Six years after the crowdfunding bubble started to grow, we’ve seen an increasing number of games incubated by that bubble open their eyes to the light of day. Some are great! Shadowrun: Returns was decent, for instance, but more importantly it led to the superlative Dragonfall. Some are…less so, but I’ll try not to spin off into a rant about Mighty No. 9 again. With Kingdom Come: Deliverance we’ve got yet another Kickstarter darling, this one using over $1 million in crowdfunded money to create a Middle Ages tale about filthy, stinking peasants and the swords they’re stabbed with.
Henry, son of a blacksmith in medieval Bohemia, lived a carefree life doing errands for his father and throwing poop on the houses of local rabble-rousers. That all changed when his village was caught in the middle of a local civil war. Now, with his parents dead and his village gone, Henry swears revenge against the perpetrators. To get that revenge he’ll need to train, gather power, find allies and climb the ladder of medieval society.
Kingdom Come was initially sold as a sort of medieval life simulator; it would present an accurate take on the period and the player could then immerse themselves as they choose. In reality it plays out more like Skyrim without magic; you do the same sort of exploring, loot-gathering and leveling-up as you did in that game, up to and including the learn-by-doing skill system we’re familiar with from the Elder Scrolls series. Even the “without magic” is a bit of a tease, since you’re finding healing potions (er, “alchemical decoctions”) within the first ten minutes or so.
So, then, we’ve got (mostly) magicless Skyrim. How does that play out? It’s surprisingly decent, actually, though with the sort of hitches and bumps we’ve come to expect from “Eurojank” games like ELEX, Lords of the Fallen and so on. Highlights include the combat, which manages to have a little more impact than it would in games where a healing spell would cure any ills after the fight is over; here you have to wait a couple minutes for your healing potions to kick in, which renders them less valuable in battle. That’s a step in the right direction if you want to make fights feel like they’ve got high stakes.
Battles are somewhat reminiscent of those seen in For Honor where you’re attacking from different angles to try and bypass your opponent’s guard; as Henry becomes more powerful he becomes capable of performing increasingly impressive combos to help spice things up, which is a nice touch, but combat never stops feeling a little awkward and goofy. In particular, if you’re using a mouse, you’ll need to learn to keep an unusually light touch on the controls if you want to strike with any sort of precision. Really, the best part of combat in Kingdom Come in my eyes is a fairly minor touch that Souls-style games could take a nod from: as you take damage, you lose not only health but maximum stamina. This represents battle fatigue in a more interesting way than systems where combatants can keep fighting at full power until they suddenly drop dead.
Kingdom Come does a decent job of pulling you into Henry’s world; it’s a somewhat more filthy and bloodstained place than the one we know and love. The game doesn’t shy away from the grittier aspects of medieval living, though its attempts at being shocking and dark tend to fall a bit flat in the face of the fact that this is not only a video game with everything that implies (gain a charisma buff for having sex, haw haw!) but one that struggles where other games don’t. Let’s maybe work on making all the stairs climbable without getting stuck before we worry about getting those Adult Themes into the game, okay guys?
Even when it’s not being juvenile, Kingdom Come can sometimes be obstinate. For instance, you have to use a certain rare and valuable potio–er, liquor to save the game outside of certain places and quest beats. What’s the value of this? Who knows? That’s a little disingenuous; the value of it is supposedly a nod to “realism,” which, as it so often does in games, equates to “tedium.” It’s not like you’re prevented from saving often so long as you stick to quests, so it’s more of a “gotcha” if you happen to die after some free-roaming or exploration. I’m not a fan of games insisting that I play on their schedule rather than my own.
Further, for all the focus on historical accuracy, the fact that you’re downing healing potions and rapidly soaring up the Bohemian social structure despite being a filthy peasant makes this side of the game feel a bit hollow. I’m no historian but that doesn’t really strike me as how things went back in the day; it makes the inflexibility of other aspects of the design and how the setting is presented seem more like…well, inflexibility rather than dedication to accuracy. There’s something to be said for the amount of flavor in Kingdom Come’s world and the amount of extracurricular reading you can do in the included Codex, but I definitely never felt like I was living another life as was often touted. This is absolutely a video game; don’t come in expecting more than that can give you.
Kingdom Come’s presentation is a bit of a mixed bag. Characters tend to look and animate in a somewhat bizarre fashion; combat in particular can feel like two inflatable wavy arm men swinging swords at one another. Environments, on the other hand, tend to look fantastic, particularly outdoor environments like forests. Hunting was by far one of the most memorable moments throughout Kingdom Come since it nails the experience of roaming in the woods like few other games.
As a simulation of life in the Middle Ages, Kingdom Come: Deliverance isn’t likely to deliver as some might expect. As a spin on the Skyrim formula, though, it’s a somewhat dicey experience with enough flavor to merit a look. This isn’t a genre-redefining experience and it’s certainly not a great example of modern game design – a pandering focus on video game sex as a facet of a “gritty” setting was crude and off-putting back when the first Witcher game came out over a decade ago. But when it’s not hopped up on save booze and stumbling over itself, this medieval simulator can be an interesting and unique take on the Western RPG. Drive safely.