Paradox Development Studios’ newest entry in the character-driven medieval strategy series has come out today. And, boy, is it ever good to be the king.
Crusader Kings III is a difficult game to describe succinctly. While a great deal of the game is about being a character, gameplay spans generations of rulers of your dynasty. Things like interpersonal disputes and interactions can have large administrative and strategic consequences. It’s possible to, through cunning and good marriages, come up from a lowly count to a great emperor in a generation or two. It’s also possible to be said emperor and be murdered by a scorned wife and have half of your realm rise up in revolt when your inbred son comes to power.
All of this takes place on a beautiful map that lovingly details terrain and kingdoms ranging from West Africa to Northern Europe, vast Russian steppes, the Middle East, and India and Tibet. Still images don’t really do the game justice—character models are fully 3d and are animated. These are vibrant and lively, reflecting their current lot in life at a glance. The level of detail is fantastic with banners fluttering from the parapets of castles or rivers lazily babbling around villages when zoomed in. Zooming out reveals the colors of the different realms before finally yielding to a faux-parchment map complete with fantastical beasts drawn in the water and margins.
I had originally planned to hold off in comparing the game to its predecessor so early on in the review but there’s an important difference between the two games that explains a lot about the kind of experience Crusader Kings III wants to be. The previous title originally launched with only feudal Christian lords as playable entities, adding mechanics and other playable configurations through expansions over an 8-year period. Its sequel, on the other hand, allows you to play as pretty much whomever you wish right off the bat; being a Buddhist in India, a viking raider, or a West African tribesman are as valid as that feudal lord.
It is because the game acknowledges all this freedom in its design that the underlying systems are coherent and universal. Now, if you’re a newer player it’s still all complex, perhaps to the point of being initially overwhelming, but I believe that it’s needfully so. To its credit, Paradox has made strides in easing players in with a comprehensive tutorial. Beyond that, the game has tooltips for just about anything and concepts that remain unclear can be looked up in an in-game encyclopedia at any moment.
Understanding the basics doesn’t take too long; exploring the game’s other systems can be done at leisure or according to taste. Focusing on intrigue and scheming is just as valid as diplomacy and conventional warfare. Characters spend their lives improving their skills according to the lifestyle chosen for them. This system, complete with skill trees, can result in tailor-made characters for your preferred play style.
It’s perfectly fine to play as a virtuous ruler, a dreaded tyrant or anything in between. Intimidating your vassals and courtiers can be just as effective as being the very model of chivalry. Some lifestyle perks feed into systems like stress, dread or respect, providing a powerful feedback so that you can rule as you like. The favors system—called hooks—adds to this and can compel vassals and courtiers to accept your demands. They can be gained by various means ranging from intrigue and blackmail or to simply being a good friend. These can be leveraged to change feudal contracts, keep characters out of faction and all sorts of other actions. It is a system more intuitive in action than it is to describe and also provides plenty of opportunity for players.
The real brilliance of the game comes in the form of its emergent storytelling. Events, rivalries and the decisions made by the player make for a rich narrative that can translate just as easily into a great holy war or the seduction of another ruler’s spouse. The game is good at prodding players at story lines of their own making without being overbearing—just as a small notification area might suggest fabricating a claim on a nearby county or placating an irascible vassal. Taking a look at how your character has a strong claim on a title might suddenly spawn a military adventure or a murder plot, each with its own ups and downs.
Political considerations often factor into any sort of decision. Like whether or not to marry a child or sibling off for an alliance with another realm instead of keeping them around to make use of their skills. Or when it comes to picking your steward or other council members—do you go for the most talented person available or for a vassal whose opinion is negative because you haven’t given them their rightful place at the council? And do you make those in your court into knights and risk their death in battle? Putting your heir on the front lines might jeopardize succession plans but, with a little luck, it could be just the ticket to getting rid of an ambitious rival.
Many of the quality-of-life additions from the previous entry have made it into CK III and have undergone further evolution. Things like rally points and retinues (now called men-at-arms), both introduced into CK II through expansions, are integrated into the base experience and have a higher degree of granularity. Councilor tasks, such as proselytizing, are now based on a progress bar instead of just probability. Even UI scaling, which was bolted-on late into CK II’s life cycle, yields better results this time around.
While I’m convinced this may well be Paradox’s most ambitious and polished release yet, it isn’t quite perfect. Aside from minor small issues, I found myself thinking more than once that I would have liked to have seen some truly unique events for the more exotic cultures and religions. But, honestly, given the amount of dynamic content that’s already in the game it’s a really minor gripe. Likewise, the stress system is also interesting—providing trade offs between acting against your character’s nature—but it’s usually a little too easy to avoid the more serious effects that occur at higher stress levels.
It’s perhaps because the good parts of the game are so well-crafted that it’s easy to forgive the small shortcomings—such as small UI annoyances like truces being hidden in a sub-menu instead of appearing on hover like everything else. If I had to nitpick some more, I’d also say that the soundtrack is a little too passive, a little too bland to leave much of an impression.
I could easily spend several hundred more words talking about those small moments that are simply so pleasing to experience. With enough dedication, a small religion can eventually be spread by your dynasty and reformed to your liking via the piety mechanics. Those large, stable empires can be dismantled systematically with persistence or goaded into calamitous civil war. I found great satisfaction in participating in a crusade in which my nephew was granted a kingdom thanks to my efforts. And it was likewise gratifying to raid into the Indian subcontinent with Tibetan pagans, along the way taking nudist captives and adopting their strange way of life.
It’s difficult to compete with a predecessor that was updated so frequently over such a long period. Still, Crusader Kings III manages to provide a new, stable foundation for the franchise while sacrificing very little in the way of content. It’s not all there but it never needed to be. The most important lessons were absorbed and learned.
With all of that said, this is still a game with a very real learning curve. I believe it’s the best entry in the series so far with plenty to love for new players and returning veterans. Having a little patience to understand the sundry subtleties is well worth it. In my experience the years of gameplay quickly become decades and centuries and, before I knew it, I was left with the stories of many a memorable reign.
If you’re still on the fence, I streamed a few hours of gameplay recently that you might want to check out to appreciate the game in motion.