it. Want to become a rabid communist, or a dead-eyed fascist, and blurt political dogma at all and sundry? Knock yourself out. Hell, in a particularly dark turn you can even become a murderer yourself, although it’s heavily discouraged.

Still, freedom is nothing new in RPGs. Where the difference comes with Disco Elysium is the fact that there’s no combat. None. At all. No random encounters, no boss fights, no trash mobs, no secret hidden enemies. While violence does exist, it’s rare and not a game mechanic. No, in this game it’s all about talking, thinking, reaching conclusions, sharing arguments, debating and banging on like you’re being paid by the word. Most conversations will include skill checks to unlock further information, or goals, and your performance in these moments is dependent on which traits you’ve upgraded on your character screen. Shockingly, pleasingly, it works a treat, giving Disco Elysium the feel of reading an engaging, smart and dense (in a good way) novel that lets you bumble through the narrative, trying to get the best result.

The uniformly excellent writing is buoyed further by the gorgeous aesthetics and design sensibility of the game, which drip with grime and despair, offering locations so vivid you can practically smell them. Smart, incisive dialogue pairs with the otherworldly score and the brilliantly realised characters will keep you guessing about the game’s numerous mysteries and conspiracies right up until the end.

Disco Elysium is smart, surprising and utterly engrossing. Get ready to spend 20-30 hours in a gorgeous, painterly world in a twisted tale that brims with both menace and wit, a dreamlike stroll through a world unlike any other and a stunningly satisfying video game that will stay with you long after you’ve woken from its surreal embrace.

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