The violence inherent in the system
Kingdom Come: Deliverance (KCD) has been an anomaly in modern gaming in a few ways. While many studios have attempted to create AAA-level games through crowdfunding, Warhorse Studios has pulled off the rare feat of actually doing it (Unlike some…. coughStarCitizencough).
What we’ve gotten is pretty much what we were promised: a sprawling, medieval RPG with complex systems in service to realism, minus the fantasy trappings of your Elder Scrolls and other fantasy-based games. The real question has been whether they could strike the balance needed to pull this off.
The game follows the story of Henry, a simple blacksmith’s son whose life is thrown into turmoil when his village is sacked by a mercenary force belonging to the brother of the recently-ousted king. Taken under the wing of a sympathetic noble, he embarks on a quest to avenge his father and reclaim his final work, an ornate broadsword made for said noble.
Elder Scrolls fans will find a lot familiar here: you roam the lands, levelling up skills as you use them while picking up a plethora of side quests that range from bog-standard busywork to the odder end of the scale (for example, going on a debaucherous drunken bender with a crooked village priest, an opportunity that comes up early in the game).
Unlike most RPGs, however, you need to deal with the physical realities of such activities. You need to eat, sleep, and bandage bleeding wounds as all of these can have significant impact on your health and capabilities. The game even follows a realistic day/night cycle, meaning that in many cases you have to organize your activities so you can be places in daylight hours, as sleeping NPCs are generally inactive NPCs. This in turn is impacted by where you can sleep. Do you want to sleep in an owned bed, which will save your game? Or perhaps hire or scrounge a spot nearby, which won’t? Such decisions mold an experience markedly different to most RPGs, and that’s even before getting into the nuances of the game’s combat (more on this in a minute).
Kingdom Come: Deliverance is not a game made for speedrunners, min-maxers, or players looking to prioritize story missions. The early game’s missions revolve around investigations, involving a lot of conversations and a lot of travel (and even the fast travel is slow in this game, its random encounter-laden map ensuring that no journey is without risk of interruption). Its controversial save system only reinforces/exacerbates the methodical pacing. There’s no manual save: you autosave when you sleep in an owned bed or hit certain quest landmarks, but manual saves are only possible with the use of Saviour Schnapps, which can either be bought — expensively — or brewed with the game’s alchemy system.
This of course involves a little bit of poetic license, which not only highlights the slight disingenuousness that hovers around ‘realism’ in video games but more pointedly, demands a much different play experience than most RPGs. This is a game that demands that its players be patient, take their time and follow the pace it dictates, and the long gaps between save opportunities favour extended sessions rather than a ‘pick up and play’ approach. Where issues begin to reveal themselves is when the game actually wants to push your progress forward, which is what happens with its combat.
The combat system works by picking a direction for your swing or jab, roughly equating to head, torso and all four limbs, and using timing and momentum to determine the pace and strength of your strikes. It’s quite similar to the combat in Ubisoft’s For Honor, and can be fun as long as you make time to practice early in the game. In fact, a lot of your enjoyment of the combat system is going to hinge on how much practice you put into it, because the game is less than helpful in that regard.
There’s one section of the game that brings this fact into sharp relief. While you’re given access to melee and archery training (with more advanced tutorials mainly inaccessible for a while due to the scarcity of money), there seems to be relatively little need to spend too much time levelling up your combat skills simply because you get into fights fairly rarely… and then the game throws you into a multi-stage assault on a bandit camp, culminating in a duel with a boss who’s significantly tougher than any foe you’ve faced so far.
It’s a sequence that would be fun if the game at least helped you prepare for it by structuring more regular combat and training into the early game. As it stands, however, it feels like a bait-and-switch that unnecessarily sours what is up to this point a hugely enjoyable experience. Even engaging in fights in the open world can be frustrating due to the game’s tendency to throw gangs of two or three at you at a moment’s notice — and death throws you back to your last save, which can be quite a way back depending on when that was. Frankly, it’s a game very much of the old-school mentality that demands commitment and time. What’s there is hugely rewarding, but you need to make sure to block out long sessions because a ‘pick-up-and-play’ game, this is not.
A lot of the story’s success is due to its hero. Henry’s a genuinely likeable protagonist, a bit of a doofus but resourceful when it’s needed, and played with a nice mixture of bewilderment and charm by Tom McKay. Your classic babe in the woods, Henry’s bloody (and slightly fanciful) character arc makes a meal out of putting him in the most bizarre situations possible, with some genuinely funny moments along the way.
Warhorse Studios has gone to a great deal of effort to stress that Kingdom Come: Deliverance has been made in the image of classic PC-style RPGs, with immersion and challenge favoured over pacier, more accessible modern games. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this makes the game at once both refreshingly deep and a complete pain in the arse if you don’t interact with it the way it demands. It’s a game that demands patient, methodical play, as much about preparing for what may be around the corner as dealing with the situation at hand. Its curated realism makes all the developer’s bold claims about utter historical realism as a virtue seem a bit silly, but at least in mechanical terms makes for a refreshingly cerebral experience if you can bear with the daft macho attitude behind this idea of ‘realism = roadblocks for the player’.
A lot of love has clearly been put into the game’s world, with a quite staggering amount of detail put into the environments. The map itself is particularly impressive, its undulating hills and thick foliage feeling true to European countryside. The lighting also has moments of brilliance, especially when walking through one of the game’s many dense, gorgeously rendered forests at dusk — if you love your ‘god rays’, Warhorse has cooked up a veritable feast for your eyes.
Of course, you don’t get this kind of scale and detail on consoles without some kind of compromise, and the humble (non-Pro) PlayStation 4 sometimes struggles with the game. Low-detail textures, regular pop-in and fluctuating frame rates are the order of the day here, and while post-launch patches have improved these issues, the PC version remains the best bet for tech-sensitive gamers (and in the long run, I’d say the best bet for future adopters).
That said, Warhorse has put together a stunner of a world, even on the graphically weaker PS4 version. Sadly, the inhabitants of that world are a bit of a mixed bag. While Henry and the rest of the main cast are well-rendered, with excellent (if a little repetitive) animation and mo-cap work, the rest of Bohemia’s population appears to be made up of about a dozen people who keep cloning themselves judging by the repetition of faces in the cast of NPCs. It’s quickly noticeable, and rather odd considering the scope of detail elsewhere.
There’s also the ethical elephant in the room that has overshadowed Kingdom Come: Deliverance’s release. The game, which makes historical veracity part of its very DNA through its own concept and marketing, has taken some heat for its lack of people of colour, and its portrayal of women in predominantly subservient roles.
Game director Daniel Vavra’s response to this criticism— namely, that this is appropriate for a small Eastern European country in the medieval age — at least has somewhat of the ring of plausibility about it that, in my personal opinion, excuses at least this game. It’s vaguely plausible that a blacksmith’s son rising through the ranks may not necessarily encounter non-whites (though some have disputed this). In the context of this game’s premise, I can allow for this. Less acceptable is Vavra’s previous GamerGate leaning, and the way some have framed purchasing this game as a strike against SJWs, the insidious influence of rampant political correctness blah-de-blah-de-blah-de-bollocks…
Look, Vavra’s an idiot who seems to be subscribing to the Cliffy B school of game developers who don’t know when to shut their mouths. That said, his game’s a damn strong one which, if Warhorse goes ahead with the proposed trilogy — almost a certainty considering this game’s success — has a ton of space to incorporate foreign influence on Bohemia, and more influential female characters. Unfortunately, though, it appears that that would take a well-advised change in narrative leadership.
Of course, the issue of bugs needs to be addressed considering the less-than-polished state in which the game was released. WarHorse Studios has released a raft of hefty patches to address the issue (a whole AAA game’s worth of data in fact), and although it has made for a much more stable experience, issues still arose with characters clipping into each other, and textures — sometimes entire models — failing to load. One quest involving a brutal murder failed to load the actual corpse, resulting in a Monty Python-esque scene with people reeling in horror from a perfectly normal patch of wall. Horse controls still feel a little rough as well, with some questionable collision behaviour: a row of shrubs shouldn’t stop a war horse going at full pelt, which happens without fail in Kingdom Come: Deliverance and makes traversing denser areas a real pain.
Overall, Kingdom Come: Deliverance is a hugely rewarding experience for RPG fans, especially old-school ones who love a bit of an idiosyncratic role-playing experience. It’s a clunky beast that overreaches itself, but with so much goodness at its core that it can’t be denied. Also, for the music fans, Jan Valta and Adam Sporka’s exquisite score is an all-timer. It alone adds so much to the immersiveness of the game that it’d be a damn crime if it was ignored come awards time.
Kingdom Come: Deliverance is a big bag of catnip for old-school RPG fans that has some notable flaws. Unfortunate structural quirks, its rather short-sighted fixation with challenge meaning systematic obtuseness, a diminishing but considerable raft of bugs and its creator being a bit of a Gamergate-nuzzling fucknut are certainly creditable flaws, but the good here is compelling enough to recommend it. Let’s just hope that Warhorse Studios tones down the bullshit in the inevitable sequels.
Kingdom Come: Deliverance was reviewed using a retail PlayStation 4 code provided by its Australian marketing team. It is available on PlayStation 4, Windows PC and Xbox One.