When Kingdom Come: Deliverance won 'Best PC Game' at the 2017 Gamescom Awards, the Kickstarted, history-based, open-world RPG shared a stage with the likes of Middle-earth: Shadow of War, Super Mario Odyssey, and Assassin’s Creed Origins. While those games are already in people’s homes, we still don’t really know much about this swords and shields title.
There is plenty of reason to be intrigued by it too, not least because developers Warhorse Studios have pledged an absolute commitment to making it as realistic as possible. That is perhaps why the game still isn’t out yet. Seven years after Warhorse was founded, will first title will be worth the wait? At a recent press event I finally got the chance to dig my heels into the grit of medieval Bohemia, spending a whole five hours with Kingdom Come, slowly teasing out what it was those Gamescom judges had found so tantalising.
Running around Rattay
I start off near a town called Rattay, which is located in what is now the central Czech Republic. By this point - about a quarter of the way into the game so, you know, spoiler alert - my parents have been killed, and I have tried to avenge them. It didn’t go so well. I ended up getting severely wounded and so now I need to return to my lord to ask him for help. The problem is I went against his wishes by embarking on this quest of vengeance in the first place.
My surroundings are gorgeous. Smoke rises from chimney pots in a small village down the road, a small blot among the green rolling hills. As I plod down the path, trying to get my bearings I can tell this is a world I want to get to know a lot more. Opening my map is a pleasant surprise: it is made to resemble a medieval tapestry, with markers resembling crested shields. Warhorse Studios have really nailed the rustic, history-laden theme, ensuring it touches every part of the game.
What surprises me most is the beauty of the sound design. In the opening sections, I notice a gentle rustling as I step through thick bushes, the squelching underfoot of muddy puddles, and the babbling of a nearby lake. This attention to aural detail is found throughout, the bucolic sounds of a medieval world sounding off in chorus as I march from place to place, everything hitting the right notes from the thud of arrows to the chanting of monks.
As I run around and start to get a feel for Kingdom Come's mechanics. The entire experience is locked to the first-person view, making it feel more like Skyrim than The Witcher - though the world itself has more in common with the latter. But Kingdom Come goes a step further than Bethesda’s 2011 RPG when it comes to making the most of that perspective. I was pleasantly surprised to see my character’s hand actually reach out to open doors and pick up the tat lying around the world, begging for me to steal it (though in its current state that eager arm did cause the odd graphical glitch).
Speaking of theft, after running up to a hut and being caught red-handed with a pair of old boots, the inhabitants sprint off down the road screaming for guards. Here, you can start to see the lengths at which Warhorse have gone to inject a sense of realism into the game's crime system. It is easy to appreciate after years of playing RPGs that give law enforcers a divine insight into your wrongdoings. This is a world that feels alive as you witness it react to your actions.
I end up in a jail cell, but instead of jumping forward in time, I have to wait for an excruciatingly slow dial to spin around for seven in-game days. In reality, it only amounts to about a minute or so of downtime, but that bit of forced waiting adds a palpable sense of weight to lawbreaking and its consequences. You really do feel like you are being punished for your crime. You might think that would be enough to stop me from doing time behind bars again but you would be wrong. I found it pretty easy to accidentally punch someone or pick up the wrong item, which meant more time was spent staring at that dial than I would have liked. Perhaps I am more of a deviant than I realise. I prefer that idea to admitting my own clumsiness.
Temporarily giving up my life of accidental crime, I decide to progress through the main quest, which eventually sees me in combat training. The fencing-style swordplay of Kingdom Come is one of the key areas Warhorse are working on, differentiating it from competitors, and it is what got a lot of people excited enough to fund it.
But let me warn you now. Combat is tricky - very tricky. The training session is lengthy, but I was glad for it - the sword-fighting aspect of Kingdom Come is intricate and exceptionally punishing. The general idea is that you have to focus on enemy movements as much as your own, darting in and out of sword range, noting the positioning of their sword so you can get in a quick hit, or parry their blade. The mouse is used to choose sword position and attack type, and all the while you have to keep on your toes, as well as react with parries and dodges.
There is a huge focus on stamina management, too. If you run out your screen goes blue and the sound dims. It gives you a sense of tunnel vision and is a smart way to force you to back off and recover. No stamina means no attacks, no parries, and a dead you. You also cannot heal during battle, and when you get hit your max stamina drops, meaning you are more likely to get hit again.
It is a hell of a lot to take in, especially as this was supposed to only be an introduction to the combat. Becoming a master with a sword will likely be as rewarding as it is difficult, but I can’t help but wonder if it is finicky to the point that some players will be put off before getting that far. There’s a real sense of danger, but, for me, having so much to concentrate on sapped some of the fun from going toe-to-toe with an opponent.
Bogged down in battle
From there, I skip ahead a few hours and experience one of Kingdom Come’s full-scale battles. I am suddenly kitted out in chainmail, and have the option of an open-faced helmet, or a heavier one with a visor. As I draw my sword, the visor I chose to equip is lowered, obscuring my vision. It is a nice touch, and really draws me into the action, but I end up reloading - you cannot swap equipment in the heat of battle - in order to switch to the open-faced model. Sure, it provides less protection, but I take the hit in order to better see what is going on around me.
There weren’t actually that many soldiers on-screen to pay attention to, but the shouting and sounds of swords clinking off armour really made the battlefield come alive. Still, the close-combat sword fighting is a mess. The intricate fencing system I practised in the training yard falls apart here. I have to lock on to each enemy, trying to avoid their blades while parrying, only for another soldier to walk between us and ruin my hit. More than once I try to fix onto a soldier, only to be directed to his neighbour, getting a sword in the face amid the confusion while arrows rain down on us as if to rub my extremely vulnerable face in the failure.
Eventually I fall back and let my fellow soldiers take the brunt of the blows, picking off stragglers when their backs are turned. I guess I’m a thief and a coward. Perhaps it is fitting that combat is hectic, with nothing ever happening like you want or expect, but the insistence on realism which runs like a spine through Kingdom Come sometimes gets in the way of any actual enjoyment.
After the battle, I jump straight into a one-on-one duel with the commander. Where every other enemy died in a few hits, this guy takes masses of punishment, defeating me time and again. Still heavily wounded from the previous fight, and having no opportunity to heal means I am stuck on a sliver of stamina, so anything less than perfection results in a swift demise.
I came away from Kingdom Come feeling dejected. I am still looking forward to the ambitious project’s release in February 2018 - that world is just too gorgeous and gripping to not explore - but for now I am glad to be away from its accursed battlefields. Maybe, in the meantime I can take up fencing and get some practice in. After all, the real thing can’t have me feeling any more bloodied and beaten.