Mount & Blade II: Bannerlord is an open world third-person strategy game that overwhelms you with options and choices and helps calm you back down by letting you rampage across giant medieval battlefields. Even though it’s a janky early access game, all I want to do right now is keep playing it. Clearly I’m not alone.
Mount & Blade II: Bannerlord, the long-awaited prequel to 2008’s Mount & Blade, has been in development for over eight years. Two days after it finally came out, it’s already one of Steam’s most popular games. There are currently just over 200,000 people playing it there, pushing Bannerlord well past Grand Theft Auto V to make it the fourth most-played game on the platform. While Bannerlord does have some things in common with Rockstar’s hit, it’s hardly the kind of game I’d expect to skyrocket to the top of the charts. The action is clunky, the world is ugly (at least when it’s running on my GTX 960), and since it’s an early access game, it’s still far from fully fleshed out. And yet after spending several hours with the game I’ve been thoroughly won over by it, ready to whittle away the late hours of the night trying to build my renown, strengthen my army, and maybe create a business or two on my way to forging an empire.
The first thing you do in the game is create your character, customising their appearance and stat sheet-augmenting backstory. Then there’s a brief combat tutorial teaching you how to attack and block from different directions with corresponding flicks of the mouse. Finally you set off to fight some bandits who were responsible for the deaths of your parents. It’s an incredibly short guided tour that ends by chucking you out into a vast continent full of villages, castles, roving war parties, and rival kingdoms.
Bannerlord expects you to find your own way in its brutal, perpetually turning world, and that journey is the whole point. You can travel from village to village completing tasks for local leaders in the hopes of earning some gold or at least enough goodwill to be able to recruit a fighter or two to join your ranks. Or you can set about chasing down parties of looters and raiders, ransoming off the prisoners you kidnap and conscripting others to slowly build up your forces.
Eventually you’ll have enough money to hire special lieutenants for your party and even a merchant caravan or two that will start generating its own revenue streams if properly protected. And from there, who knows. Swear fealty to a lord and get a nice big piece of land? Start businesses to create your own wares instead of just selling other people’s? Go to war and watch the political consequences of your deeds ripple across the map?
I haven’t been able to do most of these things yet, but the possibility of one day taking part in them has been enough to fuel my current ignoble grind. I’ve delivered sheep safely between villages, bought stolen goods from one place and sold them for a profit somewhere else, and killed hundreds of bandits and brigands who simply refuse to ever surrender, even when out-gunned 20 to one.
While much of Bannerlord’s management and exploration occurs on an overworld screen, battles are close-up and unfold in real time. You can give your armies marching orders, change their formations on the fly, and try to keep casualties down by being the tip of the spear as two sides collide. While I have no doubt that some people are extremely attuned to the demands of Bannerlord’s combat, I’ve struggled with the subtle flourishes and exact timing it requires. I’ve probably hacked away as much at the back of my horse’s neck as my opponents’ faces, and have decided as a result to spend most battles shooting arrows from afar. But taking the option to participate, however clumsily, can make for fun and tense encounters. My tactics will probably need to improve when it comes to castle sieges later in the game. For now, the chaos suits me.
Bannerlord also lets you explore villages, taverns, dungeons, and castle keeps close up. Often this just means holding down the left alt button to make principal characters glow and then going over and talking to them, but having each of these areas fleshed out in even slightly more detail goes a long way toward making the world feel huge and independent from my micro-managing gaze.
There’s certainly a strong power fantasy element to Bannerlord. A lot of what you do revolves around getting richer and more powerful, then using those resources to bend the rest of the world to your will. At the same time, its quests have plenty of loose ends, and I’ve failed more often at them than I’ve been successful. One village leader asked me to help train some of his citizens to help fight off raiders when the next harvest came. I got most of them killed in an ambush only a few days later. And then there was the merchant who wanted his daughter rescued from an apparent kidnapping, only it turned out her kidnapper was her lover and they’d run away to escape her arranged marriage, which was supposed to kick off a political alliance between rising families.
I tried to convince her to go back so I could collect my reward, since I needed to buy more meat for my soldiers and some fancy clothes for an upcoming audience with a king. She wasn’t having it, though, and soon her lover had challenged me to a duel. I figured at least allowing him that would somehow implicate both of us in the bloodshed and mask my selfishness somewhat. Only he never got the duel. As soon as I agreed, he came running across a pig stall at me only for my lieutenant to stab him in the back. The daughter said she’d hate and curse me for as long as she drew breath.
I don’t visit that village anymore. Fortunately, Bannerlord has hundreds more for me to hide out in.