Imagine Skyrim or The Witcher without all the dragons and magic, and the end result is this flawed but ambitious new RPG.
One of the things that always annoys us about historical movies is everything always looks so old. The castles are usually just real castles as they are today – crumbling and overrun with vegetation – rather than the state-of-the-art fortresses they would have been at the time. Everything is always grimy and colourless, when in fact buildings, particularly churches, were usually daubed in gaudy colours. Or at least that’s how it worked in England, we’re not sure about 15th century Bohemia.
Video games do arguably have a better track record than movies when it comes to realism, at least visually. We may not have been great fans of Assassin’s Creed Origins in general, but it avoided almost all the pitfalls we’ve just described. Kingdom Come: Deliverance goes even further though, with an obsession over period detail that is the game’s raison d’être. It’s essentially Skyrim (or more properly Oblivion) but set in the real world. And it’s just as fascinating, and frustrating, as that suggests.
Despite the first person view, Kingdom Come is actually closer to The Witcher 3 in terms of tone and gameplay emphasis, as well as its unromantic view of human nature. The game is punishingly hard, and it’s arguable whether a lot of it is actually enjoyable in any traditional manner, but it clearly has a vision of its own and is steadfast in its pursuit of it.
As in The Witcher, you play the game as a named character called Henry. An ordinary peasant whose parents are killed when his village is burnt down as a result of a conflict between the king and his half-brother. Since his father was a blacksmith, Henry manages to escape with a sword but little else, and then sets about working his way up the social hierarchy. Or at least as far as it will allow him with his background.
The interesting thing about Kingdom Come’s obsession with realism is that it means it’s actually a very colourful-looking game. There’s no grey or brown filters here, just the beauty of the Czech countryside contrasted with the ugliness of human nature. The game seems disappointingly reticent to comment on the latter though, and while there’s some discussion on the injustices of medieval life and the roles of religion, chivalry, and the class system they’re always very brief and fail to furnish the game’s narrative with any real depth.
Which is a shame because not only is there a lot of dialogue but it’s generally quite good, and while the voiceovers do vary greatly the average quality is much higher than you might expect from a relatively low budget game such as this. What’s perhaps most impressive though is the variety of missions, that turn you into a sort of medieval fixer who’s called upon to do everything from solve murders, perform church ceremonies, and track down heretics.
Exactly how much combat there is, is largely up to you. And depending on how you evolve your skills it’s possible to talk your way out of as many fights as it is to engage in the rather clunky combat. First person swordfighting never works well in any game, given how difficult it is to judge distance, but Kingdom Come does as good as job as most, with the biggest problem being the noticeable delay between you pressing a button and making your attack.
Henry’s skill tree encompasses more than just fighting and talking though, and it’s interesting how things like whether you can read or not can bring some missions to a dead stop no matter what else you do. Even better is that your reputation often proceeds you, and if you’re caught thieving then many people will stop dealing with you. While if you try and start talking to a nobleman while covered in the blood and mud of battle they’ll simply have nothing to do with you.
What Kingdom Come doesn’t really have though is anything meaningful in the way of reward for exploration. You’re not going to be finding any chests filled with loot, or monster-filled dungeons; just the odd thieves’ den or army encampment. The open world is large but it’s also filled with invisible walls, and knee high obstacles, that seem very old-fashioned compared to other modern video game environment.
Kingdom Come’s overriding problem though, is that realism doesn’t always make for very compelling gameplay, and while it’s tempting to criticise the game for being rather empty, and frequently quite dull, you also have to accept that that’s almost the point.
As for the controversy over the game director’s politics, it’s hard to say whether it affects the game or not. We certainly don’t know whether there were any black people in Bohemia during the period, but the game doesn’t restrain itself when portraying other minorities, particularly Cumans, as dangerous outsiders; while female characters are constantly sidelined and/or treated as chattel. Whether all this is done purely out of a desire for historical accuracy, or is just using that as an excuse to revel in medieval style bigotry, is difficult to say – but it’s clearly going to make the game unpalatable to many people.
No matter how you interpret it though, Kingdom Come is an interesting and ambitious game. The biggest problem at the moment though is the inconsistent frame rate and other very obvious bugs and glitches, but we’re willing to believe they’ll be patched out soon enough.
It’s the fact that the medieval world does seem so realistic that is both the game’s greatest achievement and biggest flaw. It doesn’t take much knowledge of history to know that life back then was brutal, unfair, and often quite boring. For better or worse Kingdom Come reflects all of that, and yet still manages to deliver a surprisingly engrossing game.
Kingdom Come: Deliverance
In Short: It won’t be for everyone, for various reasons, but if nothing else Kingdom Come proves that a role-playing game doesn’t have to rely on fantasy to keep you interested.
Pros: The period detail, at least on a surface level, is very impressive and the role-playing elements and mission variety are handled very well. Nuanced character interactions.
Cons: The clunky combat is never much fun and the open world is often bereft of interesting things to see or do. Lots of bugs and glitches at launch.
Formats: PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Xbox One, and PC
Publisher: Deep Silver
Developer: Warhorse Studios
Release Date: 13th February 2018
Age Rating: 18