Kingdom Come: Deliverance has caused quite a stir since its release a few weeks ago. The first Kickstarted title by new developer Warhorse Studios, and the latest game by outspoken director Daniel Vávra, Kingdom Come has already done well for itself by netting around a million sales online. For a new IP, that is damn impressive, and the sheer scope of the game has also been lauded as ambitious by many for it’s high attention to detail and historical realism.
Such a game is a long haul, however, and even after sinking 20 or so hours of being a peasant in 15th century Bohemia, the impression it has left on me is one that started strong but waned over time. In a lot of ways, Kingdom Come is a solid game, but it is a game that has a lot of problems beyond the bugs many have complained about. The least of which is the clear move to sell the game to a very specific niche of the role-playing cross section.
The most impressive part of Kingdom Come is one of its weaknesses; the world itself. 15th century Bohemia in a full medieval simulation seeped in impressive historical accuracy. As an actual historian, it is the perfect game for me. This is a true-to-life world where social status and appearance do matter, where quest design is not epic battles against dragons but instead throwing shit on lime-washed house walls. The amount of care to give the world a sense of realism is ambitious, and Warhorse should be credited for doing a good job at holding up the illusion.
The problem is with those times when the illusion breaks. NPCs have daily routines but rarely deviate from their schedules (unless they are tied to questlines.) The in-game economy is broken; being “gameified” where inventories reset after a day. This means players can easily buy multiple copies of rare items if they have the coin for it, amassing wealth relatively quickly in the progress. The character animations are far from impressive, following the same canned animation we often expect from bigger budget RPGs to save time on animation. On its own, this is not a problem, but Kingdom Come falls a bit closer to the Mass Effect: Andromeda side of polish and technical aptitude, which at times just breaks the realism that Warhorse desperately wanted to maintain.
Kingdom Come is a game of statistics at its core. These numbers run the gamut of stats regarding everything for Henry, the titular character. You have numbers for your health and stamina, plus your base stats. You then have combat and skill attributes. Not just defense and stealth, but also stats such as visibility, noise, nourishment, and energy. All these affect how Henry acts in the world as well as how NPCs react to you. Eat too little, you begin to starve, eat too much, you are over-stuffed; both affect your stamina and health in negative ways. If you walk around with dirty clothes, people are less likely to take you seriously. Even the type of clothes you wear can attribute to other stats you may have. For example, dressing yourself all in black when in stealth lowers your visibility rate, meaning you're harder to catch. Warhorse wanted freedom of choice to mean many aspects of the game's design, and on that front, they achieved their goal.
That freedom of choice, however, leads to a frustrating learning curve. As an unskilled peasant, some of the abilities you need to level up involve long stretches of practice to master them. Much like the Elder Scrolls games, you only level up your skills if you use them out in the world. Some are ridiculously easy to deal with, such as herb picking increasing your herbalist skill. Others are all but impossible depending on which version of the game you have. Lockpicking and pickpocketing, for example, almost broken due to the controller setup on the PlayStation 4. For lockpicking, moving your left thumbstick in a circle while positioning your right thumbstick on a locks sweet spot is incredibly difficult to master. Pickpocketing is a time-based mini-game often with a small timer; you have a small window to not only select an item in someone's pockets, but a small timer to actually steal it properly.
This makes them not only hard skills to level up, but in general hard skills to do in the grand scheme of the entire game, even with levels invested. Perks can help making both mini-games tolerable, but even then it is often not a viable option for a thieving playstyle. The PC version is much easier to perform both thieving skills, but for console players, save for a promised fix by Warhorse, they must either try and brute force the leveling up and selecting certain perks through failure for a few hours or abandon an entire method of play altogether.
This is not to say the difficulty is unnecessary. A lot of Kingdom Come's challenging atmosphere comes from this implementation of the game's mechanics. Combat for example is easy to learn but hard to master, a sort of advanced version of Mount and Blade with more emphasis on parries and dodges. Unlike lockpicking, the fun of skirmishing with enemies in hand to hand combat makes fights play out like a life-or-death chess game. It is easily one of the better implementations of the game's skills as well; providing combos for your sword and mace strokes as you level up your weapon skills. All of this offers more variety in tailor-making Henry to the players liking.
The world gives you plenty of choices thankfully, but a lot of its details are the in-game consequences. The type of quests you involve yourself in can range from simple fetch quests and scavenger hunts to full investigation-style quests. Some of them are well thought out, one example was a fetch quest that had me lay bird traps in a pine forest, hunting for nightingales with a warbling cry. It was a quest where you had to listen for the bird sound, all the while traversing a relatively serene area filled with wild animals and the occasional bandit. It was visually impressive, a gorgeous world with hilly vistas and thick forests. The quest was just a good use of in-game design, an example that other RPG's can follow as they implement fetch quests.
One of the bigger problems Kingdom Come has is maintaining consistency in other quests and the overall narrative. While the nightingale quest is an example of good, if simple, design, a ton of quests are either too short or just abruptly end with minimal emotional consequence to them. Two come to mind, but for these, there is a spoiler warning from here on out.
The first is a quest to learn to read, which you can get early on. The idea behind it is a good one; peasants would be illiterate and in-game books are just a jumbled mess of words depending on your literacy level (another skill you can level up.) To unlock that skill, however, you need to be taught by a scholar in a specific town how to read, pay him a small amount of money, and then pass two simple checks to not only learn a few levels of literacy but to complete the entire questline. The game says it takes a few days to learn how to read, but there is no calendar to follow, so the number of days is anyone’s guess. The biggest problem is how short of a time it takes for a skill that will be of great importance to Henry throughout the game, relegating it to a simple cutscene and two conversations.
Juxtapose this with another relatively early questline, titled Courting. In this quest, Henry will go on a series of dates with the miller’s niece of one of the villages you live in. The questline is long, with each date happening every few days of game time. In between the cutscenes and asking her out, you have options such as giving her gifts or simply asking her for future dates. However, the end of the questline comes when the maiden and Henry engage in a sexual coupling, in one of the games few high-quality cutscenes. After that, you get a trophy, a temporary in-game bonus, and you never can interact with the woman again in a meaningful way. You can’t even give her gifts to showcase affection any further; she reverts back to the basic questions you can ask any NPC.
Both questlines showcase poor gameplay design for several reasons. For one, the scholar's line should be as long as the courtship questline, mostly because of the impact reading has as a skill for the entire game. Reading is optional, but paramount to other skills such as alchemy and often this provides alternative solutions to a number of side and main quests; so the lack of challenge in learning such a skill minimizes the impact this rare skill has in the game world. The challenge for learning it could have been longer, multiple challenges to read instead of two minor checks in the proper questline. Or, perhaps, finding various scholars in the game world until it is leveled up sufficiently to read books on your own instead of handwaving it through one small cutscene.
The courtship line also has a horrific payoff, but for the opposite reasons. The entire questline, built up upon the vignettes of your time with the woman, offers a lot of the hallmarks of a typical "AAA" romance line. It is interactive, affectionate and filled with little character moments for Henry and his beau. This becomes entirely superfluous because you lose all of the emotional impact after receiving your in-game reward. From a game point of view, it gives players the cutscene and the bonus, yet from a narrative point of view, it transforms the woman into a one-time prize for the player despite building a very good connection with the character through the use of cutscenes.
Kingdom Come, sadly, is filled with a ton of quests that fit the description of the above questlines; being too short or failing to capture any emotional impact. Some of the quests are fun to go through, but the seeming disinterest for any emotional impact beyond their given reward hinders the games push for realism. This in of itself is seemingly a hallmark of Vávra's direction. Both the first and second Mafia games, which Vávra had a hand in writing, faced similar problems with uneven tone and even grabbing player agency out of the player's hands with cutscenes and narrative jumps from nowhere. Mafia II, in particular, was criticized for this direction, but the saving grace was the consistent linear narrative. This means that any gaps within the narrative were at least relegated to sections of the overall storyline.
Kingdom Come is a wholly different beast, being open world and a role-playing game; but at times, Vávra’s direction simply screams for a linear role-playing game instead. The use of automatic dialogue to fill in the story gaps and cutscenes, the inconsistencies between Henry’s own character (an in-game cutscene would say he abhors stealing, while the player simultaneously pickpocketed half of the town by that point) and the strict parameters of the side content make the game narratively uneven. It also doesn’t help how the main questline struggles to find excuses for Henry to be involved in the affairs of the nobility, despite being a peasant blacksmith. Much of that also comes across as a setup for an in-game twist down the line, one that is telegraphed from the first part of the game. It remains to be seen if that comes true, though, but the current narrative of Kingdom Come has strong moments in it, but a rather weak overall plot to justify those moments.
There is a lot to like in Kingdom Come: Deliverance, the world is rich and detailed, the role-playing mechanics are strong, and it fits comfortably into a niche of hardcore-styled RPG’s we often only see as modded Skyrim games. The rest of the package suffers from the weight of its ambition, however. In-game bugs are a well-documented problem, but graphical issues and overly difficult mini-games are compounded by the inconsistent nature of the games own questlines and narrative potential. It is a game I simultaneously adore and get frustrated by because of all of this, and it is one that will only play to that narrow niche that enjoys the realism and can forgive the nagging issues around it.