Crusader Kings III is a real-time grand strategy game developed by Paradox Interactive which sees you taking on the role of one of many Counts, Kings, or Emperors as you try to create a family dynasty that will live on in history. Invade your neighbours, murder your siblings, blackmail the pope, and do whatever it takes to gain the power you crave!
History is your sandbox and the fate of the medieval world is yours to toy with. For better or for worse!
STORY – FIRST ULM, THEN THE WORLD!
Taking place across the early to late medieval period, Crusader Kings III allows you to play one of hundreds of possible counts, dukes, kings, and emperors across Europe, North Africa, The Middle East and Asia. It is honestly mind-boggling just how large this map is compared to similar titles. You play a ruler of one of the aforementioned territories to help your dynasty’s influence to spread across the world.
The game is naturally an adventure in Alternate-History; whilst the two start dates offer a range of historical figures to play as, the moment you press unpause all bets are off. Will you conquer Anglo-Saxon England as Harald Hardrada? Can you thwart the Reconquista? Will you unite North Africa into a single great empire? The choice is yours!
THE PRINCE AND THE PAUPER
It’s entirely possible to rise from a count in the middle of nowhere to a king or even emperor in a single life; well, with sufficient planning and trickery. As such the game offers a ‘rags to riches’ story the likes of which other games frankly cannot hope to match. And I’m not talking about just the sheer scale here; you constantly feel like you are building towards something bigger and better. Maybe it will work out, maybe it won’t, but the fact it can fail, as frustrating as it can be, is something that adds for a deeper experience. Honestly, Crusader Kings III is a better The Sims game than any The Sims game there has ever been!
In Crusader Kings III the story is wholly yours; whatever route it takes is down to you. And the game offers you plenty of tools to leave your mark on history, or not if you make a hash of it. True, you can just focus on conquest and warfare if you wish and totally ignore the interpersonal dynastic politics and relationships. However, I feel that doing so will rob yourself of some of the rich flavour that exists in the game’s writing and setting.
GAMEPLAY – CROWNING GLORY
As stated previously, in Crusader Kings III you don’t play as a nation, you play as a ruler and your goal is to ensure that your family dynasty is able to spread and become influential and become world-renowned. To do this you can declare wars, assassinate, or marry your way to power. The only way you’ll end up losing is if your dynasty has no living heirs or if end up becoming unlanded; when you lose control of all your holdings and just become a regular old pleb.
The core gameplay loop hasn’t evolved too far from the previous title in the series, or indeed too far away from Paradox’s other strategy games. There is nothing wrong with that, far from it; it makes coming to this title after playing the others feel like stepping into a comfortable pair of shoes.
If you are a returning player from Crusader Kings II you will be offered a familiar (if leaner) experience. However there is nothing really about it that is radically different to its predecessor; the game is very much an evolution and not a revolution. Quite frankly, if this is a series or style of game you don’t enjoy there is little about this title that will change that. Even if it is far more accessible and easier to get into than its previous incarnation.
FROM SMALL ACORNS
However with that said, how easy you find it if new to the series is harder for me to say given my past experience with Crusader Kings II; if I am frankly honest with you, dear reader, Paradox’s strategy games don’t so much have a difficulty curve as much as a difficulty sheer cliff. You will frequently find yourself getting stomped on and destroyed in your first few games; sometimes less as a result of your actions and more quirks in the game’s A.I. It can be brutal, unforgiving, and at times downright unfair to new players. But once you get over that bump you will be founding kingdoms like a champion!
Thankfully however, this game does have a tutorial, which unlike its predecessor doesn’t put you four steps away from being the subject of a future Reconquista but instead on Ireland (A.K.A. Tutorial Island), putting you in better stead to slowly build up and survive beyond your first decade.
Crusader Kings III is all about the slow build; you aren’t going to be painting the map with your colour and taking over the known world in your first couple of decades of play time. The whole game is like a long game of chess, you need to think several years ahead to hope to stand a chance of surviving.
Even playing as one of the larger Kingdoms and Empires doesn’t grant you the freedom to steamroll over your neighbours. The first sign of weakness and you’ll be getting every Tom, Dick, or Harry declaring war on you to nibble at your duchies.
ELEPHANT NUMBER TWO PLEASE
Whilst much of the game has been streamlined to provide a more focused experience, it does feel as though a lot of the crunch that was added in Crusader Kings II and its expansions is gone; Holy Wars are more or less as they were before Faith and Fury, artefacts and items are not present in the game, and cannot play as a republic. How essential all these things are depends on your personal taste. However it’s safe to assume that, given this is a game by Paradox Interactive, all these features will be added into the game via DLC, Expansion Packs, DLC for DLC, DLC for Expansion Packs, DLC for the DLC for the Expansion Packs, and free updates if we are so lucky over the lifetime of this title.
Of course, I am being factious. I know full well that no developer would add the level of content that CKII did by its final expansion for free. But when features as simple as being able to design your own ruler or family crest are absent makes me worry that (knowing the developer) they will only be added in for a fee.
A CRUSADER FOR QUALITY
Whilst there has been a distinct improvement on Crusader Kings III over its predecessor in almost every way, the game’s A.I. is still rather wonky; when it’s at its best the A.I. can be ruthless, striking at the most inopportune moment and capitalising on any weakness on your part. When it is at its worst it is charging around the map like a headless chicken. Either allowing you to rack up war score by simply chasing after them. Or you’ll find your allies wandering off and leaving you and your provinces vulnerable to attack as it seems to prioritise its own war score contribution over actually winning the bloody war.
Given how essential alliances can be in the early to mid-game of Crusader Kings III, it is hard to just shrug this off; this is especially true if you are playing one of the smaller nations and counties where you are going to need all the help you can get to take on rivals that are of similar strength to you.
As a whole, whilst the core gameplay of the title has its fumbles and its issues, there is nothing about them which kills the overall experience. From that point of view alone, coupled with the content within the game (even with a few notable exceptions), it still makes for a title that comes close to the perfect sequel.
SOUND AND GRAPHICS – UI WHY?
The Crusader Kings III’s graphics are frankly fairly standard, there is nothing about them that is stellar or epic. This is not the most beautiful game that there currently is on the market but it is still pleasant to look at. Let’s be frank, dear reader – top-tier graphics for a game like this aren’t essential. What is essential is having graphics and an art style that is clear and is able to communicate all the important information to you as and when you need it. And it is here that we have our biggest mark against Crusader Kings III.
It feels terribly claustrophobic, with large information bars and notifications which can take up too much space and overwhelm each other. I am not the kind of person who wants minimalism to the point of it being invisible kinds of UIs in games. But I want to not have my field of view dramatically cut down when I bring up even a couple of menus or have to race my eyes across the screen to find the game speed controls because Paradox decided to put them in the bottom right rather than the top right.
The UI can be terribly finicky and obtuse at times with you needing pixel-perfect precision in order to get a pop-up menu to appear. Whilst this might well be patched and only affects you in the early game when you are trying to find out what certain perks and terms mean, it is frustrating more often than not. Sure, as time goes on you’ll become more familiar with the new terms and perks but even still, it is an annoyance.
The game’s soundtrack is suitably grandiose and epic sounding, creating the kind of sound that one typically associates with the period setting. Granted I am not a massive fan of it, but even still it is brilliantly arranged and I really cannot fault it because it isn’t something I am into. Though it is no bardcore, few things really are.
Crusader Kings III was reviewed on PC.