Mount & Blade II: Bannerlord Review

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Mount & Blade II: Bannerlord Review

Tale Worlds Epic Medival Simulator is leaving Early Access; we took an extensive look at the title and will tell you if it was worth the wait in our Mount & Blade II Bannerlord Review.

After 10 Long Years

Mount & Blade is a franchise that has existed for over a decade and has developed somewhat of a cult following. But no one would blame you if you've never heard of it because it serves a particular niche of video games by being like five games stacked on each other. The newest installment and technically the second game in the franchise if we don't count the several standalone expansions, expansions, and spin-off titles.

But let's start from the top; Mount & Blade is best described as a medieval sandbox. You make a character, and chose some traits that affect your starting attributes before you get kicked into the world of Calradia. From here on out, you're on your own. Become king, seek fortune in battle, raid, and pillage, or become a successful business owner. The fact that you can do whatever comes to mind has always been the series' strength.

Now Mount & Blade II: Bannerlord is finally here, a prequel to the original that plays like a modern version with gameplay tweaks, new features, and a clean slate. And after 10 years in development and almost two of them in early access, we can't for sure say if it was worth the wait. If you're already a fan of these games, it feels more like an upgrade with fancier graphics. But if you've never had any contact with the series, it is probably the best medieval simulator of its kind because there is no game out there like it, not even close.

Return to Calradia

So let us talk a bit about the story here first, don't worry; it is brief because what will happen in Bannerlord is dictated by your own decisions. As mentioned before, this is a prequel to Mount & Blade set in the early stages of the medieval period. After the emperor's death, the Calradian empire is slowly falling apart infighting has split the once prosperous empire into three factions and former allies and enemies are now seeing their chance to conquer.

There are currently eight factions in the game, all with their own cultural background, even if three of them are just different flavors of imperial. The rest, just like their Mount & Blade counterparts are plays on different cultures of that period. They all have their design quirks and some history but don't expect the lore behind these factions to be more than ankle-deep. Most of it is purely aesthetic or gives a faction a specific gameplay style that is best suited.

The main attraction of Bannerlord is the continent of Calradia itself, it is a complex simulation of cities, villages, and factions that all interact with one another in various ways. Everything is connected to each other, something you'll learn to appreciate later in the game when you learn how to manipulate all those little elements like staving out a city by cutting off all supply chains or grinding economies to a halt by patrolling certain routes. And it feels rather engaging to be just one little part of a massive world in which your actions have consequences and can spiral into dynamically told stories.

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An Engine for Stories

Before I start talking about the gameplay in-depth, I feel like I should make one thing very clear. Mount & Blade is not playable Game of Thrones in which you go on one epic quest. It is a playground that creates stories as you engage with its various aspects. Drama within the game mostly comes down to your ambitions being cut short by the various lords and ladies roaming the hills and valleys of Calradia. Similarly, dialogue can be relatively flat and samey after the first five times you met a specific kind of NPC and quests can come off as copy pasted.

And while I do agree that Bannerlords content can come off as repetitive and samey, I'd like to propose to you a different point of you. Everything within Mount & Blade 2 exists to engage you with its world and various systems. They are incentives to slowly progress your own story as you grow your army and influence. And as a lowly mercenary or roaming lord, you'll spend your off time from war probably solving the petty issues of your peasants or finding your entertainment for sport before the next conquest starts.

It is a playground on which you make your own fun and you'll get the most out of it by setting clear goals at the start of a campaign while also committing to your mistakes. This is why I highly recommend playing this game only on the higher difficulties with the Ironman mode enabled. Because of committing to your mistakes and through an arduous process of trial and error, you'll find much more to love and appreciate in Mount and Blade II: Bannerlord.

For first-time players, however, I would recommend playing the standard campaign once since it offers some amount of guidance on what to do. Mainly creating your own kingdom to become the titular Bannerlord. Just don't expect to rush through the main quest fast, it'll take you quite some time to finish it, but it gives you something to work towards in a game that prefers to be hands-off.

On Gameplay

If you have never played Mount & Blade before, imagine it as the child of The Elder Scrolls, Total War, and Chivalry. It is one of the most Eurojanky games I've ever played, bringing a tear to my eye. Much like its predecessor, Bannerlords flaws lie mostly in its ambitions. Only this time around, there is a considerable visual polish. But enough of that.

The general gameplay loop of Mount & Blade is that you are somewhere in the vast, detailed world of Calradia and can go wherever you please as long as you're prepared to face the consequences of your actions. On the world map, you can travel around to engage in various activities, like visiting cities, getting captured by bandits, or trying to be the bandit in someone else's story.

You start off with making your character, and after picking their looks, you get to choose your character's life up to this point. This will affect your starting attributes and your starting loadout. Because on top of being a medieval life simulator, Mount & Blade is also an RPG with lots and lots of numbers that all interact with everything else in some way. Don't worry so much about these, as in real life, you'll learn skills by using them. So if you want to get really good at riding and archery, I really hope you like horses and bows.

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A Legend of Calradia (Pending)

From here on out, it is hard to convey what a typical gameplay session of Mount & Blade is like because it can be whatever you want, so I will instead regale you with the tale of my most recent campaign. As a recent imperial graduate of the training grounds, I set out into Calradia with the explicit goal of one day owning it. But all great journeys have to start somewhere, so I recruited some innocent farmers for a minimum wage and started hunting down the various little bandit troops roaming the land. Because on top of raising your own stats, you also have to train your troops into battle-hardened warriors.

Combat in Mount & Blade is one of its main selling points and while at first, you'll have minor scuffles that have 10 of your men face off against a few bandits, this can scale very quickly and get out of hand. What makes the title unique is the perspective, because, in Mount & Blade, you're locked to your character alone, so you have to participate in the fight with your arms of choice while also yelling commands at your troops in real-time. Bandits are usually easy pickings and a great way to train up your little army into a small force to be reckoned with.

These battles tend to get rather messy and don't require as much tactical finesse as hoped, but real medieval battles weren't strictly tactical either. Two big armies often collided until one got the upper hand and the other dispersed. But more on that later.

After winning some one-sided battles, I choose to enter a tournament in the nearby city. Here the one-on-one combat gets more of a chance to shine. If you have a melee weapon, you can swing from four directions and block attacks coming from there. The facing of your camera determines your swing, so it's not unlikely that you maniacally spin your character around as you swing your sword like a maniac. What seems simple at first turns into a more delicate dance once you get more practice and it soon progresses into a more delicate dance of baiting an enemy into whiffing a swing to create an opening.

Unless you're on a horse, then CHARGE is the only suitable option. Arena tournaments are a great way to practice combat; you'll encounter all types of weapons in a more controlled environment, even if most of this will fly out the window once you participate in one of the massive battles. Anyways after some hiccups, we win the tournament and get a new sword, some money, and some renown.

Mount & Blade operates on the same principles as real life, clout, and money. A reputation and coin can go a long way, renown is typically earned by various deeds like winning tournaments, winning battles with a considerable disadvantage, or asking the local villagers nicely for their possessions. In Bannerlord, your renown affects the size of your party, and how many compansion you can lead and also unlocks further options down the line.

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Once you reach Clan Tier 2, you can be a mercenary for any of the major factions. Now you can plunder villages without being held responsible and it is a quick and easy way to build a reputation. So we roamed the land under the banner of emperor Lucon and pick up some quests along the way. Quests in Bannerlord are a simple affair, you either have to trade, beat up the locals or engage in various acts of skullduggery. There are like 20 different types of quests out there that can randomly pop up in cities, villages, and so on. Their primary purpose is to get you money and raise your standing with named NPCs

So when you finally join a faction and honestly pick the one you like, especially if you aren't going for anything specific, the game starts going. Suddenly there is stuff happening all across the map and we have options to consider. As an up-and-coming mercenary, we do our best to cozy up to the emperor and his goons while also taking any opportunity we can get for sweet loot and bolstering your ranks.

This is also a great way to engage with Mount & Blade's standout feature. The big battles and sieges. While other games have sections like that and Total War wraps this in a strategy game. Nothing compares to the sense of scale and chaos a good Mount & Blade siege brings to the table. Approaching the walls with a shield up to avoid getting peppered with arrows all the way to scaling those walls and setting up a cluttered massacre in which you desperately swing your sword to survive. That aspect of these games never gets old, even if the AI isn't smart about it.

Hopefully, by now, you have a good idea of what playing Mount & Blade II: Bannerlord is like. And I did not even mention that you can engage in various side activities like gambling on various minigames. Start a caravan to become a merchant emperor, or you can also start a career as a blacksmith. The sky is the limit when it comes to options in Mount & Blade II and even after 400+ hours in the game, a new campaign always feels fresh.

Some Criticism

While I think Mount & Blade is unique serves what it sets out to do perfectly. It is a prime example of what I would call a Euro-jank video game. Euro-jank commonly refers to titles that buckle under their ambition and prioritize their vision over technical polish. For example, Mount & Blade has heaps of cities with unique layouts that are beautiful to look at. But there is not much to do in them that you can't access from the overworld menu. However, they make the sieges all the more interesting since many cities and castles have their own quirks.

Battles themselves are also more flash than substance; as long as you have the right composition of troops, you can dismantle an enemy army in a few minutes by just ordering everyone to charge. The AI can't really do anything against it and as a player with some experience, it becomes rather easy to outplay them.

The cracks in the simulation really start to show in the later stages of the game. A faction dominant in the early game will usually quickly snowball into a vast empire later. This will make it really difficult to oppose them since other factions will never team up with you and it is almost impossible to go up against a foe with almost limitless resources. But I guess that is somewhat realistic, isn't it? If you're part of that empire, the late game can get extremely boring because battles end up very one-sided.

On the overworld, armies and caravans aren't exactly smart either, sometimes, the AI decides to ditch the nearby siege to join another siege on the other end of the map, which can get quite frustrating when the castle in question is yours. All of this isn't exactly something you'll notice on your first playthrough as much, but once you rack up your time in Calradia, you'll start to see it more and more. This usually leads to me quitting a character around the midgame because playing out campaigns is usually pretty boring. Currently, there is nothing like rebellions or faction events that can spice that up.

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On Modding

The thing with this franchise is that the vanilla game is just what it is. As soon as you get bored of it, there is a vast library of mods that make the title replayable into infinity and beyond. As I wrote earlier, Mount & Blade is more a toybox than an actual game. Ever wondered what it would be like to participate in the events of Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings? Want to be a space cowboy in the galaxy of Star Wars? If you can dream it, there is probably a mod out for it already.

And it is one of the major reasons why people still play Mount & Blade Warband today. I throw that out here, so if you're not into the whole premise yet, keep an eye on the modding scene for Bannerlord because you can get as much mileage out of one of the many total conversion mods and gameplay tweaks as the main game itself. And if you want something in the game, there will most likely be a mod for it.

Final Score 8/10

I can't really write an unbias review about a game that I've already spent a considerable amount of time in. Honestly, just revisiting it last week for the sake of review without any mods had me waste a casual 30 hours on it. Mount & Blade II: Bannerlord has some flaws, no doubt and development on it have been relatively slow but with the release of the Steam Workshop, it is pretty much everything I wanted from a prequel for Warband.

Its biggest flaw is probably the lack of tutorialisation, it is straightforward for a beginner to get lost, and there is nothing as a guiding hand. But all of these are also aspects you'll learn to appreciate later in the game. I didn't really test the Multiplayer last week. Still, it is a fun side activity but definitely, not the main attraction but it perfectly serves the idea of massive multiplayer matches themed around sieges and large-scale battles.

Going forward, I hope that Tale Worlds can expand the game further now that they have created a good foundation. And much like Mount & Blade, I hope that there is something along the line of a Warband expansion in the works. In its current state, Mount & Blade is easily the greatest Medieval life sim on the market and I'm really looking forward to what the community and Tale Worlds can create.

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Mount & Blade II: Bannerlord Review
Timo Reinecke
Has once claimed that FSH is the only job in FFXIV worth playing and stands by that firmly. Top Guy, Smart Guy, Educated Speaker. (sometimes) Writer of all things FFXIV, FGC, News, Reviews and More