A few weeks ago, I was playing a medieval RPG while inside a medieval Castle in England. Inside one of the many, many luxurious rooms of Hever Castle sat dozens of high-end computers, all running Kingdom Come: Deliverance. The open world RPG by Warhorse studios takes place in Bohemia during the 1400s, and what better place to hold a press event about it than in a bona fide 13th century castle?
Published by Deep Silver, Kingdom Come: Deliverance is the debut project of Czech indie studio Warhorse. While some members of the 120 person team have previously worked on Mafia and Flashpoint, this is the first game fully developed and shipped in-house. Concepted in 2009 and under development since 2011, Kingdom Come is a first-person single player RPG set in medieval times. Realistic and open world, it aims to immerse the player in an authentic and lovingly recreated Bohemia in the middle of a royal civil war.
After the death of Emperor Charles IV, the Holy Roman Empire started tearing itself apart. The heir, Wenceslas, couldn’t keep the Kingdom of Bohemia together, and his half-brother (and King of Hungary) Sigismund decided to take it for himself. Kidnapping Wenceslas and setting his army loose on the region, Sigismund laid waste to the Czech kingdom.
You, Henry, are the son (sorry, ladies) of a blacksmith, which has its life shattered when a mercenary army raids the peaceful village you live in. You’re one of the few survivors, and lost without a place to call home, seek the service of Lord Radzig Kobyla and his burgeoning resistance. “We give you the historical and realistic frame, so ‘this is based on a true story, here are the nobles’, and if you’re not interested in history, you don’t have to care – it’s not history in your face”, tells me Tobias Stolz-Zwilling, PR Manager for Warhorse Studios. “I think it’s not pushing you and forcing you to understand something or be realistic, historical somehow – it’s just a side note that’s interesting if you are interested.”
My extensive hands-on session with Kingdom Come: Deliverance was comprised of three parts: the first was the initial quest, set right after the unfortunate raid that puts the game’s events in motion. Waking up in a riverside community, you’re nurtured to health by a young woman. You’re also taught by an old shady lad the sly ways of pickpocketing and lockpicking, even though the player character proclaims quite adamantly to not be a thief.
Kingdom Come: Deliverance NPC: "You could make some money selling stolen goods." Player character: "Stolen goods? No way, I'm not a thief!" Also player character: "Can you teach me how to pickpocket?"
After being a good non-thief and learning the non-thievery acts of cut pursering and breaking into people’s houses, the main character gets a proposition: help the old bastard by stealing a ring from a recently buried cadaver, or… you know, not. Giving reason to every tabloid claim that video games turn our children into criminals, I decided to help the guy and go pilfer a corpse.
The body is located on the outskirts of town, in an open field near the executioner’s property. The way to his compound is a bit off the beaten path, leading me over a river into a mildly trodden dirt trail. The landscape is beautiful, with photorealistic terrain and sunrays softly shining between the dendritic branches as the route snakes through the trees, the barely visible path demarcated by soil patches beelining through grass. It is a gorgeous and immersive vista, sucking you into its world and making the simple act of walking around satisfying.
I arrive at the burial grounds – turns out the dead guy was executed, and fellows don’t get buried near churches – to find the corpse utterly bereft of earthly possessions. Naturally, I talk to the executioner about it, and he says that yes, he took off anything of value before committing the body seven feet under. I want to ask him for the ring, but that is not a dialogue option, so I follow the arrow back to the starting village and talk to the old guy, who promptly tells me that yes, I should talk to the executioner about it.
“What we are doing right now is bug fixing, but what we’re also doing is checking the right dialogue options”, Tobias explains. “If you choose this, this should be unlocked; if you chose this, this should be hidden’, so on and so on. The right stream of possible answers is not set up correctly.”
I make my way back to the executioner’s house and enter the compound. Seeing it empty, I decided I came too far to just have a conversation and decide to stalk around the place, putting my shiny and totally non-thievery skills to work and getting the ring without spending a penny. I aim to misbehave.
At the precise moment I arrive at the entrance to the shack, a dog turns the corner and starts barking at me. I quickly pick the lock and head inside, closing the door behind me to keep my newfound canine friend (all canines are friends) out. I open a couple of chests before finding the correct one, and quickly make way with the ring safely on my trousers.
After delivering the ring to the old bastard, I decide I need something a bit more dignifying and head to the court of Lord Radzig, willing to pledge my services after the whole village was massacred. Little bit of backstory: remember how the player character is the son of a blacksmith? Dad smithy was commissioned by Radzig to make a sword, and the finished bilbo was stolen by the marauding army. When I arrive at the city gates, I convince the guards that yes, I’m the son of a farrier and I want to talk to the feudal boss even though I don’t have his missing bilbo. I pass the speech check and they let me in, and make my way to the keep to report on the happenings. After a long cutscene where everybody and their mothers are introduced, I’m accepted into the service of the Kingdom and begin my long climb towards honour and vengeance.
The second part of the hands-on was a mission set a while after the induction above, when Lord Radzig is leading his troops into an enemy camp. This was mainly a battle scenario, meant to showcase Kingdom Come’s fight mechanics and unique simulation, which use some fancy inverse kinematics. The game features both long and short-ranged weapons, and its engagements use that physics system to determine the reactions of combatants to impacts based on the speed and weight of a blow.
If that wasn’t enough, the whole authentic angle also affects armours – the player can equip several pieces of equipment in the same slot, meaning a fully armour set involves a gambeson padded jacket, chainmail, plate armour, and a flashy tabard surcoat on top – the latter used historically both to facilitate battlefield identification as well as look fashionable while murdering folk (ladies).
However, all that armour provides a setback – you are unable to jump due to carrying 50kg of metal on your back, and pulling your faceplate down protects your face but also severely restricts your view, thanks to the slit visor. It’s a game of balance – either wear light armour and remain mobile and aware, or go full knight and lose those things. “It’s very important that we know this is not a medieval simulator, but just a video game – so the focus is on making it fun, making it appealing, but don’t forget the realism part.” says Tobias. “The gameplay must be number one, and the realism and story number two.”
The third part of the demo consisted of something else: an infiltration into a monastery to find a serial killer. You use some connections to get into the monastery as a newcomer and shed your peasant/soldier clothes for a pastoral robe. As you investigate the clues that may lead you to the murderer, you need to keep up all the duties of a monk – pray, eat, write texts, etc – in order to avoid suspicion. I won’t say much about this as to not spoil the experience, but it is an interesting change of pace.
“The game lives and dies with the story”, told me Tobias when asked about the balance between player agency and the urge to deal a dramatic personal tale. “If you dislike the story, you dislike the game. The point is that in the quests, you can decide how to approach them, so there are a variety of different things you can do without us telling you.”
Talking about the second part of the demo, where you attack an enemy camp, he added: “if you would want to invest another maybe one hour of gameplay, you could have sneaked into this camp before and sabotaged something – but again, we don’t tell you what, so you have to slowly go through it. Then you see a crate of food and maybe you realise at that point there is a daily cycle, that people have to eat, and if you poison it, people on the fight will be almost ‘one-hit’.”
The possibilities quickly become tactical, in ways players are not used to expect. “There are boxes of arrows – if you burn them, [the archers] will have nothing to shoot with”, Tobias spoilers. Similarly, you can burn stashes of hay next to watchtowers, forcing the archers to get off their posts instead of pettering you with projectiles. “There will be no archers – which is a huge problem in the game, the archers are very powerful – and you can get rid of them by just placing the fire”, Tobias tells me. “And all of a sudden a super hard quest can get super easy if you get the right idea”.
That design philosophy of exploration seems to encompass the whole game. Tobias describes an early mission that pits you against two extremely hard enemies in order to rescue a nobleman, which usually leads to a frustrating fight where the player gets their ass kicked and dies. However, one possible option is to wait till nightfall and sneak into the camp, rescuing the captive while his kidnappers are sleeping. “The point of Kingdom Come is that we want to motivate you to invest brain work and logical steps – try it, go for it, fail, lose”, he tells me.
The open-ended approach to gameplay is not the only thing that surprised me in Kingdom Come: the game’s soundtrack is also really, really good. Music as we know it actually originated in the Renaissance – during medieval times, the only recorded music was monophonic chanting, composed of single melodic lines used in the services of the Roman Catholic Church. Only by the XV century did the famous Gregorian Chant gave way to the polyphonic sheets we know today, which thanks to the invention of the printing press and the patronage of the Catholic Church, quickly spread throughout the western world.
I asked Tobias about how they tackled the soundtrack, including the use of period-accurate instruments in certain sections. “For the cutscenes, we recorded one and a half hours of symphonic orchestra”, he says, referencing the use of the Czech Philharmonic in Dvorak’s Hall of Prague’s Rudolfinum for the recording sessions. “We have a composer on the team, a sound engineer, and a sound programmer, and those three guys are interpreting the style.”
“They came up with [the dynamic soundtrack]: when you are in a timeless place like a forest, for example, they try to compose a song that somehow seems timeless and can’t be used anywhere else. The monastery is a mystical place, kind of, and there’s no music at all until the monks start to sing. Then you hear it all of a sudden, everywhere in the monastery, because of the echos. And when you get into a fistfight, the whole thing reminds you a little bit of pub and drinking, so it’s a little bit faster – they wanted to express all that in the music.”
Music composer Jan Valta plays the violin himself on the main menu, and the dramatic opening cinematic that depicts the village raid is underscored by a curious non-period accurate timbre: the guitar. “The guitar is definitely not an instrument from the medieval times, but it was perfect for [the opening] cutscene, mood of melancholy and so on”, Tobias says. Like with gameplay, Warhorse feels comfortable in stepping away from realism a bit if it will service the experience positively.
That dedication to provide an immersive and entertaining experience is what ultimately raises Kingdom Come: Deliverance above the fold, and its game world has a Bethesda-like vibe that is not easy to achieve. I’m quite surprised with what Warhorse accomplished so far, and I certainly didn’t expect to see such high production values when I entered Hever Castle that morning. By the time I left the medieval grounds, however, I was completely sold on the experience. Come February, I look forward to visiting Bohemia again.
Kingdom Come: Deliverance is out February 13, 2018, for the PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.