Mount and Blade II: Bannerlord is the medieval conquest game I never knew I wanted.
From TaleWorlds Entertainment, this early access strategy and role-playing game mashup sees you getting down and dirty alongside your troops. You’re the one who gets to watch your soldiers sink their swords into your foes and, when things have gone badly, you’ll be the one cowering amongst the corpses of your soldiers as your foes close in.
That’s not to say you’re a king from the word go (you have to work towards that), though my dreams of starting as a mud-encrusted peasant didn’t pan out. You start off as a low-level commander before working your way up the ranks, conquering castles and more. It isn’t quite The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim but you can wander into villages, receive quests and undertake other tasks to boost your notability. Get the attention of the local lords, and you’re one step closer to resting your own bum on a throne.
Murdering your way around the land is an equally valid option, though after meeting the villagers – many of whom resemble a pre-transformation Yennefer (from Netflix’s The Witcher) – I couldn’t bring myself to raze their homes. I was a little disappointed, however, that my own soldiers, recruited from these same villages, weren’t as memorable. That’s not because there’s anything wrong with Mount and Blade II: Bannerlord’s battle system; in fact, Bannerlord‘s combat is absolutely excellent.
Yes, you can just send your troops into battle, roaming the top-down menu and having them lay into whichever band of brigands wanders your way. Managing your soldiers is a bit tricky at first – I rode into combat screaming, only to realise, as the enemy pelted me with rocks, that my soldiers were obediently sitting at the edge of the battlefield. Mercifully, permadeath was disabled, so I was able to try again; that time, it was glorious.
Knowing we outnumbered the enemy, I neglected Bannerlord‘s strategic options and simply ordered my soldiers to charge, laying into the enemy with gusto. What’s particularly impressive about Mount and Blade II: Bannerlord, apart from how large battles can get, is that your troops aren’t idiots. Your riders, for example, won’t stand still while the enemy hacks chunks of horsemeat out of their mounts. Instead, they’ll charge, get in a few good swipes, retreat and then ride back in again.
Hand-to-hand combat is also excellent, both to watch and participate in. It’s satisfying to be able to deal out slow, measured blows, particularly compared to the frenzied arcade-like combat of some other real-time RPGs. There’s not a sniff of magic here, so success comes down to numbers and planning. Bannerlord helpfully displays army strength on the map so you’re not facing down a 50-strong force with three archers and a swordsman with a bum knee.
The real reason I wish Mount and Blade II: Bannerlord’s soldiers are less anonymous is that when you lose a battle, it’s just numbers. When I did fail, I wanted to feel it; instead, I was able to wander over to another village and recruit some more soldiers who, with no sense of pattern recognition, happily joined my band. I’m hoping that Bannerlord‘s final incarnation addresses this in some way; Little Dave is dead, and it’s your fault because you didn’t think the army you piled into might have archers. There is a story of sorts, but for the most part, just roaming the land, accumulating power, is a blast.
Diplomacy is very much an option, but Mount and Blade II: Bannerlord is has more in common with Game of Thrones than with Civilization, so beware. Being able to enter towns on foot and just wander around is a superb feature, one that helps connect you with the world, even if most of the population are utterly anonymous. At least people aren’t walking up to you, expressing a ridiculous amount of interest in your adventures.
Mount and Blade II: Bannerlord has several rough edges, including a graphical glitch that turned me, fancy equipment and all, into a mass of black squares. Though, given that it’s in early access, some issues are to be expected, and it’s being patched all the time. Glitches aside, Mount and Blade II: Bannerlord has dragged me into its feudal world, to the point where I barely missed being able to take someone’s face off with a fireball.
For all the time I’ve put into it, I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface of Mount and Blade II: Bannerlord. I know I’ll be immersing myself in this medieval world for days, perhaps weeks to come.