Unless there’s some new amphetamine on the scene that slows down the real world while also making video games go at normal speed, I have no idea how reviews for Kingdom Come: Deliverance are coming out today. After roughly thirty hours of some incredibly immersive but incredibly flawed adventuring, I still have so much to get through and I can’t wait to continue to fall deeper into the rabbithole, even if its problems try to push me away.
The USP of Kingdom Come: Deliverance is that it’s a (mostly) straight RPG set in historical times. There aren’t any dragons or warlocks, so anyone who’s trying to wean themselves off of their 495th playthrough of Skyrim may miss the fantasy. That being said, if Skyrim was too streamlined for your old-school ways, you could view Kingdom Come: Deliverance as the renaissance of the dense RPG of yore. It’s utterly unapologetic in just how much it threatens to consume you.
Take, for instance, the incredible depth found in the quests, sidequests, and activities that you can find all around Bohemia. Throughout all of the villages, you can expect at least a few different distractions that will swell your playtime. These, admittedly, vary in quality quite dramatically: for every quest where you have to bury a plague-ridden corpse at the behest of the deceased’s wife, there’s another where you simply have to collect game meat or play postman and deliver stuff from A to B. Still, if you want to soak up absolutely every drop of Kingdom Come, you can expect possibly even over a hundred hours of gameplay.
You play as Henry, who is taken into the service of a lord in Bohemia during the onset of a civil war. Trailers and early coverage may have already revealed what brings him to this point in his life, but I won’t do so here, just in case. I will say, though, that I didn’t expect to be so engaged by the narrative, even if it hits some rather familiar beats. It helps that Henry himself is an everyman, someone you as a player can actually relate to as opposed to the Gruffman McBeard stereotype that so many video games boringly go for. His voice actor, Tom McKay, doesn’t exactly have a silvertongue, instead delivering a more grounded and, ultimately, more true to life depiction of a hero.
One of Kingdom Come’s more “unconventional” approaches lies in its combat. Vaunted before release as innovative, it’s ultimately like a more tactical and less dramatic round of For Honor but entirely in first-person. You can attack your opponent from multiple angles, but you always have to be aware of their counter, your stamina, and their armour. Far too similarly to For Honor for my liking, combat is best when it’s in a 1v1 situation, otherwise the onslaught of swords and axes is a little too bewildering and unfair to be much fun. It’s great when you come out on top against the odds, but the first-person perspective means you’re utterly without a paddle if they’re coming from behind you while you’re dealing with the danger you can see. The learning curve is steep, so perhaps I need to better understand Kingdom Come’s multi-man combat before writing it off.
No RPG fan is happy unless they have more than enough stats to obsess over until their character is totally how they want them to be, so it’s lucky that Kingdom Come has some of the most impressively varied and deep ways to model your Henry however you want him to be. What it lacks in facial appearance customisation (surely a devastating blow for some), it more than makes up for in playstle tweaking number-crunching. There’s so much to keep track of and improve that it would be a list of almost biblical proportions to include here, and that’s without even considering the societal buffs you receive from what you’re wearing or Henry’s actions.
Quite subtly, Kingdom Come: Deliverance introduces a karma system: a mechanic that I was sad to see slowly phased out of many open-world games. Do bad things, people will treat you as a bad person. Do good things, however, and you will be revered despite your relatively lowly status. If you also look like shit, people will treat you like shit: depending on the current outfit you are wearing or just how battle-weary you appear, conversations can go down many different routes. Some doors will open and others will slam shut. It’s a small thing in the grand scheme of Kingdom Come: Deliverance, but it’s the perfect example of the kind of ambition Warhorse Studios were going for when they set up a crowdfunding campaign all those years ago. Heck, there are even survival mechanics.
However, this ambition seems to have come with a hefty price. As it stands (before inevitable post-launch patches), Kingdom Come: Deliverance is a bit of a messy experience that could seriously test the patience of some players. And that’s even with the notorious day one patch installed.
I can’t speak for every platform, but Kingdom Come certainly chugs along on a base PS4. The framerate isn’t always consistent and often tortuous when in hectic combat; hardly ideal when encounters require finesse to escape unscathed. Textures and assets are also routinely absent before being “lazy loaded” in, clothing and storefronts often appearing randomly out of thin air – I’ve also been engaged in an archery battle with a headless foe on a couple of occasions. The less said about the cows falling out of the sky, the better.
What’s frustrated me the most so far, though, to the point where I see the symbol in the bottom right corner in my dreams, is the amount of loading. There’s just so much in Kingdom Come: Deliverance loading to the point where I can wander off, boil the kettle, maybe eat a biscuit and have comfortably enough time to spare. This might be fine in isolated bursts, such as when first starting the game, but there’s at least a two minute window while the game initially loads, a two minute wait when loading your last save, a shorter but still too long loading screen when entering conversations and cutscenes, and even some loading when trying to look at your map. It’s maddening.
Seemingly in a move to foster more of a challenge, saving in Kingdom Come: Deliverance isn’t as simple as delving into the pause menu whenever you like. The game autosaves at points it deems appropriate, like before or after a quest, but it rarely does it anywhere in-between and when it does, it’s entirely misjudged. If you want to manually save, you can always drink a Saviour Schnapps, but these aren’t all that common, usually only available for sale via innkeepers or created through alchemy. However, seeing as how currency is difficult to easily come across in the game’s early stages and that you have to have a good grasp of alchemy and also the right ingredients to create one instead, there’s going to be a lot of repeating the same portions of quests. Don’t even think about going off wandering unless you’re stocked up on Schnapps because the game will quickly punish you for it.
When all of my grievances came together in one arduous, sanity testing sequence, it almost undid everything I’d come to love about Kingdom Come: Deliverance. A major setpiece sees you attacking an enemy outpost over multiple stages, but never lets you heal up once and only saves after the first stage of the assault. With a suffering framerate, a couple dozen enemies, and eventually a boss to contend with, it was like pulling teeth, medieval style. That means it was extra dark and depressing.
As mentioned, combat in a 1v1 situation is manageable, even often exhilarating. Try combat on a scale like the battle demands, however, and it all comes apart at the seams. Everything slows down to a dead snail’s crawl as the engine struggles to keep up; it’s clear it wasn’t really built for this kind of intensive scenario. While the slashing of swords and shattering of shields is going on, enemy archers also take potshots, so you need to return fire. Perhaps I am not accustomed to it yet, but archery just doesn’t feel great in Kingdom Come: Deliverance, like trying to throw an extremely floppy sausage into an air vent in windy conditions. Not my best simile, admittedly.
Death comes pretty quickly in Kingdom Come: Deliverance, so playing tactically is the way to stay alive. Sadly, as most of my allies during the battle were sort of just standing around gormlessly, any kind of honourable tactics went out the window. With the fear of God (and the threat of yet another obscenely long loading screen) in me, my strategy devolved into utterly cheesing the sequence and feeling only somewhat ashamed with myself. Even after loading an earlier save to make myself better equipped for the battle, I was still getting killed by phantom arrows or becoming stuck in the scenery, so I did the only sane thing: I stood and waited behind cover. I would occasionally pop out and slash some idiot from behind like a true hero, but by and large I just prayed that the friendly AI would get its shit together. It eventually did, so with a mere half of my health mysteriously depleted, I knew I now stood a slim but no longer impossible chance against the boss. My only real option, of course, was to shoot him with seven arrows and win the day.
Perhaps my criticisms of Kingdom Come: Deliverance are so harsh because I toiled through such a concentrated section of frustration, but it was hard to ignore its faults even before they all so blindingly came into focus. Despite the flaws, there’s clearly been a lot of love poured into the game and I’ve barely touched upon how deep and rewarding so many other aspects of it are. It’s still too early for me to make a judgement call on the game, but it must be a good sign that I can look past the many issues I have with it and continue to enjoy the rough diamond at its core. Look for my review later in the week. For now, I will be getting drunk with priests and hoping for patches.