Reviews

Kingdom Come: Deliverance – Diamond In The Rough

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Platforms: PC, Xbox One, PS4
Reviewed On: PC
Developer: Warhorse Studios
Publisher: Koch Media
Singleplayer: Yes
Multiplayer: No

Review code supplied free of charge by the publisher.

A small development team with a vision and a huge game four years in the making that began its life on Kickstarter, Kingdom Come: Deliverance has come a long way since it first appeared in the public eye. It’s an RPG set in 1403 in the kingdom of Bohemia and places its emphasis on strong storytelling and realistic mechanics, including hunger and a compelling swordplay system. But for all of its brilliance there are a lot of flaws to fight through, too, so let’s have a chat about this wonderful, beautiful, hugely flawed beast. There’s a lot to get through.

Easily the biggest triumph of Kingdom Come: Deliverance is its storyline which sees commoner Henry, son of the local blacksmith, survive a surprise massacre of his hometown of Skalitz, prompting him to seek vengeance on the man who led the assault while also trying to discover what’s going on. Winding up in the company of Sir Radzig the storyline has Henry attempting to work his way up the ranks with plenty of detours along the way, including one of the most memorable drunken nights in gaming in the company of a priest. While the game might be too cutscene-heavy for some players it uses this to create a cash of fleshed out characters who are almost all fantastically acted and written, and who are often more than meets the eye, revealing new aspects of their personality as you spend time around them.

As for Henry his personality is kept deliberately vague at times so that players can tweak him to their liking, but make no mistake you’re roleplaying as a set character, and what a likable chap he is thanks to his voice actor. His commoner roots make him the perfectly relatable underdog and his voice actor is simply brilliant, making Henry a joy to play as. This is a guy I was rooting for the whole way/

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Throughout the damn near 50-hours it takes to complete the story,  with the developers estimating a total of 100-hours of content – a number I can’t verify as this review wouldn’t have been out for ages – I was kept hugely engrossed in what was going on. While it might sound like hyperbole, and it may be, this might just be one of the best stories in gaming.

A lot of its brilliance comes from the fact that this is a true roleplay game in the sense that it’s happy to keep the pace slow. Early in the game, for example, you’ll be enrolled as a city watchmen and spend around 30-minutes just walking the town with a guard who shows you around and watches as you try to diffuse a few situations. It’s willing to take the time to build the world and force you into the mindset of Henry, including knowing when to pick a fight or when to surrender, and when to spare an enemy. Little details, too, attest to the roleplaying nature; you can’t storm into someone’s house to speak to them without them telling you to get lost before they call the city guard. If you have a bad reputation guards may stop you for random searches of stolen goods. And if you insist on talking to nobles while caked in mud, grime and blood you won’t get very far, but boy oh boy does that look work great when you want to intimidate a peasant.

Given the era this game takes place in learning how to wield a sword is vital. Combat uses a system that feels somewhat akin to Ubisoft’s For Honor in that you when you launch an attack you also choose from one of the five possible directions or stab straight toward the center. A successful hit means damaging whatever limb you aimed for, but it also plays into blocking; while you don’t have to match an opponent’s attack direction like you do in For Honor, the further you have to swing your weapon or shield to block the less effective it is. Your strikes can also be chained together by launching into another one as soon as the first hits, and you can swap direction mid-chain to throw the opponent off-guard. There are also special learnable combos that can help break through an opponent’s defense. Finally, on the offense front, you can feint attacks, too, before switching direction quickly.

As for defending, you’ve got a standard block that consumes stamina when used, but a perfectly timed tap of the button will execute a perfect parry that doesn’t use any stamina whatsoever. A little further along the story you can also riposte from a perfect parry in order to open the enemy up to an attack, although they can counter you as well. You can also dodge an incoming attack if you feel like you want a bit more space, though the timing for this can be quite awkward.

If you feel like you’ve got the skills then you can open up fights with some archery. I say skills because archery is incredibly tough at first, Henry’s poor arms swaying like a drunkard staggering down the street on a Saturday night following an epic drinking competition. To top it off there are no crosshairs and Henry doesn’t bring the arrow up to eye-level like a normal archer would, thus nailing shots is very much down to pure practice. As Henry becomes more skilled the swaying lessens and there is an option to zoom in, but it’s still very much about the player and their ability to judge a shot.

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Controlling everything in combat is your stamina. You need to carefully conserve it before spending it at the right time or risk getting your ass handed to you because you’re too exhausted to swing a sword let alone put up a fight. Resisting the urge to hammer the attack button is the most important thing. It’s all about taking your time, picking your moments and making the most of them. Making things more challenging is that as you take damage your stamina will also be reduced, and so in a tricky fight you need to make the decision that most gamers loathe; retreat. Henry is a normal man, and you need to think like that.,

It’s a pleasingly nuanced system that leads to genuinely tense fights where you really fight like winning came down to either your pure skill or a last-second piece of flukey luck as you gasp for air, a desperate stab having won you the battle. It’s also incredibly frustrating sometimes as it can feel like enemies have huge stamina pools that enable them to whale on you or have seemingly unstoppable attack sequences, but eventually, ly you’ll learn that since Henry is just a commoner there are going to be a lot of fights that are night on impossible to win, at least at first. Attacking an experienced bandit or a soldier will likely end in misery, as it should when you’re just the son of a blacksmith whose still learning to swing a sword without accidental decapitating himself.

The problem is that both yourself and Henry need to train at absolutely everything, but the game itself doesn’t communicate this fact very well and it’s going to result in a lot of people feeling frustrated that their horse can’t jump a small fence or that they seem to be getting stomped in combat or that aiming with a bow is a nightmare. The first 8-10 hours of the game are essentially an elongated tutorial, and it’ll be a while before you learn the real fundamentals of fighting, including the riposte which is an essential skill. Even then, be prepared to take 30-60 minutes of real-world time to spar in order to train yourself and Henry. Likewise, you’ll need to spend a while hunting with a bow or taking part in competitions before the aiming wobble starts to disappear, and before you personally learn how to hit your target without a crosshair.

Levelling up skills is handled simply by doing them; the more you fight or ride a horse or hunt the better Henry becomes at it, earning new points in the process that you can invest in a variety of perks, be it more stamina or a new combo to use in a fight or even your ability to drink. Even speech is levelled up by talking to folk. It’s a rewarding system compared to the standard leveling mechanics seen in most RPGs because it feels like you actually had to do something in order to become better. Indeed, this concept even applies to reading. Henry is a commoner and thus illiterate, so to read you have to go get lessons from a scribe before then remembering to read a book every now and then to hone Henry’s knowledge, allowing the letters to go from a jumbled mess to a slightly jumbled mess to completely legible.

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Prior to its release much was made of the game’s dedication to realism, so it’s intriguing to see exactly what shapes this has taken and where the developers may have shied away from the concept for fear of alienating folk. For example, Henry needs to eat and sleep, but it’s remarkably easy to avoid starving or falling asleep on your feed as beds and food are in abundance. Hell, you actually have to be careful not to overeat which applies some penalties. And while the slow combat might feel real, the fact that you seem capable of slicing an enemy to ribbons before they finally go down or even seem to show signs of being hurt doesn’t feel all that real, unless you’re battling against a heavily armored foe. Still, the realism manifests itself in a lot of smaller ways throughout the game that I really appreciated.

The realism also means that much of the open space is just that; space. With nothing in it. The simple truth is that if you head outside in real life and proceed to wander through woods and fields you probably won’t amble into some epic quest, amazing treasure or anything other than some nice views and some cows. Nice cows, mind you, but cows nonetheless. While the world in Kingdom Come may not be massive it’s a fair size and all that space does lend itself to the feeling of realism, but it’s also a shame to see so much area left unused. However, given the setting of the game and its aim to be a more realistic, grounded affair it’s perfectly understandable.

That isn’t to say there’s nothing worth exploring, though. This is an RPG after all, so side-quests can be found in a variety of places. As for the actual quests themselves much was made of the fact prior to release that objective markers would not always lead you directly to the goal and that some of the quests would be on timers, thus failing to do them after a set amount of time would see them vanish into the air, a bit like my hopes and dreams. While it’s certainly true that a lot of the time you won’t be pointed directly to your objective a lot of the time this means having to simply wander around until you find the thing you need, but there are a lot of quests that make good use of it, like one where you must decode the ramblings of a tortured heretic in order to discover a meeting place. It’s so damn satisfying to figure out on your own without the game nudging you in the right direction. The timer, though, feels less successful at times. These timers only start when you activate a quest, and you’ll often be asked whether you want to kick off the quest or not which indicates it’ll be on a timer, but in view quests potentially disappearing didn’t add much to the game except for some certain occasions when it made story sense, like a bunch of knights not waiting for you or warning a family before a vicar comes looking for some heretics.

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Pushing objective markers and timers aside the quests are almost all great fun to play through, and there’s a pleasing variety, so sometimes you might go steal something or you might be the medieval version of Sherlock Holmes working the case of a bloody murder. There’s some room to flex your brain matter because the writers quite often enjoy throwing some moral quandaries into the mix or force you to recall details or things that others have said, once again bringing a sense of realism into the game.

I also appreciated how there’s room to do things in your own way. Not everything has to be solved via some sword-swinging brutality, and indeed there is even an achievement for killing just one person in the whole game. A fairly early encounter with two bandits proved a prime example as a few failed attempts to fight them showed me they were vastly above my own skill level, and even knocking one out in his sleep didn’t do it. Puzzled I decided to head back to my commander and report, at which point he rode in on the cavalry and helped beat the crap out of the goons. In other words, thinking like Henry got the problem solved. At other times there are simply ways to circumnavigate the objective, like leaping off a drawbridge in an early mission, killing an irritating nobleman on a hunt or getting rid of a potential problem later. While the game isn’t as flexible as something like Divinity: Original Sin 2 (read the review for that here) there’s still a bit of give and take in the design that I really appreciated.

Talking your way through situations is also perfectly viable many times, again showing that you don’t always have to fall back on a pike, ax or sword. There’s a system in place whereupon at certain points a little graphic will pop up showing your current speech rating, as well as a rating for how noble you look and another for how intimidating you look. Using these you can attempt to silver-tongue your way through a problem, threaten or just make somebody feel like they’re beneath your status. The person you’re trying to influence will have the same chart but there’ll be question marks, indicating that you aren’t sure what they’ll be susceptible too. It’s a great idea, and I found myself making my Henry a silver-tongued devil who also happened to be kitted out in armor covered in blood, so a bit of forceful dialogue could get me a long way.

It’s a rather pretty game to look, which is impressive given the rather small development team. Indeed, the whole damn project is impressive given the sheer scope of it. Like I mentioned the open world may not be vast but it does mean the team has managed to pay a lot of attention to the smaller details which help give it a more lived in, real feeling, with a solid lighting engine helping to create some beautiful vistas. Forests and woods are probably my favorites simply because they feel realistic compared to a lot of other games, sometimes have flatter, open areas and other times having more hills, dips, and bumps as well as a nice mixture of dense and light foliage.

Performance is a bit less impressive, although not terrible and frankly better than some of the massive triple-A titles that have hit. There is a solid selection of graphical options to tinker with, but getting a stable framerate is practically impossible. Dips when entering busier towns and the like are to be expected, but they’re a little too extreme for my liking even on a GTX 1080, 16GB of RAM and a Ryzen 1600 CPU at 1440p.

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But the patchy performance is nothing compared to the sheer amount of glitches and bugs that could give Skyrim a run for its money at times. I’ve seen headless NPCs, gotten stuck on various stairs, had it crash several times, been unable to draw my sword, come out of quick-travel into a fight without my weapons equipped, lost my horse during fast travel, seen NPCs do a variety of daft things, had quests fail to trigger correctly and a bunch of other things. It’s a bit of a mess, although much like Skyrim I was having such a good time that I was willing to put up with the various issues, but if you prefer a bit more polish you might want to wait for a few patches before picking this one up.

We also need to talk about the highly divisive save system that has been the catalyst for many a rant on the Steam forums, although to be fair just about everything in this game has been causing massive rants because if you don’t know what you’re signing up for this can be a tricky game to get into and understand. To manually save the game you have to spend a Saviour Schnapps, which not only gets you drunk but is also reasonably expensive to purchase, although you can brew it via alchemy. The idea here is presumably to force players into dealing with the consequences of their actions more, and to avoid people saving before every fight, especially because with a lot of opponents running away or surrendering is an option.

There is an autosave at work and the game will also save whenever you sleep, but while the developers say that the game will save itself during important moments their definition of important and yours will likely differ. Sometimes it works quite well, and yet other times it’ll save right at the start of a quest chain meaning if you maybe had to go and answer the door or run an errand you’ve got to start everything again unless you had a Saviour Schnapps or managed to find a bed quickly. Other times it might save before a lengthy cutscene which while skippable is just plain dumb game design.

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I’m a bit torn on this system because I’m not completely against the idea of having a limited save system, but considering how buggy Kingdom Come is at the moment it’s nice to have saves to fall back on, or have saves in case I want to go back and try something else without having to do the whole damn quest again. There are already mods available that allow manual saving, and I’ll be curious watching to see whether the developers tweak this mechanic or not in the future.

Kingdom Come: Deliverance has had a hell of a journey, a journey that has taken some 4-years of hard work from a small team who clearly had oodles of passion. Whether or not the game has lived up to the expectations of those who decided to help fund its development is a question I cannot answer, but personally I’m pretty pleased with the finished product despite its many rough edges. We need to be clear, though; it really isn’t a game for everyone, and that includes modern RPG fans. It very much feels like something that’s going to appeal to a very specific audience, and I just happen to be in that audience. You need to appreciate slower-paced games that take their time when it comes to creating its world, telling its story and even its sword fights. Be patient with it, learn to role-play in the true sense and spend the time learning, though, and Kingdom Come: Deliverance might just end up being your game of the year.

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