This is going to be the most personal review I’ve ever written, as well as my last. It’s also probably going to be a tad indulgent, so if you want me to just get into the meat of the game instead, I have this handy anchor link for you.
My best friend died earlier this year. Not due to “The Event”, which would have just really pissed him off as he was taking the whole thing seriously. No, he became the first person ever to die in a train accident on the Isle of Wight after many, many decades of the service.
That’s the thing about Levi. He was always doing things differently. He even probably would have laughed about setting a new record, once he got over the utter absurdity of it all. It was an absolutely senseless way to die, and also absolutely Levi.
He was at once the smartest guy I knew and also the dumbest. The man was not blessed with common sense. That was something we shared, as well as creepily similar backgrounds and heritage. The Mulholland and Donnellan names originate from Ireland and both our families hot-stepped it over to Wales due to potatoes, somehow ending up with both of us meeting on a small island off the coast of England.
The similarities just kept going after that. We somehow ended up getting the exact same tattoo, though he always said I copied him despite the fact I got it first. We later compromised and said that we would bump tattoos at each other’s weddings. We also shared unending cynicism, a passion for writing (he even wrote here once upon a time), and many other little things that make friendships last for a decade and a half.
Our friendship wasn’t always smooth sailing over nearly 15 years of slapstick scraps and constant bickering, though. We had more bust-ups than vassals once you try to take their rights away and more complications than MLS registration rules in Football Manager, yet there was a love there that undercut all the bollocks. And really, looking back at it now, any time we did fall out really was just bollocks.
One of the things that bonded us more than most was Crusader Kings II.
I moved to Brighton in the early 2010s in the hopes of writing jokes for Levi so he could pursue a career in stand-up. Me thinking that it would all work out is probably more hilarious than any one-liner I could muster — I am funny two, maybe three times per calendar year. But hey, at least we tried.
We went through just the worst times in the hopes of making a go of it, living in near poverty because Brighton is Brighton. Our friendship was tested constantly, yet there was always one thing that bonded us: Crusader Kings.
When we had to go out hunting for coins dropped on the floor, steal food (yes, I know), and re-roll cigarettes we had already smoked for the little bits of tobacco left over (yes, I know), at least Crusader Kings’ tales of patricide, matricide, and every other cide you could think of kept us going. We made our own dynasties and succeeded where we had so emphatically failed in real life.
After many years of playing the second game and swapping stories while living in different parts of the country, we were both so excited for Crusader Kings 3 to arrive. I think Levi was hoping for it be the saving grace of what’s been a Bad Year.
That’s why this review is so late. Crusader Kings 3 is inseparable from Levi in my mind, so much so that I almost dreaded playing it. I put it off at every opportunity for a while and even now struggle to play it and not switch over to Discord to chat to him about it. Every time I conquer a county or successfully murder some uppity vassal, my instinct is to swap stories with him like we used to. I can’t.
But at least I can talk to you (yeah, you, the one wondering whether this is Cultured Vultures or Kotaku) about it. After seven years, I feel this is also a good spot to cap off my game reviewing career. I started Cultured Vultures not long after the disastrous Brighton Experiment and the site now demands too much of my time that reviewing games simply doesn’t allow. I am writing this for closure, so it makes sense to close another book at the same time.
While Levi almost definitely would have hated my forced poeticism, I know something he would have absolutely loved: Crusader Kings 3.
Nearly 800 words in and I’m yet to even discuss the damn game. I’ve kind of been stalling for time, not because I have nothing to say about Crusader Kings 3 itself, but actually because there is so much to talk about that it’s almost daunting to even attempt to. Where do you begin with such an epic, life-consuming strategy game? Well, let me try.
The first thing you should know about Crusader Kings 3 is that it does not care if you have any obligations outside of the game at all. Need to spend time with loved ones? Too bad. We’re going raiding and marrying off our children the second they’re born.
You start off with complete control over your experience, so much so that it’s almost a little dizzying. Luckily, the game plops you into a petty kingdom in Ireland if you want to play the tutorial, which actually turns out to be child’s play once you get into the “real” game. The tutorial, which gives you a whole load of leeway and holds your hand constantly, led me into thinking that I was the best king of all time.
I was wrong. Due to some very cheeky succession laws and vassal nonsense, my weakened armies were obliterated by some invading Swedes 100 years into my playthrough, rendering me nothing but a duke. While I gave up on that save pretty quickly, I then went on to have an altogether different experience in another part of the United Kingdom, this time playing on the dreaded Ironman mode that puts an end to potential save scumming. However, as devastating as losing everything in Crusader Kings 3 can be, I don’t think I would ever resort to loading an older save game. Failure is just a part of the constant learning process, and it also produces its own share of unforgettable memories.
Once I had much freer rein, I decided to start life as an early Viking raider and try to stake my claim on Britain. Things were going well: I had raided every bishopric within an inch of atheism and sown my seed all across the land with more concubines than one man should ever feasibly have. I sired more children than Cletus, each of them married off to a powerful leader in Europe to forge strong alliances. I was feared, I was powerful, I had a fantastic beard.
Then I died. My heir, due to succession laws that I had barely looked at, was a club-footed and shy distant cousin who must have been elected by my vassals out of pure spite for me. After they rose up, he (probably) accidentally fell over and died during a siege, ending my dynasty’s rule. Another lesson learned.
The next time was different. Well, the next next time after an almost instant failure as William of Normandy as I sent 5000 of my lads off to get instantly battered by the English. Sobered by the ten minute ordeal, I then started a new save as the king of Scotland, a rule that opened my eyes to the glorious depth of Crusader Kings 3 and completely sold me on the game.
The objective was simple: through subterfuge and slowly picking off the independent counties, I would eventually be powerful enough to overthrow the Danish rule of England and forge Britannia anew. I picked apart the petty kingdoms of Ireland, basically told the ruler of the Isle of Man he had a nice haircut to sway him to become my vassal, and made headway in Wales — I even won a battle where I live right now. My vassals, though, they weren’t happy. After constant rebellions, I beat them back and placed them directly under my thumb. Then, out of nowhere, I was assassinated, rule passing down to my young son and a lot of my hard work undone.
Ruling as a child in Crusader Kings 3 is not as intense or as involving as an adult (you can’t murder anyone, how droll), yet it does change things up in a welcome way. You can, for instance, start training to become the ruler you want to be as an adult, and you can even have a pet cat and dog. I instantly regretted naming them after my real life pets when Jasper brought me the head of Dino, though.
Following years of learning and developing as a ruler, the character portrait constantly updating as I approached adulthood, as well as beating back what felt like endless rebellions from my asshole vassals (vassholes, let’s call them), I was finally at the age to become a true ruler. I obviously started scheming and getting drunk straight away — growing up in the medieval times is apparently no different to today. Yet this one vasshole just wouldn’t relent in his hatred for me. No matter how nice I was to him, the dude just would not let it go, eventually culminating in a rebellion to end all rebellions. After calling in favours and getting into serious debt to hire mercenaries, I squashed the uprising and decided to end any future issues by revoking his titles and leaving him landless.
Then my spymaster told me something that left me gobsmacked. This vasshole, the one who had been harassing me through my infantile rule for years and years seemingly without due cause, was the same man who had killed my father. He was right there, at my mercy, and I let him go. I saw red. While he wandered the lands, I ended his dynasty there and then, executing the most powerful members of his family and imprisoning the weakest in my dungeon, never to be let out.
I don’t regret it. Even as the vassholes rose up once again and somehow got Sweden (who need to just relax, by the way) on their side to end my short reign, I wouldn’t have done anything differently. In fact, I saw it as the perfect playthrough. I weaved a story with a beginning, middle and violent end. That’s what makes Crusader Kings 3 so fantastic. Away from all the stats, the many moving parts, and just a bit too much incest, it’s the stories you create that separate the game from its peers.
If you want to enjoy success in Crusader Kings 3, however, you do have to engage with its many, initially exhausting systems. It’s a lot to take in, so much so that you can probably play for hundreds of hours and still discover new things. Whether it’s the many different traits, perks, and lifestyles, there’s a reason why Crusader Kings 3 has been such a staple of the day-to-day for people who have been playing since launch. I have had to stop and start this review several times as I keep going to play it for a quick reference, and then, oops, it’s five hours later.
Lifestyles are the core definers for your chosen character and dictate how good they are at basically being a ruler with ample room to be the exact kind of ruler you want to be. Choose to focus on Diplomacy and you will be able to talk your way out of sticky situations and potentially even win land with words. Martial will aid you in war, Stewardship will increase the amount of coin you can earn, while high Intrigue will allow you live out your wildest dreams of being Littlefinger. To cap those off, Learning, a somewhat meek lifestyle that I personally could never jive with, wins you favour with your religion while also paving the way for more cultural innovations.
On their own, these Lifestyles are simple. It’s when your character’s traits come into play and you gain the chance to truly roleplay on a deep level that Crusader Kings 3 blossoms. Right now, I am playing as my fifth consecutive king of Scotland, who, while an overall more suitable ruler than his vanilla father, has some fun quirks.
While he is a force on the battlefield, he is also a zealot who needs to flagellate himself to calm down, suggesting there’s some kind of duality in his mind that he always struggles with. This is reinforced by him also having the Shy trait that causes him Stress, suggesting that I failed him when I played as his father. To me, it initially read like I forced him into a life of war that he wasn’t built for, putting his mind in constant turmoil. I actually checked to see what could have caused his obsession with flagellation, and it turns out that my wife and his mother was a sadist.
Sorry to be a little heartless, but that’s fantastic.
If I was being a little more careful with my dynasty, I could have nurtured King Donald V (Donald is just a very funny name to me) by finding a guardian that suited his personality a bit better than me, the homewrecker and apparent husband of Satan. Random events can also decide what kind of person your children will become, and the game in general is full of these little moments that can shape your playthrough. One time, I discovered another son had been torturing animals (I am a bad dad, alright) and decided to divert him from being the next Dexter by making him Just instead of the Sadist he would otherwise have become.
While this all may sound like a lot to juggle, it’s really only the start. As well as perks that can give small buffs to lifestyles and other stats, Crusader Kings 3 has temporary Traits that come around for illness, being wounded, and the like. If any of your base stats suffer due to some ailment or random event, that can have a huge impact on your rule. Following a random event that left me wounded, my Prowess and Martial took a nosedive, emboldening my vassholes to rise up while simultaneously making a county’s peasants try to take their land back.
The effectiveness of your ruler is also determined by how good their Council is, members of your Realm who aid with each of the Lifestyles. If you have poor Stewardship, an excellent Steward can alleviate that while handsomely adding to your coffers. They can even perform tasks for you, your Spymaster able to find secrets that you can use to gain hooks on other people and your Marshal bringing control back to disillusioned realms, which will in turn help public opinion and therefore how much money you can earn and how many levies you can raise. There are so many systems feeding into each other in Crusader Kings 3 that I can only really scratch the surface of them without writing a wiki instead of a review.
While this sounds like a lot of busywork, it’s definitively Crusader Kings. You are not always supposed to have fun — sometimes it’s about the crawl before the sprint. You’ll be on your stomach, clawing your way through the mud and grime more often than you will be King Big Balls Barry.
The attrition is worth the reward, though. Finally conquering somewhere after so many battles over so many months and maybe even years is a feeling I wish I could bottle; the “thonk” noise as my war score reaches 100% so I can enforce my demands rarely fails to send my dopamine levels into overdrive. Even defending can create some totally brilliant moments. Stopping not one, but two holy wars against me at the same time made me more excited than any win in a battle royale game ever has. I am not ashamed to admit that I leapt from my chair, fists pumping like a mad gorilla as I chucked insults at pixels on the screen that dared to step to me.
None of this would have been possible without strong alliances and my own military force, which, while smaller than most of my enemies, had been cultivated like Spartans. With the best Commander in the land, expensive but worthwhile Men-At-Arms, and good understanding of my land, I was able to shuttle battles into tough spots for my foes and whittle them down over time until they were pretty much a non-factor. Then, once my land had been more or less secured, I sailed to my attackers’ own lands and captured their children to end things once and for all. I entered these two wars as an under the radar ruler and left them a juggernaut.
Sometimes domestic affairs are just as, if not more, exciting than foreign dealings, however. Keeping your vassholes happy is a constant balancing act between strengthening your dynasty and making sure it doesn’t prematurely screech to a halt. Depending on the successions laws and lay of your land in general, it might be better to keep all titles within your family. However, what if a cousin is left out, or you have to revoke a title from a vasshole to make sure your heir has everything they need? You might discover that your heir has a tough time on their hands as Factions begin to form and discontent spreads within your realm. Crusader Kings 3 is as much about planning for the future as it is the present.
It’s such a vast, deep game, in fact, that just talking about it makes me want to dive in for another, relationship-testing session that goes on until the early hours of the morning. I haven’t played any game this year that’s been as distracting from the constant 2020-ness of 2020 as this — I can see it taking up an absolutely dangerous amount of my time throughout the rest of the year and even beyond. Like every game ever made, though, it’s not perfect.
My most prominent bug bear has to be the UI, which is busy at the best of times and then just an absolute mess when lots of things are happening at once. If you have both side panels open (the left to look at a character in detail, the right to analyse decisions pertaining to them) and the top and middle pop ups also appear at the same time, it is chaos. Yes, you can pause, but then clicking off of the pop-ups can somehow result in you sending troops away in another direction. It’s a small thing that really bugged me when it kept happening, though this might not be such a big thing for you.
I think there are also one or two balance issues that might need closer inspection. As well as archers being far too strong, especially as they are crazy cheap to accumulate, there are certain ploys that feel totally broken. Having the Golden Obligations perk means just a bonkers revenue stream as you are able to send your Spymaster to dig up dirt and then sell that hook back to your victim for sometimes hundreds of coins at a time. If you have a strong hook on a character, you can potentially keep blackmailing them for years and years and extort them until the day they die.
These are things that can be fixed and I expect Paradox to be on top of everything, especially based off how much they supported the previous game through the years. Crusader Kings 3 is likely to forge its own dynasty as one of the best grand strategy games of all time, and I know Levi would have felt the same. Whenever I kidnap the pope, subjugate some sad sack, or marry my child off to a sixty year old nudist, I will remember him.
Rest in peace, brother. I miss you.
A Steam key was provided by PR for the purposes of this review.
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