Plenty of potential but not enough polish from Warhorse’s debut game
From the beginning of its kickstarter, Kingdom Come: Deliverance promised one thing above all else: realism.
This commitment to subverting many of the tropes of other RPGs of the past couple of decades and to creating a historically accurate Bohemia can be seen visually, mechanically and narratively, all over the game.
Warhorse have crafted a truly beautiful representation of the Czech rural countryside: a sprawling pastoral countryscape filled with hand-crafted villages, towns, and encampments. It not only looks great, but it feels authentic and real.
From the thickly wooded forests to the pastoral rural villages to the larger towns, Kingdom Come: Deliverance’s world was truly a joy to behold. Even things which are usually run of the mill, like the map and time-dial, were lovingly realised; they were not only deeply aesthetically pleasing, but also influenced by the medieval imagery of contemporary Bohemia.
This was slightly let down by an evident lack of money and/or time to spend on really fleshing this world out with life. Whilst quest-givers and key characters were evidently well designed and written, the majority of NPCs in Bohemia were bland, generic and shared large chunks of dialogue. Given that every conversation you initiate requires a short loading screen, this could occasionally pull you out of the immersiveness of the world.
Adding to this, the dialogue is often clunky and contrived, especially that outside of the main plot. One ‘activity’ — as the game called it — sticks out. I went on a walk with an intended love interest, only for her to run off shouting, “last one there’s a slimy slug” before sprinting to the next cutscene. Said cutscene was no less cringy.
The plot itself, however, is satisfyingly small-scale, which makes a refreshing change to the grandiose narrative preferred by many RPGs. In Kingdom Come, you play as Henry, a lowly blacksmith’s son who gets caught up in the midst of a conflict arising from the 15th century Czech civil war.
The plot does a really good job in making you very much a pawn in the course of events: you are not the nation’s saviour or the unwitting leader of a revolution, but one man caught up in a conquest bigger than himself.
Don’t get me wrong: Warhorse still gives you enough to do. The main story, which moves along as something you are privy to, rather than a shaper of, still puts you in action-based roles which keeps the missions enjoyable.
The main benefit of this decentered, small-scale plot is that it allows you to be much freer in how you play Henry than other RPGs might have allowed. Although the game occasionally requires you to fight a boss or do something virtuous, you are, for the most part, free to be a deceitful, two-faced, self-serving coward when you see fit.
In one rather large skirmish, for example, I hid behind the vanguard of allied soldiers, only occasionally jabbing through the melee when my opponent’s backs were turned before retreating behind the safety of my human shields.
Elsewhere, I unashamedly used a bow in a one on one sword fight, reminiscent of the iconic Indiana Jones scene.
This was not because of any aversion to sword-fighting — rather my inability to beat the boss in hand-to-hand combat. Indeed, swordplay is one of the game’s biggest strengths.
Unlike the hack and slash or button-based systems employed by most other video games which see you use a sword, Kingdom Come employs a five-pronged reticle which gives you the option of where to strike and from what position.
This combat system is enriched by an intuitive yet hard-to-master network of feints, dodges, blocks, combos and misdirections which make swordplay tense and complex, but also frenetic and deeply satisfying.
Unfortunately, like many other parts of the game, the finer details of combat lack a bit a polish. The automatic lock-on targeting system is a particularly irritating example of this, as is mounted combat, which is basic and often glitchy. Archery, too, needed some more time with play-testers. The absence of a reticle, allied with Henry’s inability to hold the bow anywhere near still or for any length of time, make it far harder than its worth.
Adding to the sense that Kingdom Come: Deliverance is a little bit undercooked is just how buggy it. From minor visual bugs to mid-range performance bugs to game breakers (or at least save-breakers), I encountered them all. I saw four NPCs occupying one physical space, horses caught eternally in mid-air, and combatants spinning in ceaseless circles.
Whilst it is easy to poke fun at these relatively unobtrusive visual bugs, the more serious ones were much more problematic. For example, I managed to irreversibly break Miller Peshek, a major quest-giver and buyer of stolen goods, by stealing from him in a mission in which he asked me to steal from him — he promptly had me arrested and is now stuck on the same dialogue line, the snake.
Elsewhere, I woke up in Talmberg to find a bandit from Pribyslavits shouting at me for trespassing… in Pribyslavits. He then initiated a fight, but the intervening loading screen was obviously as confused as me because the game promptly crashed, sending me back to my last save.
This was compounded by the games infuriating save system, which allows you a finite amount of saves based on how many ‘saviour schapps’ you have or else makes you rely on autosaves, which are few and far between. Given the relative difficulty of the game and its tendency to jump combat on you unexpectedly, death is a frequent feature of Kingdom Come: Deliverance, meaning that the save system often made me replay unusually large chunks of gameplay and consequently lose my momentum.
Jason Schreier recently published a book called Blood, Sweat and Pixels. In it, he talks about how kick-started games have to play by slightly different rules: once they run out of money, it’s out, and there is no publisher to run to. In other words, kick-started games eventually hit a hard release wall where they have to release the product or start burning into their own money, negating potential profit.
This can be seen very clearly in Kingdom Come. I can’t fault its outstanding ambition, originality, art design or one-on-one swordplay, but its very clear where resources haven’t been available and where time has been short.
With the game selling well, I would expect many of the problems with the game to be retrospectively fixed, but until then, too much holds Deliverance back from delivering.