You can always tell a game that's been kickstarted. They're the ambitious ones, the moonshots - the "let's give it a go" games that try something truly different. The ones that ditch micro-transactions, dodgy monetisation schemes, and "season passes" in favour of a game that actually launches as a whole, rather than expecting you to buy its bits and pieces separately. And Kingdom Come: Deliverance is one hell of a moonshot.
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Though its name may make it sound like a sequel, Kingdom Come: Deliverance is a game cut from original cloth. Played from a first person perspective, this is a role playing game that ditches high fantasy in favour of an authentic recreation of medieval Bohemia - a land that makes up a large chunk of the present day Czech Republic - in a setting fuelled by castles, taverns, wenches, and feuding lords.
Into the maelstrom comes young Henry, a blacksmith whose life is turned upside down when the quiet village where he lives is attacked, pillaged and plundered by a gang of marauding troops, acting on behalf of King Sigismund of Hungary, who plans to take over the region after deposing its weak king. Barely managing to escape with his own life, Henry is ordered to flee to the nearby castle at Talmberg, to warn them of the coming invasion. Needless to say, the story here is easily one of the game's highlights, as it focuses on the people and characters behind the armies, rather than getting bogged down in too many arguments about inheritance and thrones.
Still, as the son of a blacksmith with next to no fighting experience, it's fair to say you find yourself horribly ill equipped to survive in the big and dangerous world - and in Kingdom Come: Deliverance, the world is both very big, and very dangerous. Having worked closely with historians to create towns, cities, villages and castles that are as close to their historical counterparts as possible, this is a game that's dripping in atmosphere - and the dynamic weather system, which sees epic thunderstorms, and torrential downpours begin at but a moment's notice doesn't hurt, either. There's few things cooler than heading to your next quest under cover of night, torch in your hand, as the heavens open around you, and the people run for cover.
As you'd likely expect, though, Henry may be just the son of a blacksmith, but he's very much the hero of this story, and not just another serf. A bloke with a canny ability for getting himself in just the right place at just the right time, rather than spend his life crafting swords and axes for those who're going out to fight, he instead ends up being added to the military ranks of Lord Radzig, the exiled ruler of his village, to seek vengeance for his family, and push back the invaders for good.
But while Kingdom Come: Deliverance may have a unique setting, the gameplay here is much more familiar - remove the dragons from Skyrim, and add a heaping of extra realism, and you probably wouldn't be too far off. With dozens of quests and side quests to get stuck into, one day you might be sneaking through a forest, setting traps to catch some escaped blackbirds by listening for their calls; the next, you'll be accompanying the bolshy yet perhaps misunderstood young Lord Hans on a hunt, before heading to dig up a grave to pinch a ring, and repay a debt you owe to a miller who saved your life and nursed you back to health.
In keeping with the game's realistic setting, there's also several ways you can go about solving each quest - you just have to think about it as you would in real life, and use your abilities to your advantage. One early quest sees you trying to sneak out of a castle - but with the whole thing on lockdown, that's easier said than done. A quick chat with the guard watching the gate sees him share that, while he can't let you leave directly, if you were clad in a proper suit of armour, he wouldn't be able to tell it was you, so you'd be free to go as you please.
How you get your hands on said armour, though, is up to you. If you fancy being a thief, you could go to the local trader and try and buy a lockpick, which in turn would let you break into a chest in the armoury, and steal some armour. In fact, this is what the game seems to want you to do, as the objective it marks on your map simply takes you to a room filled with locked boxes - which isn't much use if you don't have a lockpick, and can't afford to buy one. While you could pinch some stuff you find lying around, and then swap it with the trader for a lockpick, there is a better way of doing it, which gives you a little bit less of a chance of getting into trouble.
Ever since arriving at the castle, the young Lady of the keep has taken a shining to you - and as she's already feeling sympathetic, it's not all that tricky to twist her arm to give you some information. If you can track her down in the castle (which is easier said than done, seeing as no-one has markers or anything else on the map, and you can't ask anyone for directions), you can use your gift of the gab to win her over to your plight, at which point she'll mention that you should be able to find the armour "anywhere the guards sleep". She'll even give you some money, just in case you need to pay anyone any bribes (or, you know, buy a lockpick). That said, it turns out the Lady's advice was good, as if you explore the castle properly, you'll stumble upon a tower, and up a ladder in the tower, you'll find some unlocked chests. Pinch the armour, put it on, jump on yours horse and trot the gate, and you'll be a free man - so long as none of the guards are coming back to sleep while you're half inching their stuff.
It's this approach to "realism" that's at the heart of Kingdom Come, and a concept which governs not just how you approach the quests, but the game's combat too. While most medieval RPGs end up sinking into button mashing territory, Kingdom Come's sword fights are instead a much more involved affair. Upon getting into combat, you'll see a small star over your opponent, with one red handle, which relates to the direction from which you're going to swing from with your sword. The whole idea here is that attacking from one direction is easy and predictable, but changing the direction the attacks are coming from makes your moves that much harder to block. While holding L1 (on PS4) lets you block incoming attacks automatically, pressing it at just the right time will let you parry a blow perfectly, creating a small opening for you to attack. With a stamina system dictating how often you can attack, and how many blows you can parry, battles are slower and more complex affairs than you might think - yet it's a system that works well.
However, sadly, Kingdom Come: Deliverance is also a game that pushes its realism too far. As with a lot of games that try to become a quasi-simulator, there are some parts of life that just aren't that much fun, and end up turning the game into a bit of a chore. In Kingdom Come, you'll have to eat regularly to keep yourself up to strength (something that's easier said than done when you can't usually afford much in the way of food, forcing you to go scavenging yourself), sleep regularly to replenish your energy, and take frequent trips back to town to repair your armour, weapons, and clothes, as they take a beating in combat.
What's more frustrating is the damage system, where walking through a river saw us break our feet, and "falling" from a two foot drop saw us knacker both legs. "Permanently" crippling you until the next time you find some rest (or pay to visit a bath house), it's a heck of a lot easier to make a tiny mistake and end up crippling something, than it is to figure out how to put yourself back together again afterwards.
Similarly, while most characters in RPGs have no issue with strangers wandering into their house, the realism of Kingdom Come dictates otherwise. Instead, the game will pop up with a tiny blue logo where you enter an area you're not meant to be - stay too long, or upset the occupant, and you'll become a wanted man, having to pay a hefty fine, or spend a few days in jail. The only problem is, how this rule's applied seems to be really haphazard. Wandering through an open door in a pub can see you accidentally ending up somewhere that's out of bounds - once, we walked into the pub's cellar, and within a second we'd gone from being an ordinary punter, to trespassing and having half the town's police descend upon us, hungry for their fine money.
But while the emphasis on realism may grate a bit, there are two really big issues that really let Kingdom Come down - its save system, and its bugs.
The save system here is another product of the game's push for realism, and for making your decisions matter. Rather than letting you save where you like, the game instead will only let you save your game manually if you have something called "saviour schnapps" - something you'll start with just three of, and which cost more money to buy than we've ever seen in our time in the game. Needless to say, these aren't things you'll find it easy to come by, and so essentially, the game gives you no easy way of saving your progress manually. While it does have an auto save, it's also not the most reliable, tending to save only when you've made significant progress on an actual quest, or when you manually go to sleep - so buying items, exploring, gathering herbs, and all the stuff the game forces you to do in your down time end up counting for nothing. It wasn't uncommon for us to go 40 minutes plus without the game saving - and with no way to save manually, it could be another 40 minutes before it saved at all.
But the deliberately awkward save system may not be quite as much of an issue if the game was reliable. But the sad thing is, it's not. Instead, we have an awkward, and punishing save system that's paired with a game that veers from feeling totally polished, to being utterly broken in the space of a few paces. At times, entire cities will only half load in, leaving you wandering around a town that looks like it's been copied wholesale from a PS1 game. Leaving you to get stuck on fences that aren't actually there, fumble with doors that are little more than a slightly off colour patch on a wall, and fall off drawbridges that are completely invisible, leaving guards simply stuck standing in mid air, it can all make the game very tricky to play. And it's not isolated to just one place, either - several cities have done this to us during our time with the game, and there wasn't really any obvious way to fix it. We guess we could always reload our save, but - oh, wait.
It's probably also worth mentioning that while Kingdom Come's world may be vast, it doesn't half feel a bit
baron barren. Far from the bustling worlds packed with collectibles, discoveries and quests as seen in things like Assassin's Creed Origins, Kingdom Come's plains may look nice, but there's really very little to do on them. It's a shame, as with the team having gone to so much effort to create a believable world, it's also ended up creating an empty one that seems to exist to simply pad your time with the game, and force you to fast travel everywhere. Even talking to most townsfolk is useless, as only a tiny, tiny handful will ever offer you a quest, or a job to do, while most just want to offer the exact same gossip or opinions, word for word, as the folk next to them.
In all then, Kingdom Come: Deliverance is an immensely ambitious game that comes so, so close to achieving what it set out to do, yet one that perhaps aimed just that little bit too high - or released that few too many months early. While this is still a lot of fun, with a great story and setting, an interesting combat system, a fantastic soundtrack, buckets of atmosphere, and quests that can be approached how you like, the technical glitches, the over emphasis on realism, and the punishing save system combine to take the shine off what's otherwise a glimmering success. Though we're fairly sure the glitches will be patched out, we can't give a game a score based on its potential - once the announced changes to the save system have been made, and the odd town loading glitch has been remedied, you can probably add at least another half star to this score.
Format Reviewed: Playstation 4