Getting medieval in a gritty recreation of 1400s Bohemia.
Within my first hour of playing Kingdom Come: Deliverance, I was beaten up by the town drunk. By the end of the almost 70 hours I spent with it, I was sizing up a trio of bandits with a smirk on my real-life face, knowing even together they were no match for my steel and the extensive training I’d received under some of the toughest knights in this beautifully recreated medieval land. This wasn’t merely a change in stats and equipment. Without a single spell or magic sword, Kingdom Come gave me the abundantly satisfying feeling of transforming from doe-eyed scrub to stone-cold killer.
Warhorse’s tale of tribulation and betrayal shines brightest in the little ways it sells the fantasy of living in the Late Middle Ages. Not only are there survival mechanics that track hunger and fatigue, but every aspect of your character’s appearance has an impact on how NPCs perceive you. The biggest example is how clothes will accumulate wear and trail dust as you traipse through the wilderness, leaving nobles less than impressed with your scruffiness.
NPCs’ reactions to your appearance extend beyond BO simulation.
This required me to frequently take baths, visit the laundry, and have my outerwear mended by a tailor to make a good impression. Keeping relatively clean isn’t a chore because bathhouses are easy to find, and you can always dunk your head in the nearest trough of water in a pinch. This extends beyond BO simulation: if, for example, you’re trying to be sneaky, wearing clothes that don’t make noise when you move and are dark in color to blend in with the shadows decreases your chances of being detected. Likewise, walking into an inn covered in blood with a sword drawn is a good way to intimidate people into seeing things your way.
All of this takes place in a large chunk of wooded, medieval Bohemia that shows significant attention to detail and is filled with little historical touches that help it feel like a real place. Towns, farms, and logging camps are all laid out with a strong internal logic and built on a scale that makes sense for a real place, as opposed to the standard RPG city in a game like Skyrim that’s designed to feel large, but really isn’t. And there are no loading screens between areas anywhere unless you’re using fast travel, which I always appreciate quite a bit in open-world games.
The fantasy breaks down a bit too frequently under the weight of bugs, though. Some are of the goofy, largely unobtrusive sort you’d expect from an open-world game of this size, like a shopkeeper’s head loading in after the rest of their body. But others are less of a laughing matter because they got in the way of gameplay in significant ways. There seems to be a tendency for staircases to randomly decide, “You shall not pass!” and moving between areas of different elevation in general too often results in getting hung up on invisible walls or even stuck entirety.
Worse, a handful of quests in the second and third acts had either broken triggers or missing quest markers, sometimes requiring me to backtrack to a save I made an hour or more ago and choose a different path through a mission to avoid the roadblock. That’s not unusual for a big RPG, but it’s exacerbated by the fact that just about the only ways to save in Kingdom Come are drinking a rare, expensive type of alcohol or sleeping at an inn or brothel. Autosaves are unforgivingly infrequent. Crashes were rare, but when they did happen the autosave system sometimes set me back just as far.
The combat behind it all feels kinetic, precise, and polished.
To Kingdom Come’s credit, the actors, scenery, and textures do look fantastic on the highest detail level – but unless you have an extremely beefy system, you probably won’t be able to enjoy it that way. The PC version (which I’ve played on exclusively so far) isn’t particularly well optimized. To maintain a stable framerate in all situations, I had to turn down the graphics settings to the point where low level-of-detail models would remain in the scene for certain people and objects for a couple seconds even when I got up close, which was distracting. My PC (a Core i7-4770K with a GTX 1070) can run The Witcher 3 smoothly with everything cranked up, which made this especially surprising.
Luckily, the combat behind it all feels kinetic, precise, and polished. There is a significant learning curve, but I’ve found it to be a lot of fun the more I got the hang of it. Warhorse’s designers seem to have struck the right balance between realism and practicality. Sword fights have a nice tempo and reward technical skill, quick thinking, and most of all patience. Over time, I got the same feeling I experience when I’m starting to master a new shooter or real-time strategy game. My character became a force to be reckoned with because I mastered the systems, not necessarily because my strength stat kept increasing.
The realism extends to the sorts of trade-offs you have to make for certain gear, which added some interesting strategy elements. Plate armor (in addition to making you stick out like a bear in a seafood restaurant as mentioned above) is very expensive to maintain and counts against your encumbrance, so a scrawny character can’t even safely wear a full set. Full-face helmets protect better against often deadly headshots, but restrict your field of view and make it more difficult to keep track of multiple enemies. My gear choices were often as much based on what made logical sense for the situation as what offered the best stats, which was another welcome departure from the standard RPG playbook.
Mounted combat feels like an afterthought – ironic, considering the studio’s name.
A few parts of the combat system don’t work all that well, though. I never got any good at the fiddly archery system, but thankfully, I was never forced to. Mounted combat also feels like an afterthought, in that it’s functional but clearly not something Warhorse spent much time refining (ironic, considering the studio’s name).
The story is gritty, engrossing, and complex, though it tends to fall back on some old-fashioned ideas of medieval historiography in a couple of places. Notably, the Cumans, a nomadic Turkic people from the Western steppe, are treated as token foreigners at times and faceless, Stormtrooper-esque bad guy mooks at others. Characters go well out of their way to refer to them constantly as “barbaric” or “savage” – which is certainly how most of the native Bohemians would have seen them. But without ever being given any indication that it’s not that simple (literally every Cuman I met was an enemy who couldn’t be reasoned with), it comes across as trying to paint the shades of complexity that made up relations between steppe and settled societies in this era as purely black and white.
By and large, Kingdom Come does the medieval era right.
But by and large, Kingdom Come does the medieval era right, with a level of detail and research rarely seen previously. It keeps the focus very small-scale, which worked quite well. I found myself solving problems in the margins of a larger conflict involving two half-brothers competing for the throne – a refreshing break from the usual save-the-world plots of most RPGs. The stand-out quest was a Sunday mass in which I had to recite a sermon inspired by contemporary Czech church reformer Jan Hus – an important predecessor to Martin Luther and arguably the real father of the Protestant Reformation – because I’d gone on a drunken bender with the local parish priest the night before and he was too hung over to do it himself. I laughed the whole way through, and it was a nice bit of well-written levity among the often brutal and unpleasant business of medieval life in wartime.
There’s even a clever and highly involved sequence that requires you to pose as a Benedictine monk to find a criminal who has taken refuge within a religious community. Blending in requires you to attend morning and evening mass every day and even work in a scriptorium copying manuscripts. You know, monk stuff. The novelty of the routine wore down as the days I had to spend there to complete the quest dragged on, but it’s so involved that it’s almost a mini-RPG of its own. You can influence the election of the next abbott, search for pages of a missing manuscript scattered around the grounds, and barter with some of the less-scrupulous brothers to get around the giant bummer that is the “no worldly possessions” thing the bosses insist on. By the time I was finished, I almost didn’t remember what life on the outside felt like – which was kind of cool.
Some other memorable moments included having to work with one of the monastery brothers and his library of medical texts to play Hus, MD and get to the bottom of an illness plaguing a small village. In situations like this, being able to read is almost like a super power – even many nobles in this era were illiterate – and learning to do so was a major milestone in my character’s development that felt weirdly like learning my first magic spell or getting my first lightsaber in less historical RPGs.
The quest design overall is quite diverse, inspired, and effective, though the presentation could definitely stand to be more show than tell. Especially in the first act, the pacing dragged and I often felt like I’d been playing through wordy dialogue scenes longer than I’ve been doing everything else put together. Though the voice acting is generally pretty high quality, it can get a bit tedious hearing so much of it at once when there are picturesque woodlands to explore and decorate with the blood of the bandits who haunt them.