To war once more with the deeply complex storytelling machine that is Mount & Blade. The sequel finally rallies for battle out of the trenches of Early Access. Has Mount & Blade II: Bannerlord come prepared?
If Mount & Blade: Warband wasn’t intimidatingly vast enough for you, then Bannerlord will fill you with an almost cosmic dread concerning your insignificance in its multi-faceted strategy-RPG world. You can be and do almost anything within the social and political climate of Bannerlord’s Calradia. Taking that first step into this world is akin to walking off a cliff, uncertain of what will come next is an embarrassing two-foot drop, a mile-long plummet to your death, or a lake of opportunity to swim in. Its potential scale is genuinely unnerving and exciting.
Civil war looms in the realm, and you begin as a mote of dust in the grand scheme of things. From there, however, you can build your way up to court nobility or lead armies into battle, and find your own personal journey to that point. It’s less about the story provided and more about the one you form through your decisions. Mount & Blade II: Bannerlord, much like its predecessor, is an anecdote machine at its best, but you really need to put the work in to make the most of it.
It’s a game that often struggles under the weight of its ambition, and it’s deeper in some areas than others that feel like they’d make for an even more interesting part of the experience. On the technical side, Bannerlord is at least not visibility held together with spit, chewing gum, and sellotape from 1989. Still, it’s a trade-off between visual appeal and mechanical prowess that leans further towards the mechanics’ side of the fence.
As a result, Mount & Blade II: Bannerlord is not a visually appealing package, but it tries very hard to make up for that in the part that matters most - how it plays.
As I alluded to earlier, Mount & Blade II: Bannerlord has a kind of freedom that excites. The possible negative side of this is that you have to be of a certain mind to get the most out of it. I’ll admit the opening hours of the game are a monumental slog of learning I haven’t felt since doing my GCSEs. This is a tough geode of a game. You could be hammering at its surface for some time before it ever enchants you with its sparkly majesty. Patience is a virtue, as Rachel Weisz once said as Evie in her delightfully sing-song way in The Mummy, but I imagine for most people unfamiliar with the stubbornness of Mount & Blade, they’d be in the camp of the response Brendan Fraser’s Rick O’Connell gives… ‘Not right now it isn’t’.
Towns feel like mini worlds on their own.
This is par for the course with games as deliberately offputting to a casual observer as Mount & Blade II: Bannerlord can be. The key thing to remember here is this is a studio steadfastly sticking to its plan of action for its games, and that’s a commendable thing. Embrace the cult, eschew the masses is a risky mantra to live by, but there’s benefit to be found in courting an audience that truly understands what you want to put out in the world.
In fairness, this game is a lot more accessible than the original, which often felt like you were trying to solve the Hellraiser puzzle box in an escape room designed by Jigsaw. There are tutorials that teach plenty, even if they aren’t exactly riveting introductions to the ruleset.
For all of Mount & Blade II’s front, it’s actually surprisingly flexible, and rarely does it seem to punish you for trying things out. Want to live the life of a monk? There’s nothing stopping you. Want to be a weaselly git that sells stolen wares to amass a personal fortune? Go right ahead. Where most RPG games funnel you down a path to greatness, Mount & Blade II certainly has that if you want it, but you can just as easily wallow in filth and misery and get the same joy out of it.
The standout of the package, however, is the large-scale battles. For me, participating in epic battles in games is one of my greatest pleasures. From Shadow of War to Dynasty Warriors, I look forward to being in among the ruckus, but Mount & Blade II’s battles truly feel like something massive.
There's plenty of environment variety
Not only can you participate in them yourself, you can also sit back and run it like a proper strategy game. Mount & Blade II is a genre magpie, nicking bits and pieces to give players a frankly astonishing amount of variety for one game. On the wider stage, battles can be strategized down to unti placement, tactical maneuvers, and ensuring you can afford the right equipment for the job. On the ground, the intricate combat mechanics add a healthy intensity as you need to make contextual movements in order to attack with any meaningful outcome.
And in the game’s tradition, losing such things is not really a game over moment, but another chance to build yourself a brand new tale of redemption. Or skulk back into the taverns and pick fights with fellow drunks. I’m not telling you how to live your digital life.
If the campaign’s hard knock life isn’t to your tastes, then you could simply sip from the cup of sandbox mode. Here you can be whatever you want to be in the world right from the off thanks to a series of tweakable options. Think of it less like a sandbox mode, and rather more of a custom scenario mode, because all of Mount & Blade II is essentially a sandbox. This one’s just a little freer.
The enormity of Mount & Blade II is bound to feel overwhelming for most people, but a bit of perseverance could see you discovering a timesink that will be the source of many a happy anecdote.
MOUNT AND BLADE II: BANNERLORD VERDICT
Mount and Blade 2: Bannerlord is very much a superior sequel in so many ways. It’s still a bit of a brick wall to get past in terms of understanding its finer points, but keep hammering away and you will find them.
TOP GAME MOMENT
Surviving a great battle.
Has huge scope for playstyle flexibility
Can build your own epic tales
More accessible than the previous game
A bit rickety in places
Still quite overwhelming