KINGDOM COME: DELIVERANCE
Knight in the woods
What does “realism” really mean?
Developer Warhorse studios • P ublisher Five star Games • P rice us$ 60 • Available At steam, GoG, retail www.kingdomcomerpg.com
When you nominate “realism”, “authenticity” and “historical accuracy” as core pillars of the design philosophy upon which your open world RPG is built, you inevitably invite scrutiny. The real world can be a cruel yardstick against which digital simulations almost always fail to measure up. Yet at the same time, as players, we tend to be easy to impress. When it comes to realism, close enough can be good enough. Kingdom Come: Deliverance cuts it fine a lot of the time, and misses the mark by a wide margin in some areas, but when it really hits it’s a unique experience.
Developer Warhorse Studios is based in the Czech Republic and they’ve chosen to explore a part of their own history here, recreating the rolling green hills, thick forests and mud-soaked villages of early 15th century Bohemia. And they’ve decided to tell a tale of kings and popes and civil war and the resulting chaos that devastates the lives
of ordinary people, in particular Henry, a young man from the village of Skalitz, the son of a blacksmith, whose parents and most of the other villagers are slaughtered during the game’s opening hour and whose quest for vengeance you undertake.
It’s difficult to judge whether the seamless, sprawling game world is historically accurate - while the geography likely hasn’t changed all that much in the last 600-odd years, our records of medieval life are sadly incomplete. Did the town of Rattay really have a church overlooking the northern side of its market square? Was there actually a bath house down by the river? Maybe. What’s important is that it feels authentic, from the broad brush terrain to the smallest texture everything looks like a real place. It’s a beautiful looking world, certainly, yet what never ceases to be impressive is just how breathtakingly mundane it all is.
The pitch, presumably, was Skyrim, but with a hardcore mode and no dragons or magic. And no elves, giants, trolls, or any other kind of monster either. That’s a hard and fast rule. The anti-fantasy rhetoric starts to ring a little hollow, however, when it comes to magic. Spells are definitely out - Henry can’t be a wizard throwing fireballs or a cleric curing serious wounds. But alchemy’s in and the potions he can brew are magical in all but name. Still, it’s definitely in the vicinity of Skyrim but with no dragons or magic.
The hardcore mode is more straightforward. Henry has a hunger meter, meaning he has to eat a few times a day otherwise he’ll start suffering penalties to his stamina. He can eat too much, though, and suffer similar penalties. He can even get food poisoning if he eats raw meat or something that’s simply gone off. Henry has to sleep, too, and the more fatigued he is the more slowly
realism is a series of choices about what to include in the game and what to leave out
his stamina will regenerate and the more blurry his vision becomes. Drink alcohol and he’ll start to stagger and sway while the next day’s hangover will have deleterious effects on his stats. Overload his inventory and he’ll be encumbered, denying you the option of sprinting or fast travelling. In battle or even just traversing the world, Henry can suffer broken limbs that must be tended to back in town and bleeding wounds that must be staunched immediately.
If all this sounds like too much to worry about when all you want to do is swing a sword at some bandits and loot their treasure, then I have some bad news: you also have to monitor the condition of Henry’s weapons and armour. These both can be repaired in towns or in the field with specialised kits. There’s even a grindstone mini-game for sharpening blades where you have to use the mouse to tilt your sword at just the right angle to get sparks flying. And I haven’t even started on how Henry has to wash himself and his attire or face disapproving looks from everyone he encounters, especially the noblefolk.
Of course, this isn’t actually a hardcore mode. This is simply how the game works. There are in fact no optional modes or even alternative difficulty settings. Kingdom Come: Deliverance is nothing but hardcore mode.
This approach extends to the combat as equally as it does to Henry’s basic needs. Melee combat makes up the vast majority of the fighting you’ll be doing and it really is very much its own thing, a first-person-only affair where the mouse essentially controls your sword arm. Henry, at least initially, isn’t a very good swordsman and so, at least initially, neither are you. At first you’ll be flailing around like a fool and tiring yourself out, and in all likelihood dying a lot. But with practice you’ll get to grips with the way it demands you manage your stamina and never over-commit, how it wants you to aim your attacks at different parts of the body and capitalise on openings, and the way it rewards anticipating enemy attacks with a preemptive block and often fatal riposte.
Fighting can feel weirdly messy, floaty and unresponsive. It can also, in the learning stages, feel like you’re never going to quite understand how it works. However, persistance pays off. It remains messy when fighting multiple opponents - which, to be frank, is never a good idea to begin with - but it’s hugely satisfying to nail a block or a dodge then follow it up with successive strikes to bring an enemy to his knees. (Literally to his knee, since enemies will often surrender when taking a beating.)
It all sounds very realistic, doesn’t it? Or at least, “realistic” in the sense that so many video games interpret the term. Of course, when a developer decides to make a “realistic” game, as Warhorse has so clearly done in this case, they are really making a series of choices about what to include in the game and what to leave out. Some of these choices will be of benefit to the game, others will be a detriment, while others yet ought to be treated with suspicion. Regardless, in making these choices they are making a statement about what they think is important.
Warhorse made a “realistic” game with no dragons or elves or trolls because it is set in a real place with an actual history. But they also made a game where the only non-white people are a group of barbaric savages who murder everyone they meet.
Warhorse made a “realistic” game where NPCs react less favourably to you if your clothes are dirty, but where nearly every woman Henry meets
wants to sleep with him.
Warhorse made a “realistic” game where you can’t save manually whenever you want. But Henry can also save whenever he wants by consuming “Saviour Schnapps”, his favourite magical alcopop.
Warhorse made a “realistic” game where NPC’s say things like “Hey, watch it!” when you bump into them. But they will also, after a conversation cutscene ends, walk forward into Henry and yell “Hey, watch it!” while he stands there blameless.
Warhorse made a “realistic” game that depicts a period in history pivotal in shaping Czech society for centuries to come. But they also simplify events and brush any complications under the carpet, painting issues of national identity in black and white and in the process delivering a political message that’s as fantastical as the RPG tropes it seeks to reject.
Throughout all this Warhorse has made an open world RPG that employs “realism” to ground you in its world, even if that ground is uneven and rather janky at times. On one hand, Kingdom Come: Deliverance revels in the mundane at the same time it threatens to collapse under the weight of its myriad systems. On the other, it gerrymanders territory marked “realism” to suit its ultra-conservative ideological agenda. It’s a weird, messy, troubling and contradictory game that remains fascinating both because of and despite its deep flaws.