In college, I minored in Medieval Studies. This is not a common area of coursework in many colleges, but Western Michigan University has an entire department devoted to ye olde ages of yore. The program is fairly well-known, and they host a medieval congress every year for all the academic nerds of the world to get together and talk serfs. My love of medieval literature and history came from an early obsession with King Arthur. Arthurian Legend was a powerful enough love for me that I would actually do homework when anything related to the Round Table was assigned. My minor in Medieval Studies grew from my Arthurian infatuation combined with a related love of all things fantasy, and while what I actually studied in those classes was a far cry from the legends and sagas I had been reading, I still found the times of Lords and Ladies and Knights and overwhelming Christianity to be fascinating. The most memorable class I took during my undergrad days was one called Everyday Medieval Life, which avoided all the larger scale historical moments in favor of looking at how the average person of the Dark Ages lived their lives.
People tend to equate medieval themes with anything fantasy, and the two are certainly related, but not married. For one, true medieval literature and media has relatively little to do with magic. Magicians, Merlin being the exception, are largely absent in medieval media, and when they do make an appearance they are usually charlatans or just people who can read. Fantasy, on the other hand, is magic. People have differing definitions for what fantasy means, but for me it is the ability to perform otherworldly and un-explainable feats. Fantasy, to me, equals magic.
To transition, video games are their own kind of magic, and are related to fantasy in that they allow the average Joe to perform amazing feats of strength and power. Most games are quite literally power fantasies, and this is good. This is cathartic and entertaining. Even games without magic or far-flung technology are power fantasies in their own right. Something like Call of Duty might not feature fireball hurling, but it gives you tools beyond anything you likely have access to outside of special ops military folk.
This all brings me to the topic at hand – Kingdom Come : Deliverance. Kingdom Come is the first game from newly crafted Czech studio, Warhorse, and it was released earlier this year to good reviews. Since its release, I haven’t heard much about it, but after finally getting my hands on a library copy of the game, I am amazed that there aren’t more people abuzz about this gem. What Kingdom Come is, in essence, is a medieval simulator. Players star as Henry, a blacksmith’s son whose village is burned down by a power-hungry Lord with aims at throne of Bohemia. Henry is swept up into events that he has no control over, but not long into the game players are given the choice of how they wish to interact with these events. Henry is not is the chosen one, the Mary Sue, the destined child who must save the world. Henry is literally just some guy. He isn’t overly attractive or large, and at the beginning of the game he is bad at everything. He can’t even swing a sword well enough to chop through a corn stalk. Many games feature this type of inverted power structure, where instead of the game being harder at the end, it’s more difficult at the beginning, but not many take it this far. Players are fully in charge of how Henry develops. Want to swing your sword better? Swing it a bunch and train with a master. Want to pick locks? Prepare to hate picking locks until you pick a lot of locks and get better at it, both in game and with your controller. There is freedom here that I have not seen in any game, and I love it.
Saying this, one might assume that Henry is destined to rise up and overthrow the evil Lord who seeks to take over Bohemia, and though I’m only a dozen hours into the game, I don’t believe that this is ever the case. Henry’s first mission is one of revenge, an all too human pursuit, and his revenge isn’t to kill the man who burnt down his village, though that is on the back-burner, rather, it’s to find the bandit who stole his father’s finest sword. Losing the sword means losing a part of his father as well as his own honor as he was tasked with delivering the sword to his father’s patron. How players go about this is entirely up to them.
The world of Kingdom Come is equally enthralling. For one, it’s beautiful. There is a life-like quality to the villages and landscape that feels more authentic than what I’ve seen in other games, and I have played many of this ilk. Walking around within Bohemia feels similar to patrolling Skyrim, but with a sense of realism that makes Bethesda’s RPG look like a funhouse. Instead of slaying dragons, one quest had me searching for a lost trio of nightingales, fled from their noble owner, and the only way to locate them was to listen for their distinctive call in a particular forest and lay out traps nearby. I would not have expected a quest of such simplicity to draw me in as it did, but I loved it. It felt immersive and relevant in a way that no dragon-slaying or tomb-raiding has.
The game can be frustrating at times, and there are points where it is clear how new this developer is despite some impressive pedigree within the studio. I have crashed on the PS4 half a dozen times already, and several of these incidents involved me losing hours worth of progress because the save system is unwieldy and sometimes unreliable. There is an entire lexicon of explanations for the games many systems, but there are still times when I feel completely lost on how to do something, and those systems can be incredibly complex. But bugs and complication are not the death knells of a game when it is as engaging and fresh as Kingdom Come. It feels like the game that the Elder Scrolls has been striving to be for decades, and while I love those games for what they are, Kingdom Come steps up the immersion and complication, and is better for its improvements. That it is so authentic to the medieval Bohemian experience further enhances what would be a fun game to play. If developers can produce work like this, I truly believe we will soon have new ways to educate people about history, experiences that are not boring or rote, but vibrant and scary – much like life. I can’t wait to sit my daughter down, stick a sword in her hand, and teach her about surviving in a world without electricity and wifi.
A few closing things I love about Kingdom Come:
- When starting out, Henry’s armor and weaponry look like he found them in the dumpster. They are shabby and don’t perform very well, but if players save (or steal) enough money, there are a plethora of useful and attractive options to make Henry look like less of a pud
- The sword combat is very difficult, but feels more in line with what I might expect out of two people swinging metal at one another. No sword is powerful enough to simply slash through plate mail, and Kingdom Come takes this into account with its direction-based combat, and players must use the whole blade, pomel, tip, and edge, to defeat foes.
- Archery is equally difficult. There is no reticle! You actually have to sight down the arrow and take distance and the vibration of your body into account. It’s hard as hell, but the more I do it, the better I get.
- The character-work is excellent. Nobles treat Henry like a peasant, but even ones who appear vile at first actually aren’t that bad as humans. Games need more shades of gray!
- This is the first game I have played where sleep and food are not only required, but done well. Performance dips if you lack either, and they are vital to the experience, but feel natural.
- Even the map, an incredibly stylized work of art, is fully decked out in medieval banners and scroll-work. The details in this game are mind-boggling.
I love this game, and I could see myself playing it almost indefinitely. I hope Warhorse is already working on something else in a similar vein because they have become my studio to watch.