In an industry where franchises make financial sense, new ideas are carefully portioned and doled out bit by bit. By comparison, Kingdom Come: Deliverance is overflowing with grand ambition. It’s the sort of passion project you saw in the 90s and early 2000s, when new IPs were taking designs and stretching them as far as they would go, often to breaking point. The good news? Despite the vast canvas and the comparatively small team working on it, Kingdom Come‘s bugs are being squashed all the time, and new updates are arriving to work out the kinks. It was a rocky start, but to my mind, the weather looks set fair.
Welcome to 1403 Bohemia, an ancient part of the Czech Republic whose knotty hills, towns, churches and mills are carefully and beautifully recreated in video game form. With a focus on realism, tropes like dragons, elves, orcs and magic have been shelved. There are of course surface similarities to fantasy games like Skyrim and The Witcher, but Kingdom Come is no fantasy romp. Verisimilitude is the order of the day, and there’s something commendable about honoring a real time in history, minus mysticism.
You play a blacksmith’s son called Henry. By day you run errands for dad and by night you sneak out to see your girlfriend at the tavern, when, out of the blue, this cosy routine is uprooted by a siege on your town. Your parents are murdered in the melee and you’re forced to flee your home in a thrilling chase sequence. So begins a story of carefully enacted revenge.
The nuts and bolts of Kingdom Come’s set up are well-worn. But the story plays out in such fine detail that you can’t help but invest yourself in the journey. Before long you’re taking care of Henry like your personal Tamagotchi, washing, feeding and letting the boy get some sleep. About the only thing you’re not doing is taking him to the toilet.
Henry is the most gormless hero of any medieval epic ever, saddled with the receding chin of a 1400s village baker. I know the idea is that he’s an everyday guy, but is he supposed to be this ordinary? I can’t tell whether it’s bad acting or impeccable casting. Either way, the effect is the same: Henry Cavill this is not. Getting your Henry up to snuff will take time, but the more you play, the more XP you accrue. The good news is you’re never wading through dreary menus and assigning skills like you’re working an Excel spreadsheet. Instead the XP is building up while you’re playing and much of the legwork is handled behind the scenes. Want to become an expert hand-to-hand brawler? Keep at it. Want to stomach booze better? Head to the tavern. Certain skills – like reading – need to be unlocked via a side mission, but everything else grows as you play, though be sure to look out for special perks rewards in the Player menu.
The systems governing the game world are all grounded in logic. Henry gets hungry the longer you go without food. Armor builds up grit and grime and dirt. Weapons lose their sharpness. And to aim a bow and arrow, you need to close one eye and hope for the best (there’s no crosshair!). Even non playable characters have minds of their own. Sometimes this can mean that you miss out on quests because you’re too slow to act. But it means you’re always on your toes, and solving problems by asking a simple question: what would I do in real life? If someone tells you to meet them at noon, meet them at noon. If you’re visiting the gentry, get your armor cleaned. If you’re going to swordfight, practice. So many games run on warped internal logic that make Kingdom Come is one of the only games I’ve played that will make as much sense to a gaming novice as it will a seasoned pro.
That is, until you get to combat of course. Swordfighting takes some getting used to and is sure to prove divisive. Fast-twitch players in particular will balk at the slight delay between a button press and the action occurring on-screen. There’s also an annoying quirk that affects the R2 trigger on older PS4 controllers. If you’ve got an old stick, chances are the lever isn’t snapping all the way back like it used to, or your controller isn’t registering the same snap. Often, the game will fail to register your pull-back entirely, and I can report that the problem persists in patch 1.2, at least for me. (I found a solution by fiddling with the control mapping settings in the PS4 menu instead.)
Most of you are going to be unaffected though and at its best, combat is a cut and thrust affair that sees you walking a thrilling tightrope. Take on a single foe with patience and you’ll find a way, but get outnumbered and you’d be a fool to stick it out. Yet it’s entirely possible to surrender in combat or avoid it altogether.
It’s this sense of freedom that’s so heady. Because of the systems chugging away in the background, Warhorse can line up emergent moments and spring them on you when you least expect them. In one quest, I was riding a special horse back to a demanding quest giver. Up to this point I’d been the model citizen, resisting the urge to pickpocket the elite and ignoring the big “steal” sign whenever I walked past a trader. But then I came across a carcass on the ground near the woods in a big open plot of land, completely removed from the quest I was taking on. I went closer. The meat was valuable. Why not take it? About to get back on my horse with deer in tow, I heard a voice and turned headlong into a trader, who had been skulking in the bushes looking for a way to snare the prize for himself. We exchanged words and he demanded that I own up to my thievery. I tried to cover my tracks courtesy of a charismatic reply. Henry’s witless one-liner fell flat. The trader promised to tell the authorities and promptly took off. I set off in pursuit, closed the gap and clubbed him to death, then furtively moved the body into a bush. One little misstep, and dear Henry was suddenly a cold-blooded killer. I felt quite bad about it in truth. After that, I became a committed drinker at the local taverns stole a of valuable merchandise, which was hawked through a fence.
This idea that you can be whoever you like is an illusion that makes open world sandbox games so appealing, and it’s an illusion that breaks any time Kingdom Come grinds to a halt. Stories of hard crashes are rife yet in my 35 hours with the game, this only happened twice, and on both occasions the game had saved seconds earlier. By all accounts, I’m one of the lucky ones. If you go into Kingdom Come expecting Call of Duty levels of polish, you’re going to disappointed though. It’s capable of looking spectacular one minute, rather ordinary the next, yet it’s also one of the best open worlds I’ve explored. There’s something about the rise and fall of the terrain that feels right; villages sticking doggedly to outcrops of land, none of it too neat or precisely demarcated. And instead of trying to be impossibly large, a la a Grand Theft Auto, Warhorse has preferred to scale back and ramp up the detail.
I played much of Kingdom Come with patch 1.2 installed, and a new one is in the works as I write this, which will reportedly address the controversial save system. Warhorse is planning to introduce a “save and exit” feature to satiate people who don’t like brewing or buying a Savior Schnapps potion to save their game manually. The current system is designed to make your every step feel important, but the risk is simply too high in a game that occasionally trips and falls over itself.
The reality of modern development is such that, even when the box is open and the disc is in the drive, you still have to put up with the game developer elbowing you to one side every now and then to fix the leaks. If you don’t fancy the intrusion, you can always wait until the dust has settled and pick up a copy in a few months. On the other hand, no game this size is ever going to be 100% bug free, and is it playable and immensely enjoyable right now? Absolutely. Even with its rough edges, Kingdom Come: Deliverance is a product of passion, stuffed with things that make you smile. When the sun rises on an early Bohemia morning and you slip into your gear, you’re in a time and place quite unlike our own, in a world that once existed many moons ago.
This review is based on the PlayStation 4 version of the game, which was provided to us by Deep Silver.
Kingdom Come's rough edges are smoothed by the knowledge you're playing a game where no detail is too small. Exploring 1400s Bohemia is a sure-fire delight.