Knowing about an amazing game in development and yet also knowing it still has years left in the pot is certainly one of the most frustrating things about being a gamer. Occasionally, however, you will happen across a title that has just lurched across the finish line and you have the fortune of jumping straight in. I would love to claim that I had been following Kingdom Come: Deliverance for years backed their original Kickstarter and was wearing the t-shirt as I type these very words. Alas, I did, in fact, hear about this title while on a podcast just after Christmas. After rooting around on the tinterweb for a few hours I quickly established this was looking like a very special game indeed. Over the last week, thanks to the fine folks at Deep Silver for providing a review copy, I have been living out all my latent fantasies of being a knight of the realm. So without further inane babbling from me, let us see how we got on.
Kingdom Come Deliverance is an open-world action RPG from the developer Warhorse Studios. These guys (based in the Czech Republic) are a relatively new team but have influences from many classic games such as Arma, Hidden & Dangerous and Mafia. The game is set in the land of Bohemia (how the Czech Republic was known back then) and is actually based on real-world events/people/places. You take on the role of Henry, the son of a village Blacksmith who has a bad case of wanderlust.
The story opens on a seemingly ordinary day, Henry has been tasked by his father to run a few errands in the village. In this prologue, we get introduced to some of the games more basic mechanisms such as how to swing a sword, how to pick a lock and how to buy goods from local merchants. We also get to see hints of how dynamic questing is in Kingdom Come. One of my jobs was to collect a debt from the local drunk, who refused to pay and ended up giving me a good hiding. After a botched attempt to sneak into his shack I decided to get some other errands ticked off. It actually turned out that my friends were willing to help me get the debt in exchange for playing a prank on the local gob-shite. We only spend a few hours with Henry before his village is attacked and his parents are butchered in front of him. Barely escaping with his life Henry then sets out for vengeance on the enemy captain who raised his village and slaughtered his family.
A hard day's Knight
After the opening sequence, you find yourself in the care of a young woman and her Miller uncle. It is here that the game beings proper with many things to see and do in every direction. Even lacking dragons, comparisons to Skyrim are inevitable and I would say this is a fair likeness to consider. While it’s not cool to like Skyrim anymore I do still have many fond memories of exploring those frozen mountains and remember the fantastic feeling self-driven exploration. There is a central quest line to follow and this will advance certain aspects of your character, such as combat training and gaining your first horse. However, you are largely free to dip in and out of this in order to get involved with other pursuits. One morning I decided to visit the local bathhouse (brothel) but on arrival was driven away. I’d forgotten that a few nights previous I’d been caught trying to steal a ring from here for the shady miller I now lived with. The way these NPCs had remembered me caught me off guard. However, after chasing off some bandits and helping the poor the ladies of the establishment were willing to lend me their services.
Many developers over the years have tried to infuse their game with realism, only to emerge on the other side with a top-heavy and ultimately boring experience. Warhorse Studios have sought to take on this challenge by creating deep gameplay systems that are also fun to interact with. So for example, swords and axes will lose their edge over time. You can pay the weapon-smith to sharpen them up of course, or you can dive in and do it yourself. Using the grindstone starts you off with a simple mini-game in which you spin the stone, get the angle right and then apply pressure. Whether you are picking a lock or indeed picking someone’s pocket, these skills are all handled with these well designed mini-games that are housed in a reactive and useful UI. As the saying goes, easy to learn difficult to master and this mantra applies to pretty much all the skills you care to use. I’ve always been a sucker for games that include hunger and other bodily requirements. Maybe it is that these needs give the greater world context, that bed I have is there because I need to sleep, that Roe Deer I just hunted will feed me for days and the fact I’ve trained with the use of bandages will stop me bleeding out after my last bloody fight.
One element of progression that is very much like the aforementioned de facto RPG is the way you improve skills by doing them. I love this system and wish more games used it because it makes total sense and feels very organic. There are many skills to learn in Kingdom Come from hunting, speech, maintaining, alchemy, pickpocketing to name a few. You must even learn to read before books become useful sources of information.As you gain new levels, at certain thresholds you will be given access to new perks which can really alter your game. When getting your horse riding skill high enough, for example, you can choose to either have your horse faster and less able to carry good or vice vera. If you know you will be doing a lot of poaching or trading it makes sense to maximise your carrying ability.
There is no doubt that Kingdom Come has one of the most detailed and historically accurate combat systems we have ever seen in this kind of setting and if you want the willy waving from Skyrim you better stay as a Dovahkiin. There are many varied types of weapons but most have the same system, when you engage with a combatant a directional icon appears in the centre. By subtly moving your mouse you can change the direction of attack. You can chain attacks, pull off special combinations and even fein an attack then change direction. There is also a very nice blocking system that if pulled off properly allows you to counter-attack and riposte. Attacking and taking hits will cost you stamina and once your stamina is depleted you will lose health if struck. Interestingly you can never increase your health pool in the game because like real life, you are always the same person no matter how many Shredded Wheat you can eat. Overall the combat can feel a little overwhelming at first but once you start to master it the satisfaction you feel is unparalleled.
As you have probably guessed from the screenshots armour is also a big thing here and like real knights, wearing it can be a royal pain in the arse. There are sixteen slots in total and each one is represented on Henrys body. There are a maximum of four layers including chainmail and plate. What is impressive is how the layers of armour don’t clip through each other like we have seen in so many other games. Warhorse Studios have gone for total immersion because once you can afford the best plate armour in the game (and are virtually impervious to light weapons) there is a price to pay for your visibility. Armour degrades the more you get hit and this is also shown visually with each individual piece showing wear and tear. You will also show dirt after being on the road too long and blood from fights. It’s a good idea to get your kit (and yourself) washed occasionally because these visuals can factor in on your conversations. You can even kill an enemy and wear his armour, allowing you the chance to sneak into an enemy camp: just make sure you speak the language before committing. This level of detail is phenomenal and I cannot praise the hard work of the developer enough.
As Henry moves through the game you will see many varied combat situations, from that very first fist fight with the village drunk to fighting off bandits while on the road, to full-scale battles in which you can feel very small. I won’t say much more about these because they are usually where a story arc will peak. I will say that if you learn the rules of engagement the potential for fun here can be unlimited.
Beauty and the wobbly sausage
One of the most enjoyable aspects of the Assassins Creed games is how much time the team put into historical accuracy. This element was off the chain in Origins and it is, in fact, entertaining to just wander around watching the world tick over. This is something that Kingdom Come also absolutely nails and I have spent many hours just ambling through the game world in bewildered awe. This can be seeing the shop owners working on their produce, maids pouring drinks for thirsty patrons, watching how animals like chickens and sheep keep their distance or how the world just seems to go on without you. Just watch as NPCs will step over a stool to sit on it or how people will actually turn around to close a door behind them. Each one of these scenes is like a beautiful plate of food that is just waiting to be enjoyed. It is a pity then that some of these exquisite morsels are joined together by wobbly uncooked sausages. In short, the game is riddled with bugs and glitches and it can sometimes derail the amazing atmosphere. I have seen NPCs fall through floors, walls, get stuck in a whole manner of objects and even start to spin so fast they become a blur.
These rough edges can also sometimes affect the gameplay: in one instance I found myself trapped in my house for a few minutes because the miller got jammed in the door. I have also struggled to get up staircases and past NPCs in hallways. None of the issues I have mentioned are game breaking, not even close, and if we are being fair these bugs are to be expected with so many complicated systems running side by side. I do hope they once the game is in the wild that Warhorse Studios continue to iron these wrinkles and from what I can see they are the kind of team who will.
I have to say that the way Henry moves around his environment can sometimes feel clunky and overly protracted. Interestingly it reminded me of Arma and the how those games while fun comes with the same feeling that your character is actually C3PO with a bag of spanners on his back. I guess what I would like is a little more flow between skills such as climbing a ladder or mounting your trusty steed. If I am being fair here I must absolutely recognise that this game covers so many different situations that it is actually impressive they are all in the game at. Also worth noting that once on a horse the movement feels great with a nice sense of momentum. Just don’t do what I did and shoot your nag in the back of its head with an arrow.
Reality with a hint of awesome.
I know there will be many gamers out there who couldn’t give a flying turnip about the historical accuracy of the games they play. However, for those who do like to immerse yourselves in another time and place, this game will be right up your alley. For a start, there is a well packed and beautifully presented codex in the game that is updated contextually with new information. These small pieces of history are fascinating and on my second playthrough I intend to read them all. As previously mentioned, the location itself is actually based on real places and people. I also want to make a special mention of the game's map as it is a visual triumph. Not only have the artists at Warhorse Studios captured the style of maps from this period but they have also lavished the whole thing with exquisite detail while still keeping it useful.
There have also been some very nice touches to the overall theme of the game and how things would have been back then. After heading off to the woods to kill a few hares on my return to the city I was poached on by the guards and given a few days in jail. Malnourished and extremely irked I emerged from the clink wondered what I’d done wrong; then it clicked. Back in the 1400’s the Lords owned all the forests and this included the animals in them. Sure enough, the hare meat I had been taking to the butcher was indeed classed and stolen. This didn't stop me supplying beggars in the city with pouched meat and selling the rest to a fence outside the city.
Cause and Skill Check
When you are given a task in any game, figuring out how you will take on objectives is fun but only if the game world is clever enough to let you do that. Deus Ex is still one of the greats in this respect, where players could have a ‘what if’ moment and often you could. I have mentioned that Kingdom Come has its share of bugs but this is because there are so many moving pieces it’s insane they got it running at all. One of the most publicised quests is one where you are hunting bandits that have attacked and killed many innocents at a local farm. How you make your way through this quest is largely dependent on how you play, maybe you want to use your gift of the gab or just steamroll in with maximum prejudice. I don’t want to spoil any surprises but my advice is to look for alternative methods to your goal and even when it seems like you’ve entered a failed state there is usually a way forward.
As the game was fleshed out in early development the team at Warhorse Studios first had a character creation system but then opted for a set character. While I love a good character creator as much as the next RPG fan, having an established character can help pave the way for a richer story and better emotional beats. Like we saw with Geralt in the Witcher 3, playing as someone can still give the player a sense of agency as long as the questing is well designed. Again I think the developers have taken on a fairly tricky balancing act and nailed it. I actually really like Henry as our protagonist, he is down to earth and makes a great accidental hero when the occasion allows. There is also enough wiggle room for him to bend to the player's choices. I remember embarking on a life of crime very early on but then changed my ways once I was taken on by a lord.
One impressive feature of Kingdom Come is the sheer amount of voice work because every single line of dialogue is fully voice acted. This includes all the NPCs across the entire game world. Sure in most cities the bog standard villager will have a set number of verbal interactions but this is still a monumental amount of work. What makes this even more impressive is that most of it is of a good standard and there are also some absolutely amazing sequences. In one village I decided to go on the razzle with the local priest in order to get some information I needed. This all ended with the priest puking out of the church bell tower and Henry having a rather salacious interaction with a local maid.
Is it PC?
The land of Bohemia looks absolutely gorgeous and this is in part thanks to the CryEngine. The countryside of the Czech Republic is a lovely mixture of farmland, babbling brooks and pockets of forest. There is also a whole range of human influences from tracks, mills, villages as well as the larger towns. There is a full day and night cycle with a range of weather to really show off them vistas. The single most impressive aspect of the game world for me was how well crafted it all seems: each place feels individual and as such stands out in my mind. There is just so much to see that I’m not even going to attempt to describe it all but I hope some of my screenshots help get this across.
The game seems to run very well on my system and even with an ageing 980 GTX I have been able to keep most of the advanced settings on ultra with a decent frame rate. Even when galloping through busy towns the game does a fantastic job of keeping up, yes there is a little bit of pop in here and there but nothing to worry about. There is no support for HDR due to the limitations of the CryEngine but to be honest, HDR is only just becoming a thing in PC gaming. There is controller support and this works perfectly well but of course, when playing on PC the best experience is with a mouse and keyboard.
In the options screen, we have a decent amount of play in terms of controls, graphics and music. The sound quality for this game is overall of a very high quality. The music will react to various situations and shifts between various folk songs to more emotional pieces. I am actually really excited to see that modding is being supported in Kingdom Come, not only that but a Game of Thrones total rework is already nearing completion. This coupled with confirmed DLC and I think this title has a very bright future.
When the team behind Kingdom Come deliverance first asked for money in 2014 they smashed their target, demonstrating the thirst for a game of this type. Since then the team at Warhorse Studios have poured their hearts and souls into creating the game they first envisioned. As I have covered, Kingdom Come does have a few rough edges and for some gamers, these might be real issues. However, I think that when you sit back and admire the sheer ambition of a project like this, these technical problems look more like well-earned battle scars on an otherwise beautiful accomplishment.
As I sat down to first write my review I recalled all the different places I had seen with Henry and of course all the things I had done. At so many junctions I could have gone down a different path and seen a very different outcome. Kingdom Come Deliverance is a massive body of work that succeeds on so many levels and does so by still being honest with itself about what it is. The point is this game has a tonne of replay value, even in the base game and that is not taking into account the mods and DLC heading this way. If you are a fan of historical combat games, open world RPGs or just like to gallop across the countryside whacking peasants with a big stick: this game is an essential purchase.
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