It doesn't feel right to describe Kingdom Come: Deliverance as an RPG – at least not by modern standards. At first glance, you'd be forgiven for comparing it to the likes of Skyrim or The Witcher. It's a first person adventure set in a vast medieval world with swords, danger, and intrigue lurking around every corner.
But there are no dragons, there's no magic, and your hero Henry isn't the grand saviour of the world. He's just a blacksmith's son who gets embroiled in a war between kings because he grew up in the wrong place at the wrong time.
It would probably be more accurate to describe Kingdom Come: Deliverance as a simulation. You'll quite quickly realise that this isn't Skyrim when your first task is to go and pick up ale for your dad while he finishes off the local lord's sword.
That isn't the end to the mundane tasks, either. Developer WarHorse sticks rigidly to the realism script throughout the length of the adventure, and never really lets you off the leash. That's both the primary draw of Kingdom Come: Deliverance, and its biggest stumbling block, because while Kingdom Come: Deliverance isn't an RPG by the standards we've come to expect, it's actually the only true RPG out there right now in that you truly role experience every aspect of Henry's life – again, for better or worse.
Picture the scene: you're Henry, the lazy son of a blacksmith born in the quaint little Bohemian town of Skalitz. Bohemia is the region now known as Czech Republic, and during this period it was locked in a war with Hungary. It isn't long before the war reaches Skalitz, kicking off Henry's adventure. This takes you across the country, providing your services for a bunch of different lords as you strive to increase your social standing. Well, your real goal is to recover the sword you lost during the Skalitz incursion, but you won't be able to do that without a decent set of armour, a sword of your own, and a horse.
Seriously, don't get any funny ideas because the combat is very realistic - arguably to a fault. You automatically target a single opponent and can perform a stab to the head or chest, or a slash in a variety of different directions. You can also parry or block an opponents attack, and grapple with them if you, or they, get to close.
So positioning is important, as is reading your opponent's actions and exploiting them. As you master the combat, you'll learn to counter immediately after a parry, dodge an attack, and feint to catch them off guard. There's a number of different abilities that you can use in combat by the end.
And fighting a single opponent is usually quite fun, as you trade blows back and forth trying to find an opening to inflict a bit of damage. The problem is when you have to fight multiple opponents at the same time. Even as a master swordsman, you'll struggle, and that's as much down to realism as it is with the system itself. For a start, there isn't a clear way to change who you're targeting besides forcing the reticle away from your current opponent, and onto the next. By the time you've done that, you'll receive a near fatal barrage of blows.
If you're prepared, you might be able to sneak up and take out one of them with an arrow, but you're going to have to spend a ton of time with the bow to get good enough with your aim. There's no crosshair here, so you'll have to aim just like in real life.
But really there should be some crowd control options here, like punching an opponent in the face or kicking them where the sun don't shine to daze them. We get that Henry is an honourable guy, but honour be damned in life or death situations.
Then again, there is another solution: communication. If your tongue is as sharp as your sword, you can pretty much avoid most of the combat encounters in the game. There's a lot of different factors to this, like the quality of the clothes your wearing, Henry's general cleanliness, and how much sleep you've had, but if you play your cards (and the game!) right, you'll find you talk your way out of combat far more often than you draw your sword.
We weren't joking about your clothes or cleanliness either. These are just a couple of the game's sheer number of intricate systems. Seriously, you have to think of basically every aspect of Henry's life. When did he last bathe, sleep, and eat? Maybe wearing that peasant's hat won't help you persuade the lord to help you. Perhaps having one too many drinks the night before is the reason you're so sluggish in combat today. You can overeat, get hungover, pass out from exhaustion, get food poisoning, and a variety of other ailments. In many ways, Henry's biggest opponent is the world around him and, well, life itself, rather than a big bad boss.
Also, while doing things as mundane as eating and sleeping in a game might sound a bit dull to you, it usually has a positive effect on the gameplay. Sleeping recovers health, eating restores your stamina, and dressing nicely will improve your ability to communicate with nobles.
Perform an action and there's generally a skill tree attached to it, too. While you can't level up your ability to sleep, we were surprised to learn that the more we drank, the more Henry would be able to tolerate alchohol. If you take this even further, you might find Henry growing an intolerance for being sober, and having improved statistics while drunk.
And there are a bunch of different skill trees like this. Level them up enough and you can even unlock a perk that will enhance your abilities, often at the expense of another. For example, early on we made the decision to run slower but for longer periods, and as a result we nearly lost a race during a quest. It's often quite amusing how such simple decisions can have such a big impact later on in the experience.
Again, it's the sheer depth of the game's systems that will both draw and put you off in equal measure, depending on what you want to do in a game. After all, many of us play games for escapism, not to experience the mundanity of life.
To its credit though, at least it offers a pretty accurate depiction of life in the middle ages, so at the very least you might learn something. It's nice to visit castles as they would have appeared during the time in all their grandeur, rather than the ruins we see today. The same goes for churches, markets, and taverns. You can practically smell the wood, smoke, and ale as you wander around the various locations.
If you're a real stickler for detail, you can even take a visit to the codex and read up about almost everything you encounter within the game. These range from accounts of medieval churches, to attitudes towards witches, and even a day in the life of a priest. They're all very detailed and help enrich the world around you.
The tasks you perform during the main story are also so varied that you'll rarely find yourself doing the same thing twice. In our first few hours alone we'd bought ale for our father, had a fistfight with the local arsehole, and escaped the clutches of death in a terrifying horseback chase. Later on we patrolled the streets as a member of the city watch, delivered a drunken sermon in church to cover for a hungover priest, and even played detective, interrogating witnesses and following trails of blood to solve a murder.
This variety even stretches to the side quests, which are far more detailed than the "kill ten rats" of your typical RPG. We've taken drugs with witches in a forest glade at night, sang to an angry horse to sooth it as we rode it to its new owner, and set traps to catch missing birds.
As a result, there are fewer side quests than you might experience elsewhere, but each are lengthier and far more detailed, so you end up getting the same amount of content. It also helps that both the dialogue and cutscenes are surprisingly high in quality for a low budget game like this. So much so that we often found ourselves completely immersed in the experience, much like we were watching a movie or TV show.
However, what doesn't help immersion are the number of bugs at launch, the odd frame rate hiccup, and, most unforgivably, the ridiculously lengthy loading times. After the second time booting it up, we resigned ourselves to popping the kettle on every single time we loaded a game because otherwise we'd be watching the same opening cutscene dozens of times over.
We also encountered a number of bugs, which we suppose you can expect from an open world RPG of this level of ambition. Characters would sit on seats floating in the air, horses would get stuck jumping over a very small object, and we even encountered never ending dialogue loops that forced us to reload the game.
That wouldn't be so much of a problem if you could save anywhere, at any time, but that's not the case here. In fact, you can only manually save by sleeping in a bed that you own or rent, or by drinking an expensive alcoholic drink known as Saviour Schnapps. If you learn alchemy you can craft it using herbs dotted readily around the world, but you might not encounter an alchemy bench even 30 hours in so it's not a viable solution.
Thankfully, the game does autosave often during story beats, and you'll be glad to hear that it almost certainly will have right before a difficult combat encounter. But if you're just wandering around doing side quests for three hours then have a nasty run in with a bandit, you will lose that progress.
The positive of that is that your decisions do have a far greater impact than in a typical game, because you'll often lose hours of progress if you try and change them. To avoid that, you'll really have to consider how you approach each situation, and it can be very compelling.
Ultimately though, the system just feel too frustrating and archaic, and you'll often quit out in disgust during the incredibly long loading screen that follows a game over.
Loading times are dotted throughout the experience, too. Open your map, that's a loading screen. Talk to a character, that's a loading screen. Sometimes loading screens even crop up during conversations. There was this laughable moment where a character asked a question, a black screen popped up for 30 seconds, then Henry responded with a "yes". You can't make it up.
Kingdom Come: Deliverance is very difficult to score because it's more than just the sum of its parts, and the appeal will differ greatly by person. If you absolutely love simulators and really appreciate realism and the little details in games, then this will really grip you. But at the same time, many will find the game far too frustrating and unforgiving, both because of the intense focus on realism that doesn't always result in fun gameplay experiences, and the number of bugs and severe loading times. There's a compelling game here, but it needs a polished edge only a series of patches or a sequel can deliver. We can't wait for either.