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.king­dom­com­

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.

This poor woman’s hus­band’s been hanged and the hangs­man is in­ex­pli­ca­bly try­ing to com­fort her.

Henry’s con­stantly dirty but the town guards keep their ar­mour spot­less.

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