For as long as we've been writing about video games there have been few titles that have had us as intrigued as Kingdom Come: Deliverance. After getting our hands on the game last year we came to the conclusion that this was one to watch, although that was perhaps more out of hope than expectation because it was obvious from the outset that this was a game that had the potential to go both ways, such was the freedom it aimed to offer. It's an ambitious RPG built on equal measures of simulation and action, and it rips up the pages of Tolkien-inspired fantasy role-play and instead delves deep into medieval European history.
Warhorse Studios has crafted an expansive role-playing game here, and in certain respects the studio has done a tremendous job, creating some vivid characters and a detailed, atmospheric world. The setting is refreshingly different, the tone strikingly mature, and at first, during the initial couples of hours, it seems as though Warhorse has got it right and our optimism was well-placed. Unfortunately, however, that first impression is soon to fade as it becomes increasingly clear that elements of Kingdom Come: Deliverance have been clumsily executed.
Our frustration and disappointment came together during one particular setpiece that ranks among the worst we've ever endured, a multi-stage siege set in a bandit camp that took hours to complete. We battled through it so many times that in the end we started feeling sorry for the endless waves of enemy soldiers we hacked through as we walked again and again in the same footsteps of Henry, a blacksmith's son in search of bloody vengeance. This punishing collection of battles was full of Monty Python-esque walking glitches and some shoddy AI behavior, and we were frequently impaled on some needlessly frustrating difficulty spikes. The whole thing was then rounded off with a terrible boss fight against a hulking brute who happily stabbed us to death again and again like we were trapped in a surreal prequel to Groundhog Day. During the battle he stalked us around a confined space, thrusting and slashing his blade, and whether we stabbed and swiped or fired arrows in his face, he kept on coming until the game seemed to either get bored of watching us die or started feeling sorry for us, as it stopped the fight and mysteriously declared us the winner. We didn't complain.
The combat in Kingdom Come: Deliverance is rather unique, and in certain situations, it feels well-implemented. In particular, during standard one-on-one fights, there's enough nuance and excitement to keep you thoroughly immersed in the moment. Pointed jabs and swiping blades come together during tense battles, and there's potential for both skilled attacks and deft defending across a range of weapons. We found that the combat didn't translate so well into group situations, though, and when up against multiple opponents it can be extremely difficult. We're sure the developers will say that this is by design, but during the more chaotic battles that involve several enemy soldiers, it doesn't look or feel good.
Even worse is the archery. Again, it's clear that Warhorse has tried to make combat difficult on purpose, because firing a bow is difficult in real life and simulation is a big part of what they're trying to do here, but we'd argue that the archery, in particular, is difficult to a fault, and instead of making us feel challenged the wobbly handling of the bow just made us feel inept, even after we'd been playing for well over 30 hours. You can always improve your skills by practicing or paying for tuition, but even still the finicky control schemes made combat a chore at times, and going up against a group of opponents is so challenging that it effectively rules out certain choices in the game.
If Kingdom Come: Deliverance offers harsh combat in particular situations, it's often to funnel you down more diplomatic paths. The Bioware influence is felt most keenly here, with talking head scenes complete with multiple dialogue options. There's a neat system built around conversations and some of the dialogue is quite well written, but it's not all great. Similarly, the voice acting is a bit hit and miss, and whoever was in charge of casting did a terrible job. The regional accents are all over the place, and it's just another niggling distraction pulling you out of the experience when you notice that Henry has a mild West Country accent but his parents sound like they're from Yorkshire. That level of inconsistency can be found across the board, even amongst the nobility, some of whom talk with posh English accents while others sound like they're American. Topping things off is the fact that the facial expressions (or lack thereof) and character animations during conversations are, at times, woeful, which does nothing for the atmosphere they're trying to build elsewhere.
Despite our complaints, there are still plenty of positives. The setting, for example, is extremely interesting. Henry's story is woven into grand events, and this lowly but capable character finds himself mixing with the aristocracy and doing their bidding throughout the kingdom. While the RPG formula loses some of its mystery by replacing fantasy with history - you'll find no skeleton-filled dungeons to explore here - it's also a path not often walked and so it manages to feel fresh and unique. Warhorse has clearly invested a lot of time trying to make medieval history work in the context of their game, and in many respects they've done a good job and have made it feel authentic (although we're far from being experts on the period, so we can't speak to its accuracy). The story is built around revenge, but there are plenty of subplots that appear throughout and tap into what it was like to live back then, and if you talk to named characters you'll get even more things added to your to-do list.
We did enjoy simply exploring the world, and the rustic, muddy villages are certainly evocative of the era. Out in the fields and in the smaller hamlets it feels very genuine, although once you get into more built-up areas they're not always as alive as we'd have liked, with NPCs and quest givers just standing around waiting for you to talk to them. Still, the general atmosphere, which is helped by the brutality and severity of the story, is pretty good and were it not for the technical issues we mentioned elsewhere (things that we hope will be patched over time) then this little square of Central Europe can be a lot of fun to explore and offers plenty to do.
In terms of the general narrative, it was engaging while not being particularly subtle. Some of the themes explored are certainly only suitable for grown-ups, although the characters you meet might have benefitted from a bit more nuance and texture at times. The main issue wasn't the story but rather the pacing of it, and we found much of the drama was lost because busywork got in the way. That's perhaps a criticism you can level at the genre in general, but Kingdom Come: Deliverance offers nothing in the way of a solution to this problem, and it's clear from the difficulty spikes during key quests that Warhorse wants you to explore and grind a little before tackling the big missions. At least some of the story quests are more interesting than simple cabbage collecting, although there is an element of that sort of thing in there too. Even better is the range of options open to the player at any given time, and even if combat is made prohibitively difficult at times, there's usually more than one way to skin a cat. While the framework that facilitates player agency may be a little rickety, we're pleased that we've been given the freedom to try things off-script.
The save system doesn't help with the pacing either. Autosaves are few and far between, although when you're not in combat you can save your game using a potion that you can either craft or purchase from certain vendors. The potions aren't particularly cheap, so you can't use them too often and scumming your way through key moments to get the outcome you desire isn't always an option. That's an interesting way of adding gravitas to each decision, but it can also be a little frustrating if you get caught out in the field without the ability to bank your progress. Similarly, if you venture out into the world without eating enough, then Henry will complain incessantly about how hungry he is, much to everyone's annoyance. Just in case you don't get the subtle hints; make sure to stock up meds and food, and help yourself to a bowl of stew each and every time you see one bubbling away (nobody seems to mind, same with the beds).
Hunger isn't the only thing on Henry's mind, as you also have to make sure that he's well rested. Spend too long awake and he'll start falling asleep, with heavy eyelids literally descending down the screen. The world reacts to Henry too, and after just a few hours our lowly blacksmith's son is practically a celebrity thanks to his actions out in the wider world. Everyone you meet in the main town will know who you are and is pleased to see you, which is nice although completely unbelievable. There are detailed mechanics built around many aspects of feudal life, from bartering with traders to worshipping at shrines, and if you're the kind of player who likes to dig into these systems, there's plenty of depth on offer here.
In terms of the RPG mechanics, you essentially level Henry up by doing things. Fight lots, you get better at fighting, talk lots, you get better at talking, and so on and so forth. Henry's expertise will evolve according to how you play, and you unlock new perks that can be learned across all facets of play, from alchemy training to improving your horse. There's a lot going on under the hood, with some really vague skills that we can't imagine being particularly useful (if you want a steadier hand while drunkenly firing your bow, you can do that), although everything you need to know is hidden away in a menu system that looks great but can feel cumbersome to explore and doesn't always feel intuitively organised.
Apart from that the UI, in general, is pretty nice, from the artful world and regional maps where you fast travel, through to the descriptions you find for weapons and perks in the menus. You can keep track of what you're doing, activate available quests and follow markers, and sort through your inventory, moving things between your person and the storage offered by your horse. It's not the most accessible setup we've ever seen, but stylistically at least it works very well. That's a sentiment you can extend across most of the game; the whole thing feels like it has been built with genuine care and affection. Thanks to a thematically satisfying soundtrack underpinning the adventure, and lots of detail built into the world for players to discover, it's a generally a cohesive experience.
It's just a shame then that while Warhorse has clearly poured a lot of love into Kingdom Come: Deliverance, it fails to hit the mark in a number of areas. It's a hugely ambitious game, but perhaps it's that level of ambition that has ended up being its downfall, with its many systems and features not always meshing to good effect. In terms of technical performance, things seem to have gotten better since the game updated ahead of writing this review, but it's still buggy and unstable in places and needs more spit before you can call it polished, leaving this feeling very much like it's still a work-in-progress that needs longer in the oven. With time and patches we can see Kingdom Come: Deliverance turning into a better game, and we'd love to see a full sequel where some of the bigger issues are fixed completely, but for now all we're left with after having spent the last week playing a game that we had very much been looking forward to, is the feeling that ultimately it failed to live up to our lofty expectations. Despite some frustrations, upon reflection, there's a lot to like about this medieval adventure, but there's simply no escaping the fact that it's not the classic we were hoping for.