Crusader Kings 3 review: Your noble story eternally unfolding

Crusader Kings 3 is Paradox Interactive's return to vast grand strategy, but does the legacy shine brighter than ever or does it live in the shadows of greater ancestors?

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Crusader Kings is a strategy franchise intent to give back as much as you put into it. These games of grand strategy nobility task players not with winning an objective or defeating an opponent, but simply playing against the passage of time and growing their character’s legend. Death is never the end, but rather a springboard to the next story told by decendents. Crusader Kings 3 is not only a return to its franchise's grand range of gameplay, strategy, and storytelling, but also a massive and meaningful evolution with little to hold players back from exploration and discovery throughout an intricate web of rulers, dynasties, and statecraft.

A ruler & rule of your choosing

Much as in previous games, Crusader Kings 3 allows you to take on the role of various leaders across the world in a couple of major eras. A number of notable rulers and their particular situations are collected to give you a starting pool to think about, but you can also just choose to play any leader from the time periods of 867 and 1066, from Scandanavia down to Africa and from Britannia and Spain over to the far eastern coasts of Asia. All are selectable with a host of interesting aspects and situational qualities attached to them, including stats like combat prowess, intrigue for schemes, education, and diplomacy. This also includes all sorts of qualities like Wrathful, Lustful, Ambitious, and more that all come together to affect their strengths and weaknesses in ruling and interaction.

Every single character in Crusader Kings 3, from the ruler you play and other nation leaders, to the children you rear, to the lowly knights, vassals, and advisors of your court have some combination of the above qualities and stats attached to them. It makes the ongoing tug of war in the historical narrative you create that much more malleable. The goal of play in Crusader Kings 3 is nearly anything you want it to be, with the only true gameover being when your ruling character dies out without an heir to carry on your dynasty (even then, not a true game over because you can just jump to another ruler and keep playing). Everything you succeed or fail in is just part of the myriad of stops on the bumpy road through time.

Tradition & philosophy, translated to playstyle

Crusader Kings 3 has 30 different suggested starting rulers to choose from, but you can also choose your own across hundreds more in two eras.
Crusader Kings 3 has 30 different suggested starting rulers to choose from, but you can also choose your own across hundreds more in two eras.

With everything above laid out, it cannot be understated just how different things can play out. Crusader Kings 3 is expanded in a variety of ways to make the game a living and breathing world. The AI has been improved in the way it engages with one another and with you, and it makes for a pretty great tangled web of political friendships, rivalries, and alliances that can occur based on your situation.

Take, for instance the differences in my play of Petty King Murchad in Ireland versus my play of the Countess Duarama of Duara in Northern Africa. Murchad’s efforts are one of attempting to capture land and conquer the throne of Ireland through war with fellow Irish noble houses and invading Viking settlers as he tries to secure his dynasty’s line back to the country’s throne. There was much war and religious intrigue there with me constantly attempting to appease holy figures and gain their support in my vie for power.

Opposingly, Duarama’s situation finds her married to a famous warrior ruler of a nearby region with only a son between them. Her own culture being a matriarchal society, my path with Duarama led me to race to conquer smaller nearby regions to raise my regional power and court a number of consorts. It was an attempt to gain a daughter as an heir to preserve my culture in defiance of his overwhelming presence and the change of traditions that would come with them.

The vast complexity of Crusader Kings 3 means engaging my deceased husband's son in short war, taking his mother prisoner, and ransoming her back for a forced alliance is just part of a day's work in statecraft.
The vast complexity of Crusader Kings 3 means engaging my deceased husband's son in short war, taking his mother prisoner, and ransoming her back for a forced alliance is just part of a day's work in statecraft.

This doesn’t even begin to add in the twists and turns that come with every decision you make. Your narrative with Duarama or Murchod could play out very different from mine. For instance, my play with Duarama took a turn when her husband died in war, leaving an alliance of land I had with him in peril. His son (from a concubine, not my child) did not like my character, and so I was forced to engage in a bout of battles, raiding, and troubled diplomacy with him. It was only by capturing his mother in a short war as a prisoner that I gained a new path forward. I ransomed his mother back to him for a favor that let me marry my daughter heir off to him with matriarchal control as the condition on the marriage won by the favor. It was a convoluted, but delightful narrative to winning back control of an alliance with my new nephew-in-law and his lands. This kind of emergent series of interactions make for the kind of fantastic and fascinating story that the ongoing gameplay in Crusader Kings 3 allows you to create with the AI. Whether it’s in religion, relationships, war, external affairs, internal affairs, the possibilities in Crusader Kings 3 are nearly endless and fun to explore.

The only thing that might dissuade you taking crazier actions is the new stress system. With the aforementioned qualities in play, acting against the nature of your character or forcing other characters to act against theirs can cause stress on the affected character. Too much stress can penalize a character’s stats, cause them to take ill, or even kill them: a big problem if your stressed ruler character is without an heir. Fortunately, there are also plenty of ways to deal with stress through various decisions and narrative, so it’s just one more interesting aspect to consider in the grand scheme.

It’s not easy being king (or queen)

Issues and tooltips systems in Crusader Kings 3 pretty much ensure that you'll never be completely stumped about what's going on or where to go next.
Issues and tooltips systems in Crusader Kings 3 pretty much ensure that you'll never be completely stumped about what's going on or where to go next.

If you’re worried about the convoluted nature of Crusader Kings 3 overwhelming you at every turn, you have less to worry about than you think. The game attends to any confusion you may have at every turn with a number of features built towards both new and seasoned players alike. The first is the tooltip system. This system highlights pretty much any given important term in the entire game and explains to you any matter of relevance to your gameplay.

For instance, what does an Arrogant quality on a character mean? Hover over the quality and you’ll get a tooltip to explain everything that affects about that character. Did you take note that Arrogant characters don’t like Humble characters and want to know what a Humble quality does? Hover over Humble in the Arrogant tooltip and it will pop out another tooltip about the Humble trait. You can do this and learn as much as you want with a series of tooltips until you’re ready to move on, then just move your cursor off the active tooltip and make it all go away. It’s incredibly useful in staying atop of what’s happening at any given time in the game.

If direction on what to do next is your issue, then Paradox Interactive also made a system for you, aptly named Issues. This system takes stock of your ongoing situation and makes constant suggestions as to do next. You can act entirely independent of the Issues system, but it’s always there to give you some direction if you feel like you’re lost or not sure what to do in the calm of the world’s ongoing activities. You can only trim down how much tooltips appear for how long or if they stay locked on the screen, so the plethora of advice might not be as appreciated by seasoned players, but it’s not ever horribly invasive either.

As much freedom as Crusader Kings 3 gives you, there are a lot of ways to make mistakes and the game does little to warn you of when you're walking into blatant peril.
As much freedom as Crusader Kings 3 gives you, there are a lot of ways to make mistakes and the game does little to warn you of when you're walking into blatant peril.

The only thing that really ever hindered the experience of Crusader Kings 3 was just how much freedom you have, sometimes without reasonable boundaries or warning of problems your actions could cause. Take, for instance, a certain embarrassing moment in my Duarama campaign. At one point I was vying to take a certain county of land through war. I didn’t know that my character’s husband was also warring to take that same county. When our armies arrived at the same county capital fort, they started attacking each other. There was no question of whether I’d like to war with my allied husband (I didn’t), that we’d come to blows if I that particular county, or that his force was much larger than mine and therefore about to slaughter his wife’s armies over a mistake.

As much freedom as Crusader Kings 3 allows, I would have liked warnings about shooting myself in the foot to be among the plethora of information it gives you at any given time. It turns out “too much freedom” without much in the way of restriction or warning hints can turn out to be a problem. It also has to be said that as other nations deal with each other, this was simply an experience of me actually getting in the way of the AI carrying out its own narrative between two opposing forces, and that’s just kind of cool despite the outcome.

A world’s history at your whims

Crusader Kings 3 improves upon the greatest strengths of the franchise with a more engrossing tug of war between the player, other nations, and between each other.
Crusader Kings 3 improves upon the greatest strengths of the franchise with a more engrossing tug of war between the player, other nations, and between each other.

It’s really sort of a testament to Crusader Kings 3’s excellence in design that one of the few things I could complain about is that it gave me too much freedom and its occasional handholding can’t be switched off. It truly is incredible how much Paradox Interactive improved upon not only how the player engages with the world, but also how the world itself is a living, breathing place beyond your actions and whims, full of characters trying to achieve their own goals. Every story, even with the same ruler, has the potential to play out vastly different, and your narrative will likely be unique from mine. All things considered, Crusader Kings 3 is perhaps one of the most immersive and flexible strategy games ever put together.


This review was based on a digital Steam copy of the game provided by the publisher. Crusader Kings 3 is set to launch on September 1, 2020 on PC via Steam, the Paradox Store, and other retailers. It can also be played as part of Xbox Game Pass for PC.

News Editor

TJ Denzer is a player with a passion for games that has dominated a lifetime. When he's not handing out beatdowns in the latest fighting games, exploring video game history, or playing through RPGs with his partner, he's searching for new food and drinks in the constant pursuit of good times with good people inside and outside the South Texas area. You can also find him on Twitter @JohnnyChugs.

Review for
Crusader Kings 3
9
Pros
  • Massively customizable strategy experience
  • Solid array of tutorial & educational systems
  • Good collection of starting rulers
  • Option to choose countless rulers across two eras
  • Solid AI interaction
  • Never-ending possible narratives based on decisions
Cons
  • Very few ways to reduce of tooltips & handholding
  • Freedom lets you make terrible mistakes without warning
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