Our prayers have been answered—Kingdom Come

A medieval sandbox RPG, Skyrim without the magic, the first HEMA inspired game combat system, it sounded too good to be true. I knew I had to give it a shot. Was it worth it? Hell, yes! It was all I hoped and more.

You don’t need me to tell you how good the graphics are, most games these days have amazing graphics so that almost goes without saying. And there’s little point me spoiling the story for you or getting too hung up on all the side-quests, fun as they are, so I’m going to spend most of my time discussing the combat system itself, its strengths and weaknesses.

I guess the first thing you realise about the combat system is the five directions you and your opponent can attack from, plus stabbing. Most games which have done something similar have had four directions with one of the four for stabbing so only really three, (up, left, right). Not too bad but here we have effectively, diagonal cuts from above (both left and right), diagonal cuts from below (both left and right), a vertical cut straight to the head as well as stabbing. It captures not just all the key lines of attack in actual fighting, but gives them to you in a martially sound way. See, especially in medieval combat, making your cuts and parries (or counter cuts) was almost always done on diagonals planes. It’s much more reliable in defence and biomechanically much stronger in attack, letting you redirect your energy or parry their counter yourself if need be. I get not everyone playing the game will think on why the cutting angles are diagonal, but they add a huge degree of realism over simple directions of up, left, and right. So yeah, nice touch.

As for attacking and defending, I can’t start really without spending some time talking about footwork. See, I was kind of annoyed to begin with when I realised the footwork was basically automatic. For an actual fighter, not being able to control your footwork minutely is like telling a chef they can’t control the heat when they’re cooking. But I get why they did it, and the more I’ve gotten used to it, the more I appreciate what they’ve done. What am I talking about? Well basically, when you get into a combat stance with an opponent, you both automatically edge towards just being in measure, so if one of you strikes, they will hit the opponent if they don’t block it or do something clever. It’s the most dangerous way of fighting, in my opinion, staying constantly in measure and though I get it’s probably fairly authentic to the martial philosophy of the German longsword tradition, which is totally fair given the game is set in the Holy Roman Empire, my inner Fiore and Swetnam still can’t help but squirm. Saying that, it makes for a brilliant gameplay mechanic. You can dodge back or to the sides if you time it right, and then counter attack, and it forces you to either dodge their blows or parry them effectively. And by locking you into being into measure, it makes figuring out their guard positions so much more important. So, I get it, it makes the combat a really balanced system overall and, ironically, in forcing you into measure but letting you jump out of it, I reckon it actually teaches you the value of timing and distance more so than games which are freeform.

So what about the fighting mechanic itself, you know blade on blade and all that? It’s bloody brilliant. Basically, if you want to be really defensive, then match whatever your opponent is doing, as in which angle he’s coming from, and then when you try to parry, you’ve got a better chance of succeeding and might even do an automatic riposte on him. It’s the game’s way of showing a master strike, which to me is cheating a bit, given they were much more complicated than just, if you parry really quickly you can hit them too, but they’re a cool video sequence to trigger and, to be honest, most combat anyway is down to managing distance, effective parry and riposte and the odd feint thrown in for good measure, so if the game focuses on that and gives the master strikes as a bonus for good technique, that’s probably going to teach the fundamentals more so than making them a unique special move you can unleash at will. My caveat to that is some of the actual master strikes are combo moves you can theoretically do if you attack enough and in the right way which also isn’t really a good way of thinking about them either, but again, they’re cool video sequences to trigger from playing the game well and most gamers are used to combo moves so they’ll feel rewarded for what seems fair to them. I don’t really have a problem with that.

Not surprisingly, actual blade combat takes longer than a paragraph to discuss, so let’s keep going. I really like how they figure out feinting and attacking from different directions. As far as I’m concerned, it captures the essence of what you’re trying to do. See, the whole point of feinting is controlling your opponent’s mind—it’s getting them to block one spot which opens them up somewhere else where you can then attack. And the game actually lets you do that. It lets you pretend to attack (or plan to attack) one direction that they then parry to, while you actually complete your attack at another spot. It’s not easy to pull off, in real life or in the game, but it’s great fun either way and yeah, it makes the game rather balanced not just in how to defend but in whether it’s better to be aggressive or defensive, because there’s no sure way to keep safe; against someone overly feint-happy, rushing them aggressively can keep them in check, but to an overly defensive person, you can feint your way to outthinking their guard and strike them anyway. It’s brilliant.

Another thing to touch on, before I get to the few flaws it has, is the relationship between armour and weapons. It’s no point hitting a fully plated knight with a longsword, it’s not going to do much, and for almost the first time in a game, they’ve got an amazingly balanced system to capture that. Basically, if someone’s relatively unarmoured, you might as well use something quicker like a sword, if they’re not though, you’d probably want to hit them with a mace, axe or poleaxe. The armour system is a bit complicated to figure out but, in a nutshell, it represents that core difference, plus the fact that some weapons are better at stabbing and some armour is weaker to stabs than cuts, though blunt force still has its role to play as well. It adds another level to combat besides just getting a hit in; there’s little point cutting into their steel breastplate with a sabre while they smash a mace down onto your helmet, while stabbing with the blunt tip of an axe isn’t going to be as effective as actually cutting with it. Most weapons can do most things, though you need to have some appreciation for what its strengths are, relative to the weaknesses of your opponent’s armour and plan accordingly. A really interesting balancing mechanic which, again, just adds so much depth to the game.

What are its flaws then? I’d say they come down to the sacrifices the game has had to make to balance an immersive HEMA experience with the mechanics and expectations of the gaming genre. To me, it all comes back to the limitations they’ve placed upon measure. See, they’ve basically locked you not just to staying in measure but to a linear perspective to your opponent as well. There are a few problems with this. To begin with, you can’t circle around your opponent to attack at their sides. The game automatically reconfigures their direction so they match you, which is actually fairly accurate for what people do naturally, but just because people naturally tend to reconfigure the centre doesn’t mean non-linear footwork can’t be really useful at times. Also, the whole point of polearms was that they gave you more reach so having an automatic distancing system where everyone is always in measure makes polearms largely pointless (as far as I can tell). Same goes for shields too unfortunately, to maintain the balance of the directional combat system, they keep making the shield be moved from one stupidly square on guard to another, all of which leave way too much exposed, and unnecessarily at that. The catch, I get, is that if you had the shield properly covering most of your lines, it would be incredibly OP in what is effectively a linear combat system game. In contrast, Mount & Blade, for example, let shields cover most of your front but because it had freeform footwork, you could get around them. This brings me to my biggest frustration actually: since the game locks you to a single opponent, and keeps both your footwork and the camera focused on and relative to them, once you’re fighting multiple people, it’s incredibly hard to defend yourself from them. You can swap opponents by moving the cursor but it’s easier said than done, and even by swapping who you lock onto, it still just refocuses on the second person instead of the first rather than letting you fluidly navigate between both of them. I can’t really see how Kingdom Come can every really match something like Mount & Blade in big battles, where fluidly managing measure and distance relative to multiple people is key. Nevertheless, for duals, Kingdom Come has certainly surpassed anything we’ve seen before, and they should be proud of their achievement.

All in all, an amazing game that has balanced so much. If you’re a gamer who wants to get the feel of real historical combat, this game is certainly for you. If you’re a historical fencer who wants a game to chill with but can’t stand most hack and slash games, then I think we’ve found your solution. Also, the horse riding is lots of fun. As a former horse-rider myself, I haven’t played a game that gives you as close an exciting feel to actual riding as this one. A welcomed surprise. Anyway, enjoy.

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