When it first launched in 2008, Mount & Blade offered a nearly complete simulation of life in a medieval world. It had you gathering troops from villages to fight in epic battles, helping or oppressing the weak, taking names and climbing the ladder of power, being a vassal to a sovereign, until finally, you get your own territory. Even though it was raw, the game would go on to become one of our most memorable medieval experiences.
That game was followed by Warband, which gave us new ideas and allowed players to become their own king, along with many features that were passed on to the sequel that has just entered Steam Early Access, Mount & Blade II: Bannerlord.
Like its predecessor, Bannerlord takes you back to Calradia, a vast fictional medieval land containing hostile kingdoms. Set more than 200 years before Warband, there are eight factions that you can play, each with unique units and equipment. However, there are three factions (the Northern Empire, the Southern Empire, and the Western Empire) that have similar units. As it's a sandbox game, you can do whatever you fancy. Want to become a champion of war and a tournament fighter? Check. Is your heart's desire to become a wealthy merchant with an army of bodyguards? Sure, you can do that too. What about getting crowned king of this war-torn land? It takes some effort, but it's possible. Marry a noble and have some children? Suit yourself. Hey, why not be all of them at the same time?
Our initial impression of Bannerlord was one of familiarity. We started in a Training Field and familiarised ourselves with the controls, which were more or less the same as they were in the game's predecessors. After a short tutorial where you have to attack a bandit headquarters (which you can skip entirely), you are released into the open world of Calradia and the rest is up to you.
Feeling over-confident, we tried to fight the bandits using our old strategy, which was to first strike alone, Rambo-style, to reduce the number of opponents. It turned out that the AI has improved and even though our troops won, our character, still in light armour, spent some of the encounter out cold. And so we had to lead our army from a stretcher, reflecting on the fact that while familiar, there is also going to be lots of new things to find and work out.
Mount & Blade doesn't really provide any clear guidance about what you have to do or where you need to go - or even the goal of the game. Indeed, in Bannerlord there is a line of main missions that guide us towards certain activities, but you don't need to follow it to be able to enjoy the game, even if doing so helps to open up the experience. One of the early missions, for example, has you find and ask nobles about a valuable relic of Neretzes, and these nobles are found all over. This will push you to explore, get acquainted with new people, recruit troops from villages, get to know the trading system, and so on.
However, finding the nobles needed to complete the mission wasn't easy. We spent the first eight hours doing so and it wasn't much fun, and so we would always stop to chase looters, trade, play board games, complete side missions, and take part in tournaments. And that's not mentioning the fact to find the nobles you have to use the in-game encyclopedia, which is strangely not visible in the main interface (you access it via the N key, which we only found out in the settings). Fortunately, with such a vibrant community, the answers you seek are out there, you just have to find some of them for yourself. Bannerlord has so many hidden features, which if presented better by the developers, would make it much friendlier and also more fun. Keep in mind though that it's in Early Access, and we could yet see things improve, especially regarding the tutorials.
Of all the elements in the game, one thing that stands out is the trading system. You will hear rumours about the market when going from one city to another, showing the price of certain commodities compared to the other places you've visited. This way, you can see what to buy in one place and sell in another. Even though you'll only make pocket money at the beginning because you don't have much capital, once you've got more funds and a bigger inventory, the profits increase. Trading ended up being our highest skill because it's the activity we carried out most frequently.
But money isn't the only thing that matters in Bannerlord; there are other in-game "currencies" that you need to pay attention to, namely Renown and Influence. Renown points are important when building your clan and act as a kind of experience points for clan level. By collecting Renown (from battle, entering tournaments, and even winning board games against nobles), your clan level will slowly rise and offer various bonus stats to your group. The level of the clan will also determine whether you can build your own kingdom or become a vassal in another. Then there is Influence. If you've got a lot you can, for example, claim a fief that has just been taken by you and your allies. There are various ways to increase your Influence, the most obvious being to fight against enemy royal forces or bandits.
There's a lot of fighting, and for veterans, the mechanics around combat will feel more or less the same. Sure, there are changes, the most noticeable being the improved group AI (one-on-one combat is still relatively easy), so players must master more tactics and commands on the battlefield. Unfortunately, the game only lets you practice solo combat and you have to learn the various commands for your troops mid-battle. If you've played Mount & Blade before, or even the Total War series, you'll have an advantage, but if not then you're on your own.
Fortunately, if you don't care about combat, there's an option to let the game simulate battle. Tale Worlds has paid more attention to the simulation side of things by dedicating a skill to it: Tactics. The higher your level, the better the advantage you'll get when simulating combat, which in turn provides more experience for that particular skill. With this, we feel Bannerlord is opening up a new style of play more focused on simulation, ideal for those who don't want too much action (although we do think that the combat is one of the most engaging things here). One thing that we haven't really mentioned is the political system, which also gives us more things to think about, with political intrigue to consider.
Mount & Blade II: Bannerlord is an extensive medieval sandbox RPG, and we haven't even covered everything. However, with so many features hidden away, maybe the visual aspect is not a top priority for Tale Worlds during the Early Access process. Of course, it is much prettier than its predecessor, but the facial animations and other such details are arguably below current standards. Also, if you think the soundtrack is familiar, you're not wrong - old themes have been recycled with different arrangements. Although it offers a sense of nostalgia, we wanted something new to listen to, especially on the campaign map.
So far, our adventure in Calradia has been fun and it looks like it will only get better. There are various returning features that we liked, plus new aspects that make it a worthy sequel. Of course, as it's still in Early Access there are several areas to improve. For example, we encountered a few bugs, one of which made us restart the game (because it happened during the tutorial stage when we didn't have a save file yet), yet overall our playing experience was quite smooth.
However, despite all its splendour, playing Bannerlord feels a bit like hitting a pinata. You have to keep trying to smack the thing until you finally hit the target. There are rewards when you manage to hit it, but there's little to no hint about where you should be aiming. If Tale Worlds can embrace new players better, hopefully, the many delights that Mount & Blade II: Bannerlord has to offer can be tasted earlier.
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