I’ve been excited about Kingdom Come for a long time. Since it was first announced back in 2013, the idea of a historical RPG with simulation leanings sounded fun as hell. Now that it’s out, though, I’m a lot less excited.
Kingdom Come isn’t your average RPG. Conceived as an indie game, and funded via Kickstarter, it’s goal wasn’t to be just another medieval/fantasy epic like Skyrim or the Witcher, but be the antithesis to that kind of blockbuster. Where Bethesda would allow for magic, KCD would ground itself in Bohemian history. Where CD Projekt Red made Geralt a superman, KCD would try and simulate a very average human, who would need to eat, sleep and tend to their wounds.
It’s an admirable goal, but KCD’s ambitions were maybe too great for what they were able to actually get working inside the game.
So wait, is this a review?
Nah, these are just impressions. I haven’t finished the game, and don’t plan on doing so (this month, anyway), but felt like writing something up about what I have played during its release week.
That’s not to say it doesn’t try! It tries very hard to get there, and in some instances it absolutely nails what it’s set out to do, and I think it’s an interesting game to sit down with and play despite its flaws. But man, there’s just so much stuff here that doesn’t work, and isn’t worth persevering through.
First, the good bits.
There’s not much to do in KCD’s countryside, but it’s at least beautiful to look at and ride through. Weather effects—particularly rain—are also nice.
I have never been to 15th century Bohemia, so I can’t speak to KCD’s absolute authenticity, but this is definitely a more historically dense video game than pretty much anything I’ve ever played outside a hardcore strategy title. Assassin’s Creed, with its concessions to sci-fi and comic-book story-telling, has nothing on KCD’s attention to detail and insistence on making sure everything that’s said, shown and laid out is as close to the real thing as possible.
There’s something cosy about spending your time walking around somewhere truly historical, knowing that the hills aren’t infested with giant rats, that there’ll never be any magic storms or power sorcerers interrupting your expeditions. There’s just you, the countryside, some birds and some regular folks doing their jobs. It’s lonely, but also strangely calming.
You can tell a lot of hometown love has been put into the representation of the time, people and region; much like The Witcher 3 has a certain charm because it ditches our comfortable Western European myths for a Polish touch, so too is there a uniqueness to the setting here (developers Warhorse are Czech), where people will get a ground floor history lesson on stuff like the Holy Roman Empire.
That’s Henry, on the right. The writing in the game is overwrought at times (like this), but also surprisingly deft at more important moments in the storyline.
On the fictional side of things, Henry—the character you play through the game as—is great. While a lot of the promo art may have suggested you’d be playing as a mighty medieval warrior, you are actually assuming the role of a putz, a useless young twentysomething who spends much of the opening sections of the game blundering around town messing things up.
He grows into a hero over the course of the game, as you’d expect, but there’s still something lovable about how much of a doofus he is, how goofy he looks and how earnest his voice acting is.
As an exercise in history, in telling a very normal story based on a real and actual point in history, Kingdom Come does some interesting things! But boy, in trying to apply that same principle to its systems does it fuck some stuff up.
The whole game just...creaks at the seams. From player animation to performance issues, suspect AI to your interactions with the environment around you, KCD is constantly at war with itself, trying to convince the player this is an immersive, historic theme park while at the same time reminding you at every step that this is a wonky-ass video game.
Combat is a primary example of this. There’s a huge insistence here on everything being authentic to the fighting styles of the time; indeed, the game’s Kickstarter brief described the game as an “Open-world sandbox with period accurate melee combat.”
So yes, the first-person combat here is trying very hard to be “real”. The way you have to angle and chain your attacks is difficult, and draining, and certainly feels like the kind of brutal, slow dance actual medieval combat must have felt like. But like...I’m still swinging my mouse around like a lunatic to get anything done, and it’s still difficult to get a handle on depth in a first-person viewpoint, and so combat here is as frustrating and flawed as any other attempt in this genre.
Despite this being a sprawling RPG, you can’t save whenever and wherever you want like a normal video game. Instead, you can buy and carry up to three bottles of “Saviour Schnapps” which, when consumed, will save your game but also get you a bit drunk. If you don’t have them handy, you can’t manually save the game yourself, and will instead have to wait until major events take place or you can sleep in a bed.
If you were really trying to be historically authentic...would you let people save at all? Course not. So this restriction doesn’t seem true to the game’s goals, it’s just needlessly punitive.
This sucks. Sometimes you just get tired and want to stop playing a game at the point it’s at, or something comes up and you have to quit, and at times like those there’s nothing more frustrating than not being able to immediately save your game.
The entire KCD experience is to play a game doing battle against itself. There are a myriad of performance issues and glitches, even with the day-one patch installed, but that’s only part of the struggle. Basic animations can take forever, conversations feel stilted and all kinds of basic actions (like trading) are full of frustrating little load times and pauses that start to add up over the course of the game.
In the end it feels less like we’re playing as Henry, a kid off on a grand adventure to avenge his parents, and more like we’re stuck as Henry’s puppeteer, trying just to keep him upright and walking in a world that keeps fucking up around him.
This game asks a lot from you if you’re going to spend 50 hours with it. It asks for your patience, your forgiveness, your understanding that for all the cool and interesting things it’s trying to do, you’re going to have to put up with a lot of things that are under-explained, jarring or just plain broken to enjoy them.
For some people—and the polarising early reviews for the game are testament to this—the uniqueness of the experience makes the performance problems and bugs and overall stilted behaviour worth it. For others, myself included, it’s just too much hassle for too little reward.