A new entry into the Pathfinder video game repertoire launches into early access on Steam on September 14 in the form of Pathfinder: Gallowspire Survivors. Following the success of previous Pathfinder CRPGs Kingmaker and Wrath of the Righteous, and the even more successful Baldurs Gate 3, tabletop RPG settings are definitely in a renaissance on PC currently. Unlike the previous games, Gallowspire Survivors utilises the strength of an established setting in its genre shift to the Vampire Survivors style of roguelite bullet hell survivor.
Bullet hell survivors are a recently popular category of games including Vampire Survivors, Halls of Torment, Gunsuit Guardians, Holocure and many more. A genre that focuses on minimal but tight gameplay mechanics has found a prominent place in gamers’ hearts and Steam libraries lately. This is in part due to how satisfying they are, but also to how cheap they have been, averaging at about $US4 per game, with some like HoloCure even being free passion projects. It can be hard to make waves in a crowded genre, Gallowspire Survivors having the Pathfinder name and setting behind it should help it substantially.
Pathfinder originated as a spinoff of Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 edition in the mid-2000s by Paizo thanks to the Open Gaming License that allowed third-party development and use of the rules. It has since become a behemoth in the tabletop roleplaying game industry, later carving out a place at the top of the CRPG genre, only to be eclipsed by the recent launch of the impressive Baldurs Gate 3 returning Dungeons and Dragons to the top spot. Founded in 1996, developer BKOM Studios’ previous work includes Sunday Gold, Overloot, Tales from Candlekeep: Tomb of Annihilation, Little Lords of Twilight and more, so they definitely have what it takes to put out a solid game.
Art style, Sound and Story
Clean and colourful, there is nothing to complain about with the art style. I prefer the “Diablo” aesthetic of Halls of Torment, but despite being a fan of Vtubers I prefer Pathfinder: Gallowspire Survivors aesthetic to HoloCure. The spells in particular look consistently good in their stylized way, very crisp and colourful. There’s never too much happening on the screen so you can see what is going on which can definitely be a problem for the genre. I’m a fan of compact UIs full of detail so the interface isn’t amazing for me but it’s functional and gets the job done cleanly. The sound is solid though I turned the music off quickly, but I do that in most games. Combat is a nice riot of dying creatures, explosions and weapon impacts so there’s no problem there. The story… exists. There’s not much more to say about it but when the genre itself doesn’t even require a story, some might appreciate that there is some small reason for killing so many things and some dialogue with bosses every few levels but it’s apparent that they’re not trying to be a story rich RPG here.
Combat is ok but feels worse all around compared to similar games in this genre. The abilities look better in general which is nice but there are few of them and they aren’t modified as drastically as you progress. They are different for each class (a couple are shared for the melee classes) however which is thematically better than a warrior throwing walls of fire, but there are just so few that it feels very samey when playing multiple rounds. You don’t get anywhere near the build variety of similar games.
On the flip side, something different to other games is not having a facing direction separate from the movement direction. This feels like a direct downgrade which is only reinforced by the primary selling point of the game – the companion – since its position is based on your facing. If you’re running away from something, you probably want your tank companion between it and you, or your squishy wizard companion on the other side of you from the danger. Not being able to aim any abilities in a particular direction while moving in another feels bad. Some abilities shoot in a random direction, some are targeted at the nearest enemy, another attacks sequentially in the cardinal directions and some shoot in the direction you’re facing but you’re constantly moving away from enemies so that ability is regularly wasted.
The bosses seem to have a minimum speed requirement to not just get hit by every attack. The first boss for example has a charge attack that follows you while it’s building, and you need to have enough speed to strafe out of the way once it launches – and you better be near its maximum range. The second bosses have fast projectiles that you similarly need to strafe fast to avoid, and also seem to speed up over time making it harder or impossible to avoid them eventually. Making one of the passives mandatory is poor design. On the other hand, potions which are the only way to spend gold between rounds are useless on bosses that don’t have adds as killing them is how you get potions, and this makes another passive (increased potion drops) useful only for trash. The bosses do feel like bosses however, with multiple abilities and phases that – if balanced well – will be a great feature of the game – the balancing to make it fun just isn’t there yet.
The companion has little impact in the game and its positioning without being able to separate facing from movement direction feels bad, especially for melee companions. If the companion had more abilities like they do when you play them and more AI to move around and engage based on them, it would feel a lot more worthwhile.
The companions are also very limited in selection, only being able to choose from two as you cannot choose another of the class you’re playing. There’s room for many more classes in the game, and I hope more will come in time, but currently in this early access version it is just way too lacking. At least one more ranged class so you can play double ranged would be good, as would more variety like healers/support, or pet classes.
Boss fights especially show how useless companions are. You need to keep your distance from the boss (as a wizard at least) and your companion stays glued to you, never engaging the boss unless it teleports not just near you, but directly next to the companion – which will proceed to auto attack it once before you move away again.
This is probably the aspect of the game with the best and most unique mechanic for the genre. I like how upgrades come in rarities, adding another layer of choice in how you build. If you need damage currently but have to choose between a common damage upgrade or an epic movement speed, it can be a really hard choice sometimes.
The problem is that the upgrades to the weapons feel so uninspiring. You get slight increases in the variables, but nothing dramatic. You really feel it when you get another whip attack in Vampire Survivors, or when you get another projectile on your basic archer attack in Halls of Torment, or when you use a new legendary multi-projectile chain attack that blankets the screen in Bio Prototype. In Pathfinder: Gallowspire Survivors you only get 2% increased range, cooldown, and damage of your blizzard. Getting one more projectile on Force Barrage doesn’t feel any better as they all just hit the one target anyway, it just plays as a flat damage add.
This is relatively weak for the genre. You can upgrade statistics separately for each class providing minor bonuses. Coming from the RPG roots this is a pretty obvious way to go, and most of them are sensible. However, it does feel weird when charisma increases the range and size of area of effects, at that point it would be better to just leave charisma out of the equation. It seems like a very slow advancement system and each class is levelled separately based on what you play, taking a companion does not level them up at all which just doesn’t feel good.
You can select talent points for each class to upgrade certain aspects such as reducing the cooldown of electrical spells based on the number of enemies hit or giving fire spells a chance to deal extra damage. This is both better and worse than the standard increase attack speed, pickup range, movement speed etc. It’s better because it’s more flavoured but it’s worse because it’s such a niche effect that it will change your gameplay minimally. Getting a substantial boost to pickup range via talents in other games can mean you don’t need to choose it as a passive which opens up more build options, but a reduced cooldown on lightning damage vs trash when there’s one lightning spell is hardly noticeable.
You can spend gold on one thing – potion upgrades. The potion system itself is decent but again a very long-term system because it requires huge amounts of gold to upgrade the ten levels of each of the five potions’ three effects, and you see minimal change doing so. When you get a new piece of gear in Halls of Torment it can unlock an entirely new build, or hugely increase your movement or attack speed. In Pathfinder: Gallowspire Survivors you can have a slightly increased loot radius when under the effect of a potion or have 1% reduced cooldowns. The permanent advancement is nowhere near substantial enough to be engaging, it needs a lot more to give that feel this genre requires to bring you back map after map after map.
Pathfinder: Gallowspire is an okay game, but it would be so much better if some things had been done differently. As the game is launching into Early Access there is still time for these things to be changed – or for the game to change around them to suit them better if desired – but as-is it is not as fun as similarly priced, cheaper or even free games in the same genre like HoloCure. I felt no motivation to login to do another run whereas I had to be pried away from my keyboard to get me to stop playing the others. There’s just so much more satisfaction in the basic gameplay and so much more roguelite progression edging you to keep you playing one more map that is missing in Gallowspire Survivors currently.
If you love the genre but have played the other games in it to death and just want something new, this isn’t a bad game and you should get your money’s worth in early access launch. For most people, I would recommend waiting to see how it goes in early access before deciding to buy it. If it’s the RPG nature of the setting appealing to you, you will be better served by checking out the other Pathfinder cRPGs that are extremely good.
This review utilised a key provided by Vicarious PR and Pathfinder: Gallowspire Survivors will launch on Steam on September 14, 2023.