One part Dynasty Warriors, one part Total War, Mount & Blade has always been the scrappy counterpart to your typical lavish, AAA fantasy roleplaying game. Developed by Turkish studio, TaleWorlds Entertainment, there’s a charming ruggedness to the franchise that has drawn in a legion of fans, not to mention a vibrant modding scene.
After years of development and anticipation from the fanbase, the sequel is finally here. Mostly. The game is now in Early Access, giving us a warts and all look at how it’s shaping up, with no full release date revealed.
For those Mount & Blade newcomers eyeing up Bannerlord, don’t worry, you don’t need to have played those past games. Meanwhile, for returning fans, easing yourself into this sequel is like slipping back into that same battle-worn saddle you’ve been riding for more than a decade.
Much of what made the original 2008 medieval sim so engrossing remains intact on a core level. You begin your journey as a relative nobody, wandering through a perilous sandbox where kingdoms collide, warlords scheme, and mercenaries look to ply their bloody trade.
Calradia is a land of opportunity and once the training wheels of Bannerlord’s tutorial are taken away, you are truly free to do as you please. That said, your actions are very limited to start off with. You’ll only have a handful of untrained recruits, a measly sum of money, and no influence with the six major factions that rule this continent.
Mount & Blade II, like its predecessors, is a game of two halves. For the most part you’ll have your eyes fixed on the campaign map, moving between territories and settlements, running trade routes, and picking up assignments. The more you interact with NPCs the more you’ll learn about the game world and its interwoven mechanics.
There’s a blend of roleplaying and management elements here that mesh together nicely, allowing you to portray a certain character archetype, focus on gaining wealth/influence, or a mixture of both.
The other half of Bannerlord comprises large scale, real-time battles. We’re talking hundreds of troops going head to head (up to a total of 1,000), all hacking and slashing as javelins, arrows, and crossbow bolts blot out the sun. You only control one character throughout Bannerlord, and they can get stuck right in amongst the melee. Combat here is simplistic yet skill-based, with weapon strikes aligned to the direction you swipe your mouse when attacking. It’s perhaps not as dynamic as some Mount & Blade fans would have hoped for, yet it flows a bit more smoothly than those past games.
Most players will instead opt to command their own armies from behind the frontline, issuing orders using Bannerlord’s much improved interface. Fumbling at the number and command keys can take some getting used to, though you’ll quickly memorise how to quickly have a specific unit charge or get your archers to hold fire.
It can take a while to acclimatise, though once you start rolling that snowball, you’ll feel Bannerlord’s hooks begin to tug. Your ranks will soon begin to swell and word of your deeds shall spread as well. Instead of hunting raiders and looters for petty change, you’ll eventually set your eyes on establishing a merchant empire, lending your sword to kings and emperors, or perhaps aligning with one of them.
For the most part, Bannerlord feels like a remake of the original Mount & Blade. Welcome quality of life changes have been peppered throughout, and the game’s mechanics much easier to understand while also shredding some awkward vagaries. That’s not to say TaleWorlds hasn’t introduced anything new with its sequel.
Several hours into the game you’ll start to peel back a more advanced level of play. It’s like lifting the cloth of the campaign map to see all the cogs and gears that actually govern this medieval sandbox. New features such as clans, workshops, caravans, and kingdom politics, will factor into your strategies, making Bannerlord a much more dense and rewarding game than its forebears.
It’s a much better looking game too and one with more of a distinct visual identity. Each of the six kingdoms have their own unique flavour, loosely based on real-world medieval cultures such as celts, vikings, romans, and mongols. Character models can still look a bit hokey, but there’s an improved level of detail and diversity. In terms of performance, there are some issues in this early access build that need ironing out, though PC gamers running Bannerlord on their pimped out machines will drool over their thousand-strong siege battles.
It’s not just bugs and technical enhancements that TaleWorlds are working on through Early Access. The developer has heaps of content and features still in the pipeline, from new story quests and voiced dialogue to making each city and settlement its own unique environment. Then there’s balancing, as well as improvements to the game’s online multiplayer which we haven’t even touched on.
Mount & Blade II: Bannerlord won’t launch fully for at least another year, going by what TaleWorlds have said, though there’s still plenty here to get stuck into. It’s the same dilemma with any early access title – Bannerlord will only continue to grow so you might want to hold off a few months for a more rounded, complete experience. That said, if you’re hankering for a hybrid RPG/sim right now then it’s time to sound the horns and saddle up.
Please note: This is an early access review of Mount & Blade II: Bannerlord based on the current 1.02 version available. A full release date has yet to be confirmed, but we will return with a scored review at that point.