The original premise for Kingdom Come: Deliverance was first presented by Warhorse Studios in their 2014 Kickstarter campaign: “Realistic single-player RPG set in medieval Europe. Open-world sandbox with period-accurate melee combat. Dungeons & no Dragons.” In spite of a messy launch riddled with bugs and performance issues, this premise has been executed. There is no denying that the game could have used a few more months of polish; the producer went on record regretting that they didn’t have more time, which isn’t exactly uncommon in the industry. The fact is that open world games are never impeccable at launch, and complex open world RPGs are even less so. And since we didn’t get a preview, we decided to wait for the 1.3 patch before we finished the review.
As a backer who had been following news and updates from Warhorse for a while, I knew what to expect. I went in knowing it would be a niche and unorthodox RPG with open-ended quests, which invariably leads to bugs and requires a lot of fine-tuning and careful planning to avoid breaking the player’s progress. Though I had only one quest-breaking bug in over 160 hours of playtime, unfortunately this was not the case for several other players, according to quite a few reviews and reports I’ve read. So while I’m aware that others were not so lucky, I can only speak to my experience, which was generally very positive, with some caveats.
You play as Henry, a blacksmith’s son, in the 15h century Kingdom of Bohemia, more specifically the year 1403. You live in the town of Skalitz, just outside the castle walls. For your first quest, you are tasked by your father with collecting a debt from the town drunk. You can try to convince him with your Speech stat; try to beat it out of him; or sneak into his house, choke him while he sleeps, and get the key to his trunk so you can repossess the goods he didn’t pay for. This is where KCD shines: in its open-ended and non-linear approach to quests that places more emphasis on player agency and creativity than on following the dotted line.
It’s also precisely where KCD stands apart from its most successful elders in the open world RPG genre: The Elder Scrolls and The Witcher. The absence of fantasy tropes is only the surface; Skyrim and Wild Hunt in particular are much more linear in terms of quest design, which doesn’t diminish their greatness and their cultural value, but it does make them less complex in terms of roleplaying possibilities. KCD harks back to the essentials of what makes RPGs stand apart from other genres: that players can try different ways to complete a quest, and no particular way is the “right” one.
While it is technically impossible to replicate complete freedom in a videogame, as opposed to the nearly boundless freedom and adaptability of tabletop RPGs, the ideal remains, and Warhorse tried very hard to live up to it, even where they failed. The best and most memorable quests in KCD are the ones where you can try a variety of possible playstyles to complete the objectives. Sure, there are simpler fetch quests too, but they are called Activities instead of Side Quests, which are usually more complex and involve more character development and engagement.
In the first act, Skalitz is invaded by a foreign horde known as the Cumans, a Turkic nomadic people who settled in Hungary and worked as mercenaries for several parties. After Henry’s parents are murdered by one of their leaders, he is forced to flee. In the aftermath, he goes into the service of the Lord of Skalitz, Sir Radzig Kobyla, who takes the young man under his wing as they seek refuge in the market town of Rattay, where the game begins in earnest. From then on, Henry receives missions and training, and is free to roam the open world.
The main quest is simply Henry’s pursuit of revenge; he seeks to find the man who murdered his parents and kill him. Along the way, he gets caught up in a web of conspiracies and disputes for the throne. And while that’s all very interesting and detailed, it stays in the background for the most part. Henry’s life gets entangled in the lives of peasants, lords, and bandits. He can learn the tricks of thievery from millers, help his fellow Skalitz refugees, raid bandit camps, hunt, explore, and so forth.
KCD’s character system is similar to Skyrim’s in the sense that your stats and skills progress as you practise them, instead of being predefined in a character creation prelude. This is also known as Stat Grinding, which inevitably leads to an overpowered character who can do anything and everything very well, as long as he keeps practising. While many players will enjoy this freedom, Henry could not realistically become good at everything just by practising, and so the system clashes with one of KCD’s defining features.
Sometimes Warhorse sacrificed realism in the name of gameplay, and sometimes it was the opposite. In a few cases they got it wrong. The alchemy minigame, which forces you to do everything manually (move the ingredients to the bowl before you boil, or grind them with a mortar and pestle, etc), is really immersive for the first few minutes, but soon gets tiresome, especially as you have to watch each animation before you move on to the next step when brewing potions. Of course, you don’t have to practise alchemy, though a few quests ask you to do it. If you want to do it, however, it will be a hassle until you get the Routine perk, which allows you to “autobrew” and skip the whole series of animations. Unfortunately, this option isn’t available for other sets of first-person animations that definitely add to the immersion at first, but after a while tend to become more annoying than immersive: mounting your horse, climbing ladders, lying down to sleep, picking herbs, opening and closing doors. There should be a menu option to disable these animations if they annoy the player.
The charisma system tied to clothing is also flawed. If your clothes are dirty and ragged, characters will sometimes remark on it, which at first is really immersive. If you wear Cuman armour and step into a Cuman camp, they will approach you and speak to you as if you were one of their own. However, when a quest-giving NPC tasked me with infiltrating a camp of bandits, I went and killed a few bandits, took one’s dirty, ragged clothes and wore them for full effect, only to find that they had no reaction to my outfit. I tried to wear a fancier set of clothes and it was the same. So it’s a rather limited system that could be much improved upon, adding more immersion than repetitive animations.
The shortcomings of KCD’s realism are also present in the story and some of the quests in general. Some things are downright silly and cringeworthy, particularly the romance fluff and the “alpha male” perk, which boosts your charisma by two when you have sex with one of the bathmaids who also launder your clothes. Considering that chivalry was one of the most honourable virtues for men of the Middle Ages, this kind of anachronistic attitude about sex stands out as silly and ill-considered. While I previously defended KCD’s historical accuracy, in this case I’ll say that Warhorse should have been more careful, even if they were going for a grimy take on historical accuracy.
These are definitely minor issues in the grand scheme of things, but even as a player who really enjoyed the game for many hours I should point out the problems I had with it. I also expected that the survival gameplay would be much more detailed and realistic and found it rather disappointing. You’ll never starve, as food is very abundant, which was probably not the case in a bunch of medieval countryside towns, and you can go without sleep for quite a long time before you start suffering from it. Unfortunately (or fortunately for sane people) you can’t really go number-two in the game, contrary to what I previously speculated. Above all, the speed at which you recover from wounds and injuries is very unrealistic. At least you can’t drink a healing potion in the middle of combat, though.
Many players took issue with the save system, which requires you to drink the “Saviour Schnapps” to save the game, or sleep in a bed you own or paid for, but I found it added to the immersion and made it a bit more challenging. If you’re playing on PC you can just mod it out and it’s not an issue, but if you’re playing on console you’ll just have to be more careful with your saves, or brew the drink on an alchemy bench, which takes about two minutes and yields three potions per brew.
The melee combat at first feels very realistic and visceral, like you really have to put your weight into each attack and be on your guard so you don’t get your head smashed in. As you progress, however, it becomes a bit too easy, especially once you learn the master strike, which reduces combat to parrying at the right time and one-shotting even very powerful enemies. The 1.3 patch did ramp up the difficulty by a bit, but by the late stages I only had problems when I got surrounded by many enemies at once and they stabbed and slashed and bashed me from behind as I faced one of them. Still, compared to the first-person melee combat in most games out there, this is definitely the best I’ve ever played, especially for its immersion: the sounds and animations as you hit armour feel as real as it gets. The more you hit the enemy, the more ragged or dented his clothing or armour becomes; you punch them and their faces get bruised. “Hit detection” of materials is very responsive, so that when you hit metal it sounds like metal; when you hit leather it sounds like leather; and so on. This is the realism that makes the game stand apart.
Archery is also excellent, particularly because of how challenging it is to aim without a crosshair. And when you manage to shoot an enemy right in the face, unprotected by armour, he just falls dead instead of attacking you with the arrow sticking out. If you hit them in other body parts they do keep attacking, but they still react to being shot instead of just carrying on as if nothing happened. And though the AI could definitely use some work, it is serviceable for the most part.
All of these minor details and elements in gameplay, sound and animation coalesce into a satisfying whole, making for one of the most immersive gaming experiences I’ve ever had. With a lot of games, I sometimes have to kind of force myself to play them, but with KCD, in spite of all its issues, I had to force myself to stop at times. And that doesn’t have much to do with the story itself, which for the most part is fairly commonplace. It’s the sheer immersion that keeps you going: hunting in the woods, listening to the birds chirping and the rabbits bouncing and stepping on bushes, watching the NPCs go about their daily routines. It feels like a living, breathing world, bustling with life. The foliage in particular is unlike anything I’ve ever seen in a game, probably the most dense and lush in any game ever. The woods look and feel like real-life woods in every way, and it’s a pleasure to just walk through them. The interiors of castles and buildings are also highly detailed and filled with wonderful frescos that add to an already grand ambiance. Character animation in dialogue is generally good, though kind of uneven; it’s possible to tell motion captured animation segments apart from handmade segments, which can be a bit stiff and lifeless.
The worst performance issue is the loading times for dialogue with certain NPCs, which sometimes took up to ten seconds, and that’s on an SSD. Along with the sluggish wait-sleep dial, this is my biggest complaint: the game does test your patience with long loading and waiting times, and all these niggling issues with repetitive animations and long loading times take their toll over time, and I say this as a “patient gamer”. I also experienced unstable framerates, particularly in NPC-heavy areas, but then I’m aware that my i5-4690K CPU isn’t optimal for this kind of game, which results in bottlenecking my GTX 1080. I had only one crash in over 160 hours, and no “infinite loading” issues. That was my experience, and of course it will vary from player to player.
Right now KCD is a good game with a lot of rough edges; as long as Warhorse keep working on it, it might grow into a great game. As a product, it has many shortcomings, but as an RPG, it is incredibly immersive and inventive. The main quest has some problems with pacing and writing when it’s focused on action or political intrigue, but when focused on quests that involve roleplaying and problem-solving, it’s one of the best RPGs I’ve ever played. By refusing to hold your hand, it is rougher around the edges and more demanding in terms of attention, but also much more rewarding because it doesn’t play itself by just following the dotted line and the quest mark, like so many RPGs.
It’s not for everyone; as many reviewers and critics noted, KCD is the definition of a niche RPG, and it wobbles under the weight of its ambition. It is committed to thrust upon the player a lofty, extravagant experience of immersive simulation and realism that most gamers are probably not interested in, but those who are into the complex machinery of RPG systems and interactions will have their hands very full with it and get their money’s worth in both quality and quantity. I believe it will endure as a cult classic once the dust has settled and its flaws are chiselled off with further patches, just as genre-defining RPGs such as Planescape: Torment and Fallout: New Vegas endured in spite of niche idiosyncrasies or a messy launch.
- Highly immersive
- Excellent open-ended quests
- Realistic first-person combat
- Impressive graphics and foliage
- Variety in side quests and activities
- Interesting characters and decent writing
- Repetitive animations
- Unstable framerates
- Long loading times
- Prone to bugs