How do you review a game that clearly wasn’t made for you?
For the most part, I hated the hours I spent playing Kingdom Come: Deliverance. I was astonished to see that, according to my last save file, I had only played 9.5 hours. Considering how many times I lost progress by getting killed (or other means), it seems like I’ve played it for 50.
But at the same time, while playing I found myself respecting a lot of the design decisions, the beautiful music and art, and most importantly, the dedication to an overarching theme that found its way into every pore of the experience. There is definitely an audience for this game, but I’m not in it.
Let’s talk about what Kingdom Come: Deliverance is. Imagine if you took an Elder Scrolls game, set it in 1403 Bohemia, and made the protagonist the humble son of a blacksmith with no combat experience whatsoever. Imagine also that from a mechanics standpoint, the game did the best it could in as many cases as possible to err on the side of “realism.” Combat is decidedly deadly, you get filthier and smellier the longer you go without washing, you need to eat and sleep to survive, you can’t just carry hundreds of things around, etc. Imagine this is framed by a plotline that is basically about getting revenge.
If that sounds good to you, just quit reading now and go buy this. Overall, the team at Warhorse has done a pretty stupendous job realizing their vision of an Elder Scrolls game grounded in a more realistic historical context.
The trouble is you really kind of lost me at Elder Scrolls already. Bethesda games in general tend to bounce off me because the act of engaging with them seems to be “go where the GPS tells you,” followed by “press X to proceed” or some kind of variation thereof. The actual combat mechanics and the ways you engage in the world between points A and B in those games is more of a chore in between the chores you are already doing from my point of view. In hindsight, I was probably the wrong guy to pick up this game for review right from the word “go.” I may have lost a lot of you in this review already since Elder Scrolls has pretty much universal acclaim. But part of reviewing a game is making sure the reader understands your perspective, not just tacking a number onto something that so many worked so hard to create.
Reviewing games is hard precisely because evaluating art is hard. There is an element of subjectivity to it that is simply inescapable. What speaks to one may not speak to another. With games in particular, we are talking about leisure time. None of us at RPGFan get paid; this is an entirely volunteer endeavor. And yet we try to adhere, as much as possible, to a policy where we play 100% of a game before we review it.
There came a point when I realized I would never finish Kingdom Come: Deliverance. It was the first time I got trapped inside of a building and couldn’t get out of a door. I hadn’t saved in quite some time. I tried hard to get through that door. I crouched, ran around in a circle, took my equipment off, chose the “wait” option in the game for a couple hours, opened and closed the doors — nothing worked. And because you can’t just save at will in Kingdom Come: Deliverance (a design decision I’ll get to a minute), I was faced with the very real prospect that my evening was, from my point of view, wasted. I shut the game off.
What I should have done the first time this happened was use the old Google machine to figure out if anybody else had run into this problem. But I was tired, frustrated, and decided to just go to bed. I got another chance, though, because I wound up stuck inside of another building the next time I played. I then discovered this was not an isolated problem and that some enterprising individual had found a solution: by dropping an item under you and then proceeding backwards, you can get around the bug. This was an extremely helpful thing to discover, and it saved me many times going forward.
The game is full of weird bugs like this (the Elder Scrolls comparison is definitely appropriate), but that’s really the nature of a lot of these open-world games. Freedom comes with a cost. Sometimes it comes with unique outcomes. In one of my very first quests, I was given a task from my father to go get the money the town drunk owed him. I approached the drunk with the intention of talking to him, but then the L2 button appeared; I instinctively pressed it like a dope and proceeded to choke the drunk out. Oh well, I thought, I guess I’ll just take his stuff. Later on in the game, I was wandering around the town chatting with folks, trying to get my bearings, when the stripped drunk ran up to me in the middle of a conversation and begged for his life, telling me I could take whatever I want. I’m not sure how he knew I was the one who choked him, but it still made me laugh. It’s the type of outcome that is only possible when a game does its best to give you multiple ways to solve a problem and simultaneously attempts to build a reasonable amount of AI into the NPCs.
Another very cool moment in the game occurred when, after several days of ignoring a quest to pay back a debt I owed, a group of thugs approached me on the road and demanded payment on behalf of the fellow I had been ignoring. I was given a variety of responses, but because I have never been able to make real sense of the combat in this game, I chose to pay them. That resolved the quest, and the fellow I had ignored up to that point was friendly with me after that.
But when you are not choking drunks or buying your way out of fights, you might find you need to swing a sword or shoot a bow. This is where the struggle becomes very real. Henry, your character, is not a warrior. He’s just some guy. And when you start out, your swings are very slow. One knock in the head is enough to take you out in most cases. If you get a wound that causes you to start bleeding, you have to take care of it fast somehow or you’re dead. You can’t treat it while you’re fighting like you can in some other games because in a real fight that makes no sense. This makes the stakes in combat really, really high. I found, quite realistically I think, that throughout the time I spent playing the game, I was doing everything I could to avoid combat because every time I engaged in it I got a game over screen, which meant loading my last save — and who knows when that was.
The save system in Kingdom Come: Deliverance is intentionally punitive. Sometimes the game will autosave for you, usually after you’ve progressed in a quest. There are only three other ways to save that I know of: sleep in a bed, drink a bottle of something called “Savior Schnapps,” or use the Save and Quit function (which was introduced in the 1.3 patch, and thus wasn’t even available when I first started playing).
From a design standpoint, this is in line with most other things in the game. How do you make a player truly feel under threat? How do you give the player the realistic fear that they should be really careful approaching combat? You can’t threaten their literal lives; you can only threaten the one asset they are guaranteed to be investing in your game: time. By threatening their time, their progress, it changes everything about their approach, especially if they are incredibly bad at the combat on offer like I was.
So I respect the decision here. I hate it, but I respect it. Losing an hour of exploration and riding around, when so much of the game experience is getting from point A to point B, is not my idea of a good time. The Savior Schnapps makes you drunk, so using this before a fight isn’t exactly ideal, especially if you, as I already mentioned, are lousy in a fight to begin with.
But I’ll bet there are people that love this decision. There is no chance to save scum, and that is a very rare thing in games now. And if the goal is to make combat more realistic by making you fear it, not relish it, this design decision makes total sense to me.
For most of the game, I was either fast traveling to quest locations to talk to the right person or do whatever thing I was supposed to be doing (“press X to proceed!”), or I was following another NPC through a beautifully rendered town or wooded area. And here it has to be said that the graphics in this game are top notch. The recreation of 15th century Bohemia is incredible. My favorite part of the game is, without question, the way it all looks and feels. Every NPC in the game has some kind of daily agenda, and towns feel like real places. Sunsets and sunrises are beautiful, and there’s something special about being in a town when the bell rings and everybody either goes home or to the local tavern. There is also a certain relief to arriving in town that must have been felt by 15th century Bohemians — the roads, after all, can be a dangerous place. I’m no historian, so I don’t know that the team at Warhorse got everything right, but it certainly felt like I had been transported to another place.
The problem is that I never really wanted to be in that place. I died all the time, even as I adjusted my strategy to one of “don’t engage in combat ever.” But realistically, you can’t always avoid combat. If you run into a bandit on the road, he might get a lucky shot off, hit you in the leg, and now you’re bleeding, etc. Trying to swing whatever weapon you have feels like you are surrounded by a wall of glue. My opponents always seemed to be able to block all my attacks before following up with a head shot of their own. The whole time I spent playing Kingdom Come: Deliverance, I very much felt like a helpless peasant. I had to follow the orders given to me by my betters, and every errand they gave me put me in harm’s way somehow. Fighting meant death. Shooting an arrow correctly was nigh impossible. Money was ridiculously hard to come by. I always made too much noise trying to sneak up on somebody. I breathed huge sighs of relief whenever I found a pot of stew cooking over a fire from which I could snatch a bite to eat. I breathed an even bigger sigh of relief if there was also a bed I could sleep in and at least save my progress. I believe this type of feeling is exactly what Warhorse was going for, and kudos to them for achieving it.
It is why I’m giving this game an overall score of a 75% even though I hated it. And perhaps, in the end, I hated it because I am so astonishingly bad at it. Whenever I’d get killed and lose my progress again trying to make it just a little bit further in this game, I’d turn on my Switch and play Celeste for some relief. It was a startling contrast in approach. Here too is a game that I’m not sure anybody would call “easy.” I died 2600+ times getting through all 8 chapters of Celeste. But at no point did I find myself quitting in frustration, because death doesn’t really matter that much in Celeste — you respawn instantly back at the beginning of the screen you were on, and you try (and usually fail) again.
But Kingdom Come: Deliverance wants you to fear death. And I certainly did.
On my own personal scorecard I’d give it failing marks, but the reviewer has the impossible task of trying to be “objective” (whatever that means when it comes to evaluating art) even though they can’t help but bring their own subjective set of experiences and tastes to the table. There is unquestionably an audience that will enjoy this game, and I give full marks to Warhorse for what they managed to accomplish here: bringing the experience of being a peasant in 1403 Bohemia to life, as best as one probably can while still being able to call it a “game.” The beautiful forests, the wonderfully realized towns, the lovely soundtrack, the feeling of fear every time I encountered a bandit — I will remember all these things. Just not necessarily all of them with fondness.