Crusader Kings III review: An almost perfect strategy and role-playing masterpiece

"We could establish a dynasty that would last a thousand years."

Crusader Kings III
(Image: © Windows Central)

Strategy games are seeing a sort of resurgence of late, which is brilliant for genre fans like me who have felt lost on the sidelines with barely a new game to enjoy. That is until we got Stellaris, Galactic Civilization 4, Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition, and now Crusader Kings III.

The Crusader Kings franchise was first launched in 2004 by Paradox Interactive with a sequel hitting stores in 2012. Like clockwork, we're getting the third instalment a full eight years after the beloved Crusader Kings II and Paradox promised much in terms of improvements to make the game more in-depth for long-time fans, as well as welcoming to series newcomers.

Has Paradox struck a balance between the two, or is Crusader Kings III but a prettier version of its predecessor, without much added to improve the formula? Our review will hopefully help you decide before picking up a copy of the dynasty simulator.

Crusader Kings III is almost the perfect sequel to CKII

Crusader Kings III

Source: Windows Central (Image credit: Source: Windows Central)
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TitleCrusader Kings 3
DeveloperParadox Development Studio
PublisherParadox Interactive
PlayersSingleplayer, Multiplayer
Length50+ hours
Xbox Game PassNo

From the age of Viking raids to the fall of Byzantium, Crusader Kings III promises to take you on a journey throughout history. A basic summary of the adventure would be: you're tasked with heading up a medieval dynasty and the goal is to keep it running for as long as you can — taking down enemies, forging alliances and engaging in wars along the way.

It sounds epic, but so too is the experience of playing through. I've poured so many hours into CKII and even more into it with the A Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones) mod installed. While it certainly felt like a classic, with an aging UI that was more of a mess than it was streamlined, I loved every minute of each playthrough.

For newcomers to Crusader Kings, the second instalment had a steep learning curve. You were essentially thrown into the wild and told to last as long as you can. It was a blast for experienced players, but daunting for new players. This is something Paradox had in mind when drawing up Crusader Kings III on sheets of parchment.

Crusader Kings III

Source: Windows Central (Image credit: Source: Windows Central)

This was the first improvement I noticed. The entire UI and overall look of the game have been revamped. Crusader Kings III looks gorgeous, even from the main menu. Paradox clearly had a plan as to what should be improved, what should be refined, and what should be added. Moving from the older game, it doesn't feel like anything has been cut.

Crusader Kings III is a strategy behemoth where even the tooltips have tooltips.

There are plenty of options to play with, but once you've got your system configured and are good to go, the tutorial is the place to start. Once you're done with the basics of the game in Ireland, you could continue with that playthrough or start fresh, choosing an area of land to rule over from the known world.

The best part of Crusader Kings II has, for me, been the characters. The sheer number of traits you can have is ridiculous. It's easy to create a family of truly broken people and sit back and watch while they plot to assassinate one another. This mess of a system was always part of the game and it's even better in CKIII.

Characters and dynasties have been given more of a focus here. So much so that Tywin Lannister would have the time of his life. You can create some whacky families and courts with numerous lost souls. And personality traits can be passed on, so it's always wise to look at characters closely before inviting them to court to marry off your children. Unless you wish to keep it within the family, which itself can unlock a whole host of issues.

I almost became protective over my newly found dynasty, filled with newly added 3D character models. I wanted the very best of the best for my children, even if they didn't agree with my methods. I wanted my vassals to fall in line and treated them accordingly when they didn't do as I asked. Even interacting with other people in CKIII feels more personal, since they're literally moving instead of a portrait painting.

There's plenty to do as well. CKIII will throw a host of events at you, some are truly whacky and can even add traits to your character or destroy relations with a neighbor you so tirelessly formed over a period of years. Some of the scandals are brilliant to play through and the game will have no issue keeping you gazing at the screen. Even quiet periods of peace have so much content to digest.

Creating a lasting dynasty in Crusader Kings III

To help shape your dynasty head, there are some lifestyles you can choose to focus on, earning experience points to unlock perks and upgrades that affect your character. This is also where CKIII feels more like an RPG than a pure strategy game. It's like Paradox took the best parts of the RPG and strategy genres and mashed them together.

This new RPG system will keep you on track since you won't be able to stray from your personality traits, else you become stressed. This new stress mechanic fits, and the more stressed you become, the higher the chance you'll lose your life. It adds weight to decisions you make and that's fantastic.

When you're not at peace, you'll experience the same old Crusader Kings battle system. This time it's a little different as, to raise levies, you need to set a meet point of sorts, where all forces will congregate. Then it's a case of who has a larger force, but you'll also be taking knights into battle. These special soldiers and any other troops you can raise on top of mere peasants will help turn the tide.

Crusader Kings III Religion

Source: Windows Central (Image credit: Source: Windows Central)

But once you've started to build up your dynasty and have numerous holds under your belt, it's when the game really comes alive with the dynasty system. People within your court who grow in power could look to form their own houses that then provide you with stuff, including renown. This is new to CKIII and is basically a resource generated by everyone within your dynasty. You can use it to force your will upon your subjects.

Even during peacetime, there's always something to do... like deciding how to murder your aunt.

Both warfare and peaceful periods feel less hectic, thanks to allowing other characters to do some of the work. Overarching features like religion and culture are very influential to those who fall under either. You can form your own religion if you find the ones already running to be a little too restrictive. Culture is what decides what special unlocks (buildings, units, etc.) you have available to you. The dominant ruler of a culture decides on what will unlock next.

Crusader Kings III is always running and there's always something to do. Whether you need to boot some moron from your court, try and secure the perfect bride, or try to make contact with a new ruler of a plot of land you have your eyes set on. Each game can feel completely different, depending on the events you play through, and the stress will make you weigh options more carefully.

How Crusader Kings III keeps the gameplay loop feeling fresh is that there are so many possibilities. Your daughter who you married off to some guy on the other side of the world, securing a title and some land for the future, may simply decide she can never forgive you and goes off to form her own path. I speak of experience, so in CKIII fashion I had her killed.

I see some strong support for modding here, which should help make Crusader Kings III feel fresh even in the 100th playthrough. Paradox will undoubtedly release free patches and commercial DLC too, so you can expect to see more ingredients thrown into this beautiful mix. CKIII fixed many issues with CKII without sacrificing much in gameplay.

Where Crusader Kings III falls a little short

Cusader Kings III

Source: Windows Central (Image credit: Source: Windows Central)

I'm still not sold on the combat. It's okay and gets a pass, but you may find yourself scratching your head as you try and co-ordinate efforts and armies with allies to take down larger forces. I actually killed my friend who had been an ally for decades, after watching him stroll his forces by while my army got decimated. Not cool, man.

Then there are the doom stacks that appear from the meeting points. I was more a fan of the levy generation that came from all the smaller holdings that had to then be assembled somewhere as a larger force. This allowed you to take on more powerful foes who were less organized.

The naval movement has also been simplified, which could be seen as a positive with the substitute of needing ships with a gold embark fee. Seems like we have Amazon Prime in Crusader Kings III with armies and ships being delivered right to your door. These are small gripes I had, personally, but neither had large impacts on my games and I largely forgot about them later on.

I want to be Vikings and role-play as Ragnar with a fleet of hungry, ravaging men and women, ready for the pillaging. Come on, Paradox!

You should buy Crusader Kings III

Crusader Kings III is quite the experience. It's an RPG come strategy with a dynasty simulator thrown into the mix. It's like TaleWorlds Worlds turned Mount & Blade into a strategy game with more of an overview, realm management theme. This is a sound compliment since Mount & Blade is an exceptional series of games.

Paradox created a masterpiece for strategy and RPG fans to enjoy for countless hours.

Paradox has been on a roll lately with the success of Stellaris and now Crusader Kings III. For those who beloved Crusader Kings II, there's is much of the same here, but with a new lick of paint and improvements to the underpinnings of the game. There's more to do, everything seems easier to handle as you grow your empire, and it all still feels as deep.

If you're new to the series, now's a great time to enter the franchise. Crusader Kings III is easily the most newcomer-friendly, offering a tutorial with plenty of pop-ups (ala Stellaris) that help you get accustomed to how everything works. It won't hold your hand throughout each game, but you won't feel cheated because your family rein ended due to not being sure what this specific mechanic did.

This is the best Crusader Kings game we've had to date and is a must-have for any strategy or RPG fan.

Rich Edmonds
Senior Editor, PC Build

Rich Edmonds was formerly a Senior Editor of PC hardware at Windows Central, covering everything related to PC components and NAS. He's been involved in technology for more than a decade and knows a thing or two about the magic inside a PC chassis. You can follow him on Twitter at @RichEdmonds.