From the opening scenes of new medieval RPG Kingdom Come: Deliverance, you’re pretty much just waiting for your village to get burned down. This isn’t just because the initial set-up of the story isn’t so familiar from hundreds of other films and games – though it is – but also because after an hour or so of playing what amounts to a sort of Medieval Chore Simulator, you’re pretty much ready for everyone in it to die. This is the sort of game where your Dad sends you on a fetch quest to bring him some ale, and then if you take too long about it, sends you back to do it again because the ale has become too warm.
This sounds like a harsh criticism, but in fact it seem symptomatic of the way KC:D has made some very deliberate choices to become something of a different kind of game. Eschewing fantasy worlds for historical 15th century Bohemia, it’s clearly attempting to be something of a realistic portrayal of medieval life, passing on the chance to include dragons and orcs to instead focus on the events, politics, class system, technology and lifestyle of a specific time and place – familial ale-fetching duties included. It’s also clearly gigantic, and yet after spending quite a few hours in the game’s richly detailed world, the gameplay experience still seems to be mostly on rails, with tutorial-type missions still taking place some seven or eight hours into the game. It seems clear that things eventually open up, but a full review would require many more hours yet.
On first impressions though, KC:D certainly stuns visually with its lovingly recreated version of Central Europe, 1403. From castles to walled towns, bucolic meadows, roadside inns and the whispering wind through incredibly detailed forests, it’s well gorgeous – and the game world itself is also complemented with inventories and a map done in a neat, medieval manuscript style. It’s a meticulous, pretty world, into which drops Henry, the (uncustomisable) character and son of a blacksmith that you’ll be playing, who is paaaaainstakingly eventually dispatched on an overall mission of revenge that it is clear he will be at for a long time.
A number of ambitious systems are deployed in the game, all clearly aimed at the “realism” that is the game’s goal, and it’s initially confusing to get your head around them all. Your reputation, for example, is based not just on your previous actions, but also on certain skills, the clothes you are wearing when you talk to people, and their social class compared to yours. (I can’t recall another game I’ve played in which it can pay to wash up before having a chat to someone, but finally here is proof that your Mum was right about cleaning behind your ears, in video game form.)
There’s also a host of mechanics and minigames for a variety of other tasks, such as haggling with traders, pickpocketing, horse riding, and lock picking – the latter of which offers the physically trickiest version of this essential RPG skill I have ever experienced. Mine is an honest Henry, because I have basically given up trying to pick locks.
Combat is a strategic beast of sword positioning and fast and slow strikes that offers a bit of depth, but is again hard to pick up initially. The game throws the player into the deep end in many ways, with the initial hours a constant stream of medieval databank-style entries and trying to work out jhow to accomplish things amidst long lists of instructions and unintuitive visual information.
The most noticeable difference from your typical modern RPG experience is in the pacing. You can expect a lot of long walks, looking for things, eating regular meals, and watching extended cutscene conversations about the Bohemian political situation held in antechambers (there’s some indifferent writing at times, but some pretty solid voice acting). At times, this sort of stuff draws you deeper into the game world and story, and makes good on the experience Warhorse Studios wanted to deliver. At other times, when you’ve been walking around for 10 minutes trying to find a shovel, it can make you question what you are doing with your life.
This then certainly is not a game for everyone, and those on the fence might be pushed off by some annoying bugs and deliberately anti-standard mechanics (saving whenever you want to requires that you buy a one-use, not-inexpensive in-game item first), or the little ways in which the game’s goal of realism is clearly not met, like generic townsfolk all sharing the same dialogue.
Will I play more of this game? Yes – I have to at least see what happens when the world opens up more – but as a guy with a medieval history degree, I’m pretty much the target audience, and yet I still find myself wishing a dragon would land and start fighting the castle garrison some of the time. When it’s on song, the game is immersive and intriguing; at other times, it can be deathly dull. It’s nice to see an RPG trying to do something a bit different and succeeding in many ways, but KC:D has an unfortunate “hmm, I wish this was Skyrim” vibe that many gamers may find difficult to shake off.