Crusader Kings 3 Review on PC
Paradox is perhaps best-known for its grand strategy games, and at first sight, Crusader Kings 3 may seem to fit into that definition as well. Yet, those who know the series, are aware that it’s cut from a different cloth.
In Crusader Kings 3 you don’t play a nation, a kingdom, an empire, or anything impersonal like that. You play the rulers themselves, shaping them and their dynasty in whatever way you want.
As a result, while this game certainly has strong strategy elements, I would argue that its primary genre is RPG in its purest form.
As a matter of fact, it’s more a role-playing game than most games that are actually advertised as RPGs, because it offers more freedom in shaping up your characters and in behaving however you please instead of following a pre-determined route or story.
In Crusader Kings 3 you start your own personal story as a ruler of any rank between count and emperor (and their regional equivalents for non-European rulers), and then you can do pretty much whatever you want. The map is your canvas to paint in any way you please.
You can grow to conquer the world or stay in your small corner of land to frolic with your family-sized court, or anything in-between.
Speaking of the map, this time around it’s bigger and more complex than ever, and you can play whoever you want out of the box, regardless of religion and ethnicity, from North Africa in the south-west to the steppes of Asia in the north-east.
You can be a countryside count, a European king, the Holy Roman Emperor, a Viking raider, a powerful Caliph, a Maharaja in India, or a marauding Khan, and those are just a few examples. On top of that, cultural differences really matter, so each of those options (and many more) will lead to radically different stories and gameplay.
The size and scope of the map is just one example of this game’s frankly enormous content offering.
One of the usual issues with Paradox’s games is that they usually receive so many DLCs and expansions over the years that when you move to a new one in a series, you typically feel like you’re taking a step back, with many features missing of greatly diminished.
Yet, this time around the development team managed to break free of that curse. While Crusader Kings 3 doesn’t come with everything added to Crusader Kings 2 over eight years, it inherited enough of it to feel like a real sequel and not like a return to the Bronze Age.
On top of that, there are many new elements that enrich the package, achieving plenty of evolution especially in the RPG elements mentioned above.
The Lifestyle system is a full-fledged array of skill trees that you can use to customize your rulers in a much more granular way.
The same goes for the Legacies mechanic, which lets you customize your dynasty passing down acquired traits through the generations.
I guess this may not be seen as an absolute positive, as some may miss the unpredictability of Crusader Kings 2. The additional RPG elements grant you more control, which means that your characters and heirs will progress in a more predictable way, but personally I really enjoy the balance between careful planning and random wackiness achieved by this new game.
This time around, Paradox also put in a serious effort to make the game more accessible thanks to a very clever system of tooltips that explain basically every concept you need to know. That being said, don’t expect a super-streamlined introduction to this rags-to-riches simulator. It’s definitely more accessible than its predecessors, but there are so many things to do that newcomers may still feel overwhelmed.
You have to take care of military expansion and defense, keep a look on your growing family, groom your heirs to be the best (or the worst, because that might be fun) they can be upon your death, deal with religious matters, public order, urban and rural development, bickering vassals, massive invasions, health concerns, politics, intrigue, romance, sex, friendship, hatred, revenge, and so many more things that I’m probably forgetting quite a few.
While this may indeed be a bit overwhelming to those accosting this rather unique series for the first time, it’s also extremely rewarding due to the freedom it grants to roleplay your ruler however you see fit in a storm of emergent situations that is impossible to comprehensively describe.
When your complex plots come to fruition or you play the political game flawlessly to finally get a claim on land you really want, it’s extremely satisfying.
You can become a faithful crusader defending the faith against the infidels, or blackmail the Pope after your spymaster found out that he’s a deviant, and then use the hook you earned to force him to grant you a claim on a rival realm opening the road to conquest. The choice is yours.
On top of that, you’re not even required to play only one role. Once your first ruler dies, you will move on to play their heir, and you can play them as completely different characters because they’re exactly what they are.
A bloodthirsty peasant-butchering villain may be followed by a saintly queen, and then a flamboyant seducer, leading to a heretic leader. On the other hand, you can choose to preserve your ancestors’ legacy and let your heirs follow into their footsteps. Your imagination is basically the only limit.
Incidentally, I already mentioned the hook system. Whenever a character does something inappropriate for their station, they generate secrets, and those secrets can be spilled or discovered. You can use this to your advantage, but it also creates accountability, which wasn’t as present in CK2.
While in the previous game you could go around murdering your enemies by the scores with limited risks to your reputation, in CK3 the skeletons hidden in your closet can come back to haunt you.
The emergent, systemic storytelling is made even more engaging by a rich system of events that simulate basically everything life can throw your way, from intrigue to love, and everything in between. The game does a great job of integrating its storytelling with your own.
All this complexity (mostly in a good way) means that Crusader Kings 3 is basically a giant mille-feuille made of tens of delicious layers, and you can go as deep as you want to savor them all.
Yet, I feel that it doesn’t do enough in communicating what is (in my opinion) the best way to play it, starting as a nearly complete nobody and raising from the bottom to climb as high as you want.
When you click on “New Game” you’re invited to play a series of historically relevant rulers starting in either 867 AD or 1066 AD.
Yet, the real fun is located at the bottom left of the screen behind the unassuming “Play as any ruler” button.
That’s your key to the true freedom of being whoever you want, anywhere you want.
I would definitely advise you to start as a small count somewhere, and then see where life and history carry you. Maybe you’ll become the Holy Roman Emperor, and maybe not. Not fully knowing what fate has in store for you is part of the challenge and one of the most interesting elements of Crusader Kings 3.
On top of that, starting small is also a good way to get acquainted with the many layers of the delicious mille-feuille I mentioned above, before things get really complex.
I should likely spend a few words about the visuals, that have been greatly improved from the second chapter of the series. The best part is likely how characters are portrayed.
Not only they inherit physical traits from their parents and ancestors, but they’re very expressive and detailed depending on their personality and on the events of their life.
If your ruler is a seditious villain, they’ll likely look like one. Brutality and a warlike nature will probably put scars on their face. Maybe they drink a little too much to counter the stress, and that will be visible as well. You may think of it like Paragon and Renegade Shepard in Mass Effect but in a much more complex and interesting way.
Perhaps the most impressive element of Crusader Kings 3 is that the elements I just described don’t apply just to your ruler, but to basically everyone else in the world.
Hundreds upon hundreds of characters live their lives on the map. They struggle for survival, they murder, they cheat, they make love, they give birth, they conquer and are conquered, they rise to glory of fall into misery, exactly like you.
Not only Crusader Kings 3 is one of the best RPGs I’ve ever played, but it’s also one of the best world simulators I can think of. It’s basically the Sims without the gibberish and with swords, on a much, much grander scale.
Ultimately, the only really large issue I can identify in Paradox’s latest game is that it’s the supreme emperor of the “one more turn” syndrome (even if it doesn’t really have turns). If there is one title that has the potential to absolutely trash your sleeping schedule, it’s Crusader Kings 3.
As I finish this review, I’m massively sleep-deprived, and I blame you, Paradox.
It can still be fairly intimidating to newcomers.