I’ll begin by saying that Bannerlord is in good shape for being in early access, but it is still early days and everything that follows is subject to change. There are bugs, mostly crash related, but hotfixes have been incoming fast, so the game has been getting more stable by the day.
When starting, you’re treated to an in-depth character creator. You begin by choosing your culture group which grants a small bonus and determines your starting position on the map. Next, you can choose between - and I counted - 42 types of facial hair alongside countless sliders to customise your head shape.
Then onto your backstory, with each decision adding focus and attribute points to your character. These points don’t add any perks directly, but instead make leveling those skills faster and allow you to level them higher. All progress is made through action, so fighting with a bow will increase your bow skill and unlock perk choices as you go along.
You’ll be spending most of your time on the world map, moving your party from place to place, an act that will level your athletics or horsemanship as a byproduct. Keeping horses in your inventory lets you move faster and carry more weight. This in turn lets you pursue the roaming bandits without chasing them across the map for full day/night cycles. Or maybe you’d prefer to run your own trade convoy which early game is a great source of Denars (gold).
Later in the game you can hire caravans to make you money but these are expensive to set up and take a companion away from your party. Personally, I’ve found it profitable enough to just fill my inventory whenever I pass by a settlement and sell on nearby - the game helpfully gives trading rumours on some items that let you know where you can buy them lower or sell them higher.
One great feature is time pausing automatically when you aren’t moving. Double clicking will also speed up time for longer journeys. This feels a lot more intuitive than having to keep manually pausing, resuming, and changing speeds. It’s also a lot less tiring on the mind.
You’ll come across hundreds of settlements and approaching will open up a window that lets you interact with everything you need easily. You can choose to walk around the locations and explore but I found myself clicking on whichever NPC I wanted to talk to rather than run around looking for them.
This is also where I get a little annoyed. For some reason each time you want to speak to a quest giver you have to physically load into the street view to deal with them ‘face to face’. I’d have preferred the same approach they took with trade and recruitment, where you just get instant access; clean, simple, quick.
For me at least, having half a dozen loading screens breaks immersion more than ‘seeing’ the NPC build it. Frankly, at this point I’ve given up even bothering with them at all, partly the loading and partly the fact that most quests are drawn from a small pool of options and many will make you more enemies than friends with the relation system.
Small settlements have a primary product which is often cheaper to buy there than elsewhere and these villages sell only a handful of items, while big cities are your one stop shop for everything an adventuring party needs. The cities also have taverns where you can hire new companions and ransom any captives. If you feel like a spot of sport or a little harmless practice, these cities hold tournaments where you risk nothing but your pride. Finally we have castles that sell nothing but are the seat of power for a local lord, and without giving any spoilers away, you’ll be needing to speak to a bunch of them.
As you travel the world you’ll gather a party of soldiers and companions to fight under your command. The troops can be recruited everywhere except castles, with the numbers and strength available dependent on your reputation with the NPC leaders. Each culture group has their own unique units but they mostly boil down to infantry, archers, and horsemen.
If you can’t hire the best troops yet, don’t worry, the basic recruits are upgradeable as they gain experience. The number you can have increases with your clan level and various perks from the skill tree, and it’s a good idea to max out your troop count whenever you can. The same idea applies to companions but with a much lower cap.
These companions are a different matter altogether and must be hired at high cost from taverns. These are named characters with their own stories and act as your lieutenants, able to be sent off to perform quests on your behalf as well as fighting in the tactical battles.
The most common type of battle you’ll fight early on will involve bandits and are mostly simple affairs with both sides charging straight at each other. I do wish the developers had spent some time fleshing out the dialogue and while I accept this is still early access, it really wouldn’t have taken much effort to not have the same two lines repeated every single time you fight them, something you’ll be doing constantly.
The battles themselves are fast paced, with these early ones lasting only a minute or two. They are enjoyable but repetitive, and suffer from a definite clunk. It seems to me that you can either fight alongside your men, or move them tactically, but not both. The controls for selecting and moving them around don’t mesh well with being in the action yourself.
That said, the other side of the clunkiness is the combat system itself. I’m by no means skilled in the melee - opting for a bow and a better overview of the battle - but it feels sluggish and awkward to fight hand to hand. Duels tend to come down to who hits first as any blow interrupts and staggers leaving them open to repeated mashing of LMB until dead.
Shields make you virtually invincible, able to deflect any strike without effort but locking you into defence and preventing you from striking back without backing off far enough to avoid their constant swings. Manoeuvring is the problem here, as with no dash or sprint you’re only able to retreat by inches as they pause to attack. I’ve played other medieval melee games that do this far better, though they all focus entirely on the combat to the exclusion of the many other aspects of Bannerlord.
At the end of the fight, assuming you’ve won, you plunder a little Denar, take a few prisoners, and loot the battlefield for equipment to sell - it’s a rather satisfying game loop. As you gather more renown from battles and quests you will improve the status of your clan. Eventually you are be able to pledge your service to a kingdom in the hope of gaining lands of your own. After this you can develop settlements and expand your domain through the wars of your liege.
MOUNT AND BLADE II: BANNERLORD VERDICT
Bannerlord is already a deeply engaging world but clearly an early access title. At time of writing, many of the perks appear broken or missing, negating character development except to unlock better weapons or hitpoints. That said, if you can ignore that and the occasional balance issue, the game has a lot to enjoy, and with the regular updates, the future is looking bright.
TOP GAME MOMENT
Headshotting a charging calvary unit from horseback.
Large and creative skill progression
Good strategy layer
Decent music and sound design
Easy clicking into the encyclopedia
Many perks feel worthless
Combat can be clunky
Complete lack of variety in flavour text
Can feel repetitive with no sense of direction
Little explanation of how systems work