written by Alastrom
I’ve recently played through Kingdom Come: Deliverance’s “Hardcore” mode and I’m trying to nail down what I love about that game so much. The developers set out to create a historically accurate medieval setting in their game and while a proper historian would be able to criticize the finer points, to someone that doesn’t know any better it feels like they’ve succeeded. The game itself has a number of quirks that we don’t see show up in the modern RPG that set it apart. Fans of the Elder Scrolls games may have gone into Kingdom Come expecting to play a sneaky archer, for example, and quickly found that they have a difficult time performing the most basic combat action. In the case of hardcore mode, you often find yourself looking up at the sun to figure out which direction you’re traveling. All of these are a welcome break from the arcade style experiences that more recent RPGs have delivered but I think more can and should be said about the progression of your character. Generally speaking, a max level character wearing the best gear is still “human.” By this, I mean to say that the game remains challenging regardless of how far you’ve progressed into it and that helps keep players grounded in the setting from start to finish.
At the start of Kingdom Come, you’re introduced to the son of a blacksmith named Henry, a somewhat lackadaisical young lad that perfectly mirrors the expectations of the player. Henry has been studying sword fighting with a man that’s been passing through the town. Like the players, we get the impression that he’s more in love with the idea of the blade than the application and that’s later seen when he’s asked to demonstrate the use of a master-crafted blade and can’t perform a basic proper cut. We’re briefly introduced to medieval life in the town Skalitz and while your father (the blacksmith) has some repute, your character is a far cry from anything representing heroic. Throughout the game, you’re frequently reminded that nobility is well outside your grasp and the NPC nobility and those they trust will often treat you as an outsider. All of this is matched by a combat system that never truly gives players a feeling of security. Trying to “button mash” your way through a fight will earn you little more than a reload screen and the ridicule of anyone that happens to be watching you play.
In short, the game never tries to convince you that you’re anything more than “Henry, son of the Skalitz Blacksmith.” Even towards the end of the game when your position is elevated (spoiler beautifully dodged, if I may say so myself) you’re still treated in a lower capacity than those around you. Fights are still difficult and the idea that you can wipe out an entire camp of bandits on your own is never even presented as an option. In many ways, Kingdom Come rebels against the notion put forward in games like Call of Duty or The Elder Scrolls. I found myself more engaged in the story as the earliest presuppositions weren’t interrupted by a hero fantasy. Think back to Skyrim, the first time you saw a dragon you were probably a little overwhelmed but by the latter part of the game you likely sighed before killing it in a single blow. Dragons, which were a major story mechanic, became trite nuances that got in the way of your fast travel action.
This down to earth approach has value in the right setting but it can’t be applied to every game and certainly doesn’t fit every market. For Kingdom Come, it reinforced the world building of Medieval Bohemia. Warhorse Studios had expressed that this was a hard land filled with hard times. How would that message have clashed against the idea of “Henry, Hero of Skalitz?” Had the developers opted to give the player god-like power, the entire premise for the game would crumble. In that same stroke, developers that want the player to feel empowered should allow them heroic moments of godlike nature, noting however that if it’s a common occurrence it’ll soon become passé. On the other hand, there’s an inherent risk to never rewarding the player with the feeling of accomplishment. The balancing act was struck well in Kingdom Come, leaving players like myself yearning for more game to play by the end of the story.
Difficulty scales in gaming are a tough integration to the world that developers look to build. Dark Souls is hailed as a game for hardcore players because of the difficulty curve, though some critics have cited that random trap mechanics and high damage attacks make this an artificial difficulty. Kingdom Come doesn’t fall into this trap. A player that fights a well equipped NPC should have a good chance of winning the fight if they understand combat and are using decent equipment. The fight gets progressively harder with the number of NPCs that get added in. This is only natural and is replicated in our real world (I’d rather fight a one on one than a one on three, for example.) While there are strategies in-game to deal with multiple attackers, players quickly learn where their comfort level is and combat becomes very predictable in this sense. “Predictable” is not a term that is normally seen in a positive light in these situations, however, Kingdom Come integrates the idea well and gives players a sense of understanding when it comes to their character. It also lets them know when they’re going outside of their comfort zone in an instantly relatable way. I recall being ambushed on the road by a pack of angry villagers. I knew I could handle about three of them at a time but if they swarmed me there’d be no recovering from the flurry of attacks. This occurred at a point in the game where in any other RPG I could have swung my hammer or great sword a few times and began looting corpses.
Kingdom Come is not without bugs and glaring design failures. This was the company’s first debut into the gaming world and with that come a number of challenges that are expected of even veteran designers. While I can’t claim that Kingdom Come is a perfect game, Warhorse Studios certainly got a lot right. If these things were intended and not simply a side effect of design, we’re looking at a company that truly understands how to create strong RPG elements and the gaming world would benefit from more like them. Matched with the beautiful setting and down to earth tone, the entire experience was a refreshing break from the expected Summer blockbuster games that litter many gamer’s libraries. The Czech based company is well versed in their setting and I’d look forward to more games from them in the same style, perhaps exploring other medieval periods in time.