Almost two years ago I published an article discussing Warhorse Studios’ newest venture: Kingdom Come: Deliverance and how excited I was to play a game that would be entrenched in “historical accuracy”. The game has been steeped in controversy, unbeknown to my naive self back in 2016, regarding the lead developer’s involvement with the GamerGate movement and rumours of misogyny and racism. Indeed, the game is about as historically accurate as you could probably get with a modern video game, however, it lacks any POC with the developer stating that “POC weren’t around in Bohemia back then” which, being a medieval history and linguistics graduate myself, know to be a load of old bollocks.
Whilst it would be all too easy to dedicate this review to the sociopolitical controversy surrounding KCD, I am first going to review the game based on its gameplay, story and design, focusing on the former later. I have tried to play the game without bias and those who follow me on Twitter will know that I had my fair share of abuse from both the pro- and anti-GG movements regarding any personal interest I had in the game. My standpoint has always been that whilst I do not agree with some of the views held by the lead developer, there were a plethora of talented people who made this game who also do not align themselves with his beliefs who deserve much praise for their efforts in making this game. The backlash prior to its release made me question if I was morally compromised by wanting to play this game, but it’s very difficult to stay neutral and have perfect ethical consumption so I decided to keep my pre-order and dignity intact and gave it a try.
KCD was primarily trialled on the PC and it made me question whether Warhorse had bothered to Q&A it properly for consoles; the controls are a bit jangly and the icons are just too small when playing on the PS4 – on a 43 inch TV, no less – as is the font for the tutorial pages. The instructions you are given early on are vague and, in the instance of lockpicking, rather useless – the manoeuvre you’re expected to do with the joysticks would break even the most experienced gamer. Once you’ve mastered the inventory, it seems a lot less daunting – the entire game is pretty reminiscent of TES IV: Oblivion in both its style and colour scheme; even the “dunnn” noise when a quest action is highlighted or completed.
In regards to its supposed historical accuracy, the game has somewhat succeeded. The social constructs, the food and drinks that are available, equipment and hierarchy are all concurrent with 1403, right down to the languages spoken by the Pope and monarchs of the era, which is German. Ironically, the main cast and “good guys” in the story all speak with a variety of English dialects, including Her Maj’s own English, whilst the best guys get a mixture of German and Eastern European accents – make of that what you will. given Eastern Europe’s current political climate and the views of the lead developer. The Codex goes into great detail about what the current religion, fashion and political standpoints were popular in 1403 which I applaud from an engagement and education viewpoint. As someone who studied predominantly French and European Medieval literature, Warhorse Studios have captured the humour and mood of the times well. Feudalism based on being loved and adored rather than feared by your subjects was on the rise as the area of Eastern Europe sought to stabilise itself’ Women were still predominantly subjugated regardless of wealth, but their value and skills were beginning to be valued; markets, wealth and foreign trade were overflowing, as was abject racism and antisemitism; the importance of the religion – predominantly Christianity and/or Catholicism – and liturgy, and even basic housing, public punishment and something called “Trial by Ordeal” by which you could be poisoned, burned by fire or even undergo a trial by combat scenario, wherein “God” would judge if you lived or not. If you survived, you were innocent; if not, then to hell with you anyway.
The game as a whole has a slightly unpolished feel. Our protagonist, the bland and bewildered Henry, has the most generic face I’ve ever seen since perhaps the Bretons in TES IV: Oblivion. The draw distances don’t quite meet the expectations I had for a game over four years in the making – Skyrim on the Switch performs better – and the frame rate drops at an alarming rate when you’re running through Bohemia’s many towns and farmlands. That’s not to say it isn’t well designed and attractive; there is a good wilderness to town ratio, ample castles and farmsteads, each populated with their own interesting and slightly differing populace. KCD has a basic but useful fast travel system and the horses control well. The flowers and other such smaller items lack finer detail and at times are a bit less-than-3D looking and the loading screens between each cutscene or dialogue screen can seem endless and in some cases are game breaking. Despite this, however, Warhorse Studios have managed to create an engaging and energetic environment that’s about as atmospheric as The Witcher 3 which is by no means a small feat.
The dialogue system is simple yet effective; your responses are divided into Speech, Charisma and Strength with your reputation impacting your success rate. Your stats for each are always visible whilst your targets stats’ are hidden, although there is a perk you can get early on that reveals everyone’s stats, making it slightly easier to persuade or coerce the conversation to get your desired outcome. After speaking with Lady Stephanie in Talmberg, I unlocked the codex entry “Women in the Middle Ages” due to my raconteur skills, but mostly because she opened up to me about getting married so young and the struggles women faced during this era. This entry both shocked and made me laugh as the game attempts to mansplain sexism of the past to the player, which in turn brings to focus the grim reality that women and girls around the world are living in a reality not much different from that of 1403.
Once you get over the excellent FPS point of view of seeing your hands awkwardly dangly in front of you, using them becomes a lot easier. As I mentioned earlier, the tutorial screens come with long-winded instructions that could easily be replaced with a few (larger text) prompts, and it takes time and patience to get used to the timings of things. The combat seems a bit off at first but it’s based on timed and varied movements; there is a slight delay after hitting R1 to attack your opponent as he moves within a natural and “human” timeframe to ready and position himself before attacking, allowing you to hit R1 again just before the strike connects to allow Henry to parry or dodge an attack. The combat becomes easier and actually quite enjoyable as your progress to better armours and weapons and if you’re an overpowered mess like I am, you’ll have bandits and looters beginning you for mercy within seconds. The one major downside to the controls – and it could possibly be a game breaker – is the lockpicking skill. This skill has not been optimised for console use and I wonder if it may have been skipped during the console Q&A sessions. The instructions don’t particularly help as they aren’t the clearest and it just isn’t very obvious what it is you’re supposed to do. Basically, once the orb glows gold and you find the “sweet spot” you have to rotate both sticks in the same direction, at the same time, whilst making sure the orb is still highlighted. It sounds easy but let me tell you, it is nothing short of a fucking nightmare.
The game won’t always give you prompts or tutorials, such as how to sprint (hold in circle, btw) and the real effects of eating too much or too little; it does invite the player to explore the world, its inhabitants and of course the Codex to get the gist of things. I have been caught out a few times, such as earning the trophy “Fatso” for being stuffed for two days and I ended up in jail where I decided to skip time and inevitably died. Food will go mouldy in your inventory, NPC’s will tell you “too little, too late” if you take too long to do their side quests and you’ll noticeably stagger in cutscenes and dialogue screens if you’ve had too much mead. The world of KCD is very much alive and nothing stands still like we often see in most, if not all, medieval-fantasy RPG’s; you’re lying if you say you’ve never carried around at least forty wheels of Eider cheese in Skyrim and wondered why the Dragonborn never experienced Salmonella.
** Minor Plot Spoilers**
The main plot is well thought out if a little predictable and the majority of sidequests are meaningful and engaging. After the brutal slaughter of his hometown’s inhabitants and his parents, Henry begins a one-man quest to discover why King Sigismund and his horde of Cumans are on the rampage, razing cities and destroying everything King Charles IV managed to achieve. It’s refreshing to see the feudal history of any other country that isn’t the UK, despite the majority of the nobility having Queen’s English or American accents. We Brits tend to gloss over European history unless it’s having a bash at the French for having a few too many King Louis’ or frowning at the Hanoverians interrupting red, white and blue blood “British” rule. At times, KCD has a slightly more Anglocised/ westernised feel given its English language voice actors and mannerisms, so it may well be that the game has a more genuine feel if played in one of the languages spoken within the game, namely Czech or German; it’s well known that the dialogue FFXV is much more emotive and funnier in Japanese than it is translated into English and Polish speakers state that Geralt of Rivia is ten times the sass-master when speaking Polish than he is speaking English. It’s times like these I’m glad I studied languages and linguistics as I can experience the subtle differences when it comes to things like jokes and idioms.
I’ve now reached the stage where I must discuss the wider impacts of the game, or rather the impacts of the developer’s own beliefs. The team at Warhorse Studios’ deserve praise for their accomplishments, and I’ve deliberately not named this developer because his vile attitude and words towards people – in the gaming community and beyond – who are not your average white bloke means he doesn’t deserve named recognition or acknowledgement. As I stated earlier, the team at Warhorse – quite rightly – has an entire section dedicated to the persecution of Jewish people during this period in history and how they were under the protection of the King – “The King’s Own” – detailing their segregation such as the enforcement of wearing yellow ribbons or circles on their garments as a means of identification. Whilst they can be praised for highlighting an issue that still has prevalence in 2018, Warhorse managed to simultaneously encapsulate one group’s suffering whilst completely eliminating another group – POC – from their game in order to conform with “their” version of history. It is wholly acceptable to consider that areas of Bohemia – such as small serfdom communities or tiny villages – may not have had any POC living there, or perhaps only one small family. It is well documented that the West was not solely white throughout practically any point in history and to deny even one individual their identity in this game denies agency. It would have been more historically accurate to include this one family or to even wax lyric and make it a few families. The Cuman’s are the closest thing the game comes to “foreigners”, with the game using the plague as a substitute as to why there are barely any in the game. War, disease and famine undoubtedly affected migration and immigration throughout history, but to completely ignore, therefore demean, an entire populace based on a set of racial ideals is unforgivable. The developer’s Pro-GG stance and abject sexism and racism put a swathe of people off this game, hurting its chances before it was even released. Being a young, white, western woman I sit in a position of privilege so can’t and won’t claim to know the strife and pain experienced by POC but I do know how it feels to be subjugated and mistreated as a woman and this game does little to promote a female-friendly feel and for that opinion I am not sorry. It is telling when both sides of the GG argument harass you for playing a game; both sides wanted to mansplain it and tell me what my values are and what I should or shouldn’t play.
It is difficult to score a game that has such a negative cloud hanging over it. On one hand, it is was an ambitious project that in some ways surpasses itself and in others left you wondering how they could have gotten it so wrong. The story is enjoyable, emotive and thought-provoking and your interactions with the world, the people and even the items you come across come with a consequence. It is a real coming-of-age story that should be praised for its efforts; many of the issues I’ve highlighted will be smoothed-out with patches and whatnot so it might be worthwhile holding back a few weeks if you don’t like game-breaking bugs; we can live in hope that the team will fix some of the major consoles issues before too long.
All in, Kingdom Come: Deliverance gets a 8.5/10 from me.