The opening screen of the game Darklands warned players that “in Medieval Germany, reality is more horrifying than fantasy” and that’s certainly true. The history of the Germanic region is full of stories that make Game of Thrones look tame by comparison. Despite the seemingly never-ending supply of tales, there’s very few games that remain totally grounded in real life, often preferring to supplement hordes of angry barbarians with dragons and elves. That’s something that Warhorse Studios is looking to change, and thanks to a very successful Kickstarter they’ve been given the chance to prove themselves with Kingdom Come: Deliverance. So does reality make for a better game, or is it truly the more horrifying experience?
The plot of Kingdom Come starts incredibly with the real story of King Wencelaus IV of Bohemia, who in 1402 was kidnapped by his brother Sigismund for failing to live up to the legacy of their legendary father, Emperor Charles IV. To quell local opposition to his illegal reign, Sigismund hired hordes of Hungarian mercenaries to roam the countryside burning and pillaging. Unfortunately, one of the villages in their path of destruction was the small town of Skalitz, where we find our “hero” of this tale, Henry, the Blacksmith’s son. Henry’s parents are killed, his world turned upside down, and you take him on a quest to regain his honor and make a name for himself in the turbulent countryside.
The first thing the game makes apparent is that Henry isn’t some world-changing hero that re-writes the history books. You aren’t going to be slaying the evil king, or leading men into battle, you’re just a guy who’s life has been dealt a bad hand and you’re learning to deal with it. That might sound like it makes for a bad story, but the writing does a great job of keeping it engaging. Rather then trying to build Henry as some warrior god that rules the land, the plot is instead very small and personal, creating believable stakes and situations for Henry to find himself in.
It’s incredibly easy to sympathize with Henry too, and that helps to pull you into his plight. Henry isn’t Geralt of Rivea, but he’s no idiot either. He’s a man that’s been taught to question what’s happening around him, and learned that the most obvious answer isn’t often the correct one. Making the player character a voiced protagonist in an RPG is often a gamble, since it removes a lot of the immersion, but Henry is so well crafted and open to player interaction that after a few hours his life really starts to become yours, and you care about what’s going on.
There’s a lot to be sucked into too. The writing in Kingdom Come is dense, with a massive script. Most, if not all, of the quests have multiple paths you can follow with different outcomes. Then there’s your interactions with NPCs, all of which are voiced with a massive amount of reactionary dialogue based on what you’re up to. The main plot alone is well over several dozen hours, with tonnes of side quests and activities to attempt as well, most with attached skills to increase. There’s a pretty great sense of progression from all of this as you start to craft Henry into a true renaissance man, rather than a weak peasant.
The gameplay of Kingdom Come is a combination of several different ideas, with somewhat mixed results. On the surface its an RPG, with a variety of different skills to level up. Being a blacksmith’s son means that Henry doesn’t really have a lot of skills, and so you start the game under prepared, totally illiterate, and barely able to talk to people. When you’re not improving Henry then you’ll need to take care of him, making sure he gets sleep and food, and you’ll even need to take a bath from time to time to make everyone around stop recoiling in horror. There are other activities too, like making potions with alchemy, playing dice, and archery and melee combat trials to keep you busy enough.
Likely the most talked about aspect of Kingdom Come has been its combat. This is where your enjoyment of the game will live or die, and people seem to either hate it or accept it. There’s a lot about it that works, and a lot that doesn’t, which sort of makes sense given how complex the whole thing is. Unlike most games you can’t just spam the attack button and watch your character swing or stab, rather each enemy has six angles of attack you can aim for. Line up your strike and execute a swing or stab and if you connect you’ll deal damage. More often then not the enemy will go for a block so you’ll need to keep them on their toes, either by using combos and tactics or hammering them till they’re to tired to defend. You can choose between swords that deal damage but bounce off armor, maces which crush through plate but are slow, or axes that provide a middle ground. Each weapon will level up and unlock different abilities as you get better with them.
When combat works it works fantastically. Finishing a battle against a fully armored knight is a satisfying experience, and feels like a great accomplishment. Higher class enemies will employ tactics against you just as often as you do, so outwitting one and forcing them to submit is paramount to boss fights in other games. There’s a real sense of weight, and while combat is slow it’s rarely sluggish, and if you’re using the environment and your abilities correctly, fights rarely drag on for too long.
The issue is, combat rarely threads the needle, and there are a lot of issues with it. First is the camera, which is locked into first person for the entire game. There are a staggering amount of animations for combat, based on weapon type, attack type, and location, and almost all of them are disorienting as hell. Worse is the enemy counter attacks, which have this real bad habit of completely breaking the camera and sending you spinning. Losing a fight because an NPC’s elbow went through your eye and turned you around so another NPC’s foot went through your face again is more than a little annoying. Enemy AI is also really inconsistent and some fights can be finished in mere seconds because the AI didn’t realize it had started, while others can drag on too long because the enemy is countering every attack no matter what.
The issues don’t stop there. This is easily one of the buggiest releases in some time, and unfortunately that does extend to game breaking issues. Assets don’t always load properly, which leads to headless NPCs or people walking on nothing because the stairs haven’t loaded in. Speaking of stairs, they’re death traps because about half the time you’ll become stuck in them for no reason. There was an alchemy bench that shot me thousands of feet in the air whenever I used it, and while there weren’t any during this review, there are hundreds of reports of crashes or corrupted saves. To make the matter worse, the game only lets you save at certain points, so some of these bugs can set you back hours. It’s worth mentioning that the developers are working on a patch with the much requested save-on-exit, but at this time it’s a real drag on the game.
Visually the game is impressive, thanks to the Cryengine and the incredible attention to detail. Environments look amazingly realistic, no small feat for what is essentially the same world design of every other medieval RPG. The maps were digitally created using actual historical data and this lends every location a sense of actual believability you don’t normally get out of generic European forests. Similarly, character models (when they load) look excellent and the texture quality is superb throughout. It’s great to see things like the deterioration of your clothes as you travel or the worn lines in an old soldier’s face and they really help with immersion. There’s also a fair share of pre-rendered scenes which look simply stunning and are a treat to watch.
However, the Cryengine is not without its problems, and like nearly every other title before it, Kingdom Come is rife with optimization issues. With an i7 and a GTX 970 the frame rate fluctuated between 60-20 far too often, and keeping everything stable was a chore. At night, if it was raining, everything would go right down the hole. Similarly on consoles the target 30FPS is often a pipe dream, with the frame rate going up and down seemingly at random. Then there’s the load times, and every time you talk to any NPC, which is a lot, there’s a short loading scene which could also cause the game to crash. It’s frustrating and can become discouraging, never mind baffling when compared to a game like Skyrim or The Witcher 3 where conversations with NPCs are seamlessly integrated without any loading.
As mentioned there are issues with the animations but it extends outside the combat as well. Picking things up in the world has Henry bending down to grab them, which is fine, except for the things you’ll pick most often which are plants. for whatever reason this comes with a short, but annoying animation in third person and it makes herbalism one of the least desirable things to do in the game. Then there’s the lip-sync, or lack there of, which nearly ruins some of the in-game cinematics. It’s hard to care what someone is talking about when their mouths look like ham on a desk fan. Motion capture work is a small saving grace, since a lot of the pre-rendered scenes were done with custom work so they abandon the stiff animation of the in-game models.
Audio is similarly all over the place. While the voice acting is great across the board, with Henry being a particular favorite, with his mix of dry wit and skepticism, the mixing on it is a complete mess. Audio will cut from one side to another for no reason, or lines will sound like they were recorded in a completely different booth at a higher volume. All of this can instantly rip you out of the immersion, no matter how important or impressive the dialogue scene is. Worse, like everything else, it’s filled with bugs, and several times the game obviously played multiple takes of the same line during different parts of dialogue.
The sound effects fare a little better. There’s a lot of weight behind weapons, and the sound of two swords clashing or a mace smashing into armor is fine enough, but the sound of a weapon finding its mark on flesh adds greatly to the satisfaction on breaking the enemy’s defense. Audio work for the environmental sound is decent enough, with plenty of layered background sounds for different locations. The rustle of wind and birds tweeting in the wide open fields contrasts nicely to the hustle and bustle of city life.
However, where the audio really shines is in the soundtrack. It’s impressive that something so good has come out of what is essentially a generic property we’ve seen before, but the music here is simply great. The orchestral track picks up or goes down dynamically with whatever you’re doing, so just as you draw your sword and drop your helmet the sound of horns and drums is going to drown out the pleasant traveling music from a few seconds ago. Pretty much across the board it’s fantastic, and if you’re looking for background music for your next DnD session consider adding this to the list.
Overall Kingdom Come is a hard game to recommend. There’s so much good here and its truly one of the most immersive RPGs ever released. But it needs some time, and a few patches to clean it up. If you’re a fan of RPGs and are looking for something different, or at least something to hold you over until Mount and Blade 2 finally announces a release date, then Kingdom Come could be your next addiction. For more casual fans of the genre, this might be one to give some time, at least until it takes a bath or two.