It has been almost seven years since the original release of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Many have chosen to mark the days that have passed with persistent pleas for Bethesda to make another open-world fantasy RPG epic.
The continuous cries of the series fanbase are amplified by the echo of the otherwise barren marketplace for such experiences. The rising cost of games coupled with the growing belief that single-player, narrative-driven experiences have limited earning potential means that many studios lack the desire or resources to make a game like The Elder Scrolls. Even incredible RPG titles like The Witcher 3 don’t quite offer the character building and exploration elements that makes The Elder Scrolls the beloved series that it is.
That’s part of the reason why so many eyes have turned to the recently released Kingdom Come: Deliverance, an open-world RPG epic made by newcomer Warhorse Studios on a relatively small $5 million budget. Upon first glance, RPG fans likely registered the sight of a savior riding in from the distance. As a first-person RPG with swords, bows, quests, horses, world exploration, and character building, Kingdom Come certainly looks like The Elder Scrolls sequel that we’ve been craving for years.
However, Kingdom Come is not an Elder Scrolls game. It’s a semi-realistic medieval RPG with mechanics that defy many of the genre’s modern conventions. The reactions from those players who possibly approached the game with expectations of an Elder Scrolls-like experience have prompted an interesting discussion about how accessible modern RPGs need to be.
To be clear, Kingdom Come has problems that go well beyond the merits of some of its design decisions. Its technical bugs are numerous and include everything from horses floating humorously above the ground to quests becoming impossible to complete because vital characters won’t even acknowledge you. The latter bugs are not quite as common, but their impact is amplified by the game’s limited save system that prevents you from easily creating a save point.
A PC mod addresses the saving issue and the developers are promising to improve the system themselves in an upcoming patch, but as it stands, it’s easy to imagine why an otherwise interested gamer might dismiss Kingdom Come over its technical issues. Even the relative inexperience of the developers and the comparatively small Kickstarter budget they had to work with only inspires so much forgiveness.
However, those bugs aren’t the only thing frustrating some of Kingdom Come‘s players. Some early impressions of the game from gaming media figures and general users have blasted Kingdom Come over its complex mechanics and the way it refuses to allow the player to just jump in and enjoy themselves. Kotaku says the game is “too much hassle for too little reward.” A well-received negative review of the game on Steam states that, “The devs are so obsessed with making the game ‘realistic’ that they forget to make it satisfying.” Polygon goes so far as to apply the most dreaded word of all when talking about a game of this kind: “boring.”
These criticisms and those like them aren’t spotlighted because they are somehow invalid but rather because each of them touches upon what is perhaps Kingdom Come’s most fascinating feature: the level of patience it demands from its players.
In Kingdom Come, you play a blacksmith’s son named Henry, who has spent his entire life in a small community in Bohemia sometime in the 1600s. Though he’s helped his father forge swords, he’s never really used one until a visiting lord mockingly asks him to demonstrate his skills. Henry’s lack of combat experience is nothing compared to his embarrassing life skills, though. He has very little experience socializing with anyone he hasn’t known most of his life. The less said about his reading skills, the better.
Events of a tragic – yet admittedly familiar – nature force Henry to leave his small town and enter the open world. Well…that’s not entirely accurate. It’s more accurate to say that this tragedy triggers the first events in a grand story that serves as the backdrop for Henry’s personal quest. But before players can even begin that quest, they have to go through the prologue.
It’s not unheard of for players to spend hours in the game’s glorified prologue before being given free rein. What makes that already daunting prospect all the more polarizing is the fact that Kingdom Come‘s prologue doesn’t really serve as a tutorial. It teaches you a few basic things, but by the time the game properly begins, you’re still useless at just about everything. Bandits with clubs can kill you as easily as heavily armored invaders, and both of them wander the same roads poor Henry does. You’re given no direction regarding how to properly acquire weapons, a horse, or how to earn enough money to earn the game’s vital save potions.
It gets worse. Even after you’ve acquired a weapon, you realize that you have absolutely no idea how to work the game’s complex position-based combat system. Your character wields a bow like he’s perpetually trapped in a hurricane. Your attempts to persuade anyone not to kill or rob you are almost always met with failure. All the while, you still can’t read a word from any of the in-game text that may otherwise help you improve your pedestrian skills. On top of all this, Kingdom Come makes very little effort to indicate what you’re doing wrong and how to fix it.
The absolute uselessness of Henry at the start of Kingdom Come borders on comical. For anyone who enters the game with dreams of finally setting out on another grand adventure of The Elder Scrolls variety, this is where those dreams will die. Kingdom Come not only withholds your gratification until you’ve built your character up a bit, but it locks it behind a complex series of minigames and mechanics that you must genuinely master before you can think of becoming a relatively capable adventurer.
This the quality that makes Kingdom Come: Deliverance one of the most welcome open-world RPGs of the last 15 years.
Whereas games like Fallout 4 and Skyrim are designed to be treated like resorts for players on a power fantasy trip, playing Kingdom Come is more like landing in a remote region of an entirely foreign country. You don’t know where you’re going, you don’t speak the language, the customs are a bit strange, and while not always outright hostile, the locals seemingly don’t give a damn about your good time.
There’s a reasonable argument to be made for the merits of both approaches (we’ve covered the virtues of instant gratification in RPGs before), but the one thing the latter offers which the former sometimes struggles with is a genuine sense of reward. When nothing is given to you, when you have to endure the many tribulations thrown in the way of your good time, and when failure becomes the basis of knowledge, you soon learn to appreciate something as simple as being able to exist without making a complete ass of yourself.
The best example of this is the game’s sometimes maligned combat system. The best way to learn Kingdom Come‘s combat system is to go to a friendly master sword fighter and train with him. That doesn’t mean boosting your stats and buying point bumps – those options only get you so far – but rather actually taking the time to practice combat. By doing so, you start to learn things like the value of positioning, getting rivals to drop their guard, and how to perform the perfect block and counter-attack. Some of these are skills you wouldn’t have been able to learn otherwise, but others are just subtleties in the system you may not have recognized in the heat of an actual battle. At the end of every training session, you feel like your character’s increased stats in combat represent your own increased combat system skills.
Because Kingdom Come emphasizes the value of building yourself up in this world through minor victories, it is able to successfully delay the arrival of the “god moment” for as long as possible. The god moment is the moment in other RPGs when your character has earned the best spells, the best gear, and all the perks in the game. It’s the point at which everything the developers have filled the world with feels fragile and arbitrary.
In Kingdom Come, your dozens of hours of effort translate to a victory little more ceremonious than the ability to stand your ground. You’re able to enter any town with the knowledge of which merchants have the best wares and the most coin in their pockets. You brew potions without fretting about when the wine is added or when to bring the pot to a boil because you’ve made them dozens of times before. You’re confident in your ability to beat the armed bandits that accost you on the road, but you’re aware that you will lose the instant that you think you can’t be defeated.
By doling out gratification only when the player has genuinely accomplished something rather than dropping you into a playground, Kingdom Come ensures that its most patient players receive a pay off on their time investment in a way that allows them to actually experience more of the game rather than become so powerful that there isn’t much game left to experience. Taking the time to master – or at least understand – the mechanics of the game becomes your passport to the brilliant pre-designed amusements spread across the game’s stunning countryside.
Indeed, Warhorse Studios has managed to create some of the most fascinating and involved quests the gaming world has seen since The Witcher 3. Some are traditionally epic (a highly-involved mission involving the infiltration of a monastery) and others offer simple fun (sneaking into a wine cellar to steal a good vintage for a drunken lord). Nearly all of them value the actual skills you’ve taken the time to learn. From simple features like perks opening up new dialogue options to more advanced concepts like missions breaking off into several directions based on the skills you choose to use and the microdecisions you make, Kingdom Come manages to tap into the very spirit of role-playing adventures.Kingdom Come‘s greatness scales with the efforts of the person who’s playing it.
That makes it all the more tragic that the game sometimes feels like a swan song to the patient RPG epic.
There are valid criticisms to be made about Bethesda’s decision to make the Fallout and Elder Scrolls series more accessible to a wider audience, but the company’s ability to produce noteworthy installments in this seemingly dying genre while appealing to enough players to make the games successful – and sustainable – is nothing short of miraculous.
Yet, try not to think too harshly of those Kingdom Come fans who subscribe to the belief that this game represents the kind of hardcore open-world RPG experience that a studio like Bethesda is supposedly “scared” to make. These gamers realize that, as a slow, grounded, sometimes unremarkable RPG that caters to the most patient of role players while still emphasizing modern-day production values, Kingdom Come is a niche title in a time and marketplace where it cannot afford to be niche.
If your response to that is that another studio can surely just crowdfund the budget required to make such an experience…well, you haven’t been paying attention to the historical wave of “shame on me” Kickstarter projects that have profited off the whims and wishes of a dedicated group of supporters desperate for a specific kind of experience.
It’s entirely possible that Kingdom Come’s emphasis on patient play, deep character building, and challenging mechanics will live on in other forms. We’ve seen a host of indie games value those exact concepts. Yet, it feels unlikely that we’ll be treated to many games that are so well-produced or technologically ambitious while emphasizing those same qualities. There are some who will say that shouldn’t matter, but after years without many such experiences to enjoy, there is something incredibly satisfying about playing a hardcore RPG that is able to pass as a modern AAA title.
Perhaps once the bugs are exterminated and some of the game’s questionable design decisions have been addressed, we’ll see more people turn to Kingdom Come and celebrate it for the game it is trying to be. Maybe some of its better ideas will even find their way into other larger titles with modern production values. But as a historical open-world RPG with a large script, full voice acting, beautiful visuals, and an emphasis on the value of a player’s patience, Kingdom Come: Deliverance often feels special for reasons that aren’t always inspiring.