What a year for fans of the Medieval era, first we got Mount and Blade Bannerlord after waiting for ages and now, Crusader Kings III has finally arrived. For those of you who haven’t heard of the Crusader Kings franchise before it’s a medieval sandbox dynasty simulator. That’s a mouthful but trust me when I say this, it’s not enough to explain the full depth and complexity that Crusader Kings has to offer. Allowing you to control a royal dynasty from the pages of history and carving out a legacy worthy of the history books, Crusader Kings presents an experience unlike any other.
AT A GLANCE
GENRE: RPG, Simulation, Strategy
DEVELOPER: Paradox Development Studio
PUBLISHER: Paradox Interactive
PLATFORMS: Windows PC(Reviewed), MAC OS X, SteamOS+Linux
RELEASE DATE: 2 Sep, 2020
FINAL SCORE: 9/10
While the first game was extremely bare-bones, Crusader Kings II is where the franchise really took off. With tons of expansions fleshing out the core mechanics and introducing new ways to control your gameplay, the second offering was a complex medieval simulator that offered almost limitless options to shape your dynasty. But there was something that Crusader Kings II lacked that prevented it from being appreciated by a wider audience, accessibility. From the UI to the complex mechanics that barely explained you what to do, Crusader Kings II was a steep hill to climb when it came to understanding the game. Even as a veteran of grand strategy games, it took me a good deal of time to finally begin to understand the various mechanics in the game.
Now you might be wondering why am I rambling on and on about an older game in a review about its sequel. The reason is it’s very important to understand the impact of accessibility and the improvements to almost every part of the game that the developers have made to make sure that Crusader Kings III is a welcoming experience for newcomers and veterans alike. They have managed to sacrifice minimal depth of gameplay in exchange for a more streamlined and enjoyable experience.
The king is dead, long live the king!
Crusader Kings III is as I just said, a medieval dynasty simulator. What this means is instead of controlling a singular character or a country, much like Paradox’s other offerings like Europa Universalis, Crusader Kings III gives you control over an entire dynasty. Although you do start off with controlling a member of that dynasty, it’s very important that you make sure that the rest of your dynasty is secured and in a good position. Because once your character dies, you will be playing as your heir and so on, as long as they are members of your dynasty. This means not only do you have to make sure your own character is gaining power and prestige, but you will also have to make sure so is your family, unless you plan on playing as an incompetent lunatic who will be overthrown by vassals the moment he takes the throne.
Of course, a royal dynasty is nothing without their lands and castles, and as such you will also be taking control over a County, Duchy, Kingdom, or an entire Empire. You will be able to create alliances, conquer lands through warfare, or shrewd political marriages.
Starting up Crusader Kings III for the first time, the most visible change are the character models. Gone are the often downright hideous 2d portraits, replaced with fully 3d characters that move around and pose in a way that befits their personality. The UI has also been completely redesigned to be clean, and more organized while at the same time provide more information thanks to extended tooltips. There’s still a definite learning curve to getting used to the UI, but it’s no longer a steep 90 degree climb that required you to do back-flips while trying to understand how to cancel your plans of murdering your drunk brother.
The map has also been overhauled and subtle visual cues to help you understand the extent of your domain. Scrolling out on the map treats you to a gorgeous map that displays the various Kingdoms with a hand drawn visual design. The filters from CK II also return and allow you to see the map on basis of religion, culture, controlling dynasty as well de jure duchies, kingdoms and empires. It’s important to know your way around the map filters because they will be vital if you want to expand your lands without revolts, heresies and challengers popping up the moment you conquer a region.
Unless you are a Crusader Kings II veteran or a masochist, I highly recommend going through the tutorial to get a feel of the game. This is a highly complex game that despite all of the streamlined features still presents an intimidating gameplay experience. The tutorial puts you in control of Petty King Murchad of Munster. Over the course of the tutorial, you will learn the basics of marriage, alliances, your council and in general, get a small taste of what Crusader Kings III has to offer. After the first few minutes of a limited control, you are then free to do whatever you want. You can be a chivalrous King who conquers his opponents in combat and warfare, you can be a pious ruler who is revered and respected by his peers or you can be a seductive rascal who plants his seeds everywhere he goes. Crusader Kings III doesn’t judge you, instead, it encourages you to excel at your lifestyle choices with a chain of random events that fit your playstyle.
Once you decide to have the full experience, you can literally play as any landed ruler on the map, regardless of their culture, religion or location. If they can be selected on the map, they can be played as. You are also able to select at which point of history you want to play in by selecting the appropriate date from the starting screen. You can further customize different options that you will modify the gameplay experience as well, but if you want to get achievements, you will have to use ironman mode which will select a more realistic rule-set and force save every time you quit.
In terms of overall mechanics that are present, Crusader Kings III doesn’t introduce a lot of radical changes or additions, sticking to improving the core mechanics and minor additions. That’s not a problem at all, because Crusader Kings II already had a lot to offer, and was almost overwhelming in terms of content when taking into consideration all the stuff that was added with the DLCs. Crusader Kings III implements most of the mechanics and regions introduced with the DLC packs, and is packed with things to do.
Running a kingdom and managing your dynasty isn’t an easy thing to do, and you will have to create alliances, manage your domain with the help of your council as well as keep threats at bay, both internal and external. Marriages are very important to ensure that you have allies you can count on, as well as a spouse who can augment your stats. But most importantly, marriages mean children and the continuation of your dynasty. You can choose a spouse with the right traits that match your own or at least compliment your playstyle, and some of these traits, called congenital can be passed on to your offspring as well. By selectively breeding and creating a superior bloodline you can ensure that your dynasty will stand the test of time. Your dynasty also levels up with the overall prestige all of your dynasty members have and these have subtle influences on the gameplay.
The council also plays a big part in managing your kingdom, and you will have to elect the appropriate candidates to make sure your realm is prospering. Your council members help you in collecting tax, training your knights and troops, fabricating claims, diplomacy and finding out schemes. Of course, their effectiveness on how they do their duties depends on their stats and their liking of yours. Often times the best candidate is not someone with the overall best talent for that job but an angry vassal who wants a seat on the council. Having a disloyal council can also backfire on you, since they can vote against you, and in case of the spymaster, plot against you instead of helping you out.
Lifestyle choices also return and have now been heavily expanded to be an RPGesque perks system. There’s a lot of options to customize how your character lives their virtual lives, from a Martial focus to Learning. Every month you gain a limited amount XP as well as passive perks. Sometimes thematic events may also occur that give you the chance to earn bonus XP. Once you have accumulated experience, you can unlock a perk to gain some benefits like increased Infantry damage, reduced casus belli prestige costs, or the ability to seduce and befriend other characters.
It’s important to choose the correct lifestyle to get the most enjoyment out of your playtime, but even if you make a mistake or want to experiment, you can change your focus every 5 years. Unless you get slain on the battlefield for being a poor duelist, because you chose to focus on seducing characters and not stabbing them.
Every character regardless of being playable or not has a personality that will reflect how they tackle certain decisions. A cowardly vassal can be intimated into staying loyal, while a more brave and morally upright vassal will probably revolt if you are a tyrant. Speaking of being a tyrant, there’s now something called dread. Dread increases every time you do something tyrannical in the eyes of your court, and will allow you to rule with an iron fist instead of a loving hand. So being a maniac who chops off heads if they even look at you the wrong way finally pays off.
Decisions also return such as hosting a feast or going on a religious journey, and so does intrigue, where you can scheme to befriend other characters or have them murdered. If you are playing as a county or duke, you can also scheme against your liege to further your goals.
More on the capability of customisation and personal touch, Crusader Kings III allows you to dress up your character and family members, using the appropriately named barbershop option. Upon selecting the barbershop, you are given the option to change various aspects of their appearance, including clothes and hair color. If you’re a Crusader Kings II player and have played the Monarch’s Journey campaigns, then you will find your unlocked pieces of clothing in the barbershop.
Characters also feel more lifelike thanks to random events that can occur because of their personality. In the previous game, you could just directly control how members of your dynasty grew up with very minimal events that popped up early on. Now, your relatives can end up doing random acts without your intervention. Once an event chain started where I taught my son to be a good duelist and he went on dueling all my knights and maiming them. I had to step in and defeat my own child in a duel so that he would stop murdering my best soldiers.
Characters also get sick or gain new traits on their own, and their models also change to reflect this. A sickly character can be seen coughing or with dark circles on their eyes, a scheming character can be seen rubbing their hands together while a brave and proud character holds their heads high. These subtle improvements make Crusader Kings III feel more alive.
Religion as well as Culture has also been overhauled. Each region on the map has its own culture and belongs to a culture group, and people from different cultures like each other less. The technology system from Crusader Kings II has been reworked. Now the head of the culture can be fascinated with certain innovations, causing it to be discovered at a faster rate. You don’t have a direct hand in which technology gets discovered first unless you are the culture head. Technologies are locked to eras, and certain cultures have special technologies that are only limited to them.
Religions are governed by certain doctrines and tenets. These determine what is seen as a sin or pious in that religion. Doing pious actions will let you gain piety, causing your bishop to endorse you, and can get you favor with the head of your religion. You can become the head of your own religion and reform them to have different rules. The religion you are a part of has a huge impact on your gameplay as well, for example gaining piety will allow you to ask for claims, monetary favors and other holy favors from the religious head. Lose too much piety however and you will find that you will lose the backing of your religious holdings, and might incur the wrath of more pious neighbors.
Gameplay is also affected in other ways by your religion and culture. Playing as a female ruler in a religion or culture that is more patriarchal in nature will result in your vassals not taking you seriously and trying to usurp your throne. Similarly, homosexuality or multiple marriages might be a taboo in some religions but ignored in others.
So overall when it comes to the actual roleplaying aspect of the game, there’s a ton of options to shape how your character will be. The sheer amount of opportunities and options when it comes to guiding your medieval character’s life is insane. The nonlinear nature of the narrative and your own hand in guiding the destiny of your character and his dynasty means that every playthrough is different and every story feels personal.
Si vis pacem, para bellum
Being able to live your own virtual fantasy life is all fine and dandy but it’s important that you have enough land to support your growing dynasty. Having more lands means more vassals, prestige, and gold. For your dynasty to even make a small mark in history, you will need to lead them to glory by expanding your lands and gaining new titles.
In order to declare war, you need a valid casus beli. A casus beli can be obtained if you have a legal claim to someone else’s land. You can get a valid claim by being a claimant to that title or have someone in your court who has a claim to that title. You can also declare war on someone to subjugate them if you are their de jure liege. You can just have your bishop fabricate a claim to their titles if none of this is an option.
Of course you can easily be on the receiving end of all these things as well, so it’s important to make sure you have a good standing army and allies you can count on. Levies form the backbone of your army, and they are automatically reinforced based on buildings you have constructed, your marshal’s actions and your own martial capabilities. You can also create specialized man at arms regiments, similar to retinues from CK II. Your army also has Knights, who can turn the tide of battle based on their prowess. Allies can also be called in by spending prestige, although the decision of them joining the battles remains on them.
Once you have actually declared war, it’s a fairly straightforward process to do sieges and battles. You are conveniently able to raise all levies at a rallying point using a button that pops up every time you are at war. Once you have raised your army, you just select them and right click on a place on a map to move them. It takes time for them to move and if you don’t leave a portion of your army behind your lands are just as a liable to get besieged.
When you have enough war points, either by completely destroying the enemy army or holding enough settlements you can force your demands on your opponent. This goes both ways, so make sure you are not in the negative when at war.
Something I really liked was that the AI was active in declaring and avoiding wars, unlike the previous game where I would see suicidal kingdoms going up against an opponent with 10 times their power or passive AI that would not exploit the opportunity to take control of smaller realms.
Visuals and Audio
Crusader Kings III looks gorgeous, and most importantly it looks clean. The UI is well organized and information is always at your fingertips. There’s not really a lot of places to show off the visuals in the game but the map design and overall character design are really well done. The hand-drawn graphics that appeared in some of the event banners.
Each culture has their own unit design and subtle differences that distinguish them from other cultures. Combined with the different naming conventions and gameplay differences this ensures that every playthrough with a different culture feels fresh and unique.
On the audio side, the soundtrack is equally well done but I would have appreciated a more varied music for peaceful times. Although the music does change based on the context, most of the time you will just be hearing choir or whatever cultural music that is appropriate to the region you are playing. But the audio being dynamic means no more blood pumping music that feels out of sync when your realm is at peace for the last decade.
Something else that I would like to mention is that the game retains it’s support for player created mods. I have spent about half of my 400 hours in Crusader Kings II playing the wonderful mods that the talented community has created and I am excited to see what the community comes out with next and kudos to Paradox for not locking the modding community out.