Yes, yes, yes… let’s not get bogged down with all that tedious “Where the f**k have you been for the last 9 months? We all thought you were dead!” business. Didn’t you see the number of hours I have spent in this game?
Okay, so a number of things have happened, but most of them involve husband and wife, both trying to run businesses from home, whilst passing a bored toddler back and forth between them.
Most recently though, in an effort to keep some content on YouTube when I have neither camera nor crew, I turned back to gaming videos, and started a new YT channel, devoted entirely to gaming, game reviews, game news etc. And, the game which launched this new venture, was Warhorse Studios debut title: Kingdom Come: Deliverance. It is this game that has lured me back to the pages of this long-neglected blog.
So, strap yourselves in because it’s going to be a long one. Remember the Elite: Dangerous preview? Yeah… that long.
Kingdom Come: Deliverance (hereafter referred to as KCD, because life is too short to keep typing that), for those of you who might not know, is an open-world, medieval RPG that starts you on the bottom rung, in a way I don’t think I’ve experienced since learning to read and write my own name. Which comes to mind because one of the many skills you must spend in-game time learning in KCD is reading. Yup. Your character cannot read when the game begins.
Warhorse have gone for a whole new level of realism in the medieval RPG genre, and what’s more real than a common blacksmith’s son, whom no-one outside his tiny village either knows or cares about? No golden child, no beam of light overhead, no legendary Witcher, dragon hunter or forgotten young wizard-under-the-stairs… Henry of Skalitz is just an ordinary young boy who can barely even lift the sword his father has just finished making for a local nobleman, much less swing it, when the game begins. He would probably have lived out the rest of his, presumably fairly short, life in complete obscurity, in the same little village where he was born, if history hadn’t just ridden through it with 1000 of its angriest soldiers, and burned it to the ground.
I say history because this game is steeped in it. Its places are real places, many of its characters were real people (or in some cases, loosely based on real people), and many of the events you will live through as Henry of Skalitz, were taken right out of the pages of the Czech Republic’s long and brutal history. Silver Skalitz (Stříbrná Skalice), where the game begins, really was burned to the ground by the invading forces of King Sigismund of Hungary, on March 23rd, 1403 (a Wednesday… in case you were wondering). Unfortunately, that is the very day Warhorse Studios give you control of the luckless Henry, and his unremarkable frame.
So, your village is burning, your parents and friends have been murdered and those same murderers are making their way up the hill towards you. Henry can’t read, knows nothing of warfare, can barely lift a sword or stay on a horse… which is precisely why the first real mission in this game is called “Run!”
If I’m being completely honest, Henry is so useless at this early stage, that it took me three attempts to even run away without getting killed.
So, you can believe me when I tell you that even basic skills in this game really feel earned. Swords really feel… sort of… heavy, until you get the hang of them (after intensive training); arrows you fire will nosedive after a few feet at first… not that it matters because there is no aiming reticle for archery, so you’ll be lucky to hit a bunny with an arrow even if you get close enough to push them through its fluffy little face (Don’t believe me? Check out this video of me trying to hunt hares, on day 3 of my first playthrough).
Even Henry’s speech options are noticeably poorer at the beginning; lacking the finesse, in the early stages, to respond to tough questions with anything more witty than “Yeah? … well… you smell… so there!” I’m hesitant to say “it feels like learning to walk”, for fear that Warhorse Studios will make you learn to do that in their next game. It honestly wouldn’t surprise me if psychologists, 10 years from now, are prescribing medication for those of us console players who were emotionally scarred by KCD’s early lock-picking mechanic, and were never really the same again.
One of the very early patches for this game, tweaked the console lock-pick problem juuust enough to keep you from losing your mind completely, but even the improved version squeezed you so hard against the fragile glass wall of sanity that you could hear it cracking, and your first, fevered instinct was to lick it better.
Maybe that last part was just me, but the fact remains; if you weren’t a die-hard RPG fanatic, an OCD sufferer, or just so damned stubborn you were determined to get your £50 worth if it killed you and everyone else in your building, you might have given up at this point. FPS players probably tuned out the moment they found out that they wouldn’t get to kill anything for at least an hour. The pick-pocketing mechanic was confusing and difficult; sneaking without getting caught, virtually impossible in the early stages… the list goes on. Suffice it to say, KCD does NOT hold your hand. Many things you just have to figure out for yourself. I spent more time IN jail than out of it during the first few days, because no-one mentioned that I had to have a torch lit when walking around towns at night. I honestly didn’t realise that a skill-tree existed, for the first 3 days of play. But the elation I felt once I figured out there were perk points to spend on improving your skills, was almost like the day I passed my driving test.
What all of this staggering around in the dark does for you is to help you really become Henry; to identify with this lost and bewildered character, in a way I have never before experienced in a video-game. Your hunger levels rise slowly, and you have to figure out how to feed yourself without stealing (or at least without getting caught stealing). Your become tired, and your stamina and health levels begin to drop unless you can find somewhere to sleep (I was also thrown in jail for sleeping in the wrong place, fairly early on in the game). You even need to wash yourself and have your clothes laundered from time to time, so that people don’t turn their noses up at you in dialogue.
As the game progresses, these things that seemed overwhelming at first, become second nature, like so many things in real life, and you feel like a real part of this living, breathing, beautiful world that Warhorse have created in such incredible detail. Occasionally, their attempts at natural behaviour in NPCs are inconsistent, and miss the mark by some way. In the video below, I was attacked with a sword for forgetting to return a holy relic, and only moments later the same guard put away his sword and said “God be with you.”, before answering all my questions about who lived in the house he was guarding.
But, these moments are as nothing when compared with the brilliance of some of the relationships that develop between characters in the game. I can’t mention most of them for fear of story-spoilers, but there is one which begins to develop early on in the game, between Henry and spoiled young nobleman, Sir Hans Capon.
When we first meet young Sir Hans, he is the archetypal young medieval lord; arrogant; spoiled; selfish; intolerant of anyone “beneath” him… You immediately dislike him, and are sure he is going to meet his end at the point of your sword. But KCD often swerves around tired video-game tropes at the last second, and veers off into the woodland of unpredictability; watching hedgehogs bounce off the windscreen and into your dust like the uncomfortable, spiky, curled-up clichés that they are…
Yes, I know… I took that metaphor waaay too far. The point is that this game does not always do what is expected, and it feels fresher for it. At an early point in the game, a situation which both you and young Sir Hans have been bullied into by the Lord of Rattay, sparks a chain of events that completely changes how Henry and Hans view one another, and theirs becomes the most natural friendship I think I’ve ever encountered in a video-game. So much so that I was a bit disappointed I couldn’t spend more time hanging out with him than I did. He’s just one of those guys who’s fun to hang out with, but doesn’t always seem to realise when a situation calls for a more grown-up response.
Other revelations are at hand later in this game, but if you pay attention to dialogue, achievement lists, and the behaviour of certain characters they may not always take you completely by surprise.
For all my raving about the wonders of this game, though, it is certainly not without its problems.
KCD, like so many sprawling open-world RPGs was plagued by bugs upon release, and odd problems persist, but nowhere more so than on consoles, and, if my limited research into the resolution for these problems is anything to go by, no console was more problematic than the Xbox One; the most asthmatic of the platforms mentioned, and, unfortunately, the only one available to me at the time of release.
This is not to say that the others didn’t suffer, but it seems to me that after all the patches came in, the Xbox One players were the ones most commonly complaining about persistent difficulties. Some of these were mild annoyances, like NPCs walking through objects, and each other; some were downright hilarious; like Henry suddenly shooting into the air whilst at an alchemy bench, whereupon he just keeps on going up and up, as though being abducted by Jesus. But the worst of them by far was the infamous “Halberd Bug”, shown briefly in the video below. Halberds were never implemented properly in this game, from the very start. I picked one up from a bandit early on in my first playthrough, because the menu showed it was worth 1000 Groshen, but once picked up, you can’t put it away, you can’t sell it, you can’t put it on your horse, and everywhere you go, people complain or just scream and run because you’re carrying a very large and completely useless pointy pole.
The Halberd Bug I’m speaking of though, caused Halberds to randomly spawn in places where guards had been. But then they never de-spawned, and the game seemed to keep track of them at all times, causing an insanely glitchy/juddering play experience. And even after the latest patch (1.4.3 at time of writing *EDIT* Patch 1.5 has now been released, and fixes many of these issues), many of us were advised by Warhorse, that, if you got the problem before the patch release, then the only way to get rid of it was to go back to a save point before it started happening. Well… firstly… when the f**k was that? I didn’t go around counting Halberds in the dirt, in case of later difficulties! And, secondly… that’s not so easy when the problem arises 40+ hours into your YouTube walkthrough series, which already takes pretty much all of your free time, and YouTube are breathing down your neck to maintain a regular schedule.
What was most upsetting though, was that console players seemed to be marginalised in the whole patch debacle, and it seemed as though we were regarded as less important than PC players. I might be being slightly unfair to Warhorse here, because I know there are ridiculous certification problems and hoops that people like Microsoft make you jump through when releasing a patch for a game like this, but the amount of times we were told “It’s coming next week… we promise”, loong after the PC players had been patched and sent on their merry, sword-swinging way, got to be more than a little frustrating, even for more patient gamers.
On top of this, it really seems to me as though this game should never have been released on the Xbox One. And that’s quite an indictment, considering how much I have loved this game, and that the Xbox One is currently my only way to play and record video-games… so I would never have had the pleasure of Henry’s company, had it not been available to Xbox One players. But, it seems to me as though the old Xbox One was just not up the job. Even after all the patches and delays, and more patches… texture maps often seemed to load with all the haste of an overweight snail, crossing a field of broken glass, to keep a particularly painful dentist appointment, in the heart of song-thrush territory. KCD is a game offering a rich and diverse landscape, steeped in history, with truly believable characters, and sold on the back of its attention to realistic detail. So when you regularly encounter scenes like headless thugs and men with see-through torsos, demanding money whilst standing on an invisible drawbridge, in front of castle that looks like it was drawn on a cereal box in crayon… it really is not doing what it said on the tin.
The textures catch up eventually, but you have to go through all the stages of loading… including the bit where their head appears, but looks like Odo from Deep Space Nine, and by the time they start to look like normal people, you’ve either moved on to the next shop or stabbed them in their invisible faces and taken all their textureless clothes.
Kingdom Come: Deliverance is the first game from developer, Warhorse Studios. They have some experienced players on their team but it is a brand new company, trying to do something genuinely fresh and new. We gamers appreciate that sort of thing, so there was a lot of goodwill and forgiveness, for mistakes that must be easy to make on your first lap around the block. God knows I wouldn’t want to try doing what they just did. And the fact that they came so close to providing a perfect, truly-immersive role-playing experience has given a lot of us real hope for the potential future of this new company. But delays; animations that would have looked dated in a 90s game, and bugs and glitches that would make even Bethesda blush, have used up almost their entire currency reserve, as far as goodwill is concerned, and RPG gamers expect them to do a lot better next time.
When all the talk of textureless trees and embarrassingly clunky animation is forgotten for a moment though… what Warhorse have produced here is a thing of real beauty.
I’m in my 40s now, and I’ve been an avid gamer since the days of Jet Set Willy, Frogger, and Hungry Horace. But my love of movies is hard to beat, and only when I had completed Rockstar’s Red Dead: Redemption, in 2010, did I first say… “Wow! Immersive video games with music, story and character that good, really could, some day hammer the nails into the coffin-lid of the movie industry.”
Since then, I have seen other games come close, but none quite so close as Kingdom Come: Deliverance. For an RPG series to live long, it must be built on a solid foundation. It doesn’t matter if the doors are falling off the hinges, and the roof leaks. All those things can be fixed as long as it has a strong heart… and Kingdom Come: Deliverance has the heart of a Rhino! Warhorse have done a stellar job, in my opinion, concentrating on those things that go overlooked by too many RPG games in favour of flawless graphics, and a game-map the size of a small moon. I have been a writer, a reader, a movie-fan, and a gamer all my life. When people who know me well are asked what word sums up all my aspirations, they often say “Storyteller”. A really well told tale makes all life’s woes a little easier to deal with I think. I am a professional voiceover artist nowadays; reading for a living and indulging myself with stories in all forms when I have free time… So I’m pretty confident that I know a good storyteller when I see one, and Kingdom Come: Deliverance Director and Lead writer, Daniel Vávra is just such a person.
Four things tie you into a game, a movie, or a TV series, more than anything else. It’s a short list, but pixel-resolution and special-effects aren’t on it.
They are, in my opinion:
- Story. I don’t think I really need to elaborate on my reasons for that one. And, if you think I do, please go home and rethink your life.
- Performance. Not as important as numbers 1 and 4, but try to imagine the line “That’s no Moon, it’s a Space station!” delivered by Steven Segal instead of Sir Alec Guiness, and I think you’ll see the point.
- Music. I have often been mocked for suggesting this, but think of the most iconic movies of the past 50 years, and I bet you can hum some of the music from almost all of them. Worse still… try watching a Spielberg movie (or pretty much ANY movie for that matter) with all the music removed.
- Character. I taught a single class in college about how to write character, in which I paraphrased writer, Michael Legat, who said: “If you think character isn’t important to a story, consider the following headline: Tom, Construction Worker, 61 years old, killed in drive-by shooting. So what? It’s tragic, and shouldn’t we do something about gun control and gang violence… etc. but ultimately you’ve probably forgotten about him by the end of breakfast. Poor Tom.
Now, change the headline to Tom Hanks, Actor, 61 years old, killed in drive-by shooting.“ You’d be talking about that at work for weeks. Conspiracy theorists would crawl out of their dimly-lit bedrooms and ask their mums if they were allowed to go back on Twitter yet.
KCD hits all these points with precision. The story is fantastic and often takes you in a different direction than that you might have been expecting. The Voice-Acting, for the most part, is brilliant. There are a few hiccups here and there (Lady Stephanie of Talmberg is a prime example), but the principal players deliver well within the confines of their character. Take it from me, it’s no easy thing to step into a box and jump into a character, when there is often no-one else in the room to react to.
The Music… aaah, the music. A fantastic score by Jan Valta and Adam Sporka really adds that extra rise and fall to moments of importance. Almost made you forget that Hanush’s solid plate armour was bending like rubber as he talked, or that Captain Bernard’s face was missing as he ordered an attack.
But lastly… character. I spoke at length about Henry and Hans Capon earlier, but Henry really is the linchpin in all of this. Without him, the whole thing just falls apart. And Henry of Skalitz is the most interesting character I’ve ever played as, I think.
And it precisely his ordinariness that makes him so likeable; so relatable. He is not heralded as the greatest archer or swordsman in the land. Nobody knows his name. His reputation does NOT precede him. He isn’t ruggedly handsome, or drop-dead gorgeous. He isn’t some jaded dragon-slayer or sorcerer coming out of retirement for one last mission. He doesn’t have rippling abs or biceps you’re afraid to get too close to, for fear they might explode in your face. And… he has a perfectly ordinary, midlands accent. A little odd to find in 15th century Bohemia, along with Yorkshiremen, Aussies, and Americans… all speaking English, of course, but not all that unusual for Tom McKay (the voice behind Henry), who comes from Solihull. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been put off a main character (*cough* Geralt of Rivia *cough*) because he opens his mouth and out comes the voice of batman. Please stop doing this, game developers!
I thoroughly enjoyed becoming Henry of Skalitz, and was genuinely sad when the game came to an end. But that end was a very Empire Strikes Back, Mass Effect 2 style ending, and Warhorse have left us in very little doubt that Henry’s story is far from over. I for one cannot wait to see what’s next from this young game studio, but wherever they take us next, let’s just hope it’s fully rendered.
You can see all my videos at my new Game-Dedicated YouTube channel Knight’s Arcade, here.