Picture the scene: it is pitch black in Skyrim, the aurora borealis is swirling among the stars, the gods watching you from their home among the constellations. You are crouched near the blacksmith’s, kitted out in thief’s gear, lockpick at the ready. What is the first thing you do? You bring up the pause menu and you save the game, of course. If you are caught lugging out the fancy cuirass you spotted earlier then you will simply load up and try again. The outcome of your nighttime raid is predetermined.
Did you know: Kingdom Come: Deliverance is really good at making murder feel bad.
Kingdom Come: Deliverance is not so forgiving. Not only does it automatically save the game at set intervals, but manual saves are restricted. You can either go to bed and it will save automatically – which itself is on a cooldown so you cannot abuse it – or you can down an expensive alcoholic drink called Saviour Schnapps. Particularly in the early game, during which you live the life of a penniless peasant, this concoction is not easy to come by. Therefore, you are forced to live with your mistakes, and this makes your story feel more personal as a result.
This is an RPG that hands out tangible consequences for your actions. Everyone is a thief in Skyrim because there are no repercussions to your thievery if you save at the right time. Despite hundreds of hours in Skyrim’s world, I have never spent a second of that time in one of its prison cells for committing a crime. Go down the path of a thief in Kingdom Come, however, and there is a good chance you will get locked up. The choice of being a thief here is more complex than ‘do you want free stuff or not?’.
Likewise, if you get into a fight on one of Bohemia’s muddy, countryside roads, there is a chance you will be killed. Attached to that death is a loss of progress. This is good game design. Think of how Alien: Isolation leverages its save system to make the alien feel like a threat, rather than an obstacle. It is not just the creaking audio design that makes sneaking through Alien: Isolation’s space station so terrifying – it is the fact that death is a real setback. You can only save at dedicated stations, and a limited number of times per station depending on your chosen difficulty, and you could be killed at any moment while using them. It causes you to alter your playstyle, to be more cautious, and so it goes for Kingdom Come.
While on my way to one mission I meet a wayfaring knight. He challenges me to a duel, so I ask what we are fighting for: if he wins, he takes 80 of my 100 gold; if I win, I get his helmet. He is in full plate armour. I am in chainmail and I do not even have a helmet. I need that helmet, but a scruffy serf cannot afford to buy one like his.
I decide to go for it. Unfortunately, all my sword can produce is sparks when I strike the knight. I should have come armed with a weapon capable of ringing his metallic noggin with blunt force. With one smooth counter attack, the knight saps my health, leaving me to patch up my bleeding wounds on the roadside. I hand over my gold and the knight walks off, victorious.
In any other RPG, I would have saved before the encounter and either retried the fight until I got the victory, or avoided it altogether, losing nothing. Here, in Kingdom Come, I decide to try and win by other means. I creep up behind the knight as he struts off with my gold and choke him unconscious. I then strip him of all his belongings, leaving him in his underwear on the road, his head resting neatly in a muddy puddle. Night, night, knight.
When I arrive at my mission in my freshly-acquired plate armour, I am tasked with scouting out a bandit camp ahead of an upcoming raid. I wait until nightfall and try to sneak in but I am caught by a torch-bearing sentry. I retreat back into the woods to collect myself before searching for another way in. Morning comes and I find a little river crossing with a single guard keeping watch. He sees me approaching and runs over to shoo me off. I act as if I am going to comply, and then, remembering how I dealt with the knight, creep up behind him and choke him out as he returns to his post. I like choking people out, OK?
Once he is down, I carry his unconscious body into the woods, stab him to make sure he doesn’t wake up, then take all of his gear. I am a bandit now. The new disguise allows me to get into the camp undetected. I am questioned a couple of times, but my speech and intimidation skills allow me to weasel out of it – it feels great.
From there, I head to the camp’s cooking pot and drop some poison inside. Then I notice a bucket of arrows by a bandit. I set fire to them, alerting the camp, which fills me with alarm. A single enemy combatant is a big threat in Kingdom Come so an entire bandit camp is certain death. I call my horse, quickly set fire to another bucket of arrows, then return to base with my reconnaissance mission complete. In the upcoming mission there are fewer archers, fewer swordsmen, and we know exactly which route into the camp is the best. All thanks to Chokey McChoke face over here.
Still, I could have done more, and with an ordinary save system I probably would have. I would have kept trying different ways to infiltrate and weaken the camp by saving every few minutes until the stars aligned. Instead, I am left with this scrappy personal anecdote that feels more special as a result. That is why every complaint about Kingdom Come’s save system is wrong. If you disagree, that is fine, I’ll let you walk away feeling victorious if you want. Watch your back, though.