Crusader Kings III review (PC)

The eagerly anticipated sequel in the Crusader Kings franchise is finally here, and we checked out Paradox’ PC-exclusive dynasty simulator through Steam.

It’s easy to forget that Crusader Kings, as a series, started out way back in 2004 – that’s five years before Windows 7 was released and when people were just leaving Windows 98 behind. A large part of that is that Crusader Kings, as a series, was never far away – countless DLC expansions were released for Crusader Kings II over the years, and they’ve kept the game fresh in our minds. Now Crusader Kings 3 is here, and it feels like a culmination of the ongoing development that went into crafting and tuning the Crusader Kings 2 experience during that time.

This is, for newcomers especially, a blessing in disguise. While the base game for Crusader Kings II is actually free to play right now, getting the full experience literally costs hundreds of dollars/euros and that feels like a bit of a hurdle, to say the least. Luckily, having a base version that’s free to play means you’ve got the best demo you can imagine for the newly released sequel, which builds on many of the core dynamics that the latest build of Crusader Kings II has while adding a few of its own and making the experience more accessible to new players in the process.

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The fact is that the price point wasn’t the only thing that was daunting about previous Crusader Kings games. Especially true if you factor in the DLC content, they were also very complex to get into, and like a fine wine they would only improve over time, as you learned their mechanics. But for those looking to quickly learn the basics and be successful from there, Crusader Kings was lacking in terms of tutorials and handholding. From that perspective, the more confined board game that came out about a year ago was a great alternative due to a simplified set of rules.

Crusader Kings III finally addresses this, and does so by introducing a great tutorial at the start of the game – one that dives into the core mechanics from previous games first before introducing concepts that are new to this particular iteration. You also have access to short and sweet gameplay tips during the game, and hovering the mouse pointer over certain elements gives you a short description of that they mean or do.

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While Crusader Kings III includes many of the mechanics that were introduced over the course of the many DLCs for the previous game, a lot of them have been changed and refined. So while existing players may be familiar with elements like the ability to go into combat, the actual implementation is more streamlined this time around. Things like lifestyles make a return as well, but have been changed to reflect something more akin to an almost RPG-like system of boosts that you benefit from.

No matter what the mechanic is, the improved user interface is a great help – it’ll tell you what certain character types do, like and dislike. Perhaps it’s something that experienced players don’t need or want, but it doesn’t make the game any easier either – it just makes those who are new to the experience feel a little less lost, even if they still have tough decisions to make. And while we’re on the topic of the user interface, players needing a little direction can always look at a list of ongoing issues to figure out what to do next. Even though Crusader Kings III is all about charting your own course in the world, little touches like that do a lot to make sure a small problem doesn’t get bigger while allowing newer players to keep some kind of overview of what’s happening.

More handholding or not, there is an incredible amount of freedom in how you play Crusader Kings III and how you shape your own narrative. This starts with your character selection, during which you also select where you’ll be starting from – from a geographical position that is. With most of the known world (at the time) included, how you start matters a lot. And whether you start from 867 AD or 1066 AD, the world will dynamically change over the course of time.

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While a lot of events are beyond your control you can influence them to a degree, and as you grow in power you’ll be able to force your hand more and more. Part of that is your ability to marry off your offspring and forge relationships between empires that way, sometimes resulting in dramatic turns of events as you make decisions while those you made in the past come back to haunt you. In a similar way, you can also hold things over other nations when you’ve made favorable decisions that helped them. If all that scheming doesn’t align with the character traits you selected at the beginning, then that might result in copious amounts of stress as well. Crusader Kings III’s mechanics are plentiful and complex, but thanks to the new user interface they’re a lot less overwhelming this time around.

The leap forward in the visual sense isn’t as great though. Maps and stats still dominate the screen, and although the 2D map is more detailed the use of animation is sparse – even though their inclusion is welcome in making the game look more livelier for those just looking on. Music and sound, similarly, also don’t take the center stage, so unfortunately there could have been a bit more audiovisual polish even though this series was never about that.

The biggest achievement for Crusader Kings III, then, is how well polished the gameplay experience is. From the gameplay mechanics to the tutorial and the vastly improved user interface, this is the best that the series has been and it’ll be hard to go back to Crusader Kings II after this, even though it’s been good to many players for many years.

Score: 9.0/10

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