Crusader Kings III — A worthy successor to the grand-strategy throne?

The king is dead, long live the king.

Paradox Interactive’s long-awaited, medieval grand-strategy sequel is upon us. With Crusader Kings III the developer’s face a challenge; how do they successfully build on a game which ran for 8 years and featured over a dozen expansion packs, and how do they keep it accessible?

Crusader Kings II released back in 2012, it spent a lot of time featuring a broken tutorial and as soon as it started gaining expansion packs a lot of the core gameplay was heavily tweaked and altered through both the new content and extensive free patches. It’s safe that to say for better or worse (and I’m a big fan of CKII, so I’m in the ‘for better’ camp) the game is completely different than when it first started out. As such Crusader Kings III comes from a studio which has gone through an immense journey, which is something that is reflected in the freshly released product.

With the previous game’s lengthy journey there were more than a couple of things which the sequel would need to address: Accessibility from the outset, for new users; Its stance on the extensive content of CKII, for existing fans; and why it was time for a sequel when there is already a history of major updates.

It is clear that accessibility was a major focus when it came to designing CKIII. The tutorial handles most of the game features and a lot of work has gone into tooltips and general useability. While the screen can get a bit cluttered at times there are no longer features which are buried more than four clicks deep into the interfaces, and suggestions and warnings are always on hand to guide players when they feel a little lost. I remember watching a Youtube series, and reading an extensive Wiki before I felt competent at CKII — there was zero need for that here. All of that said, Crusader Kings II has comfortably sat in the Steam Top 100 Concurrent Players List for the longest time, so maybe they’d have gotten by without such a tight redesign, but now we don’t need to find out.

I mentioned tooltips, these are actually probably the greatest addition to the game when it comes to the learning curve. You can mouse over character names, titles, concepts and more, and small information windows will pop up. If you then wait for the box to fill up (the background will darken, and the tip will gain a thicker pane) you can then dive into a further window from there. You can, effectively, snake yourself hundreds of tooltips deep, like a late-night Wikipedia surf… the difference being that you’re probably cruising through to try and figure out how many cousins you have to kill in order to gain enough counties to land that sweet kingdom title you’ve been eyeing up. It’s brilliant and, frankly, one of the smartest ways that a game has reminded me of its mechanics as gameplay continues — 4X games could definitely learn something from it.

There are also a few handy tabs added in where there wasn’t one before, your domains get a breakdown tab which highlights when you can build new buildings and shows the development of the area as well as any titles they are part of. Religion, Culture and your dynasty are all just as accessible as key screens like Military, Court and Council, and there’s just, in general, been a massive effort put into making more important things available from the main, map view.

For returning players, one big worry could be how a new game builds its content when compared to the extensive history of the last game. We’ve seen, with games like The Sims, sequels appear and be incredibly light in content — resulting in a glut of players sticking with the previous game until more content packs came out.

Crusader Kings III definitely takes some of the stronger elements from its predecessor: councils are in, the extended map is in, retinues are in and so is a whole bunch more. As a matter of fact, most of what is missing is hard to put your finger on beyond a few of the quirkier stories. The Aztecs suddenly appearing that’s out, as are the disease mechanics. You won’t build up a treasury of goods and you won’t have to worry about China spilling over onto the map. The Charlamagne starting point is gone, societies are gone and cardinals are out too. But, did I miss any of these from my seven or so CKIII campaigns? Nope, not really… there was so much interpersonal mingling by the revised features that I was busy enough to not really notice until I sat down to write this review.

What I did miss was the droves upon droves of events that have slowly trickled into CKII over the years, ultimately flooding it. The weird Lunatic laws are gone, I’ve not had my child be the spawn of Satan, I’ve not filled the basement of a tavern with manure and detonated it as my rival stopped in, and I’ve not had my cat killed by a stray arrow while on crusade. I have missed these little stories that form, but then I’ve also had plenty of memorable moments along the shall-we-say more traditional medieval format. After a messy jaunt as the ruler of Strathclyde, which saw me shift through four generations within ten minutes due to a rather violent campaign against Jorvid, I decided to switch roles. Within ten in-game years I had personally torn off the head of the son and grandson of the Strathclyde ruler, and Wessex’s famous Alfred had fallen in battle, never ascending beyond his throne in Dorset — leaving fate to his equally ill-fated brother.

Much like its predecessors, Crusader Kings III still immediately steps away from historical the moment you hit play, but the revised features and mechanics make that feel fresh and new. Perhaps the best example of this is in the character type which is assigned to them based on their core statistics. These are phrases like Dishonorable Ravener, Rational Lackey or Evil Blackguard which each character has. You’ll start to recognise light patterns in the behaviours of these characters, and a quick glimpse at it can save poring over each of their traits every time you look at them.

That said, there are more things to separate characters out than there was in CKII. The lifestyle system has been completely revamped so that you focus on one of your core five stats: Diplomacy, Marshal, Stewardship, Intrigue & Learning. You’ll still have events fire which can call on each of these, but the one you picked will heavily influence the events. Within each lifestyle, there are three trees which are littered with perks and, ultimately, traits, each helping you become a more refined leader. You can also pick one of three styles of working through it, which give a passive bonus to related stats. Children education focus is out, although as a guardian you’ll still make choices which define traits.

Most characters only have three to four of these traits — things like Just, Chaste, Diligent — which certainly feels like less than before, however, each one of them has much more of a role when the game is in play. Shy, for instance, no longer affects a handful of interactions, adding a couple more conversation options; Instead, it completely overrides most of your interactions, giving you stress when you have to interact with people.

The stress system is a completely new mechanic and it basically exists like a dungeon master in tabletop RPGs — its job is to make sure that you keep playing your character within the simple trait-based ruleset that they exist. A coward can suddenly do a brave thing, and they might do it well, but it’ll be very stressful for them. A just ruler can still plot to murder somebody, but it will keep them up at night, which is represented in-game as stress. Stress is an interesting one because it pulls together some of the damaging character traits from the last game into a web of negative traits gained from high stress; you can self-harm, become a drunk and more, if you don’t manage your stress, and it’ll keep happening until it calms down. Of course, if you are a drunk then drinking does drop your stress levels, giving you a quick way to alleviate stress, however, you’ve still got that negative trait and the events which go with it.

The addition of the stress systems solves issues that existed in CKII, and similarly other features like secrets and hooks (wherein you can learn people’s secrets to get favours over them, and these secrets can form as a result of event string — eat a human to survive a hunt gone wrong and you’ll gain the cannibal secret) as well as the guest system — where claimants tour other courts and if you press their claim then they become your vassal — restructure the pace of the game and mean that there’s always the potential for chaos even if you slow the game down to the slowest speed.

There’s so much that couldn’t be touched on in this review, like how nice it is when the main menu shows your character, their spouse and heir, or when the characters hit little poses for certain actions. It really does feel like no area has gone untouched when it came to updating the formula of the last game.

These improvements to pacing, refining of features and the fact that the new revision of the engine abolishes the chugging of content-heavy CKII, makes Crusader Kings III a very worthy successor.

Crusader Kings III is available now for PC, Mac and Linux.

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