The mean streets of 1403 are serious business.
Between The Elder Scrolls, The Witcher and Dragon Age it's been a good decade or so for sword-and-sorcery RPGs. Many other games in this sort of vein have been spawned, but none are quite like Warhorse Studios' Kingdom Come: Deliverance - a new medieval RPG that values realism over almost all else with the lofty aim of creating a real-world accurate recreation of life in 1403.
"What we're trying to create is a little bit different to most of the other games that are cool right now," Warhorse's Tobias Stolz-Zwilling explains as he takes me on a quick horse ride through some of Kingdom Come's world. "I'm not saying that ours isn't cool, but what I mean is that ours is a little bit slower in terms of the stuff that you can do in the game."
"We kinda do what we think is cool and what our fans think is cool, not what the market tells us is cool."
Kingdom Come: Deliverance is more deliberate and aiming to be a more honest representation of the sort of choice many fantasy RPGs try to offer up. Stolz-Zwilling says it's "less of a button mash, slash, smash RPG" and more about the nuance. "You can talk a lot, you can investigate a lot. It's about the story, and about something that really happened."
While the story of a farmer boy who ends up in the service of a noble sounds like the sort of thing that kicks off just about any fantasy epic, it's around there that Kingdom Come draws the line short of becoming Tolkein-like. There won't be any dragons or wizards - there won't even be a 'chosen one' elevation of social status.
"At the beginning of the game he's a weak guy, and by the end of the game he's still kind of a weak guy," Tobias jokes. "But you will level up your finger skills through your playing. You're never going to become a king or a ruler or something like that - instead it's about really immersive storytelling that tries to show you for real how the medieval ages looked in the year 1403."
Because of this approach, Kingdom Come: Deliverance wasn't an easy project to get off the ground. As Tobias undertakes a quest to track down the bandits responsible for causing a bloody mess of dead people and horses on a dirt path, he explains how publishers and financiers would give the project a look over but ultimately decide to pass on multiple occasions. "They'd say there's no real market for that, and Facebook games are cooler than this and so on," he laughs. Ultimately, Warhorse had the last laugh.
Kingdom Come: Deliverance is one of those early video game kickstarter success stories, eventually gathering £1.1 million in funding, over three times what the studio asked for.
"It was also really market research," Tobias explains. "For us it was sink or swim - if we failed, we wouldn't be sitting here today, but it didn't, and that was the indicator that there was a market and that people wanted this game."
The big challenge then was to actually make the game - and to find a balance between the hyper-realistic depiction of the European medieval age with making a video game that's actually fun to play.
We see a lot of video games set in historic settings, and in the last few months we've had impressive representations of wildly different eras in the likes of Assassin's Creed Origins and Call of Duty World War 2, but none seem quite as dedicated to that cause as Kingdom Come. Part of that is down to that fleet of kickstarter backers, the basis for the game's heavily invested and vocal community who Warhorse now see as development collaborators.
"If we have a trailer or release a new picture or whatever, they're like... 'You morons! This kind of chicken wouldn't exist in the year 1403 because...' or 'Your carrots are too orange, they were yellow back then' and so on and so forth," Tobias grins. "They're really, really nitpicking, but that's actually a good thing - they're so behind the project, and even though it sounds cheesy it really is like we're creating it together. That's why we've released five alpha versions - we're always gathering feedback."
So involved are the community that one major feature of Kingdom Come: Deliverance was actually directly inspired by them - the quick-save feature. Unable to decide if quick save should be in the game at all or not, some fans suggested that for a game developed in the Czech Republic it'd feel particularly appropriate if saving the game happened in a pub. Suddenly, booze was the answer - because of course it was.
"We came up with a liquor where every time that you quick save you have to drink that liquor. It's an item in your pocket and if you want to save you need to have this item. If you overdo the quicksaving, you get drunk and you get sick. We don't want you abusing the quicksave button in front of every chest or whenever you have to pick a lock or something."
And thus, in a strangely poetic twist, a highly realistic video game has booze as a method of saving progress when for most of us - let's be honest - it's more likely to delete it. Regular saves and auto saves are still included, though the quick save option is tied to alcohol - which has a whole sub-system of its own.
Kingdom Come: Deliverance is packed with Skyrim-like character progression, where only the skills you use will level up and grow, eventually allowing you to pick up perks in those categories. Every type of weapon has its own skill tree as do the links of alchemy - and yes, drinking is a skill all its own, a quirky but charming addition that has more of a gameplay impact than you'd think.
Your drinking stat helps you when you might have to use your speech skill to talk to people in a bar and will help you to resist intoxication and the associated negative debuffs from going at it a little hard. Which, yeah, sounds pretty realistic to me. I wish my drinking stat were as good now as it was when I was at uni.
Those sorts of stats are more important than many other games thanks to Kingdom Come's focus on realism, too. Fighting is a big part of it, of course, but you'll still go down more easily than in most RPGs and often the better path might be to talk your way through things or attempt a bit of subterfuge. I'm talked through a quest where you could sneak towards your objective, steal somebody's identity to get to where you need to be or just run in with sword swinging.
All are equally viable options, though Kingdom Come aims to make the slower, more contemplative approach more appealing - something many other games wouldn't attempt in this style. The world reacts to your choices, too, so if you storm into a place and kill everyone there'll be a dent both to your reputation and to the world itself. If you steal vital resources you might find their price rises on the open market as demand outpaces stock - that sort of thing.
Much of Kingdom Come: Deliverance seems refreshingly interesting and different - and though at a glance one might easily think of The Witcher or The Elder Scrolls in comparison, the game quickly stakes a claim in very different territory indeed, and it'll be interesting to see how it gets on when it launches in the new year - particularly given that despite having a very PC-feeling flavor it's also coming to PS4 and Xbox One.
"We kinda do what we think is cool and what our fans think is cool, not what the market tells us is cool," Tobias says by way of summary. "That's the Warhorse Studios way."