Kingdom Come: Deliverance Review
A day in the medieval life
Kingdom Come: Deliverance is the sort of game that only comes along once in a while. Possessing great ambition and loads of original ideas that make it charming and captivating, even if several aspects of the experience don’t quite come together as well as they could. In this case, it is a unique realism-driven approach to role-playing game design in regards to both subject matter and gameplay mechanics that allow Kingdom Come to really stand out from the crowd in a landscape that sees bigger games smoothing the edges off to make them as easily digestible as possible. Though most of the game’s fresh ideas and unique approach to design work well, a couple of missteps and a plethora of bugs ranging from amusing to game-breaking do a lot to harm the overall experience of playing it.
Perhaps most refreshing of all is how in Kingdom Come you don’t play as some world-saving hero. Instead, the engaging and well-told story sees you playing as Henry, the simple son of a Blacksmith in medieval Bohemia whose character progression throughout the game is substantial but largely believable. You start the game under relatively idyllic circumstances for the time, apprenticing for your father, getting into trouble with your friends and getting to know the townsfolk as you work to make a sword for the local Lord. Before long, an army invades looking to gain access to the village’s silver resources, and Henry is forced to bear witness to the brutal murder of his parents before he manages to escape to warn a nearby town of the invaders and seek refuge.
This launches a story that manages to balance believability with entertainment value rather deftly as Henry goes into the service of the Lord he was initially making a sword for in hopes of getting revenge on the men who destroyed their village. Henry is ultimately a solid and likable protagonist and the story does a great job of putting you in his position as he learns more about the world outside the village he grew up in. There are some truly memorable sequences throughout the story, such as getting drunk with a morally flexible Priest who is fed-up with the corruption and opulence of churches in the region, or going undercover in a monastery in order to track down a criminal who is hiding there. There is no shortage of memorable, well acted and written characters and sequences that often reminded me of the Witcher series.
One of the main things that makes the storytelling so effective is how the game goes out of its way to put you in Henry’s shoes. In a class-based society, Henry is out of his league interacting with nobles, and must endure some poor treatment as a result. One memorable sequence early on sees you being forced to run on foot behind a nobleman who is riding a horse, deeming you unworthy of your own mount. Another early plot point has Henry taking part in the night’s watch, which involves walking around the walls of a castle with a torch with nothing of note occurring for a significant stretch of time. While this sort of slow-paced approach to storytelling certainly won’t be for everyone, I found it really helped immerse me in the medieval setting.
The gameplay mechanics and character progression also go a long way to immersing you in the world. As a Blacksmith’s apprentice, your skill set outside of this niche trade is extremely limited, meaning you will be quite ineffective at fighting, sneaking, shooting a bow or just about anything else you try early on. The gameplay mechanics are highly involved and mimic what it would be like to try swinging a sword or using a bow and arrow for the first time. In order to increase Henry’s abilities in any given area, you must either find someone to train you or spend significant time practicing, and as such your skill as a player grows along with Henry’s as a character. Perhaps the only nod to conventional RPG character progression is how you can select perks in different areas once you level up a skill enough, such as special combos in sword fighting or having the ability to eat spoiled food without suffering ill effects.
The number of different mechanics is too great for a detailed description of each in a review, but let's touch on the major points. Kingdom Come is generally not very combat heavy, but there are times when you will get into fights with bandits either attacking one of their camps or being on the receiving end of an ambush on the road. Fighting with melee weapons is quite involved; you can attack from multiple directions, but also must block from multiple directions depending on how your enemy is holding theirs. You can also dodge incoming attacks and perform ripostes by timing blocks perfectly, which is quite tricky. Using a shield makes blocking easier but makes it harder to see what your opponent is doing when holding it up to protect yourself.
In addition, different weapon types are more effective against different types of armor; a blunt object like a mace will be more effective at crushing plate armor than a sword which will typically glance off it even if you get past your opponent's attempts to block. As you get better you can learn deadly combos, but enemies will also use combos against you, with tougher enemies having better armor and more elaborate move-sets rather than just increased health and damage. The melee combat takes a good deal of getting used to but I ended up quite liking it, and enjoyed how the progression goes beyond simply having increased damage. Fist fighting is a bit less exciting as I found I was able to flail my way through most fights, and archery is simple but quite challenging as there is no aiming reticule and Henry has a really tough time holding the bow steady until he has practiced with it quite a bit.
Outside of combat, you will need to worry about sleeping, eating and maintaining both the cleanliness and condition of your gear. NPCs will treat you a bit differently if you appear in filthy rags compared to fine clothes or a suit of shining armor. If you want to try your hand at sneaking, you will need to take off heavy armor as it will clank and jangle as you try and creep around. Even failing at the tricky lock-picking mini-game makes noise and can alert anyone nearby, resulting in a trip to jail if you get caught and can’t talk or bribe your way out of it.
While you will need to engage in most of these mechanics as part of the story, there are also abundant side quests and activities. These range from stealing specific items for a sort of organization of thieves, to hunting animals, to helping cure the sick. Each side quest is hand crafted and both story and side quests can often be completed in multiple ways. You can also follow cryptic treasure maps to find some of the best items in the game or simply go explore the beautiful woods and countryside, clearing out bandit camps or hunting for your own meat supply. All of the side activities seemed useful either for earning money or increasing Henry’s skills and I enjoyed almost everything I did, as long as it worked properly.
It is clear the main goal of Warhorse Studios was to immerse players in the time period and setting. While for the most part they succeed, there are a couple of things that will get in the way of your immersion, with the worst offender being some pretty serious bugs and glitches. Many of the bugs are relatively benign and the kind you might expect in an ambitious systems-driven open world game, such as your horse getting stuck or the camera facing the wrong direction during conversations. Much more problematic are quest bugs, especially common in side-quests. I was unable to complete a significant percentage of side quests I picked up due to various bugs and glitches. Broken loading screens and moments where you get stuck in combat and are unable to perform most actions despite there being no enemies nearby, prompting a re-load of a previous save, were also problems I encountered numerous times.
To make matters worse, Kingdom Come uses an unusual save system; the game saves when you sleep in a bed you own, at some points during quests, or when you drink a very expensive or difficult to brew potion. The reasoning behind this limited save system is understandable; the developers want you to live with the consequences of your actions, such as going to prison when getting caught stealing instead of just loading a quick-save. The problem is that the save system in combination with the many bugs and glitches resulted in my losing thirty minutes to an hour progress numerous times. The more I played, the less I trusted the game to work as intended and the more frequently I felt the need to save, and having to travel to a bed and go through the animations and waiting involved in sleeping quickly became tedious.
Fortunately, for all the bugs I didn’t have many serious issues with performance or crashing aside from the aforementioned broken load screens. The game runs on CryEngine 3, and ends up being one of the best looking games to use the engine, with some outstanding texture work in particular and natural lighting that makes the villages, countryside and forests feel real. I was unable to run the game on the highest settings with acceptable performance, though even dropped down a notch it still looks excellent, but a couple of the biggest towns and larger battles during the story definitely caused the frame rate to take a hit. The audio is largely excellent as well from the subtle difference in the sounds of your sword hitting flesh versus armor to the trickling of water and chirping of birds in the verdant forests. The soundtrack is great as well, using era-appropriate instruments with a mixture of more somber and uplifting tunes.
It is easy to see that a huge amount of passion went into making Kingdom Come: Deliverance the game it is, and when it works properly it is easily one of the most unique, immersive and engaging role playing games I have ever encountered. It is a real shame then that it seems to have been released prematurely with the unfortunate mixture of game-breaking bugs and a sparse save system resulting in some deeply frustrating moments. The slow-pace and granular mechanics certainly won't be for everyone, but if the idea of a realism-driven medieval RPG appeals to you, the game will be well worth playing if the developers make good on their promise to clean up the experience with patches.