Kingdom Come: Deliverance – A Scandal in Bohemia
As a Blacksmith’s son and one of the few survivors of a ransacked Bohemian village, life is hard. What helps is that your local liege lord sees a spark in you after your displacement — what hurts is that you’re kind of an asshole. What’s the opposite of a power fantasy? Because that’s what you get in Kingdom Come: Deliverance.
Kingdom Come: Deliverance is an odd RPG. It wants you to play a role — that of Henry from Skalitz, who is more dickhead than anything else — but it wants to empower you to make your own decisions. It wants you to explore a carefully constructed Bohemia, but survival elements force you to do so warily. It tells you that words are more important than weapons, but thrusts you into multiple boss fights you can’t possibly talk your way out of (at least I couldn’t). It wants to create a sense of progression, but every measurable concept of the term is hobbled.
KCD is at its best when it resembles a mash-up of Crusader Kings and Skyrim. When it’s allowing some facsimile of you as both player and player character to inhabit this medieval world it feels worth playing. In those moments, the survival elements enhance the experience the way they often do in games — by adding a few ‘needs’ to sit alongside your wants, forcing your hand but always in the service of leading you to something different.
You’re hungry while questing, so you weigh up your options — you could hunt rabbits, but you’re saving your arrows. You head into nearby Ledetchko to buy food, and maybe grab a bed at an inn to save. In the morning, you eat from one of the many cooking pots strewn about the place, and you happen across a wandering salesman who is selling a treasure map. You have the money — 80 groschen — so you buy it from him. It’s leading you to a site west of Sasau. Now you’re off on another adventure. While on this adventure of your own volition, anything could happen — you might encounter a random battle between two clashing foes, or some bandits might ambush you. One time a riderless horse stood silently while the battle music played until I smacked it and it ran away.
A very dangerous encounter I had in #KingdomComeDeliverance pic.twitter.com/VlCHVSykt3
— Joab 'PUBG is GOTY 201i’ Gilroy (@Joabyjojo) February 13, 2018
But for every high, there must be a low — and Kingdom Come: Deliverance has way, way too many lows. The bugs — the ones that don’t involve being ambushed by pacifist horses, anyway — are everywhere. KCD has a classic case of “Eurojank” — that is, the sort of clunky bugginess fans can look past because it results in the experience they’re looking for. It’s like JRPGs and endless grinding, or JRPGs and terrible stories told via elaborate and gorgeous cutscenes, or JRPGs and hyper-sexualised minors. There are collision detection issues, map related quest marker issues, quest turn-in issues, camera issues… there are issues I’m forgetting, because at some point it better resembles individually naming every grain of sand at a beach.
Worst of all, though, is that KCD is a game with restricted saving. Save games occur during quest completion milestones, sleeping in beds you own and drinking from a Save potion — and you’re restricted to carrying just three of these, and they cost a small fortune to buy. It’s clear why they’ve done it — your actions mean something when you can’t immediately revert to an earlier state to undo your mistakes. But I haven’t really seen any actions I’d want to undo, short of a few momentary decisions to pay for an item instead of murdering the seller and taking it from them. Most of the mistakes I make in the game have me chug a potion beforehand anyway — because the only real situations where I’d like to go back in time is when I’ve lost a fight I’m forced to take. And I don’t want to go back to not take the fight — I want another opportunity to win it. So I revert to the last save, careen through the game to the point where I will have the fight, and then I chug a potion and engage.
What restricting saves does instead is force me to live with the game’s mistakes. There was a lengthy battle where I needed to fight and kill a bunch of archers. I needed to do this mostly unscathed, too, because — having played past this point and reverted to a save here — I knew I wouldn’t get an opportunity to heal before another tough fight. With a save game just prior to the archer fight, I tried repeatedly to kill all the archers while maintaining most of my health. And the reason I couldn’t seem to get it done was simple — the Archers were at the top of some stairs, and the game has hideous collision detection issues… particularly when it comes to stairs. Eventually I got it done, drawing deep on my old school bunny hopping skills to defeat the steps before cheesing my way through the archers, but until then I was boned.
I’ve lost hours in this game to stupid bugs. One time after a fast travel encounter I found my character had become unbound by the laws of physics. He slid, frictionless, into a bush and then off into the air before landing in a pile of bones and mush a few hundred metres away. I’ve failed quests as I was turning them in because of a bug, lost countless minutes searching the ‘quest area’ marked by the game only to find the objective was technically outside of it, somehow missed a ‘trigger’ resulting in my climbing up and down a dozen or so ladders repeatedly, gotten trapped in bushes on the side of a mountain, ‘missed’ sword swings that clipped through my enemy, been ‘caught’ stealing when I had stolen nothing and seen the notification telling me I was harming my reputation in an area when I hadn’t committed any sin so many times I ignore it now.
And this doesn’t even account for the ways the game willfully wastes your time. The first six hours of KCD are a write off. They’re like something from a different game. They were so tedious that I honestly considered chucking it in, just barely holding out hope that I’d eventually reach the “Open World” I’d read about in previews. You do menial tasks for nobodies as the game takes its sweet time teaching you the basics.
But it doesn’t even manage that very well. Here’s the thing about uninteresting and lengthy tutorial sections disguised as story filler — they’re the video game equivalent of teaching to the test, that form of education teaching students how to pass exams, not the subjects being taught. They set you up to fail, because you don’t learn how to play — you learn how to go through the motions.
What’s worse about these segments is that all too often a comprehensive six hour long tutorial lures the player into a false sense of confidence. As a player, you must be forgiven for thinking that if you completed literally a school day’s worth of playtime running through the basics of meandering around a city you are therefore equipped with the knowledge required to play the game.
This isn’t the case. There are more tutorial quests later on — the Alchemy one is actually pretty good — but more than that, there are elements of the game I never got an explanation for. And this isn’t ‘best practices’ for a reviewer, but I can never tell any more — did the game tell me how the perks system worked at some point? Did I forget that? Or did it never actually detail the Perks system while it was having me be an unlikeable dickwad in a city that wasn’t my home?
There’s all these little chunks of information missing from my experience, titbits of knowledge obscured from me, leaving me to guess most and ignore the rest. I think a red splotch in the inventory means an item is recently stolen — I don’t know what a black splotch means. I figure there must be a better way to use a torch than to manually open my inventory and equip each time I want to use it (and to re-equip my shield after I’m done) but I never found it. I guessed at how the entire ‘horse storage’ thing worked, which is a good thing because my armour currently takes up 90% of my encumbrance. Is there a better way to sell shit your horse is holding, or do I need to transfer it every single time? I don’t know. Despite literally never failing to unlock a lock, I didn’t find out you need skill of 10 in lockpicking to unlock Hard and 15 to unlock Very Hard until I reached 15 in lockpicking. Why would the game hide that information?
It feels like the game tries to cheat. As progression systems go, KCD has as many options as you could want. Maybe you consider gearing up to be progression — well in KCD you start with nothing and you build yourself into a knight. Maybe you consider story momentum to be progression — well there’s a tale being woven here, with twists and turns and betrayal and intrigue. Maybe you’re about that traditional RPG style progression — here you can level up to your heart’s content. And maybe you count the acquisition of knowledge as progression, ala DayZ or Minecraft or other Survival games. KCD has that too.
The problem is that these progression systems are underwhelming. Your shining armour and your epic sword certainly place you above the bandits in their leather jerkins or whatever, but you must pauper yourself to maintain that armour (or learn how to repair things, which is an odd hole in my understanding seeing how Henry is a Blacksmith’s son and apprentice). The story is chock-a-block full of unlikeable characters doing dumb things I don’t care about, investigating problems that shouldn’t concern Henry (who is a dickhead). The levelling system has all sorts of stupid skills for you to increase, rewarding the lizard brain part of us that craves meaningless recognition for accomplishing nothing. And upgrading your knowledge is half-hearted as well, because you’re mostly learning things you should have been taught already, and information that actually helps you survive — not just teaches you the basics of the game — is fleeting.
It’s a cynical trick in the vein of free drinks at the tables at Vegas. It’s exploitative, designed to keep you going even when there isn’t a compelling reason to stay.
Probably the biggest sin KCD commits is critical to the nature of the game itself. Once empowered to do his own thing, Henry of Skalitz is a medieval detective, investigating and solving Bohemian crimes. But these Eurojank games aren’t built to stand up to that sort of keen eyed observation. You’re supposed to gloss over the goofy mistakes, not look at them, pause and wonder if you’ve spied a clue. It’s a weird clash — I appreciate the game telling me to ‘search an area for clues’, but walking around that area wondering if every misplaced texture has extra meaning undercuts the concept.
What really drives me nuts about Kingdom Come: Deliverance is that I love the elevator pitch. It’s an open world medieval first person RPG where you go on investigations across the breadth and length of 15th Century Bohemia. Sign me the fuck up to that game, 100%. I’ll call my horse Kit and we can go Knight Riding all over the empire to solve mysteries together. But Warhorse Studios lack the capacity to pull it off. That’s not a diss, it’s just how it is. They had far fewer staff and a 20th of the budget, but they were trying to build Skyrim from scratch. They fell short of their lofty goals, but that doesn’t mean the game is a failure.
I grew up playing Fallout and Planescape, grew up loving games that overreach. Most of my formative game experiences barely worked, and they were largely built by big budget studios. KOTOR and Morrowind both feature bugs galore — and I’m not talking Silt Striders — so I think it’s actually unfairly dismissive to render these issues to ‘haha classic Eurojank’. By the time KCD gets discounted, a patch or three should have come out to mitigate some of my issues — and modders will undoubtedly have solved many of the rest. Hell, they fixed Saviour Schnapps on day one. Just as Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines would eventually become a must-play game despite a rocky beginning, so too will Kingdom Come: Deliverance.