I idly checked Mod DB this morning to see if anything interesting had popped up for Kingdom Come: Deliverance. The first thing I found? A mod that removed the "Saviour Schnapps" requirement from saving. Not surprising: The Saviour Schnapps mechanic is one of my least favorite elements of Kingdom Come.
The intentional restrictions are what makes Kingdom Come feel in some ways more like a mod than a game. It's the additive "hardcore mode" that some players seek, but is rarely included in the base game simply because it's overly restrictive. Yes, save scumming is cheap; but when the period between autosaves are as long as they are in Kingdom Come, the inability to log a save is annoying.
But that's par for the course in Kingdom Come: Deliverance, a game that feels like a Dungeons & Dragons campaign put together by an overzealous rules lawyer. I've been noodling around with the Xbox version of Kingdom Come since it came out on Tuesday, trying to get a handle on how I feel about this somewhat controversial RPG. Some of it is quite impressive, like the scene of your home village after its pillaged by a roving army. Some of it is painfully annoying, like the aforementioned need for a Saviour Schnapps to quit in one of the long periods between autosaves. But mostly the word that comes to mind when I think of Kingdom Come is "contrived."
Somehow, in trying to feel as realistic as possible, Kingdom Come manages to feel more mechanical than ever.
It's an interesting phenomenon that's made me think more about the tricks that developers use to bring their games to life. Not too long ago I wrote about all the ways that Monster Hunter: World makes its creatures feel massive and menacing, from the way they can break the environment to the way a single roar can freeze your avatar in place. It strikes me that the best games are the ones that convey an almost effortless sense of "being there," whether in the lonely spaces between Shadow of the Colossus or in the freezing trek up the Throat of the World in Skyrim.
Kingdom Come, by contrast, wants to convey that sense through its systems. This is not surprising given that Kingdom Come is an RPG—a genre built to simulate the world through numbers. Thrust into the role of Henry, a blacksmith's son who sounds suspiciously like one of the peasants from WarCraft II, you have to contend with hunger, fatigue, and other mortal ailments. If you're hungry, you'll be constantly reminded that you need to eat soon. If you're tired, it'll become almost impossible to navigate as Henry sways and tries to blink away sleep.
But I couldn't help feeling like I was piloting Henry as if he were a robot, constantly monitoring his vitals so that he didn't suddenly keel over dead. There is no pushing through in Kingdom Come. If Henry is hungry or tired, his needs have to be addressed immediately, or he's going to quickly suffer some adverse side effects. Henry is nothing so much as an extremely fussy Sim who happens to live in 15th century Bohemia.
Kingdom Come's Paradox
Obviously, that's the point of a game like Kingdom Come. Henry's shortcomings are meant to convey a sense of verisimilitude that you won't find in other games of its kind. In essence, it's a direct response to every Reddit thread that has complained in way about Skyrim's lack of realism.
And yet, as you pile on more and more systems to simulate systems, it paradoxically becomes harder to forget that you're playing a video game. There's a lot to manage at any given time, from how much you're eating to how much you can carry, and Kingdom Come seemingly throws up roadblocks everywhere. Not surprisingly, it takes longer for Kingdom Come to cut you loose and let you explore at your own pace than other games of its type. You have to spend a lot of time simply learning to engage with its systems.
Another side effect of Kingdom Come's approach is a surfeit of busywork. When the story opens, you're initially dispatched to pick up items from the village for your father. If you happen to pick up the ale first, there's a good chance it'll be warm by the time you get home, at which point it's back to the village with you to get some more. This is "realistic," but it also violates one of the cardinal rules of game design: Don't waste a player's time.
Later, as I tried to figure out how to get out of the castle where I was taking refuge, I noticed that the quest marker had disappeared. I found myself wandering aimlessly, trying to figure out what to do next. I was eventually able to work out that I was supposed to speak with the guard by the gate, pick the locked chest in the armory, and disguise myself as a soldier so that I could leave.
Simple enough, right?
But first I had to acquire a lockpick, which was sold by a nearby trader (who looks for all the world like just another random villager). And because a single lockpick was kind of expensive—anywhere from 18 to 25 gold pieces—I had to find someone who would give me money. Lady Stephanie gave me the money I needed for the lockpick, only for it to break in the midst of Kingdom Come's extremely fiddly lockpicking minigame. With no money for another lockpick, I had to reload back to the battlements and do it all again.
Notably, Kingdom Come picks up a bit when the systems fall away and you're allowed to indulge more in the drama. Probably the most powerful moment in the game's opening hours is when Henry sees the bloated and rotting corpses strewn throughout the village and is visibly ill (sadly, it's in a non-interactive cutscene). This is also where you get your first taste of the combat, which actually works pretty well in the way that it requires you to chain together directional slashes and stabs to overwhelm enemy blocks.
But the village is weird in its own way, too. The bodies lying on the ground were holding fruits, vegetables, money, and pretzels (?), which I couldn't resist snapping up just in case I started getting hungry again. It struck me as odd that Kingdom Come would let me loot the corpses even as Henry moaned audibly, and it got even stranger when I later encountered another villager doing exactly the same thing, and Henry became angry with him. I guess there's no system that accounts for Henry being a raging hypocrite.
These weird immersion breaking moments are everywhere in Kingdom Come, and one reason I'm not super inclined to overlook them is that immersion is its raison d'être. These details matter.
If Kingdom Come has done anything, it's to make me think about how games put me in the moment. I don't think Warhorse Studios is wrong to go down this avenue—Fallout New Vegas' Hardcore mode has shown that it's possible to successfully add in similar survival elements—but I do think it's hard to execute properly. And in the end, I'm not sure punitive systems like the Saviour Schnapps mechanic add much of value to the overall experience.
Notably, Warhorse Studios is already talking about scaling things back a little bit. The studio has promised to address complaints about the save system and the lockpicking in the next patch.
In the meantime, Kingdom Come is novel; but in trying to be as realistic as possible, it winds up tripping all over itself. And in so doing, it winds up shattering the illusion it tries so hard to create.