Kingdom Come - Deliverance review: Crusaders and Caveats
- 19 March, 2018 09:00
That moment right after the story and cutscene-heavy opening chapters of Kingdom Come: Deliverance come to their dramatic conclusion, when the scope and breadth of the game begin to fully reveal themselves to you, made me think of a lot of different things.
Specifically, it reminds me of this one specific quote. It’s a great one by Ira Glass - the mastermind behind the enormously popular podcast This American Life - that sticks with me even a decade or so after I first read it.
It goes like this:
“All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer.”
Before we get stuck into the review itself, let me explain why this is relevant.
To make something like Kingdom Come: Deliverance, I get the sense that you have to have a lot of faith in your own taste. While it’s not hard to imagine there being an audience for this game, it’s difficult to envision it being the kind of easy mass-market success that draws the backing of a major publisher.
Pitched as an ultra-detailed simulation of medieval 1400s Bohemia with an easy-to-learn, hard-to-master melee combat system, Kingdom Come: Deliverance is staggeringly-ambitious as far as debut efforts go. It’s a daunting idea with countless mechanical pain-points and an uber sort of niche-appeal.
Thus, Prague-based developer Warhorse Studios turned to Kickstarter. They initially asked for €300,000 but ended up raking in over €1.1 million in their initial crowdfunding campaign. At that time, Deliverance was one of 2014’s biggest crowdfunding success stories and, considering just how niche ‘holy roman empire simulator’ sounds, it was an easy underdog narrative to come on board with. Something for fans of the historical-sim genre, by fans of the historical-sim genre.
Still, I can’t help but think that kind of mass financial endorsement might warp your perspective. At least, a little. When that many other people believe in your idea, you can’t be on the wrong track - right? It would certainly go some ways towards explain the other half of the narrative around this game.
Now, bit of a disclaimer about this next bit. Telling you whether or not a controversy around a game should put you off buying or playing it isn’t ~usually~ my jurisdiction. Maybe the next couple of paragraphs will do just that, maybe they won’t. However, in 2018, I think that the ethics of production around the media we consume is something that’s totally up for discussion in a review. Whether or not it’s a deal-breaker is ultimately up to you but it’s not like anyone is going to review the next season of House of Cards without talking about what happened with Kevin Spacey. The big picture is still part of the picture.
Over the course of the development of Kingdom Come, the game's director Daniel Vávra garnered frequent online criticism. Firstly, for his support of 2013’s GamerGate (an infamous harassment campaign directed at marginalised people in the games industry), and then again following a controversial decision made by Warhorse; that, in the interests of quote-unquote historical accuracy, their game would feature exclusively Caucasian characters.
Does this claim stack up? Well, the most cleanest answer here is that we don’t really know. History is kinda messy like that.
Ask anyone who has ever studied it and they’ll you that the amount that we know about time periods like the 1400s is vastly dwarfed by the things we don’t know. It might be nice to conceptualize history as a list of neat facts that tell us everything we need to know about things-that-definitely happened. However, the reality is that history is only what we have left of what was chosen to be recorded for motivations we don’t understand. Even in the best of circumstances, this combination offers up an incomplete picture and a broader narrative that’s always open to being rewritten by new evidence.
There are some academics who agree with Warhorses’ claim. There are others who disagree and say that, while people of color were undoubtedly a minority during this part of Europe during the middle ages, they did have a presence that’s worth, if not including, at least acknowledging in a game like this.
The problem here is really more that a behind-the-scenes decision has - in lieu of factual certainty on either side - opted to depict a (perhaps-more comfortable and familiar) version of its setting that plays to (and perpetuates) the racially-charged stereotype that the middle ages was a time period entirely populated by white people. For another game, this particular call might not be as big of an issue. However, there are few games out there that play the historical accuracy card as strongly as Kingdom Come: Deliverance does - which makes the rationale for this decision come across as pretty half-hearted and wholly-unconvincing.
Throughout development, Warhorse Studios have been actively highlighting just how accurate their game’s depiction of its setting is. They even went so far as to hire a full-time historian to guide the game’s development - and brag about it to fans and the games press. For them, the historical accuracy of this game is everything.
Nobody’s saying that Warhorse’s vision of Bohemia has to look like Wakanda - but it’s hard to shake the fact that really wouldn’t have been that difficult to put a single person of color in this game. Hell, Warhorse have stuck a bunch of fourth-wall-breaking references to The Witcher, Game of Thrones and even X-Men in there.
Historical accuracy isn’t just a moving target, it’s a phantom one. And in lieu of the ability to live up to this ideal, it feels fair to say that Kingdom Come: Deliverance is a historically-accurate representation of the middle ages in the same way that HBO’s Westworld is an accurate representation of the Wild West. It’s impressively detailed, but in a way that’s designed to delight and engage its target audience - not in a way that’s really all that realistic.
Simply put, it sits closer to historically-inspired than actually accurate. Still, despite all this culture-war drama, I am actually having a generally-great experience with this game. So let's talk about that.
As (exhaustively) explained above, Kingdom Come: Deliverance is a first-person open-world sandbox action-roleplaying game set in 15th century Bohemia. You play as Henry, the son of a blacksmith whose routine rural life is shattered when an army of pesky Hungarians roll in from the hills, raze your village to the ground, murder your family and steal your father’s sword. One thing leads to another, and Henry quickly finds himself in the service of a noble lord. His mission: to track down his father’s sword and investigate the shadowy conspiracy destabilizing the setting’s particular corner of medieval Europe.
Following this sweeping and cinematic introduction, however, Kingdom Come: Deliverance quickly opens up and give you plenty of directions to go. You can pursue the main plot, becoming more embroiled in the affairs of the local nobility (and a beneficiary of their favor). You can take up local bounties and hunt down bandits. You can become a poacher, a gambler, a merchant, alchemist or a thief. What’s more, and to their credit, Warhorse have done a great job of giving a compelling level of depth to each of these possibilities. For seemingly every possibility that Kingdom Come: Deliverance has to offer, a set of satisfying rules and systems have been built out by Warhorse. Everything feels worth exploring, and the more you explore it, the better Henry gets at it.
There are easy comparisons to be made here between this and the Fallout and Elder Scrolls series. However, I’d say that these examples are far closer to roleplaying games with open-world sandbox elements while Kingdom Come: Deliverance comes across as much more of an open world sandbox game with roleplaying elements in it.
For example - If you don’t sleep - Henry will get tired, suffering debuffs and, if you leave it long enough, death. If you forget to eat frequently enough, Henry will starve to death. If you eat rotten or spoiled food, Henry will get sick. If you forget to bath regularly, your attempts to convince other characters that you’re acting on behalf of your liege-lord won’t be as convincing.
This might sound like a lot to manage. However, it’s all fairly intuitive and thanks to a few dialogue cues from Henry (“I’m feeling kinda hungry, I should get something to eat”), dealing with these everyday-demands became something I’d often handle without even thinking about it.
There’s no better example of the game’s sim-first approach than combat. In this context (as with every other part of the game), Warhorse talk a good game about Kingdom Come: Deliverance being more realistic than other RPGs. However, it’d be far more accurate to say it feels more authentic than realist.
The direction you hold your sword shapes the trajectory of your next swing and emerging victorious often comes down to striking with the right timing than it does Henry’s strength stat. Your stamina - used to attack, block and dodge - also acts as a buffer against damage - so managing it is crucial.
The end result of all these systems? Combat encounters that feel like they approximate or evoke the physical logic of real-life sword fighting. Fight someone on horseback - and you’ll benefit from obvious advantages. Fight too aggressively and you’ll get tired. Get tired, you’ll be unable to stop yourself from getting hit. Get hit, and it’s going to hurt. Most characters in Kingdom Come: Deliverance, yourself included, can only really take a handful of direct hits before they go down.
There’s definitely a learning curve to this aspect of the game, and the high-level of precision timing demanded sometimes comes out the loser against Kingdom Come: Deliverance’s general jankiness. Still, the flip-side of having such a unique and skill-heavy combat system is it makes combat exciting, unpredictable and deep. It can be a bit of a slog until it clicks with you - but once you get it, you get it.
I haven’t even really touched on the rock-paper-scissors system of armor and weapon types in the game, nor the archery system (where Kingdom Come: Deliverance forces you to compensate for Henry’s arms shaking and won’t even give you the benefit of any sort of cross-hairs, forcing you to ‘eye-ball’ each shot) nor the Fallout-style perks that you unlock as you go through the game. There’s almost too many interesting systems in this game to cover it all in a single reviews that’s already a little on the long side. Let’s just say that if you’re someone with a taste for digging into the details, Kingdom Come: Deliverance has a lot to offer. I’m over 50 hours in, and I’m still discovering new nuances.
Of course, with all this ambition, comes a lot of bugs. I’ve played some pretty buggy games in my time but Kingdom Come: Deliverance does an exceptional job of taking you back to an older, jankier era of PC gaming. Even a month or so since the game officially launched, it’s clear that Warhorse have a lot of work cut-out for them.
Sure, some bugs are kinda-funny. Like, sometimes a combat animation would randomly throw my character a couple meters into the air. However, a lot of the game’s technical issues end up pretty trying on my patience.
One of the first side-quests I unlocked in Kingdom Come: Deliverance involved catching some escaped nightingales for the town’s Master Huntsman. After catching the feathered fugitives, I returned to to the Huntsman only for Henry to become locked into an eternal staring match with the NPC. I couldn’t cancel out of the conversation. I couldn’t skip it. Everytime I attempted to finish this quest, I ended up in this same frustrating position - from which a swift Alt-F4 was the only escape.
Another time, everything bar-one specific non-violent resolution to a key conversation in the game’s main quest would cause Kingdom Come: Deliverance to freeze-out on a loading screen.
One time, I even died from fall damage when dismounting my horse.
Eventually, it adds up - and these are made particularly frustrating by the game’s unorthodox save system. Out of the gate, Kingdom Come: Deliverance only allows you to save your game in two ways: by either finding somewhere to sleep or by drinking a special (and not-inexpensive) bottle of schnapps. Now, I’m not opposed to novel save mechanics - see our review of Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice for more on this - but the the general bugginess, high-skill combat and save limitations here make for a extremely-trying cocktail.
Warhorse Studios have said that they’ll be adding a new save-and-quit option to the game in a future patch, which should alleviate some of my issues with the existing system. However, I still feel like this kind of feature would be a better fit for an enthusiast difficulty setting (ala X-COM’s Iron Man mode) rather than the default.
On a technical level, Kingdom Come: Deliverance is nothing short of a hot mess.
In addition to numerous quests being broken, in-game performance can quickly slide from a perfectly fine to a super-choppy low-FPS experience. Texture pop-in are also a frequent occurrence and, while recent patches have brought with them some critical improvements, loading times are still way too long - especially for in-engine conversations.
The Bottom Line
Kingdom Come: Deliverance is an enormous experience - and I can’t even pretend I’ve come close to seeing it all. Not yet. I’ve sunk something like 50-60 hours in (an issue with a patch caused my save-game to be erased about twenty hours into the experience, so I’m technically on my second playthrough) and I still have a bunch of side-content left to go.
Historically-inspired games are a rare breed, and one that’s kind of always come with caveats. Think about Assassin's Creed. It’s a series which offered up some of the most detailed reconstructions of Renaissance Italy, the French Revolution and Ancient Egypt in gaming. However, the rich-historical appeal of the series has always arrived tempered by the reality that they have to also double as massive-market AAA blockbusters with fetch-quests, DLC and microtransactions. With Kingdom Come: Deliverance, a very different sort of caveat is in play - but it’s a caveat all the same. Having a good time here ultimately relies on your willingness to live with the many missteps along the way.
Really, what it comes down to is taste.
Kingdom Come: Deliverance isn’t perfect - both on mechanics and on, quote-unquote, historical accuracy - and it’s definitely not going to be for everyone. Still, if you’re willing to put up with its imperfections and shortcomings, it’s an ambitious experience that comes surprisingly of living up to its lofty promises.
It's not by any means historically accurate, but Kingdom Come: Deliverance's hills, forests and towns are probably worth seeing anyway.