It’s strange how such a simple thing like camera controls feels fresh sometimes.
So for the past week, I have been working on our review for Pathfinder: Wrath of the Righteous. While the review is still a work in progress (and thus far, a fairly enjoyable to experience), there's one aspect that stands out that I doubt many others will focus on: how Wrath of the Righteous uses its camera controls to make the game feel more modern.
When you think of computer RPGs, especially games that attempt to emulate the now-classic isometric style perfected by Fallout and Baldur’s Gate, it is a pretty specific design paradigm: characters, either sprites or polygons, pathfinding through a fully 3D or lusciously created environment through a fixed camera angle. It is a formula that excels for the genre; some of the best tabletop-inspired RPGs are at their best in these conditions, mostly because the gameplay and the script often carried the players through the experience.
Wrath of the Righteous changes this bit of tradition. True, it is still a very verbose game filled with the trappings of traditional CRPG mechanics. The key difference is Instead of a fixed angle with the camera, Wrath of the Righteous adds a controllable, dynamic camera with full 360° movement. That aspect alone changes a lot of the experience.
Take the opening scene of Wrath of the Righteous as an example. You participate in a festival square in the city of Kanebras. After a quick scene that would introduce several characters, players are free to enjoy some jaunty music while participating in a few interactive events. It is a short scene that is punctuated by the arrival of one of the primary antagonists, the demon lord Deskari and an army of demons from the abyss.
This opening scene allows, in the first moments, players the freedom of movement and exploration of space. Full camera control is nothing new to video games, but for a traditionally isometric RPG, that degree of control eases players into a new rhythm of play. Typically, hidden or clickable items are often in obvious nooks and crannies on the map, such as forward-facing chests or partially visible containers.
For Wrath of the Righteous, the festival in Kanebras square sets expectations for players. While there are no items to take for yourself, you instead get a chance to interact with the world space. You will see multiple named characters, some of them future companions, previewed before you meet them officially. You have a few smaller scenes of interactivity, from drinking a pint at the bar to participating in a knife-throwing contest. It may not be much, but it allows for a soft tutorial for players to not only experiment with the camera but use the tool to explore.
This is a stark contrast to the more stuffy, classical camera angle in the opening of Owlcat’s previous game, Pathfinder: Kingmaker. The opening of Kingmaker is just a singular throne room, seen only from one angle every time you enter it. The stiffness of this, while traditional and well familiar with players of the genre, makes the world more static than it probably should be.
It also highlights two more aspects of Wrath of the Righteous that Owlcat is hoping to show off: the more cinematic scope and the dynamic environments. Unlike Kingmaker or other games in the genre, Wrath of the Righteous opts for a more modern, cinematic style, something we see immediately with Deskari’s attack. The cinematic style is found throughout Wrath of the Righteous, with admittedly mixed results, but the larger scope allows for more experimentation with the environment design. Sprawling caves, winding dungeons, even the dilapidated city streets of the then destroyed Kanebras are featured, with the market square you started in, now a desolate ruin ravaged by demons, with city streets now explorable in their ruined state.
It is an early part of Wrath of the Righteous but one of my favorite areas in the game to simply explore. Each street, each alleyway, has a new discovery or secret to uncover. The enemy encounters feel more dynamic and less like idle enemies waiting for you to show up on screen. There is a sense of tension and confusion in the air as you try to navigate claustrophobic streets now razed by devastation. It is a sharp contrast to the jovial atmosphere in the opening, and all of this is enhanced by the degree of control the player has to their camera view.
In a weird way, Wrath of the Righteous borrows from more action-oriented RPGs for its camera controls and level design. The biggest example that comes to mind is BioWare’s Dragon Age: Origins, a game that is notable for its dynamic camera controls. Often nicknamed the tactical view camera, in 2009 it was a major part of Origins and its popularity, with full movement and control in a 3D environment that allowed for dynamic planning and tactical gameplay.
While the camera in Wrath of the Righteous is less dynamic when compared to Dragon Age: Origins, the addition of 360° movements elevates Wrath of the Righteous. It allows the game to achieve the more epic tone of its narrative, providing set pieces that fit the mood better than the more static presentations of the past. It compliments more modern mechanics by improving upon its roots, making the game just that much more memorable.
I don’t know, ultimately, where Wrath of the Righteous will take me, but I certainly look forward to finding out what it has in store for me next. So be sure to look out for the review coming soon. And check out our preview of Wrath of the Righteous while you wait!