Paradox Interactive has more or less become the synonym for Grand Strategy games in our times. This is mainly due to the remarkable consistency its developers have shown in the creation of their strategy titles, which showcase a number of similar core gameplay elements regardless of the different timeframe in which they take place: Roman Era, Middle Ages, Rennaisance, Colonialism, World War 2, or “SPAAACE”. This consistency is, unavoidably, enhanced even further when it comes to sequels that belong to the same series of games, which are improved upon from sequel to sequel while they retain the same core gameplay. It is because of the above that any attempt at writing a review for a Paradox game sequel might end up a slightly more complicated procedure compared to reviewing any other game. Such is the case when reviewing Crusader Kings III, which is officially released tomorrow, September 1st.
The general idea behind Crusader Kings III is, as expected, the same as in the previous games in the series: the player controls a (unimportant or famous, weak or powerful) family in the wider medieval world, and is tasked with increasing his dynasty’s power and persevering in a world full of intrigue, religious fanaticism, inter-house feuds and rivalries, and cultural conflict, from generation to generation. Probably easier said than done, especially since Paradox strategy games have come to earn a reputation as rather complicated and “noob-unfriendly” games. The truth, however, is that CKIII fares quite better in that regard; apart from a verbose but very informative Tutorial, the game features much more streamlined gameplay mechanisms and UI compared to CKII, significantly mitigating the headaches a newcomer would get when first glances at its general environment. The above, of course, does not mean that CKIII’s characteristically deep gameplay has been diluted in any way. It is in fact even more profound than Crusader Kings II in its “vanilla” state, since it provides at launch most of the features incorporated to CKII via several paid DLC and free updates. Some of these features are even further expanded upon.
One such feature is the choice of Lifestyles for the character the player currently controls. Introduced to CKII with the “Way of Life” DLC, these were simple “specialization” traits we could select to set a specific focus for our character, with our choices also producing several trait-specific unique game events. In CKIII this system is radically expanded; now our characters can earn Experience Points in their desired Lifestyle category (Diplomacy, Martial, Stewardship, Intrigue and Learning). When accumulating enough XP (its acquisition is affected by various modifiers, as well as our choices in game events) we can select a Perk in one of the three unique Skill Trees in each Lifestyle category, with Perks offering various significant bonuses. At launch, some Perks might be a bit overpowered and in need of balancing, but on principle the whole Lifestyles system radically enhances the game’s RP factor and gameplay variety.
Another important aspect that has been modified/enhanced compared to what we’ve seen in CKII is Intrigue. The way Schemes are implemented now kinda reminds me of… archaeological digs in Stellaris’ Ancient Relics DLC: instead of a simple percentage which indicates our scheme’s power, our Schemes now come with an indicative date of completion, and every month they receive a check which calculates their progress, chance of success, and the possibility of us being revealed as the masterminds behind the scheme, while also triggering new scheme-specific events which offer extra options that can aid the scheme’s success (or not, if we fail these events). This new system might sound complicated in principle, but it is in fact very simple, informative, and adds to the narrative that accompanies each Scheme.
We also have Secrets and Hooks. The former is pretty self-explanatory: juicy bits of information involving one or more characters, which can be “fished” by means of Intrigue. These might have to do with personal matters (extramarital affairs, bastards born outside wedlock, heretical religious views, etc) or a Scheme that is currently being planned or has already been completed (if, for example, we successfully carry out a Scheme aimed at murdering someone, we acquire the personal Secret “Murderer of ‘X character’). Once these Secrets become known, they can either be exposed in order to harm a character (e.g. since Adultery is a crime in most western societies, an exposed Fornicator can be imprisoned without consequence), or traded for a weak or strong Hook. These are something like “favors” that can be called upon in order to fulfill certain demands. For example, during the vote in order to elect the next Holy Roman Emperor, if we have Strong Hooks on one or more of the nobles with the right to vote, we can spend these hooks in order to force them to vote for our candidate of choice (or even to vote for ourselves, if we are a candidate).
One could highlight a wide variety of such big or small changes/additions to many aspects of the game, most of which are definitely a step in the right direction. One such addition is the introduction of a Stress meter which calculates the stress our character acquires due to the ails and troubles of governing a medieval fiefdom, with high Stress levels reducing our character’s fertility, health and general life expectancy (while also triggering new stress-related events). Another new feature is the ability to spend Piety points in order to found our own religion, with its own tenets, rules and regulations (imagine the roleplaying possibilities of being the head of a Hedonistic, Polyamorous, Incestual cult).
Of course, not all changes are so clear-cut as to be evaluated objectively positively or negatively. Some of the more hardcore fans might object to the radical simplification of ships: in contrast to CKII, where we had to raise separate Fleet units in order to transport our troops across bodies of water (with each ship carrying up to 100 soldiers), ships have been completely removed from CKIII. In order to transport an army across water, now all we have to do is… select it and right-click on the target destination, and our troops start moving towards their destination without the need for separate Transport units. A similar simplification has been applied to the way armies are raised. Instead of each county raising its own troops and then us having to select all armies and move them towards a destination, now once we click on “Raise all armies” then all our troops automatically start gathering at our capital (or some other rally point, if we’ve set one) as a single, combined army unit.
If there’s one thing that is consistent and unchanged from CKII to III, this is the incredibly addictive gameplay and RP variety. Aside from the obvious variety when selecting our starting fief (from a lowly lord in Ireland, Africa or India, up to Holy Roman Emperor or Emperor of the Byzantine Empire), the freedom we have in selecting how to progress through each playthrough is nothing short of amazing. Do we want our characters to be Lord Varys or Petyr Baelish-like intricate webweavers who move in the shadows and extort secrets and hooks? Perhaps we want them to be respected beacons of knowledge, morality and diplomacy instead? Maybe we’d rather they used military might to expand their state, whichever that is? Should they opt to accumulate vast amounts of money and swim in it while the world around them burns? Should they found and spread some ridiculous heretical religion? Or perhaps they should focus on increasing religious fervor in the Catholic church and launch Crusades to reclaim the Holy Lands? Every single one of the above playstyles is valid, and, as is the case in every Paradox strategy game, each game session is sure to offer different challenges and thrills.
It becomes clear that Crusader Kings III may be an “ideal” sequel. Improved graphics, UI and loading times compared to CKII, enhanced gameplay mechanics, more base content, more “noob-friendly”… and all that without sacrificing its complexity or gameplay variety. What more could one want?
The truth is that, despite the simplifications mentioned above (which could be judged as “towards the wrong direction” by some), the main flaws I could find in CKIII are highlighted mainly when I take into account all the aspects of its predecessor, including the economic model that’s been pursued in its development.
It’s no secret that Paradox… likes releasing DLC. Their overzealousness in this matter becomes abundantly clear when one browses Steam and notices that the Imperial Edition for Crusader Kings II, which includes all its DLC, currently costs more than 250 euros. And thus the first problem rises: if someone has already invested such amounts of money in CKII, it is only natural that they will be more than sceptical and reluctant to invest 50 more euros for the base CKIII game, and then even more money for the DLC it is sure to receive in the future.
To their credit, the game’s developers have stated that “they won’t rehash CKII DLC like The Sims” when planning future CKIII DLC. However, this statement indirectly brings me to the second problem: the fact that the base CKIII game, despite being more or less “complete” when compared to the CKII Imperial Edition, doesn’t contain 100% of this edition’s features at launch. For example, we can’t play the game as a Theocracy or a Merchant Republic (a feature introduced to CKII with “The Republic” DLC) despite the fact that such states already exist in the game and can be played by the AI. The same can be said for the game’s two available starting dates (867 and 1066 AD), in contrast to CKII+DLC where we could start eariler (769) or later (1337) than that. There’s no real reason why these features are not included in the base version of CKIII, and I only hope that players won’t have to purchase them as DLC in the future.
Putting the above concerns aside, Crusader Kings III, even in its early state, does manage to dispel one of the fears usually accompanying the release of recent Paradox strategy titles: the prospect of them being “blank canvases” and a rough collection of features that needs a ton of updates, patches and DLC in order to become something noteworthy. Such fears were, to a lesser or greater extent, realised in Stellaris, Europa Universalis IV, as well as Imperator: Rome, but are in no way true for CKIII. The game is more than complete in regards to its content, virtually bug-free (I only experienced one or two insignificant glitches in the 30+ hours I’ve put into the game), and is sure to offer guaranteed thrills both to existing fans who want to move on from CKII and to prospective new fans who want to experience the gameplay of one of the most unique grand strategy titles of our times.