Most RPGs are more or less the same. You start off as a sort of box of empty slots (but in the shape of a person, usually wearing a ragged hessian sack or the contemporary equivalent) that, as you level up, you can cram with increasingly impressive things like magic spells and big guns and more magic spells and bigger guns, and you know what I mean. Your hero, predictably, always ends up a god amongst insects, dispensing your very own brand of divine, indomitable justice as you see fit, depending on wind direction, the alignment of the stars, or how hungover you are, before saving the world from some apocalyptic evil.
These are the familiar comforts we expect from an RPG, and Kingdom Come: Deliverance just walked in and gave them all the middle finger.
Back in 2014, when Warhorse Studios first started crowdfunding the game, they were honest about what the end product was going to be like. It was going to be an RPG set in medieval Bohemia, centred around historically accurate events, with period-specific everything, and a realistic progression system. No sorcerous powers, no monsters, no make-believe whimsy – you were going to live it up like it’s 1407, with no fanciful embellishments. Four years later, true to their pinky-swear, this is exactly what’s been delivered. And when you only see the opening credits roll after three hours, you get the impression that it could take 30 years to tell the story of your character’s life, and maybe that’s a bit too realistic.
Kingdom Come: Deliverance is not a story about kings, knights, damsels in distress, or even a noble quest to save the kingdom. Instead, it’s the story of a lowly blacksmith’s son, Henry. A lazy dullard with a fondness for the local tavern wenches, he has only the vaguest of interest in following in his father’s footsteps. You start the game waking up late, and agreeing to run some errands for your old man. It’s a day like any other for Henry. But by sunset, you’ll have lost everything, and that only narrowly excludes your own existence. Homeless, jobless, horseless, weaponless, penniless, and just about hopeless, Henry now needs your help to put his life back together, and to give him purpose. So much, so every other RPG.
But that’s when this game starts to subvert those expectations. Running around finishing the odd early game quest didn’t reward me much, not even a bit of groschen, the in-game currency. No sir, if you want to progress, you need to learn how to do stuff, just like a real person would.
For example, Henry has never used a bow before, so you’ve got to learn to do that. The archery range will give you the basics, but that’s it, and I had to go hunting for hours on end to improve. And don’t think you’re going to get a crosshair to help you either, because remember, this is supposed to be realistic, and you must guesstimate where exactly the arrow was going to hit. It was hard, but after a while, I got used to it. And sometime after that, once I had spent hours shooting my wibbly-wobbly bow, the shakes got less, until they disappeared completely.
Some missions, in order to complete them, might require you to use a skill you don’t have, like reading. Written clues are meaningless to you to begin with, so you’ve got to go to the scribe and take some reading lessons, and then you can kind of read, but not very well until you’ve practised some more, and then some more. You need to teach Henry everything. Now, take that experience, and apply it to horse riding, fighting, talking, bartering, and everything else, and you’ll get the idea.
And therein lies the truth about the game. It’s a Henry simulator, and you have to put in the work to make Henry more than just a blacksmith’s son.
As you can imagine, this all takes time. Lots and lots of time. I’m 122 hours in, according to my save file, and I still haven’t finished the game. At one point, I found myself with a small army, charging into a previously abandoned town that had been fortified by the enemy and used as a base of operations. I must’ve tried to finish that battle for six hours. Eventually I realised I was wasn’t adequately prepared out for the fight, and I needed to suit up, but I had no cash.
So I went hunting, because selling meat is rather lucrative, and eventually got enough coin together to buy a full set of plate armour. I rushed back into the battle, and managed to get through it on my first try, taking a grand total of six minutes to fight through. The Henry simulator, I learned, wants a pint of blood before it will concede even an inch of bloodied ground to you, and it can get frustrating. This isn’t a game that holds your hand, and it sure as hell isn’t going to make anything easier than it would have been in the real 15th century (besides not giving you the plague, maybe). Fighting even two opponents at once is brutal, and even in the late game with all the hardcore gear strapped on, you can still succumb to a scrubby bandit if you don’t pay attention to what you’re doing.
The story is about provincial politics and inconsequential intrigue, essentially, but it’s a big, interesting story machine with a lot of moving parts, and you need to grease all of them to get the most out of it. But again, you’ll have to work for it, and more than anything else, you’ll need time to get through it. On top of that, the game has many technical issues that might slow you down too, like stairs that don’t work properly, buggy quests, and a fast travel system that is anything but fast (though, this is due to the fact that travelling takes time, so more realism?), among others. But it’s also a beautifully realised game, with the power of the CryEngine bringing the medieval countryside to life in a way that I have yet to see any other game come close to, and it’s simply spectacular.