Now it’s time for a completely different tabletop RPG. Pathfinder is a popular alternative to the world-famous Dungeons & Dragons, derived from its older cousin’s 3.5 edition. Owlcat Games’ first effort in the Pathfinder universe, Kingmaker, was initially met with middling reviews, though it later found a cult following. The developer now presents its second offering, Wrath of the Righteous, based on an official module for the tabletop game.
With no memory of your previous life, you find yourself caught in the middle of a titanic struggle against an enormous foe. The demon lord Deskari, an anthropomorphic locust the size of a castle tower, is ravaging the land of Golarion. You find awakening within yourself a divine yet frightening Mythic Power and quickly rise in the ranks of the Crusaders. More a loose collective than an organized force, the Crusaders gather in times like these to restore stability to the land where enemies would sow chaos; but your ascent to authority is far from a straight line. There are many choices left up to you as you decide how best to make your way in Golarion in your quest to restore peace.
Those many choices begin with character creation. As you do in any isometric CRPG, you pick your classes, race, abilities, etc. While I didn’t play Kingmaker, I haven’t seen options as extensive as they are in Pathfinder: Wrath of the Righteous before — I counted 25 classes, with the many choices of races adding their own permutations to each class. Unless you know what you want to do, you could spend many hours wading through the possibilities and learning how each one works. The vast options practically beg for multiple playthroughs.
That’s only the beginning of your decision-making in Pathfinder: Wrath of the Righteous, and your choices immediately feel meaningful. Early on, you must pick between two characters who will join your party for the rest of the game. The other you might meet again, though perhaps not on friendly terms. In conversations, you frequently have up to seven or eight dialogue responses to choose from, which sometimes drastically alter your situation. Regardless of your choices, you still fight the same bosses, but there are many paths to that destination. As Pathfinder: Wrath of the Righteous sticks with traditional D&D character alignment, it feels maybe too on the nose that some dialogue choices come with a label for Good, Chaotic, Neutral, etc. On the other hand, these labels are helpful if you’re trying to build your character in a specific way. While the game constantly reminds you there are no “wrong” decisions,” sometimes I was disappointed when facing my old nemesis — the consequences of my own actions.
You can’t call the story anything but epic — and not just because it can take well over 100 hours to complete. In your quest, you become instrumental in gluing back the pieces of a world and a military force in a state of utter destruction and ruin together. Along the way, you must navigate not just a vast land but relationships with powerful characters who harbor differing visions of what it means to restore the world. Golarion is an old planet, and each step you take only gets you stuck in more of its lore. Despite being a story that puts you in command of powerful forces, morality is not simple, even in a tale involving angels and demons. Aside from the Big Bads, there’s little in the way of pure good or evil; likewise, just because your forces follow you doesn’t necessarily make them heroes.
The structure of the narrative feels more natural than in similar games. Though you do have a journal collecting gobs of quests, there’s no glowing dagger pointing towards your main objective, leaving it up to you to wander around until you get there at your pace and in your way. Some important quests have a vague description, like “build your forces,” leaving you to figure out how to do that. Sometimes, the story comes to you as seemingly random events that pop up while you’re traversing the world map. Thus, progression doesn’t feel like you’re checking off a massive list of tasks. I could see myself losing another hundred hours trying to see and do everything in Pathfinder: Wrath of the Righteous.
Pathfinder: Wrath of the Righteous puts special emphasis on its characters. Your party grows into a group of richly layered personalities, each of whose morality is more slippery than the last. There’s an effort to make the characters paradoxical, such as Seelah, the hard-living rogueish paladin, which helps compile a unique cast. The most memorable companion is probably wannabe scientist Nenio, whose bright demeanor hides an ultra-logical and emotionless mindset devoid of empathy or altruism that becomes more disturbing the more she speaks. The characters often react to situations and get in on the banter in conversations, giving them a feeling of surprising agency. They also have their own stories as far as you’re willing to follow them; there’s one point where a curious Nenio decided to take a bite of zombie meat, which results in her getting sick and beginning the next fight with a negative status effect. Ultimately, in the dire situations you’re thrust into, you get the sense that these may not be the heroes you need, but they’re the ones you’re stuck with.
Speaking of companions, the way the writers handle LGBTQIA+ characters in Pathfinder: Wrath of the Righteous is satisfying. Same-sex relationships are common and written to feel like a normal part of Golarion life. While there are characters with obviously bad intentions, there’s little in the way of targeted bigotry. It’s refreshing for a story to allow characters to exist without the need to show how they’re marginalized for the sake of gritty realism or edginess. There are plenty of other stories that thoughtfully delve into those issues, but this one is refreshingly free of that. You’re also able to romance many of your traveling companions regardless of gender, so have yourself some fun.
Of course, you need your colorful party members to fight off the demons and other monsters. Pathfinder: Wrath of the Righteous has a vast number of spells and abilities, and it’s fun to put them to use and see them represented visually. There are also a couple of standout boss battles, like one with a character made of a locust swarm that disperses when you hit him. For the most part, there is a sameness to the fights, but there are also so many strategies to try with your party that even though the battles can get repetitive (and there are a lot of them), you can always try something different if you get bored. I sometimes enjoyed the combat, and at its worst, it was just there. You have the option of the classic Baldur’s Gate-style real-time combat (with optional pause) or a full turn-based version. Combat is quicker in the former setting, but I liked having more control over my next moves in turn-based. Unfortunately, there were a few fights where the game frustratingly wouldn’t work in turn-based mode.
The fantasy landscapes generally look good, if lackluster, as far as CRPGs go, as do the character models. The shiny, colorful combat effects help to liven up your battlefields; encountering blood rain is especially striking and intimidating, more so as the effect intensifies. In a practical sense, it’s usually easy to distinguish characters from one another, though sometimes there are so many enemies in battles that the ground gets muddy and you need to turn on the “highlight borders” feature to use.
The music is generally fine, though not considerably distinguishable from similar hard-fantasy series like Dragon Age or The Elder Scrolls. Still, there are some standout tracks, like the tribal-flavored battle theme. The piece that plays inside your stronghold is another favorite, featuring crunchy electric guitars mixed with classical instruments for some symphonic metal. Mouse and keyboard should mean there are few issues with controls. However, there are times when the battlefield gets crowded, and it’s easy to misclick when picking a target, which causes your character to walk around the enemy, not attack, and instead draw an opportunity attack. Other times, it strangely took a couple of clicks to perform tasks when it should have only required one.
On the disappointing side is writer Chris Avellone’s involvement. Pathfinder: Wrath of the Righteous is one of the few projects he wasn’t removed from after several women accused him of sexual misconduct in 2020. If you regularly play Western RPGs, you’ve probably played a game for which he was the head writer (I have, too). It’s possible (and unfortunately common) for people who take advantage of their positions of power to also create a good product or art. Avellone’s role in this game is listed as “narrative designer” rather than head writer, and I can’t say or know how much he was involved. Again, a common theme in the game is that these aren’t the heroes we need, but they’re the heroes we have. While I can’t know the intentions of the game’s creators, that theme and a few other parts of the story should raise eyebrows regarding Avellone. What you do with this information is up to you, of course, but as abusive practices in the industry continue to come to light, it’s important to keep talking about this issue. If we want this hobby and the industry to be more inclusive, we need to make an effort to protect people from that behavior so they feel safe being included.
While flawed, Pathfinder: Wrath of the Righteous is a grand and ambitious adventure and an impressive adaptation of a popular tabletop RPG. The eclectic characters feel alive, though the thought of that literally being true is terrifying. In some ways, it feels like too standard a CRPG; in others, it stretches the conventions of that subgenre in fascinating directions. The amount of writing here (and pretty good writing at that) is astounding — it’s a rare case where the sheer quantity is a positive, each quest another strand in your character’s tapestry, even if they don’t always hit. As such, if you only play one game you missed out on from last year, it might be this one, as it might be all you have time for. But that decision is less appealing in the shadow of the abuse accusations.