Okay, so this is a bit of a dangerous game. The kind where I sat down at 8PM to play it and the next time I looked at the clock it was almost 6AM. It’s honestly been a while since I played a game that so blatantly consumed my time like that, but I’m definitely not complaining.
Very fun open-ended gameplay. I honestly don’t even know where to begin with this game – it’s just so immense. Everything about it, from the complex relationship mechanics to the abundance of control you have over every aspect of your land, there’s no end to what you can do here. It’s the kind of game where you make the experience. Sure, there are objectives you can work towards, but you’re basically tossed into this massive medieval sandbox and given the tools to make whatever story you please.
Want to properly conquer the land around you and raise an empire? Just raise an army and go. Want to seduce your way into power? Start flirting with the emperor’s wife and hope you can impregnate her. Want to run a religious cult that wages wars for human sacrifices? Surprisingly easy to do. Those are just a few examples of what’s possible and the sheer depth and complexity of all of the game mechanics working together is something I haven’t seen from a strategy game in quite some time.
Tons of customization. It might be better to think of Crusader Kings III as more of a dynasty simulator than your typical combat-heavy strategy game. In fact, it wouldn’t be wrong to say that the majority of your time will likely be spent managing relationships, succession laws, and just making sure your dynasty survives. Once you lose that dynasty – well, you lose the game. Fortunately, there are a ton of mechanics in place that give you the power to manage pretty much every aspect of your lineage.
Just take the inheritance mechanic for example. As this is a game that spans multiple generations, you are going to die eventually. What happens next depends on how you’ve setup inheritance. Titles may be passed to your son and you continue from there, but depending on the succession law, this may be determined by vote or your titles may even be distributed amongst all of your children.
When I first started out, I found this out the hard way, losing a bunch of my titles the first time I died and having to go to war with my siblings to get them back. From that point on, I made sure to micromanage which counties, duchies, kingdoms, and other titles I had to ensure a clean transfer of power, often manipulating my succession through murder and blackmail – whatever needed to be done to ensure I remained in power.
Then you got the romance mechanics. If you do it correctly – and it will take a very long time – you can actually inbreed your dynasty to the point where the blood is so pure that it cancels out the negative traits you normally get from an incestuous relationship. Combine this with stacking positive traits over dozens of generations and you’re setting up your dynasty for a solid future.
Crusader Kings III is easily one of the most (if not the most) customizable strategy games I have ever played, and these examples are just a couple facets of it. Combine that with how open-ended and complex the gameplay is and you get quite the killer combo, making for some of the most addicting strategy gameplay I’ve experienced in years.
Top-tier replayability. Part of what makes the open-ended gameplay work so well is that it never quite gets old. Given that your playable character does die eventually, you will have to move onto another character, which can shift the game direction in very interesting ways. For example, I had one game where I was building up an empire through military conquest, only to randomly die and have to continue as my heir who may or may not have been a cannibal and required the occasional human feast to stay sane.
It may have made things harder, but it definitely shook up the experience, which would then happen again once that character died. This cycle is what keeps single games interesting, but there’s even more when you consider that you can play in different time periods, as different rulers, and/or on strategically more difficult areas on the map. This gives the game a ton of replayability and I can easily see why people were already able to pour hundreds of hours into it.
Streamlined learning curve. As someone that never played Crusader Kings II, I must admit I was a bit intimidated going into III. I had heard that II was one of the most complex grand strategy games ever made and was super-difficult to get into, so I figured that III would be just as hard – at least to an extent. I was surprised to find that, not only did it not take long for me to get the hang of things, but the game is streamlined in such a way that it’s able to cater to both newcomers and grand strategy veterans alike.
You still get the depth with all of the mechanics and such – but newcomers (myself included) are introduced to them at just the right rate that it never quite feels off-putting. The game starts out with an hour-long tutorial and, from that point on, you’re free to figure things out yourself. It took all of maybe five or so hours for me to play through a test game and really get to understand the core gameplay, but throughout that test game and even 20 hours later in future games, I was still given the occasional tutorial popup to describe new mechanics as I discovered them. As someone that plays a ton of strategy games, it was really refreshing to get such a natural learning curve here.
And I feel like I should mention a large reason why this approach works is how informative the game is with its tooltips. Crusader Kings III adopts the “tooltip within a tooltip” system, where you can hover over a word or phrase of interest to get more information about it, and then hover over another within that tooltip and so on. This eliminates the need to constantly refer back to an in-game encyclopedia or offsite wiki, which is a definite plus for a game of this scale.
Lack of substance in some areas. As this is a Paradox-published game, it’s pretty much a given that some aspects of it are going to be expanded on in the future with DLC, usually several major DLC released over the following years. This has the unfortunate side-effect of leaving some areas of the game a bit lacking, to leave room for those future expansions.
I believe the prime example here to be combat. As it stands, the combat is pretty straightforward. You raise your army, maybe split it to attack on multiple fronts, but otherwise just roll it towards the enemy armies and wait for the fight to finish. Capturing a city is the same, you just place the army on top of it and wait. Repeat all of that a few times and you’ve got yourself a victory.
I wouldn’t say it isn’t fun, but it feels strangely barebones compared to the complexity offered elsewhere in the game. And this isn’t the only area – naval units, alliances, even holy wars are all relatively simple. I’m sure these are going to be fixed by future DLC, but for now, they just feel like they’re missing something.
AI could use some improvements. So, this mostly applies to the combat, but the AI can be pretty dumb at times. Whether that be not running away from my mega army approaching them, taking on wars they obviously can’t win, or making poor targeting decisions, they’re not the smartest bunch. Outside of war they’re definitely a lot better though, so perhaps this is just another area that will be cleaned up with DLC, which – again – is unfortunate.
Crusader Kings III is one of the most addicting strategy games to come out in years. The sheer depth and complexity of the mechanics at work behind its open-ended gameplay is definitely something to marvel at – and the fact that the learning curve has been streamlined for newcomers just makes it that much easier to get into. Add onto that the nearly infinite replayability the game offers and you get one of the best games released this year.
Quote: Crusader Kings III is one of the most addicting strategy games to come out in years. It has everything – fun open-ended gameplay, in-depth strategy mechanics, and nearly infinite replayability.
You can buy Crusader Kings III on Steam here.
I was provided a review copy of the game in order to write this review. Read more about how I do my game reviews here.