I have a personal affinity for the Bohemian region of Europe, being a quarter Bohemian on my mother’s side. But, like many third and fourth-generation Americans, that’s little more than a footnote in my history. My parents taught me next to nothing about my heritage, other than a few mispronounced curses that stuck with them from their youth. Hence my interest in Kingdom Come: Deliverance back when it showed up on Kickstarter in 2014. Here was a game, insisted the developers at Warhorse Studios, that would help me to get closer to my heritage, a “realistic RPG that will take you to Medieval Europe in a time of great upheaval and strife.”
Unfortunately, after a long weekend with the game, I’m not sure I’ve absorbed much more than would be gained by a trip to the local Renaissance faire or a rerun of an Errol Flynn movie.
The final product, released Feb. 13 on PlayStation 4, Windows PC and Xbox One plays out across one of the most beautiful landscapes I’ve ever seen coming out of a computer screen. The game itself, however, is so crushingly boring, so drawn out and tedious, that I cringe every time a character opens its mouth.
And I get it. Kingdom Come was not designed to be a sword and sorcery game. I always expected it to have more in common with Farming Simulator 2017 than with The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. The final product moves at a positively glacial pace, thereby meeting my expectations.
But the experience itself is plagued with graphical glitches and broken quests. Its writing is among the worst I’ve had to suffer through in some time. Both are an impediment to keeping my attention for long periods of time, or inspiring me to get down and dirty with the historical record that it provides.
That being said, let’s touch on what Kingdom Come does well.
From a distance, absolutely everything feels handmade. The villages and the roads, the little castles and their surrounding baileys, the muddy streets all seem like they are truly part of the land. They flow with the contours of the hillsides and make for stunning vistas, especially at dusk and dawn. The developers went so far as to think about the drainage and add period accurate gutters. It’s those little details that all come together to make the world look vibrant and lived-in.
But get too close to just about anything that moves, like an animal or a non-player character, and things begin to break down.
Many of the NPCs simply ignore you. Those that you are able to interact with tend to offer the exact same set of questions and answers from town to town. More unsettling, people somehow know my character’s name even if I’ve never met them before. Every single NPC is fully voice-acted, which is a luxury for a game as big as Kingdom Come, but I would have traded it all for them to just stop being so creepy.
Putting the beautiful setting aside, looking past the wooden NPCs, it is a simple fact that the story in Kingdom Come is woefully bland. The game has all the moral ambiguity of an episode of Leave It To Beaver and dramatic intensity of The Lone Ranger.
The lords and their soldiers are stalwart and honorable almost to a man. The lone priest that I’ve met is gluttonous and snide. The foreign invaders are sub-human rapists. Women seem to have only three functions. They either perform as two-dimensional sex objects, fetch water from the river, or do needlepoint.
The game features a voluminous codex. It gives great detail on the economics and social mores of the day, but it also seems to function as a cheat sheet or something intended to backstop the otherwise hamfisted delivery of the game’s narrative. It does nothing whatsoever to make me interested in the main character’s plight. My parents are dead, my lord has taken a shine to me, and so far the remainder of the game’s conflict has been dropped into my lap with a series of cutscenes.
I don’t feel like an actor impacting a living, breathing, open world but more like a pinball trapped inside a machine.
Furthermore, Kingdom Come has a painful pacing problem. I spent fully four hours with the game when the action stopped and the title sequence rolled by. What I thought was the tutorial was, in actuality, the preamble to the tutorial. I spent another six hours before encountering the first real questline, at which point it had become increasingly difficult to maintain my suspension of disbelief.
I remember at one point that, while out hunting with a young lord, I shot a deer full of arrows. It neither started nor showed any discomfort at all. Only when I ran up to within spitting distance did it consider me to be a threat. Later, to save money on a night at the local inn, I just broke into a recently widowed woman’s house and slept on the bed next to her. In the morning, I found her walking the grounds outside as though nothing happened.
The next night I tried the same thing and she had me arrested.
On a functional level, the quest writing and scripting leaves a lot to be desired. Not only is the dialogue itself blandly written at a micro level, at times the quests themselves are confusing.
At one point, I spent a full real-world hour wandering in the woods looking for someone. Only after traveling past the next town over did I begin to think that I might simply have been given bad directions by an NPC. So I went back to them and used bribery instead of intimidation to open up the only part of their dialogue tree that I hadn’t ventured down yet. It cost me 20 percent of my gold to find out, but sure enough after I used my bribery skill I found the correct instructions that allowed me to quickly wrap up the quest.
These kinds of things happen in RPGs, especially at a game’s launch. Nobody’s perfect, and you would imagine that something like this would get patched out over time. Adding insult to injury, however, when I returned to the part of the map where the quest giver was standing I was unceremoniously told that the quest had failed. I did my part, struggling through an awkward dialogue tree. The least that the game could do was reward me, but it failed at even that simple courtesy.
Add to the experience a laundry list of animation and graphical glitches — horses that get hung up on bushes or trapped inside stalls, characters that teleport around the room during conversations and clipping issues with hair, hands, clothing, weapons and horse tack — and Kingdom Come might seem like more trouble than it’s worth. Surprisingly, it’s the combat system that keeps me coming back.
This is absolutely not a sword and sorcery game, nor was I expecting one. But it makes a point to hamstring you from the start. You will get a sword, but it will be taken away almost immediately. You’ll spend a considerable amount of time with a pointy stick before you can manage to come by another one. But swinging that stick is actually a lot of fun.
I was first introduced to Kingdom Come’s brand of historical European martial arts, or HEMA, at last year’s E3. It was awful, and I cycled through three members of the development team before I found one who could both explain it to me and perform it for me on screen. The system that shipped with the final game is infinitely more playable.
More importantly, it feels authentic. I’ve spent time with one of the best HEMA instructors in the midwest and I can tell you that many of the tips delivered by Kingdom Come’s NPCs sound familiar. Abbreviated and awkwardly delivered, to be sure, but there are some common themes: Be light on your feet, keep moving, feint your attacks and strike with a purpose. The game’s animations and Simon-like combat system competently supports HEMA as I understand it. Openings for attack and opportunities for defense are emoted well, and the movement in the head of your own avatar, both when they strike and are struck, contributes nicely.
This game’s weapons feel lovingly crafted, and each of them tends to give combat a different flavor. Fighting against someone carrying a polearm is very different than battling someone with a mace, for instance, and keeping the proper distance at any given time is key to landing your blows and maintaining a defense. If anything, I wish the game had made me slightly more skilled from the beginning. It took me more than 15 hours of play to even begin to feel competent.
The game is also not without its controversies. Warhorse is a team of more than 150 people, but the game’s creative director has gone out of his way to rationalize his support of GamerGate, a loosely knit hate group that has devoted time to harassing women, people of color and journalists in the past. So outspoken is the studio’s leadership on cultural issues that they have found it necessary to work with a German outlet to publish anti-fascist, anti-sexist and anti-racist statements prior to their game’s launch.
So, if you’re planning to pick up Kingdom Come: Deliverance, know what you’re getting going in. It is a beautiful world, but also an immature, awkward thing both in its technical construction and its narrative themes. It has a robust and engaging combat system, but it will take you a while to uncover them and require that you struggle through an otherwise uneven game.