If you saw my article from last week, you know that I’ve been spending my time since then playing Crusader Kings III from Paradox Development Studios. While I am a fan of Paradox games overall, I have yet to play any of their games on release aside from this one. That said, from what I heard from other fans, especially fans of the Crusader Kings franchise, this release – while a bit rocky so far – has been leagues above the launch of the second installment.
See, I’m a fantasy nerd, but at heart, I’m a sci-fi girl. Due to that, I found myself falling in love with Stellaris in all its forms. Even after the massive update that overhauled several mechanics, I found a new respect for Paradox. After all, that’s a hard decision, and one they made for the right reasons and executed well. All of that said, even with the bumps I’ve seen so far in my personal time with the game, I’m absolutely stoked to see how far this installment will go and what forms it will take as expansions and DLCs come out. That’s not even mentioning the mods that are already flooding the internet, aided by Paradox’s own modding tools that help players mod the game.
I’m going to finish this preface by reiterating that this review is fresh after the launch of the game. There are bugs, and because there is a patch that is coming that will address many of them, I’m not going to count them too harshly against the final score.
With that out of the way, let’s break down the various criteria I’ll be judging this game on.
It should be noted that I currently am stuck on a kind of crappy All-In-One desktop from Dell. Not that Dell makes a bad product, but this is a hand-me-down. It has an Intel UHD Graphics 630 card, and if you check the minimum requirements for the game, you’ll notice that this doesn’t meet it. Fortunately, I meet the other two requirements, and the game seems to run okay anyway on the lowest settings.
To be honest, the graphics could have been mostly the same as what we saw in Crusader Kings II and I’d still be enjoying the gameplay, but I did appreciate the massive upgrade in that regard. Even with my bad graphics card, I could see the detail they put into it, making me wish I had a better card to enjoy a more crisp experience with the game. I did find it lagging occasionally, but aside from a mild amount of crashes, the game ran well enough for me to get in plenty of time and not find myself frustrated. After all, I should be happy it runs at all. It’s also worth noting that this computer also plays Stellaris fine, and it doesn’t have the right graphics card for it, either.
One of the talking points has been the vast amount of characters in the game. 20,000 or so at any given time, in fact. Not all of those characters have the same powers, some being unlanded or ‘lowborn’ but that can change with every day, month, and year that passes by. I’ll get to that more when I talk about gameplay, but the big point here is that all of these characters actually have genetics, different looks, levels of education, and traits that power their behavior.
Wish you could change the look of your ruler? You can! It’s a screen called Barbershop. You can change the hair color, style, beard, clothes, even add a crown. You can only change your ruler, spouse/s, and children this way. A character creator will be coming for free in a future update at an unspecified time.
All in all, I didn’t focus much on the graphics but enjoyed the incredible variety, diversity, and scrupulous levels of detail that went into creating the map and character models in this installment.
There is no voice acting of any kind, but the soundtrack and sound effects are incredible. They’re nearly perfect. I didn’t really find myself wishing there was more music because I barely noticed any of the tracks repeating.
Many of the tracks are ambient but some of them have vocals that remind me of the Skyrim soundtrack, somewhat. They’re immersive, too, sounding like they’re from that early-to-late medieval time period and always fitting the mood for what is currently happening. The battle music that plays when you’re at war is full of drums and inspires thoughts of grand battlefield speeches.
There isn’t too much to say about the audio, as it still isn’t the focus of the game, but it’s clear to me that the game wouldn’t be the same without the soundtrack they no doubt put a lot of effort into.
The real meat and potatoes of the game, obviously, the gameplay is not exactly intuitive for someone new to the franchise, but they do well in offering suggestions constantly and showing tooltips for just about everything you can scroll over that is highlighted. When you start a new game, you have a choice of rulers that are suggested to start with in either 867 or 1066. These are the two starting years of the game, but in each you can actually choose any ruler you want that is in the game.
Do you want to start as a vassal to someone else and work your way up to usurping your liege’s titles? Do you want to start as an independent ruler of a small kingdom like I did and work to unite your nearest empire? The choices are yours and you can choose to roleplay the game however you like. It is a strategy game, first and foremost, but some have been calling it a medieval drama simulator which I also find a fitting category to classify the game under.
I’m a fan of redemption stories, comebacks, and drama, so I had a lot of fun with this aspect of the game. I’m not the best with strategy, myself, but find myself having not too hard of a time figuring things out as I go on. There are several speed settings, letting you play out the game day by day in important situations or skipping over whole months in seconds. The scale of the game, in this regard, is designed for the long game. You’re not just playing as your ruler, you’re thinking about the future of your lineage, where your titles are going to end up when your ruler dies, and fostering relationships and alliances so that you have an easier time making big moves.
For instance, in my playthrough, which is still going, I started as a Petty King in Ireland. It took me about a hundred years to really get my bearings and figure things out to a degree that allowed me to really start making moves, but in the time that my first ruler was alive I managed to unite all of Ireland under my rule. This proved fairly easy, and I felt accomplished enough, but of course Scotland, Wales, and England were on my to-do list.
My second ruler, a High Queen by the name of Aibilin mac Murchad, was an impressive diplomat and eventually a matriarch of her family, boasting over 16 children. Using strategic marriages, she managed to get her heir to inherit both the Kingdom of Ireland and Scotland. With that completed, the next ruler was able to use their new military power and wealth to get a claimant who had a claim to the Kingdom of Wales. A short war was all it took to integrate them into my growing Kingdom, with England on the horizon.
Or so I thought. There were many bumps in the road on the way to that goal. First of all, they had a bigger military. I needed allies. Not only that, but an unexpected ruler death left my Kingdom in shards. My dynasty, which was already gaining an impressive amount of renown at this point, still held control of said shards, but my ruler was left with far less than I had intended thanks to a lack of planning. A mistake I made and learned from. I bounced back from this over time and reunited all the pieces, deciding I wouldn’t waste anymore time in conquering England next.
Piece by piece, county by county, I began to conquer England. Eventually, I was able to get a technological innovation that allowed me to go after multiple claims in a war at once, and had a much easier time. After over 200 years, I had done it. I made the Empire of Britannia. In the next 100 years I would watch my vassals fight each other for more land, including the three Kings that now answered to my ruler directly.
Every once in a while, I’d zoom out to the paper map overview and see the state of the other empires. As expected, the Holy Roman Empire (HRE for short) and the Byzantine Empire boasted impressive sizes and militaries. At one point, due to war after war, the HRE was short on military in a time where my ruler was married to someone who had a claim on the whole Empire. I fought them, won with my superior military and allies, and for about ten years my spouse held the title of Empress. She was eventually overthrown by her vassals who weren’t happy with the situation before I could finagle my way into inheriting the titles.
Not surprisingly, the Persian Empire was also very big, and eventually was renamed in my game after growing bigger to encompass a few different cultures. The AI can change anything about their titles and holdings, including changing religions, the names of the titles or counties, etc.
Recently, after 400 years in game, I fought my second crusade as a defender. I lost the first one after creating a new branch of Christianity that I called Neo-Paganism. It allowed women to rule equally with men, equalized the outlook of men and women performing adultery (women were previously criminals for the act while men were just shunned) and allowed witchcraft and homosexuality. While we’re at it, characters can be asexual, bisexual, gay, lesbian, etc. I do wish there was trans representation as is proven by history, but I can at least hope that that will eventually be added in later on.
That said, the Pope didn’t like my new religion, and wanted England, and so he launched a Crusade against me. I lost the first one and lost England, my ruler dying just as the war ended. My new ruler at that point was merely a child thanks to my discovery of Ultimogeniture (meaning the youngest child inherits all titles). So he kept Britannia, but then was overthrown shortly after by his vassals. This relegated him to being a mere Duke under the King of Ireland, the Empress of Britannia shortly after being overthrown herself.
With all this chaos, he grew into a fine young man, and at 16 negotiated alliances big enough to pull off taking back his claims on the titles over England and Britannia. By 18, he accomplished the feat, and was an Emperor again. He ruled well for 30 more years, and at 46 fought his first Crusade. Thanks to his previous allies and more allies gained over the years, including the ability to call on House and Dynasty members (my Dynasty boasting over 700 living members at the time), he won. He defended his Empire from over 80 thousand soldiers with an accumulated 150 thousand. The hardest part of defending against the Pope is that, true to life, the Pope has an insane amount of wealth with which to hire mercenaries.
Shortly after accomplishing this, I elected to act on my claim to the Kingdom of France, betraying one of my biggest allies and divying out a majority of my new holdings to family. That’s the point I’ve made it to in about a week. I skipped a lot of details in there, so let’s talk about some of the events.
The events are a big part of the game. They’re randomly generated and some of them are relevant to the lifestyle focus you choose for your ruler. You can change this focus every 5 years, but it is usually best to go with whatever their education boosts. Every child can get a significant boost to their education based on who teaches them in their education focus, and gets more experience in their lifestyle focus due to this.
There are many perks, each lifestyle holding 3 trees of perks with a final trait unlock at the end of each. There are 5 lifestyles to choose from, all important aspects of the game.
Overall, I’ve found the events to be relatively entertaining. They can be repetitive, and some of them don’t seem to make that much sense, in my opinion. For instance, my one ruler who was keen on learning and studying kept getting one event that involved acquiring a “glass stone” with which to see better. The game did not take into account that I already had one of these when it decided to prompt an event to tell me my ruler “needed” another one.
This was not the only issue I had with events. Some of the time, the events, even ones I’d already seen in previous rulers, would be bugged. Below is an example of what I mean.
On the other hand, some of them ended with me feeling like I was really my ruler, experiencing something realistic and true to them. My first ruler, in an attempt to woo his wife and have her become his soulmate, covered for her at a feast one time when she farted loud enough for everyone to hear. The High Queen, Aibilin, struggled with a cheating husband. Not only did he cheat, but he was caught cheating multiple times, once coming to bed with Lover’s Pox, but had the audacity to later say when I confronted him about cheating later that he would never cheat on me. Almost unfortunately true to life, though, knowing men (I kid, mostly).
I haven’t had too many bugs, but I did experience some frustrations in general during my playthrough. There is an encyclopedia of knowledge built in to the game, tooltips abound, and suggestions for every step of the game. Even with all of this, I struggled with some aspects of the game due to their unintuitive nature. This is no surprise, being such an expansive game with such depth. As players of grand strategy games will know, this can be a blessing and a curse.
After enough time spent figuring things out, however, you learn to just tune out the stuff that doesn’t matter as much and focus on the things that are important to your goals.
Replayability, Originality, and other notes
Replayability scores well here. Not only are there numerous rulers to start with, there are several expansions already planned, big mods on the horizon, and free patches and updates on the way. Between all of this, you could play this game for weeks at a time, take a break, come back to updates and expansions, and play for a few more weeks. Strategy fans are already playing it, especially with Xbox Game Pass offering an affordable way to try it out for a month.
The originality is pretty significant. Many other strategy games have this kind of concept but the mechanics all differ greatly between franchises. This is the only game of this flavor I’ve played that hits that certain itch I have when it comes to strategy games. Breeding a good bloodline, playing the long game, using subterfuge and underhanded tactics to accomplish various goals, all of these are right up my alley. Add in all the drama and it really is pushing the bounds of what these games have had as a standard for the past 20 years.
With all the above criteria considered, I’m going to give this game a final
It really is impressive just how good this game is, even for all its faults. Even when I had complaints, I couldn’t stop thinking about how to get out of the hard spots and figure my way out of problems. It presents challenges, unique situations, and offers you a vast array of choices in how to deal with them all. People are always working against you one way or another, and you really have to stay on your toes. As was the life of a ruler in medieval times.