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When Mount & Blade II: Bannerlord launched into early access, it crashed Steam's servers on its way to becoming the platform's biggest release of 2020. I guess you could say people really wanted a new Mount & Blade game.
And since we count ourselves among those people, once the servers were up we immediately started working on our early access review of the game. Back then, Bannerlord was already showing some signs of greatness but wasn't quite where it was supposed to be. Which is exactly what you'd expect from an early access release.
And now, two and a half years later, the early access tag is finally removed, and Bannerlord is available on consoles as well as PC. So naturally, it's time for us to revisit Calradia, fight some looters, besiege some castles, and see what the properly released version of Bannerlord has in store for us.
A Quick Recap
If you're entirely unfamiliar with the Mount & Blade series, you should check out the early access review linked above, as it can serve as a decent introduction to TaleWorlds Entertainment's sandbox RPG formula.
But the general gist of it is that you're playing a character in a medieval sandbox world that's perfectly fine with doing its own thing even without any input from you.
The game's kingdoms wage war and make peace. Their lords run around the map recruiting armies, participating in tournaments, and improving their settlements. Peasants and caravans go about their business while brigands try to waylay them.
Being a free agent, you can participate in all of those activities and more. You start the game as just a lone nobody with a few denars to your name but later can become an industry mogul and lead armies of hundreds or even thousands of men into battle. You can support any of the game's kingdoms or even create your own.
At its core, it's a very addicting formula. But seeing how the game is so ambitious and open-ended, there are plenty of opportunities for things to go wrong. In a perfect world, two years of early access and plenty of people providing live feedback should be a great way to perfect the formula or at least deal with the most glaring of issues. Sadly, ours is not a perfect world, friends.
I Can't Believe It's Not Butter(lord)
I've revisited Bannerlord several times throughout its early access journey, and each time there were some improvements but also some new broken things and very puzzling design decisions. The game's full release is no different.
Take the skill system for example. Compared to the early access version, the perks you get for reaching certain skill thresholds now work. Some of them are even pretty useful and make you want to build towards them, like the ability to gauge prices for trade goods, convert bandits into real troops, or zoom in further when aiming with a crossbow.
Unfortunately, the well of ideas seems to have run dry well before all the perks were designed, so a decent bunch of them merely increases your speed or damage stats by 2-5 percent instead of doing something interesting. And we're talking about a game where on average you'll be doing somewhere in the vicinity of 20-50 damage per hit or when charging a foe on horseback, just kill any target in a single swing, which makes those bonuses barely noticeable. Some of those perks also affect your army, I guess so that they can be useless on a larger scale.
Perks also tend to have a secondary effect that's only applied when you, or NPCs in your party, are acting as governors, captains, or quartermasters. It's a good idea on paper, but it breaks down when you realize that these effects are scattered all over the skill tree, so for example, being good at shooting crossbows also somehow makes a character better at managing a castle.
But the worst part about the game's skill system is that it doesn't really matter. Sure, it's there. It does something. But at the end of the day, even without any of those skills, you'll still do pretty well even on the highest "Realistic" difficulty.