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Review: Kingdom Come: Deliverance
Redbrick Gaming duo Zack Hughes and James Honke donate their time and energy into reviewing the brutally realistic historic RPG, Kingdom Come: Deliverance
A man stops us by the side of the road. He’s well armoured, but not nearly as much as us; we’re a tank, a local hero in the nearby town of Rattay and wearing Milanese plate that costs more than the yearly wage of most skilled artisans. Henry (our playable character) hops off his horse and talks to the man, quizzing him on why exactly he’s wasting our time – after all, we have work to do for the honourable Sir Radzig. The stranger summarily challenges us to a duel at the roadside with a beautiful sword as the prize for the victor, along with a knight’s pride and honour, of course. Five minutes later, we walk away with a beautiful sword and even greater sense that we are a god amongst mere mortals and both of us pause and exhale, letting out a mixture of satisfaction and relief – that fight was not so difficult, but death lingers around every corner and we haven’t been able to save in an hour.
Moments like this are rife in Kingdom Come: Deliverance, as the developers at Warhorse have managed to craft a brutally realistic RPG in a living, breathing reconstruction of 15th century Bohemia which hums with vibrancy and brings an oft-overlooked period of history to sputtering life, whilst often sending you, Henry the blacksmith’s son, to an equally sputtering death.
This is due to an unforgiving combat system that rewards timing and punishes mistakes harshly. During combat, the reticule switches from a simple dot into a five-pointed star, which allows attacks to be aimed at different parts of the body - similar to Ubisoft's For Honor. Landed hits are as deadly to opponents as they are to you, and skirmishes often end in only one or two successful blows depending on your or the opponent's armour.
Whilst there's a temptation to button-mash, the trick to success is to learn a few of the unlockable combo moves to break an opponent's defences, and the need to use movement to your advantage makes you think about combat encounters far more in Kingdom Come than in many other games. Facing off against 5 heavily armoured enemies in Skyrim? No problem. Fus-ro-dah! But in Kingdom Come, it's a death sentence if you don't think your strategy and positioning through. It's a chunky, brutal system, and one that does a good job of reminding you of your own humble mortality – over and over again.
It isn't just the combat that forces you to think though, as the game features a survival system that forces the player to monitor their hunger, energy, and even their personal hygiene. Going without food or sleep for too long will lead Henry to collapse from exhaustion or malnutrition, and having dirty or worn-out clothing will have a negative effect on your charisma stat, making it harder to talk your way out of trouble. All this means is that you'll need to plan your lengthier escapades in advance, taking into account the need for a safe place to sleep and a cooking pot to eat from. Having to look after Henry’s needs is a nice feature, as they require enough consideration to plan your journeying and questing around but aren't so obstructive that they disallow longer periods of exploration.
There are also perks that can help with delaying the negative effects of hunger and exhaustion. These perks are, in true RPG fashion, separated under the skill that is relevant to them: only by levelling up your strength stat can you unlock the ability to carry more equipment; only by practicing with swords or axes or maxed will you be able to perform special combo moves with them; only by mastering the art of stealth will you learn how to silently kill an enemy from behind. The skill set is extensive, and features more niche stats such as horsemanship, lockpicking, speech, reading, and - of course - drinking. These all add a well-rounded character to Henry and offer the player many different routes to success. The perks also often come with a ‘give-and-take’, forcing you to weigh up the pros and cons and consider your playstyle when picking them.
It's been said that Kingdom Come's relatively demanding gameplay and punishing combat makes the game 'not for everyone' - and while I think that is true for any game, the gameplay is neither prohibitively difficult nor particularly complex, given enough time. There's a steep learning curve at the game's beginning to be sure, and crucial elements of the combat system (such as learning how to effectively riposte an incoming attack) can be easily missed, but at its heart is a mechanic that succeeds in being far more interesting and exciting than those found in most modern RPGs (Skyrim included).
Combat rarely fails to get the adrenaline pumping, especially as due to the game’s equally punishing save system. Unlike most modern games (and much like Fallout 4's survival mode), the game will only save if the player sleeps in a bed, drinks one of the game's 'quicksave' drinks (known as 'Saviour Schnapps', which must be either bought or brewed), or if certain points in quests are met. It's an interesting mechanic that always leaves you in fear of danger - or unexpected crashes. Whilst the mechanic leaves you on edge when heading into dangerous situations, the punishment of lost progress is more irritating than it is damaging. Rather than being forced to repeat any activities completed since the last save point before dying, we'd have preferred an optional system that depletes skills or robs you of equipment upon death as the game is prone to crashing that steals hours of progress. Honestly, it’s as boring as it is frustrating.
However, this is rarely enough to steal the heart from the story. Whilst the game’s narrative is nothing truly original (it is, after all, limited by the premise of realism), there is enough life in the characters to make it compelling. Henry is lovably human with flaws and strengths that make him a very likeable and charming protagonist, whilst the other characters (friends and foes) have strength and complexity; just enough, in fact, to pull the story along when it drags. We’d have personally liked a greater deal of strong female characters in the game, especially in the context of the Hussite Revolution that forms a great part of the game’s world, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t any, with your life being saved by one in the game’s prologue.
Indeed, the characters form the backbone of the story of the game, meaning that we continue because we want them to succeed, not because of any great story arc or noble quest. In fact, noble deeds are quite rare in Kingdom Come – you’re just a man trying to make the best of your life, and it often shows, with the tensions between Henry’s morality and your ‘good gameplay’ sense being often obvious. The game’s time-sensitive missions also lend the game a sense of urgency and prevent you from just wandering around aimlessly, though in practice there are enough missions without time constraints to allow you to roam and complete non-critical missions. Between the characters and the world, there is a great deal of heart in the story despite its mundanity, which gives you a reason to do all those otherwise meaningless side quests (or even main quests) even when the game glitches on you. As unfortunately, it often will.
Indeed, there are more than a few irritating gameplay bugs that are yet to be ironed out at the time of review - such as the all-too-regular inability to climb stairs (especially when encumbered with stuff) and several conversations with NPCs causing crashes and infinite loading screens, including from quest-givers. This leaves you in something of a bind – either attempt to get the quest and risk losing a large period of progress (as well as having to wait a veritable age for loading), or leave a quest unfinished, which aches just about every bone in my RPG-loving body. Major, often gamebreaking bugs such as these are unacceptable in a full-price game at launch and really need to be addressed immediately (though Warhorse is firing out patches about as fast as it can). This is before we even get to the graphical bugs, and well, the graphics in general.
Whilst the lighting is vibrant and realistic, there are a great deal of graphical issues in the game. When the sun is shining the landscapes are pretty, whether crossing an open field full of flowers and thick grass, or when navigating a forest with the evening sun poking through the trees, Kingdom Come’s Bohemia is a rather nice-looking place to be. The towns are less classically beautiful, but are still pleasing, with the authentically-recreated medieval Czech buildings and castles holding a charming quaintness, especially coupled with the gorgeous selection of atmospheric medieval music (though often times it doesn't seem to match up with the pace of gameplay).
However, textures are often poor, and the game is marred by numerous graphical bugs. Horrendous pop-in is frequent to the point that chickens, trees and entire castles appear out of thin air whenever the player walks close, and often NPCs will remain invisible even while engaged in conversation. Whilst most of these glitches are more amusing than sinister, they are glitches nonetheless and demonstrate a somewhat lack of polish. Of course, this will no doubt be excused by many because of the developer's pseudo-indie status, but what we mustn't forget is that Kingdom Come: Deliverance retails at £55 - the same as any AAA-title. Assassin's Creed: Unity was mocked and slammed because of its graphical glitches, and we shouldn't give Kingdom Come a free pass just because of the developer's relatively small stature.
In summary, Kingdom Come delivers what it promised; a tough as nails uber-realistic RPG set in a war-torn medieval Europe. What sets it aside from others of its ilk, however, is the grounded nature of the experience. There're no dragons here, nor any other kind of mystical presence beyond the potions you must painstakingly craft. Henry isn't some ‘chosen one’ foretold in prophecies. You're not a hero - unless you choose to be one - even that could end badly. Forget your status and you could end up in jail for insulting a nobleman. Or in a ditch. This lends a real sense of weight to Henry’s adventures which, along with a game which does just about enough to get by in other areas, will suck you in for hours on end. Or until it crashes anyway.