tldr: equally a 5-star immersive, open world experience and a mediocre achievement in its self-indulgent endeavor
Disclaimer: I played the game in French.
I started playing the game in mid January and with 107 hours and at level 19, I’ve “completed” the game. I have the Completionist (I must confess however that I failed one or another quest, like the Talmberg horse race, and I didn’t get to go drinking with father Godwin) and the The End achievement; besides spare activities to do (bring meat to the butcher in Sasau, brawl in Rattay, shoot logs in Ledetchko, another I can’t remember) and grinding my way to level 20, I don’t have anything else to do in the game.
The positive side of this game is certainly deserving of praise. The craft found in the world, in the textures, in the lovely art of maps and drawing, the multitude of dialogue is majestic. Going in detail:
The location the game takes place - agrarian and feudal Bohemia - is a joy to travel around. Villages are always cozy and receptive, a castle in the distance always inspires awe, wading through the woods is sincerely a idyllic exercise, riding alongside a river offers a fine outdoors high. Something I particularly enjoyed was noticing a shy dirt track diverging from the path I was in, and wondering where that could lead me. The arcadian setting is made with gusto and makes you want to turn away from the computer and go tracking yourself; if Warhorse was designed to make, say, a Huckleberry Finn game, with its ample Mississipi river and american southern flora, they would make a very fine job at it.
I was pleased with the graphics. Clothing and armour are beautiful to look at, and more expensive wares fittingly catch your eye. Often the sun, at dawn or twilight, offers an amazing spectacle. As of late however, detailed textures have taken their time loading in while in dialogue, but that’s recent. Also, maybe it’s my computer, but performance in bigger towns, like downtown Sasau and Rattay, as well as in the tournament, was always poor; if I were to sprint my horse in town I’d certainly hit a villager while in the technical hiccup. The tournament as well, the constant freezing made it unbearable, and I didn’t feel like going at it again.
The art of the world map and its smaller location-specific ones is marvelous, and delicious to look at, with their medieval style. Same goes for the drawings on skill books and other instances. The minutiae of it is wonderful, as well as in other more subtle places, like the clock or the inventory menu.
The voice casting is well done, offering major characters with distinctive and fitting voices; although, like in Bethesda games, many (minor) characters share the same voice, which to me is at most distracting. The soundtrack is also fitting, offering distinctive music to each setting you’re in: “medieval” music in towns, merry music in taverns, awe-inspiring chorus while in the country, shady tunes while skulking in the cover of night. It must be said however that although the songs don’t get old, one will notice that is a small selection.
Bugs were few. Beyond enemies remaining still for a bit while I shoot arrows at them, I can’t remember anything else. Like in Fallout 4, I bought the game a long time after its release, which prevents me from such things. I know that the game was heavily criticized, by players and journalists, by the state it was shipped in. Also, I heard that the saviour schnapps got a lot of bad rep; as the game had a Save and Quit function (was it implemented after launch?), I have no criticism of the kind.
Past these “sensory” elements comes I think the greatest meat of success: its open world RPG side. It wasn’t an accident that I put 100+ hours into it. I have and will hit hard on some choices made by Warhorse, but (most) gameplay and its elements were tailored for my tastes. The game at the same time is a First Person “Shooter”, with choosable skills and playstyles, quests with diverse venues of approach and results.
A highlight: my main impression was that the game seems to silently favours a rogue play style. My Henry from the get go was eloquent, a cheapskate, stealthy and borderline cleptomaniac. This disposition blessed most of my playthrough. Actually, I dare say that fighting is secundary to the game, which is a fantastic thing to say about a AAA FPS game. Unlike the world of Skyrim, here, you really have to go looking after enemies to practice your skill. There aren’t dungeons and ruins and fortresses of hostiles and monsters just waiting for you; at the most, there are bandit or cuman camps in the wild, or groups of highwaymen preying on you to pass by the road. But aside from these, it’s amazing how civilized people function, and how smoothly, and peacefully, quests can be completed. It’s also amazing what wonders you can do by sneaking on bandits at night, or picking them away with a bow while mounted. This, by the way, is incredible overpowered (as it was in real life?); the AI will run after your tireless horse while you arrow them to the ground. This is a good tactic anytime and anywhere.
Speaking of quests, some of them are a joy to play, especially the very first one. The chores your father ask you run are a good microcosmo of what you’re going to face: straightforward homely demands that evolve into instigating and inquisitive legwork. Most side quests avoid being dead simple as other RPGs. Some even require you to grab pen and paper and take some notes, like the “magic” blacksmith in Sasau, taking notes of the candidates to carry water in Rattay, or interviewing the novices in the Monastery. This complex dealing of elements has a clear Morrowind DNA, which is great to see newer generations experiencing. Oh, and these sorts of quests every once in a while give you a nasty lesson: don’t underestimate your tasks! Like I said above, I failed the Talmberg horse race because I didn’t show up! And that’s that, I had to give the quest giver in Neuhof this frustrating update. This is extremely disconcerting but also incredibly refreshing and humbling. This, like other places in the game show a preparedness to many contingencies.
Another subtle aspect of the game is how organically disposed are peoples and things. You want rich loot? Look in nobles’ chests, not farmers’. You want to fight brigands? Have one or two tricks up your sleave, because most are armoured and skilled and never alone. Going for a stroll in town? Change your battle clothes for social ones, take a bath and a swig of wine. This sort of thing is quite basic, but it develops in you a reasonable thought process in and of the world. Another thing: At night, shops close and most people retire home, and bandits prowl the woods. What to do? Retire yourself to your room and read a little, repair your gear, go play some Farkle, and go to sleep of course. The “oppression” of night made me diligently do what I had to do by day, so that I could retire at night. The dynamics of the world configured my routine and thought process, and this was delicious to experience.
Like I said, the game is heavy in dialogue. Incredible how Henry can be inquisitive about people and subjects. I found this great because, as I played the game in French, I got to experience the language quite a bit. Like in other good RPGs, like Fallout New Vegas or Vampire Bloodlines, some dialogue lines can be achieved by fulfilling some prerequisites. With enough Speech you can convince people; having quality clothing and other appearance boosts can impress people, and appearing fearsome with armour can intimidate people. This mechanic is great to see in action, as you see in first hand the benefits of the investments you’ve put in your character. There are some skill checks here and there, like the First Aid perk, or the Maintenance skill, but these are much rarer, unfortunately.
Nothing is as simple as it looks in the game. You, the player, becomes skillful in something as Henry becomes as well. Take fighting for example. It is a dreadful ordeal in your first bouts, but with practice you begin to manage it, and by the end of the game you’re fighting foes in a gallant manner (or close enough). The same goes for other areas: archery, lockpicking, stealth, alchemy.
The multilayered armour system should be mentioned as well. Personally, I used dark clothing for pretty much all the game, and began using armour only by the end of the game, when I thought I had to hone my combat skill, but the many options of layers you can choose to wear are a distinctive and unique mechanic.
All these parts make a whole that got me hooked in the game. It was a great experience completing quests, amassing riches, knocking out - and later stabbing - brigands, discovering the world.
But, I do have criticisms. Plenty.
The plot: above I gave praise to the side quests. I also enoyed some of the more investigations in the plot, like looking for the Neuhof bandits, spying on Prybislavice - which I found memorable-, looking for the coin counterfeinters. But unfortunately, the rest of the plot, the game shows a vice by Warhorse: self indulgency.
The game likes to force you into novelty scenarios and beaten tropes. One example: like Yahtzeee found out, the climax of the battle of Prybislavice is a fight with Runt in the attic of a church. You have to fight him, you just do. This is shameful design. Deus Ex Human Revolution stumbled on this years ago, forcing players, whatever their playstyles, into fighting head on a big boss, and here is Warhose, in 2018, doing the same mistake, throwing their open ended gameplay in the trash. Lucky me, I had the Headcracker perk, and in my second try I knocked Runt on the floor; something the game didn’t expect, as the following cutscene shows a very skillful Henry winning over Runt, something MY Henry would never pull out.
Another: the monastery mission. To meet the enemy recruiters, you have to infiltrate the monastery, get to know the novices, and kill your designated target. This sounds cool on paper, like a different take on a Hitman game, but by this point of the plot, after all the running around you are doing, the forced dynamic of the monastery is unpleasant past the first day, and pulls a nasty break on the plot. I know, ora et labora is far from an exciting lifestyle, but it looks like the game REALLY wants me to experience the novelty of it, which is of poor taste. And thank God I had already lockpicked most doors before doing the mission.
Also, the 2 hour long prologue. Christ, what bullshit.
Looking at the plot in hindsight, it’s just a thin succession of events, padded with lots of running around doing objectives. The game, again being self-indulgent, is interested in the “real” characters of the plot - ie the nobles and their movements - and has to fill it up with legwork for Henry.
The “hook” that the game is realistic is a farse. Of course no game is or can be realistic, but from day one the game has been pitched as this, and the final product delivers a hardcore Skyrim-like game.
Show the game to someone and present it as a realistic rendition of medieval Europe and wait for reactions. Why the player, the “son of a blacksmith”, is the only one riding a horse (in my 100 hours, rarely did I see someone else riding a horse, and only in my 70th hour there were horses parked around in Rattay)? Why no transit between towns? Why are there no children? Why is there no (diegetic) music, instruments or musicians? The game can sure feel authentic, but realistic? It’s a tall order.
You’d think religion was a major part of life for the regular medieval folk? Well, every dialogue begins with “God be praised”, ok, but it stops there. There’s no religion in the day to day life. No one preys; there is no mass at church, anywhere; to give alms is a dream (my thousands of gold weighted on my pocket when I passed by my former neighbors begging on their knees). I always put money into the local church chest, but for some reason, I could only do it once at a time. Henry, the loveable oaf, looks christian enough right? Not My Henry. An unrepentant killer, a dirty catburglar and pickpocket, a regular at the bath house red light. All this at what cost to his christian morals? None. Gameplay is completely divorced from this supposedly fundamental aspect of medieval life. The game’s title, taken from the Lord’s prayer, becomes an empty choice. Another thing: “turn the other cheek”; this incredible option never crosses Henry’s mind in his path for vengeance.
Was life this easy, for a “son of a blacksmith”, refugee of war, homeless and orphan of father and mother? The game, like every other RPG, is a liberal adventure fantasy, where the willing protagonist can make a name for himself with ever increasing riches in your pocket. Henry doesn’t work but anyway has a horse (bought or otherwise), weaponry, supplies, good clothes, money for various private trainers, and no one bats an eye. Why don’t other Skalice refugees do the same? My good friends Matthew and Fritz, why aren’t they prospering like me? They seem as guile or more than Henry…
Citing Nathan Grayson from Kotaku: So while Kingdom Come boasts of its more realistic elements, it’s also more similar, in this way, to the Skyrims and Witchers of the world than Warhorse cares to admit. On its face, it uses historical accuracy as a reason to eschew many trappings of traditional video game power fantasies, but at the same time, it replicates the same systems and cultural ideas underlying those power fantasies, which results in a structurally similar experience. It’s different in some ways, but also familiar and easy to digest if you’ve been playing games for a long time. That, as it turns out, is the winning formula on Steam.
I hated to know that Henry is Radzig’s son, but it really does makes sense. His privilege in the rigid feudal society is granted from the beginning - both by his heritage and by the developers. The “you’re just a son of a blacksmith” is a farse from the start. You are a tabula rasa in skill and resources, yes, but all doors will eventually open to you, which defeats the selling point of the game.
This was Warhorse’s compromise: they wanted to present a epic historic plot, with lords, castles and armies, but they promised a game about a seminal “son of a blacksmith”. One thing goes against the other: realistically, Henry would become at most a levied soldier at said lords’ battles and never interact meaningfully with any of them. So then they hamfisted this trope. For their pitch to work, the plot would have to be much less epic, and I don’t think they wanted this from the beginning.
To me, and other who played the game, the non-presence of people of colour was a questionable decision. The game’s director, Daniel Vavras has said that this was grounded in historical study, backed by a hundred historians. My take on this: yes, this is historically sound but there is proof that the game is xenophobic and not interested in interactions outside of the norm: the cumans.
The cumans are portrayed as barbaric, albeit christians, rapists. In the wilderness, they are always feral, like orcs, towards you. As far as I know, there are 3 situations you can interact with a cuman: entering Prybislabice disguised as one; having a cuman surrender in combat; and the cuman in the Lost in Translation quest. Henry can learn to read and write in a matter of days; why can’t he learn a bare minimum of Hungarian by paying the mill translator some coin? Because it’s not in the interest of the developers to humanize anyone outside of Bohemia. What boggles my mind is that there is heart in the game. Most characters are reasonable and shy away from bloodshed; even some bandits are treated as people and can be sympathised with. But not the cumans.
I’ll expand (my frustration) on this matter. Yes, the game takes place in a backwater country, that is only 50 kilometers from Prague, but couldn’t there be a passing Jew or Muslim or Orthodox Christian on the edge of the map? This is why the premise of the game is mediocre. We have a very able studio, capable of crafting an entire open world with virtuosity, and they choose to do it in backwater Bohemia. The same white Christian people from corner to corner. Don’t they know that there’s an entire world outside of Bohemia, outside of Europe? That there were other peoples and cultures to see up close and write stories about beside the archetypal ye olde folk? What a waste.
Citing Robert Purchese from Eurogamer: “We know of African kings in Constantinople on pilgrimage to Spain; we know of black Moors in Spain; we know of extensive travel of Jews from the courts of Cordoba and Damascus; we also know of black people in large cities in Germany,” the historian, Sean Miller, tells me. Czech cities Olomouc and Prague were on the famous Silk Road which facilitated the trade of goods all over the world. If you plot a line between them, it runs directly through the area recreated in Kingdom Come. “You just can’t know nobody got sick and stayed a longer time,” he says. “What if a group of black Africans came through and stayed at an inn and someone got pregnant? Even one night is enough for a pregnancy.”
This fundamental choice gets me thinking a perverse thought: Warhorse deliberately chose this place exactly because then they wouldn’t have to think about other peoples. This is an awful possibility, which unfortunately, is backed by the the cuman treatment in the game.
I was surprised to know that the Woman’s Lot DLC came up while in funding. I sincerily asked around in r/kingdomcome if the idea came after release and its backlashes as a sort of PR goodwill move.
Oh, reading this review, there actually are black people in the game. The two barbaric man-monsters that attack Henry when he’s high on the Witch Potion. Take out of that what you may.
Ultimately, Warhorse’s hardnosed decision produced a simulacrum of a medieval world, a vivid representation of what “medieval” comes to mind. Their 1403 Bohemia is a sanitized place, with no exceptions to the norm. Sexuality and gender minorities are rare (there is one gay man [Novice Lucas] and a rumour of one gay relation [Istvan and Eric], I don’t recall any lesbians); heresy, paganism and atheism is brought up in a quest or two (paganism In Dance with the Devil for comedic effect, and heresy in Waldensians). Henry can choose many things, but this sort of decision never come to his mind. Henry can’t even wear a dress? Maybe if he wore one, people would take him as crazy, who knows? We will never know because none of this was in Warhorse’s interest.
Citing Andreas Inderwildi, of Rock Paper Shotgun: Right off the bat, it’s clear that KCD’s main interests are politics, war, and material culture (weapons, architecture, etc). Its claims of historical accuracy are measured almost solely against these interests. The more intangible aspects of life, such as social conduct, creativity, language, religious belief and mentality, aren’t given as much attention. KCD mostly assumes that people behaved, spoke, and reasoned just like we do today: throw in a “God be with you” as the opening line of every dialogue tree, and voila, medieval conversation!
Some aspects of life are excluded entirely. There are no children, for example. Some of the biggest exclusions, however, stem from a fetishizing of the ‘typical’. Non-conformism or ‘deviancy’ is practically non-existent: there are no rebellious women, no revolutionaries, no religious sceptics on the one hand, no religious fanatics on the other, no representatives of other cultures apart from murderous Cumans, and really no misfits of any kind that aren’t common thugs. Despite the backstory of war, slaughter, and displacement, Bohemia is shown as a place of homogenous equilibrium and conformity, where everyone, peasant to lord, knows their place and is content with it. In those few cases where we get to meet someone atypical, like the brawling, drinking, and decidedly un-celibate priest Godwin or the three ‘witches’ of Uzhiz who crop up in a ludicrously ahistorical side quest, their deviancy is played wholly for laughs.
About the simulacrum bit. Umberco Eco took a series of trips around the United States and wrote this about Disneyland and its hyperrealism: Disneyland’s Main Street seems the first scene of the fiction whereas it is an extremely shrewd commercial reality. Main Street—like the whole city, for that matter— is presented as at once absolutely realistic and absolutely fantastic , and this is the advantage (in terms of artistic conception) of Disneyland over the other toy cities. The houses of Disneyland are full-size on the ground floor, and on a twothirds scale on the floor above, so they give the impression of being inhabitable (and they are) but also of belonging to a fantastic past that we can grasp with our imagination. The Main Street façades are presented to us as toy houses and invite us to enter them, but their interior is always a disguised supermarket, where you buy obsessively, believing that you are still playing (disclaimer: I don’t have any degrees in Philosophy; my use of this excerpt may be wildly wrong) .
Reviewing the game, the shaded sentence above comes to mind. The Bohemia of Kingdom Come is at the same time, realistic in its historical research, and fantastic, and fake, in its interpretation by Warhorse.
In conclusion, I reiterate the opening TLDR: Kingdom come is equally a 5-star immersive, open world experience and a mediocre achievement in its self-indulgent endeavor. My 107 hours are proof that I had lots of fun, DESPITE fundamental flaws in the project’s premise. The reviewer from Eurogamer, that I quoted above, ended his review saying that it’s hard to recommend the game because of its dubious design decisions. I can’t say that, because it’s a fabulous open world first person RPG, but its flaws are woefully disappoiting, and show a lack of maturity, which show that wisdom doesn’t necessarily come along with knowledge. Just imagine if Warhorse, with the same zeal it showed in Kingdom Come, would guide you through mosques in Al-Andalus, through a Jewish quarter in Prague, take you campaigning with Saladin, show you a day in a cossack camp.
If I could advise Warhorse in something it would be this: now that your pet project of bringing your own backyard to medieval life is achieved, move forward. You, like many other eastern european studios, have the capacity to make amazing videogames and tell amazing stories. Bring in new storywriters and new ideas. Do look outside your comfort zone. It’s in variety that individual elements shine.
edit postscriptum: I think my ultimate conclusion from writing this and playing the game is that a medium that calls itself historical is much more a window into its creator than the sources it was taken from. Thank you for getting this far.