The computer role-playing game (RPG) genre is practically synonymous with high fantasy settings inspired by the likes of J R R Tolkien and his literary successors. Genre-defining games such as BioWare's Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn (2000) and Bethesda's The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind (2002) are set in worlds replete with fantasy creatures and tropes: orcs, elves, dwarves, dragons, magic and a main character that turns out to be the chosen one.
BioWare's Dragon Age (2009) and CD Projekt Red's The Witcher 3 (2015) had settings inspired by George R R Martin and Andrzej Sapkowski's grittier and more mature takes on the fantasy fiction genre, and have often been described as more "realistic" – but only in the way that Game of Thrones is more realistic than The Lord of the Rings; that is to say, more visceral violence, bad language and political intrigue inspired by real-life conflicts such as the Wars of the Roses.
Kingdom Come: Deliverance is the latest RPG to claim the mantle of realism, but it is in a manner very different from the above. Gone are the dragons, magic and fictional geography, replaced by early 15th-century Bohemia, then part of the Holy Roman Empire.
Instead of being the chosen one or a powerful wizard or warrior, you play Henry, the illiterate son of a blacksmith who can barely use – much less afford – a sword. Henry’s initial concerns are more mundane than those of your typical RPG protagonist: getting enough sleep and food to stay alive, learning the basics of defending himself against those who would do him harm, and keeping clothing, armour and weapons functional and clean (much like in the real world, showing up somewhere covered in mud and smelling bad doesn’t do your social life any favours).
Czech developers Warhorse Studios' devotion to realism permeates every aspect of this medieval-life simulator. Locations, buildings, clothing, technology and weapons have all been crafted with the help of historians to be as close as possible to their 15th-century counterparts.
But it's not only the physical objects that are highly realistic. Medieval life didn't just look different but had social systems, beliefs and customs that may seem very alien today. Thankfully, there is a thorough in-game compendium that makes it easier to understand how it all fits together: relations between the different strata of society, the role of religion, how the economy works and how distant political events affect life in your little corner of the empire.
Many games purport to offer emergent gameplay but few manage to succeed so well in providing a sandbox in which you can approach quests and goals in so many ways.
You can create the sort of Henry you want through the choices that you make, moving through the story and the world as you see fit. Is Henry a skilled swordsman who prefers to solve problems through violence? Or does he prefer to rely on a smooth tongue to turn events to his favour? Is he honest and scrupulous, or greedy and not above breaking the law to get ahead? That's all left up to the player.
The level system means that you improve those skills you most use, so Henry very much becomes an embodiment of your play style. Pick a lot of locks and you will increase your lockpicking skills. Spend a lot of time fighting and your strength and weapons handling skills will improve. The possibilities are, in a very real sense, quite endless.
Players who do decide to engage in combat will find a system as concerned with realism as the rest of the game. Experts in historical European martial arts were involved in development, so you can forget about button-mashing your way to victory.
Kingdom Come looks incredible, especially on the Xbox One X, PS4 Pro and PCs with high-end graphics cards. Sound design is superb and the voice acting can be excellent at times, while not so great at others.
If this all sounds great so far, then be aware. The focus on realism could be a bit much for some – a friend complained that she plays games for the power fantasy they provide, not to feel like the powerless peasant in a world where death and disease lurk around every corner. There can be some buggy moments, although plenty of them have been addressed in a post-launch patch, with more fixes on the way – it's nothing game-breaking, but if you can't handle anything but the smoothest experience, then it might be wise to wait a little before buying Kingdom Come.
It is a decidedly adult game, with strong language, dark themes and realistic violence.
If you don't mind the odd bug or having to spend a few hours just to get to grips with how to be a barely functional human in the 15th century, Kingdom Come: Deliverance should provide around 50 hours or so of engaging, fun – and educational – gameplay.
Kingdom Come: Deliverance was released on February 13