Kingdom Come: Deliverance was a grand idea. In a genre awash with fantasy epics, it sought to ground a role-playing adventure not in some distant and imaginary land, but in history. There would be no wizards, no dragons, no giant rats - just you, a horse, some mud, and a cast of flawed human beings.
Drawing on extensive historical research as well as the experiences of its homegrown Czech development team, Kingdom Come sought to tell a very real tale, narrowing its focus so that it would only include a small cast of important characters and an intimate patch of 15th-century Central European countryside.
Since its announcement back in 2013, I've been quietly excited to get my hands on the finished game, both as a big fan of this kind of RPG as well as a lover of European history. It's been a depressing month spent playing through it, then, to find that for all its ambition, Kingdom Come just doesn't work very well.
There are the separate and individual parts of an incredible video game here, but the game's flimsy tech and inconsistent design just can't hold them together long enough for Kingdom Come to win me over.
The writing, occasionally honest and endearing, is in other parts agonisingly out of place and over-cooked. The pacing of the game's main storyline is completely off, spending its first half lazily spinning its wheels before dragging you through an excruciatingly overdrawn conclusion.
The so-called "realistic" combat system, implemented in an attempt to fix the click-happy madness of games like Skyrim, introduces more problems with its speed and clumsiness as it solves by making swords feel truly dangerous. And that's just the melee systems. Trying to use a bow is a frustrating exercise in repetition and guesswork.
Most glaring of the design missteps, though, is Kingdom Come's save system, which restricts saving your progress to certain key points in the story, or by obtaining, then drinking, potions. Time is precious, and it astounds me that in 2018 a game was released that doesn't respect the fact I may have other shit to do (or have things come up) that prevent me from sitting through long passages of a game, or that I don't want to replay hours-long stretches of a mission because of a bug or accidental death.
And it's not like losing progress to a bug, or simply having one wreck interrupt your session, is a rare occurrence in Kingdom Come. When I say there are technical issues with this game, I'm not talking about the odd performance hiccup or framerate stutters. I'm talking about fundamental problems at almost every point.
The pop-in I encountered running on a standard hard drive is some of the worst I have ever seen, although things are supposedly improved by installing it to a solid-state drive.
At times entire cutscenes played out like the game was released in 2001, all jagged faces and empty textures. NPC scripting was also not up to scratch. Sometimes the results were funny, like seeing a man floating in mid-air holding a ladder going nowhere. But other times it's a more serious concern, like the two times I had to reload during key story missions because important characters simply didn't show up or start delivering their performances.
Running into one or two of these things during a game would be a problem. Running into so many of them so often undermines the entire point of Kingdom Come. It's presented by Warhorse as an immersive, authentic role-playing game set in a fully-realised medieval world, but at every turn the world is breaking down around you.
Even were successive patches and updates to fix many of the more superficial technical woes, I still don't think I'd come around to recommending this as a great or even serviceable RPG, because the struggles at the heart of its design are simply too great to overlook.
So many of Kingdom Come's features are seemingly there merely to boost the perceived "authenticity" of the experience. This is history you're meant to be playing through, and Warhorse have decided that the best way to truly immerse the player in that history is to recreate the past, warts and all.
Combat is slow and unwieldy because, supposedly, that's what it was like. That you can't save games all the time because that's not how the real world works. But that's all bullshit. This game isn't a simulation, it's only a simulation when it wants to be.
Why is the save system so punitive when the game has various magic potions? Why do players have to continuously eat and rest to survive when your horse can be instantly summoned to your side at a moment's notice? It's incredibly frustrating to ponder just where the line was drawn during development that determined which parts of Kingdom Come could bow to modern luxuries and which parts were going to be dragged out and made difficult simply to satisfy some inconsistent historical mandate.
The game's lowest ebb, a dreary slog through the daily routine of being a monk-in-training, is the most memorable example of this. Players are made to wander a monastery on a strict timetable, attending mass, reading books and adhering to a curfew. It is as fun and interesting as it sounds, and it's insane to think anyone at Warhorse thought the scant amount of education or immersion on offer was worth the drudgery.
That's a question I found myself asking throughout the rest of the game as well. In what universe was I supposed to enjoy these broken systems implemented in the name of authenticity, when they flew in the face of more convenient, enjoyable ways to play video games? And why did these specific things suck in the name of a greater cause, yet so many other parts of the game weren't made to suffer the same fate?
The answer, of course, is that as Nathan Grayson found when exploring the game's success in spite of all the flaws I've dwelled on above, there is admiration to be found in the idea of Kingdom Come: Deliverance, if not the execution.
The nuts and bolts of the experience - daily village life, objective markers and quests, mission structure - is very Elder Scrolls. The inhabitants of this artificial Czech countryside are going about their routines around you, and everything takes place in real time, according to a day-night schedule. It's a lot to process under the hood, and that might explain why the relatively small team at Warhorse couldn't manage it for the bulk of the game like a larger, more experienced studio like Bethesda can.
But at certain times, in certain situations, they can pull everything together. And those moments that emerge from the chaos are almost worth the hassles that bog you down everywhere else.
I've already mentioned the issues I had with NPC behaviour in storyline missions, but the one thing the game's villagers can do without fail is hit the pub every day at sunset. It's a hell of a thing to see; I parked myself outside a tavern one afternoon to see it go down, and was hypnotised to see everyone end their work, enter their homes, drop their tools then head to the bar, taking their seats, ordering beers, playing dice, dancing the night away and having fun.
It all looks and feels so human, and so natural, that for those precious few hours, Kingdom Come feels alive.
And not every mission is ruined by real-time NPC behaviour. Two quests defined the game for me, and may stick with me long after the general frustrations have faded from memory.
One involved the hunt for the witness to a crime, which led me to a windmill at midnight. Upon discovering that he was hiding in a nearby village, a group of thugs appeared, announcing they were also looking for him. I wasn't capable or willing to engage three armed men directly, so to save my skin I cooked up a plan to test Kingdom Come's mission structure: I told the thugs his hiding location in exchange for them not killing me.
Their leader ran off to murder him, leaving the other two behind to guard me. Upon doing so, I was presented with mission updates telling me that I'd failed to find and question this man. But I wasn't done: I shot one of my chaperones with a bow, then overcame the other in melee combat, and took off after the leader on horseback, hoping to catch him.
Riding at breakneck speed along a country road at night, my way lit only by a torch, I actually came across the thug leader, running in real time, just outside the target's home. I jumped off my horse and shot him, dragging his body off the road — and as soon as I did, the mission objectives reverted to me being able to save and question the witness. I'd saved this guy's bacon, and salvaged a better path through the mission, through some fast-talking and improvised murder. It was amazing.
Kingdom Come: Deliverance
BACK OF THE BOX QUOTE
"Please, install some mods to make this easier on yourself."
TYPE OF GAME
The beautiful countryside. Sometimes, the game gets its shit together and it's awesome.
Most times, however, it can't. And sometimes, it feels like it doesn't even want to.
PC (played), PS4, Xbox One
February 13, 2018
Around 60-70 hours in total. Completed main quest and a number of peripheral diversions.
The other example was my attempt to cure a town of a pestilence. After being told to contact a physician slash herbalist monk for help, I was asked if I could read and if I had skill at alchemy, the game's catch-all term for potion-creation. You begin the game as an illiterate peasant, but I had since put some points into my reading and alchemy skills, so I just clicked "yes," figuring that since I'd been given the option, my skill levels must have been high enough to prompt the responses being made available.
Nope. The recipe I was given was barely legible - Kingdom Come simulates poor reading skill by making in-world text start off as mostly gibberish and making it become clearer the higher your stats. Let's just say I found it incredibly difficult brewing a potion.
But eventually I managed somehow, rode to the village, and distributed the remedy.
Which killed everyone. Because I'd lied, then tried to fake my way through it, and had brewed the wrong potion. An entire village, wiped out, their blood on my hands, all because I'd got cocky and not appreciated the fact the mission had been designed to test my honesty as much as my stats.
That's one that will haunt me for a long time.
This is the shit people wanted from this game, and at times, it genuinely delivers on its promise. Real problems that you're able to solve with actual open-ended and relatable solutions. These two missions weren't testing me with dwarven runes or dark magic. They required quick thinking and human intuition, and rewarded me with some of the best emergent experiences I've run into in an RPG.
Kingdom Come can at times be gorgeous, especially whenever you're away from big buildings or crowds of people. The Bohemian landscape once you hit the countryside is beautiful, and the times I was running or riding around miles of empty woodlands were some of my favourite spent with the game. Things get especially pretty when the weather plays up and creates the kind of wet, moody landscapes that were once solely the reserve of The Witcher 3.
This means Kingdom Come is at its best when you leave its broken world behind. This isn't Skyrim: the woods aren't full of tombs and monsters and caves, so there's really not much to do once you venture outside settlements, which might strike you as a bit boring. But it actually does more for the historical feel of Kingdom Come than any writing, wardrobe design or conversation does because the countryside feels truly wild. Just you, the streams, the birds, and the wind.
While I'm on the game's visuals, Kingdom Come also has some excellent maps. Drawn entirely in a medieval style, they scale wonderfully, with a single large map covering the entire playable region, while zooming in on each settlement provides a separate, more detailed, lovingly characterised image for the towns scattered around backwoods Bohemia. Below is an example; as splendid as it is, it's still a functional map, as it manages to show every road, building and bridge that it needs to.
I'm not angry at Kingdom Come, I'm just… disappointed. It was touted as this grand historical representation, an abandonment of fantasy for a true medieval setting, a game that would let us live the middle ages. But the game we got is just this busted, inconsistently ambitious RPG that shines in points, but falls apart in most others.