Kingdom Come: Deliverance review: No kingdom for casuals
All but the most hardened open-world RPG aficionados will find Kingdom Come: Deliverance mundane and punishing.
When a Kickstarter developer named Warhorse announced it would be charging full-tilt into the open-world RPG genre – a battlefield dominated by the likes of The Witcher and The Elder Scrolls series – it sounded like berserker madness. Still, the Internet of 2011 was keen (to the tune of nearly two million dollars). This was mostly due to the undeniable pedigree of Warhorse (Dan Vavra, director of Mafia series is holding the reins) but also because the promised article would be unlike an open-world RPG on the market. Kingdom Come: Deliverance was to be a champion of the medieval realism and period-accurate melee combat. This is Dungeons & no Dragons.
Kingdom centres on the realm of Bohemia, a part of the Holy Roman Empire in the year of 1403. Being a slave to historical accuracy, Deliverance will try to catch you up to speed with the political machinations of Lord This and King That and their fighting over Hard-to-Pronounce-Province There. Great if you're an avid history buff, but an absolute wall of info delivered too fast if you're not. Fortunately, the simpler plight of your likeable avatar – Henry, the displaced son of a blacksmith fate-selected for greatness – is a straightforward hero's journey that's worth remembering.
Not having any fantasy elements weaved in may sound boring on paper, but it's actually a novelty that never gets old. There are no enchanted jockstraps to equip that will give you fire spells – no dragon shouts to make you a super human bad ass – it's just you, your sword, your wits and the many small decisions you've made up until this point, the sum of which will put you at an advantage or disadvantage. Kingdom's hardline adherence to the brutal realities of medieval life will make you feel like you're playing a survival-RPG in the first act of its 45-hour main-quest. This is tough-love stuff, but also damn good roleplaying if you stick with it.
Taking the time to really dig into the sub-quests and level up Henry to his full potential will easily take the runtime into triple figures. However, no matter how thorough you are, Warhorse delivers a rollicking tale that will take you down surprising paths, including the unveiling of Machiavellian plots, undercover assassinations and detective work. In terms of writing and quality-consistent dialogue, Warhorse never shows CD Projekt Red how it's done, but what is here was well above my expectations. Better yet, Kingdom warrants multiple replays – many moments have multiple solutions that reward different skillsets.
Progression-wise you're looking at the Elder Scrolls way of doing things – repeatedly doing an action makes you get better at it. Stuff like horse-riding skill will naturally tick over as you quest, but I'd encourage you to go and spend some time in the practice pits early on to hone your martial skills in a non-perma-death environment. You may think of yourself as a grandmaster swordsman on holiday from Skellige or Skyrim, but trust me: belting somebody with a sharp chunk of metal, or nailing a headshot with a bow, is something you must relearn here.
For starters, it's all strictly done from a first-person view and in the early days, you'll find that judging distance to target will be a problem. Though there's a lock-on function that works well, thrashing in like a berserker will get you killed in no time. Timing is paramount as is learning how to use the right stick to shift your (five) directions of attack to specifically target exposed enemy flanks. R1 and R2 will make you stab or swing respectively, and L2 is a one-size fits all block. In the early days you'll feel clunkier than the Tin Man trying to whack-a-mole, but if you persevere the fighting mechanics start to make sense and the one-on-one battles feel quite personal. Just remember that positioning and observation are key, plus the AI won't let you spam the same obvious attacks.
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Whichever way you look at it, Kingdom offers an incredibly tactical combat experience. By the time I learned advanced techniques like perfect blocks and master strikes, I liked it a whole lot better than the middling first impression. Stick with it and respect the learning curve. There's a reason why everything feels slower than the maniacal pirouetting slices done by Geralt of Rivia – there's so much riding on every move you make. Manual saving before a fight is a luxury you don't really have (and more on this in a second).
Beyond combat, other pursuits include deep speechcraft and a highly reactive reputation system. You can play as a rogue, too, thanks to gambling, solid stealth systems and a pick-pocketing mini-game that's not unlike a game of claw grabbing skill-tester. Good luck engaging in any of those things properly if you've been ignoring the fatigue and hunger systems, both of which can throw your world into chaos. Hell, over-eating can be just as bad as starving yourself (I once ate a buttload of cheese and the game made a point of telling me I would not be as eloquent as I usually am for a few hours). Just like real life.
It's difficult to not get sucked into a dynamic world where seemingly innocuous actions can bite you hard down the road somewhere (eg I once forgot to do laundry and my dirty clothes made people not respect me enough in a dialogue moment). Also, you can't resort to quick-save-scumming to side-step those hiccups moments – checkpoints are few and far between and manual saves have to be bought as drinks of schnapps. If you don't want to waste your money, you'll have to just accept some of your bad decisions (rather than reload back an hour or so) and this works wonders for engagement. Those restrictions, and all the micromanaging , create an authentic role-playing experience like nothing else on the market.
It's not all sunshine and schnapps, though. In many regards, Kingdom is a breath of fresh air to the genre, but Warhorse has gotten too ambitious in spots. For example, the graphics are marred by some NPC and object pop-in that is far too frequent and takes you out of the experience. Indeed the overall presentation regularly shifts gears between good to utilitarian. Not a small thing when you're paying near-AAA prices to play.
The usual offenders show up: there's a huge initial load time and framerates shudder noticeably in populated towns (but are fine anywhere else in the 5 km-square overworld). Uneven voice acting occurs in robotic-looking conversation moments between dead-eyed participants – that said, I didn't see Mass Effect Andromeda levels of freakiness. Basically, go in with your graphical expectations set low and Kingdom is capable enough to get the job done. Here's hoping more patches are inbound, or even a sequel – despite its problems, this is a decent first effort that deserves to spawn a larger franchise.
We reviewed Kingdom Come: Deliverance on PlayStation 4 with a copy provided by the publisher.
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