Mount & Blade II: Bannerlord is an intricate feudal relationship simulator set in a dynamic sandbox world dominated by six medieval kingdoms roughly analogous to cultures from our own. It features massive-scale battles, deep character customisation, action-based melee and ranged combat (on horseback or afoot), a living, breathing economy, and a sense of progression so powerful it can be hard to put down. Translation: imagine the Machiavellian interpersonal toy box of Crusader Kings combined with the crunchy combat from Chivalry, with battles on a Total War scale, underpinned by Skyrim's RPG mechanics.
Available on PC in early access since 2020, Bannerlord has finally seen a full 1.0 release and made the jump to console in the process. It's the same incredible game, and where it counts (in combat), the transition to controller feels fantastic. With the DualSense, you feel the thunder of your horse's hooves and the impact of the lance when it strikes home, skewering whichever unfortunate footman just happened to catch the business end.
Bannerlord isn't the kind of game you "finish"; rather, it's the kind of self-led exploration you can lose yourself in, and one that is uniquely ripe for medieval roleplay (if you're into that kind of thing). It ditches the fantastical setting of similar titles, and there are no goblins or elves to be found here.
You begin by creating a character, deciding where they came from and what their upbringing was like, which has all kinds of mechanical implications, none of which will lock you into any one vocation. It's like picking a starting class in Dark Souls in that regard; more of a direction than a directive. From there, you will have the opportunity to engage in a frankly lacklustre tutorial and have some exposition projected at you before you are let loose in the larger world, with very little to guide you.
Immediately, you will be assailed by the game's UI, which is straight up just really bad. The transition from PC couldn't have been easy, and the Mount & Blade series is very PC in its nature, spawning a cottage industry of excellent mods in its own right. And while it's all manageable, and you put up with it, the convoluted way Bannerlord conveys information to the player could very well be a dealbreaker for some.
As you roam around the overworld, you will encounter people going about their lives; farmers taking produce to market, caravans transporting goods between cities, lords patrolling with their retinues, and outlaws preying on the weak. You are free to engage with them all however you see fit, but there are real consequences to your actions, and you are so very, very weak right now.
Slaughter the farmers, take their goods, push the bandits out and inhabit their haunts. Or, form your own caravan, buy low, sell high, and invest in local businesses in order to turn a profit. Work as a mercenary, selling your sword for gold and renown, and leave your scruples at the door. Or woo a wealthy lady (or lord), join the line of inheritance, and become a person of means the old-fashioned way.
Whatever you do, you will rank up relevant skills by engaging in that activity in a very Skyrim fashion. Swinging swords will, in turn, make you better at swinging swords, and you will earn powerful perks at experience milestones, many of which can benefit your entire party. As you level up and acquire fame and fortune, you can gather a retinue of warriors around you, recruited from any nearby local village or bustling city. By earning renown on the gore-soaked battlefield and engaging in ever-escalating skirmishes, fighting in pitched battles, and engaging in brutal sieges, you can become a lord in your own right, replete with your own castle and feudal fief, and from there a king, or even emperor.
While it's the strategic overworld we found to be most engrossing, what with the amassing and management of our many lands, the bombastic, monstrously large battles are definitely the star of the show here. Undeniably epic, they capture the exhilaration, claustrophobia, and confusion of a pre-gunpowder pitched battle better than any other game we've ever played. Game of Thrones comparisons are trite but unfortunately apt in this case; think The Battle of the Bastards, where the quarters are sometimes so close there isn't even room to swing a weapon, and you're on the right track.
Combat is simple but insanely satisfying. Essentially, you can slash, stab, and strike with a given weapon (depending on the direction you're moving), kick an enemy to throw them off balance, or bash them with your shield to provide an opening, and that's really it. The genius is that every AI opponent on the battlefield has the exact same moveset, and every action has real weight. This means that even if you're at a high level, decked out in the finest plate gold can buy, a determined enough group of peasant spearmen can bring you down through sheer weight of numbers, like a pack of wolves overwhelming a noble stag.
There is so much else we could go into, the many and myriad reasons why Bannerlord is addictive and why there really is nothing else like it, but we would need more (virtual) ink than there is water in the sea. The complex nature of feudal dues and obligations, the obscene variety in weapons and armour (each of which is uniquely modelled and represented in-game), the tactical aspect of commanding troops on the battlefield, the many and varied different cultures, each with their own unit types and styles of combat — the list goes on and on. Never mind the jaw-on-the-floor moments you'll find yourself in, like holding a keep with a few trusted retainers while the hordes of enemies outside batter down the door, inadvertently recreating that final scene in the siege of Helms Deep, in those desperate last moments before Gandalf arrives with the cavalry.
Mount & Blade II: Bannerlord is an utterly unique experience on console and one that could conceivably keep you occupied for hundreds, even thousands of hours, depending on your own creativity. It's rough around the edges, even ugly at times, but its scale and unmatched sense of progression make it something every RPG fan owes to themselves to at least try.
Mount & Blade II: Bannerlord combines RPG mechanics with grand strategy and features battles so epic they can be overwhelming at times. It has some rough edges, and the interface can be unwieldy, but at its core lies a roleplaying experience that is virtually unrivalled in scope — especially on console.