Entering Crusader Kings III for the first time wasn’t a daunting journey into the unknown; rather, and quite appropriately, it was a very familiar experience.
Anyone who has played Crusader Kings II will instantly feel at home when they pick up Crusader Kings III. Your job is to expand your power beyond your original castle gates and forge a dynasty that lasts the test of time. From a quick glance, you wouldn’t really notice the difference. But far from being lazy, developer Paradox has done a stellar job in working with existing, well-loved mechanics, only making changes that genuinely improve the formula. As they say: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
That’s not to say nothing has changed; a lot of work has gone on under the bonnet, in fact. The greatest compliment I can give Crusader Kings III is that it’s reinvented the monotony of certain mechanics, turning them into more focused gameplay. Take the reworking of plots, for example. In Crusader Kings II, you’d simply send money to loads of people and hope for the best. Now, you’re able to focus on two plots; one where you attempt to sway or seduce an individual, and one other notorious scheme.
These are worked over time; you can still influence key players in their circle, but in doing so you will have more engagement with that plot. Depending on your ability, you may be able to set out circumstances that lead to more favourable results. There’s also a timer that shows you when you will be able to next attempt to enact your plot – no more endless waiting.
Character virtues have been reworked too. Each character has three virtues/vices that impact on their character and how they act. This makes understanding characters much easier without taking away any complexities. Character stress takes a bigger role, making it harder to force a character to perform actions out of their comfort zone. What a character stresses over is dependent on their traits; for example, a caring character will struggle if you make them perform an assassination, but another character might just shrug it off.
Each character has five different stats – diplomacy, martial, stewardship, intrigue and learning – and these govern their ability to function as successful rulers. While Crusader Kings II may focus a bit more on character personality, the aim is still similar. You’re still trying to impress on the world your family’s prestige – but the idea of dynastic legacy has been expanded. Your overall score isn’t just affected by yourself, but by your wider dynasty, too. Getting other family members in important areas of interest is now beneficial to you as well as them.
There’s now a distinct advantage to becoming a Hasburgian ruler with your cousins on other thrones, for example. Previously, you wouldn’t have let your close kin become that strong as they may vie for you; but in Crusader Kings III it now brings you glory – though it still carries the threat of death. You will still want to remain the most prestigious ruler and ensure you’re the leading branch of power within your family.
This strong dynastic focus is also shown through the new mechanic of dynastic legacy points, which help you unlock new abilities shared by your bloodline. Points are gained over many years, with more points gained for the more important members of your family living in prominent areas. Again, it’s important that you remain the most prominent figure of your family; only the top brass can choose to enact these dynastic legacies or choose to save points for a different upgrade. This push-and-pull of trying to establish your family while maintaining the seat of power feels very medieval and makes for an interesting dynamic unlike anything we’ve seen in previous instalments.
Where the dynastic legacies are a long-term benefit to all of your kin, you also have the ability to give your characters trait-based benefits to flesh out the type of person they are. For example, you could improve the martial ability of a character in three different branches.
When I played as Alfred the Great, resisting the Viking hordes on the British Isles, I decided to fully focus on my martial prowess. This utilised his martial education, and I quickly sped through each branch of the martial focus, allowing me to match the superior numbers of the Scandinavians. His successor was equally martial focused, but I decided to slowly work on stewardship trees in order to consolidate the power I had amassed under Alfred and bring it to heel.
I love how playing like this feels. Alfred was a great warrior, but he had to work hard to achieve that skill. His equally adept son was then free to focus on other matters that were not best suited to him, but he improved due to that focus. These added RPG elements help you really get to know the characters in your campaign; you genuinely feel invested in them in a natural, engaging way.
All of this gameplay is aided by some clever UI design. It’s still the familiar Crusader Kings display, but in a way that works so much better. For one, the static 2D displays have been replaced with nice 3D modelling that actually grows with time; your characters don’t just pop up at 15 but instead change gradually. Their afflictions and traits are also displayed, meaning you don’t have to get bogged down in stats just to get an idea of what that character is like.
The world is also massive. It took a dozen or so DLCs for Crusader Kings II to expand this far, but with Crusader Kings III this is just the starting point. It takes you from British Isles, to Western Africa, and all the way to Tibet. All of these factions are playable and are uniquely different thanks to the modular nature of religion. If you’re wondering if you have to wait for DLC for Crusader Kings III to be viable, as may have been the case in the past, the answer this time is a resounding no.
With all of this new 3D modelling and such an extensive world, I thought there would be a lot of loading time, but I’ve been genuinely surprised with how quickly the game loads. Better yet, everything runs as smooth as butter – even on a modest PC with a Ryzen 3 processor and a GTX 1050 graphics card. It’s not a game that requires a beefy machine, but even entry level rigs can get the best out of it. Everything is fluid and focused, and to achieve that without sacrificing content is a real testament to the work Paradox has done here.
Every detail of Crusader Kings III feels like the perfect evolution of the series. The refined systems and better UI don’t take away from the complexities of a campaign; they just make it easier to have fun. Every worry I had of this being a watered-down Crusader Kings II experience faded away with the sheer amount of content available. With a larger world, more refined systems, gorgeous visuals and deep character mechanics, Crusader Kings III is everything fans of the series could have hoped for – and more.