Crusader Kings III Review31 Aug 2020 1
Crusader Kings III Review
Released 01 Sep 2020
Part medieval grand strategy, part RPG, and part dynastic murder simulator, Crusader Kings II was something of a surprise hit when it arrived way back in 2012. Its success would help catapult Paradox Interactive from obscure strategy games studio into a mainstream publisher and developer.
Now, some eight years later, “an heir is born”. Thankfully, Crusader Kings III delivers by doubling down on the thing that made its predecessor so beloved: its ability to create interesting stories through the decisions it forces you to make and the interplay of its mechanics.
Game of Thrones-style drama and intrigue are everywhere as you resolve inheritance woes, appease disgruntled vassals and capricious overlords, or contend with unfortunate accidents (or “accidents”) of fate. It’s a powerful combination that brings together the macro-level, generational concerns of a grand strategy game with the micro-level family politics of managing a feudal domain.
Unlike in most historical strategy games, Crusader Kings puts you in charge of a dynasty, not a nation-state or government. You move from generation to generation, passing down to your titles and taking control of your primary heir when you die. What this means is that your destiny is not tied to a single patch of soil, but to a family that will, ideally, flourish and grow across space and time.
Players are not limited to the geographic area where they begin, or even to the titles they initially hold. In my first playthrough, I began as a petty king in Ireland and ended half a world away, emperor of a massive crusader state based out of Jerusalem, with far-flung relatives sitting on thrones large and small from the windswept Scottish Highlands to the Hindu Kush. My Irish possessions had long since passed to another branch of my family, before being seized by another dynasty through schemes and intrigue.
The world is divided into a nesting doll of titles– baronies within each county, counties within each duchy, duchies within each kingdom, and kingdoms within each empire. Each rung in the hierarchy owes fealty, usually in the form of gold and levies, to the liege above them and receives them from the vassals below. It’s a world of vast feudal (and other) pyramids, every plot of land controlled by an individual character scheming to get to the top of the social ladder (or at least carve out their own niche in it).
Poke around the map at any point during your playthrough and you will find little fractal snowflakes of drama and intrigue playing out across the map. A civil war here, a succession crisis there. Assassinations! Affairs! All at once and everywhere. This is the magic of Crusader Kings and no small part of its success.
Welcome to Tutorial Island
Probably the most drastic change from the previous game is the concerted push Paradox has made this time around to make the game more accessible to new players. Crusader Kings II was a lot of things, but easy to pick up was not one of them. After eight years of DLC, the game bloated with features buried in a fetid swamp of UI menus. With this new instalment, Paradox has taken some concrete steps to make the game less intimidating to a more mainstream audience.
Unlike its predecessor, the tutorial is much more thorough this time around. New players begin in the relative safety of Ireland in 1066, lord of a small, manageable domain. The tutorial is clear, concise, and comprehensive enough to give a new player their bearings. Importantly, though, while it holds your hand at the start, it leaves you relatively free to play around in Ireland's seclusion, learning firsthand the woes of early-game inheritance laws.
There is also just generally more transparency for the player. The new 'issues' tab at the top of the screen serves as, essentially, your own personal assistant, consolidating information that had previously been either scattered throughout a dozen different tooltip icons or hopelessly buried in menus. Centralizing that information into a single tab makes it much simpler for a directionless new player to figure out just what to do.
In this same spirit, council actions, such as fabricating claims or converting provinces, happen at a much more regular pace, with a ticker showing how much time the action will take to complete. This replaces the old system by which the player had to wait around for these actions to fire off, which was generally confusing for new players.
Similarly, instead of having to raise and move stacks of individual levies, the process has been streamlined, with the player selecting a rally point to muster all their forces. Boats, a particularly tedious feature of the last game, have been completely phased out. Now, armies pay an embark cost to sail across the sea. In lieu of adding naval combat, this was the right choice. The result is that combat is basically the same, without being so much of a headache.
This transparency and simplicity, however, have not come at the expense of depth. The fundamental pillars of the series have all been left largely the same. If anything, while the game is now easier to get into, CK2 veterans will likely find the game more difficult as gavelkind (now called 'Partition'), the notorious succession type that splits your domain between your heirs, must be endured for much longer, leading to more frequent fragmentation.
Write Your Own Dynastic Drama
Most importantly, the game’s core focus on using its procedural gameplay to create interesting stories has remained unchanged. In this, Crusader Kings III sticks to its roots, preserving the dynamism that made its predecessor’s world feel lived-in. Two key changes, however, prove to be game-changers.
The first is hooks – basically, leverage that one character holds over another. These can be either weak or strong, depending on the severity of the information known and allow you to greatly increase the chance that a character will accept a proposal or follow a command. This incentivizes you to dig up dirt on your rivals and to avoid allowing them to do the same to you.
Plots and subterfuge have always been a key part of the series but were previously quite stale. Now, with the addition of hooks, there is an entirely new layer to the intrigue mechanics that allows you to manipulate your way through the halls of power. They essentially form a new kind of currency, a social currency, to achieve your goals by other means.
The second big new addition is a newfound emphasis on roleplay. The new stress feature, which imposes a psychological cost for acting in opposition to your character’s traits, incentives the player to make difficult and interesting choices that might otherwise be suboptimal from a pure gameplay perspective. During a particularly difficult war, for instance, I chose to put my leader, who was both a once-in-a-century military genius and an absolute, sniveling coward, at the head of my army. The resulting stress of the campaign caused him to have a mental breakdown and lead to his early demise.
Branching lifestyle trees offer a sense of progress, making characters feel more competent as they age, as they accrue bonuses and abilities. Powerful legacy bonuses for your dynasty create the same feeling for your family, as you acquire heritable dynasty-wide benefits. Cadet houses, a long-requested feature, add a bit of flavor as your family tree splits into its various branches.
This focus on character is amplified by the new 3D character models. Gone are the handful of bland, ubiquitous portraits that made every child look like a clone. Now, the models and animations are defined by your character’s age and traits. The result is characters that have much more personality, so much so that you can often tell at a glance if someone is an honest warrior, a just king, or a conniving schemer. While the lack of a character creator at launch seems almost criminally negligent, this will almost certainly be added at some point down the line.
Room for Improvement
While Crusader Kings III is, overall, extremely polished, there were a few minor annoyances that cropped up. Some of the tool-tips and pop-up banners occasionally had a habit of getting in the way of each other. Bugs were few and far between, too. The only one I encountered after dozens of hours was a glitch that made certain characters in my court appear naked semi-permanently. It is, admittedly, a little distracting when your chancellor shows up to the council meeting with no pants.
There are far fewer map modes available, which is a bit disappointing. The particularly useful 'direct vassals' map mode has been scrapped, worked in instead to the base political map mode. And, somewhat shockingly, no ledger!
A more serious complaint can be raised about some features that were present in CK2 but have been dropped from this new instalment. Republics are not yet playable. Steeped hordes have little distinguishing features. Non-feudal societies do not yet have meaningfully different traits and features to distinguish them from their western counterparts. While there are currently three separate government types (feudal, clan, and tribal), only minor differences distinguish these groups.
The new religion and culture systems have worked in some of the discrete nuances of playing as a non-christen, non-feudal realm, but, at the moment, it can only take you so far. Doubtlessly, future DLC will flesh out these blank spots, but these are the kinds of grievances that will ruffle the feathers of those who already lambast the Paradox business model of long-term DLC support.
Despite these few grievances, Crusader Kings III is undoubtedly one of – if not the – best strategy releases of the past few years. By building on the Game of Thrones-style drama and intrigue that its predecessor excelled at, it makes for engrossing gameplay that combines the best of the grand strategy and RPG genres. With Paradox pushing hard to make CK3 much more accessible to an unfamiliar mainstream audience, there has never been a better time to take a leap and see why this series has inspired such a dedicated fanbase.
While it may not yet have all the bells and whistles of its predecessor, this is possibly the most polished a mainline Paradox title has ever been at launch.