The claustrophobic press of frenzied melee, whistling of missiles, and thunderous charge of cavalry are often represented in games, but rarely so personally as in the Mount & Blade series. It’s not often I get the feeling I’m experiencing what must’ve been the needs of a commander at eye-level on the field trying to maneuver his forces, or being forced to desperately scramble among bodies for a quiver of arrows or fresh shield. This is the appeal of Mount & Blade 2: Bannerlord, and it outweighs all of the holes, bugs, and underwhelming strategy and roleplaying mechanics you have to wade through to get here. When you reach the battlefield, this low-fantasy medieval simulation is unmatched.
Bannerlord drops you into the shoes of a capable, temporarily impoverished wannabe in a sandbox world based on late antiquity, complete with a fragmenting Roman Empire stand-in. It's an engaging scenario for its variety of combatants, mercenary bands, and warring societies, each with a unique historically-based way of fighting. In contrast, Bannerlord's main story is very thin, but revolves around finding the remnants of an ancient and symbolic banner – then deciding whether to use it to finish off the empire or take the banner to reunite its fragmented territories.
It qualifies as a sandbox because how you rise to power is largely up to you, whether on a trade fortune, becoming a famous mercenary, or working from inside one of the eight kingdoms. From there it's all about conquest in the name of your chosen nation – or throw that out the window and start a faction of your own. That said, the actual kingdom-management strategy is weak due to shallow mechanics and lackluster AI – it's really just an excuse to raise big armies and smash them together. You do that via maneuvering in an overworld strategic layer before dropping into hybrid action real-time strategy battles where you directly control only yourself, but can issue commands to your AI-driven troops.
That description paints a picture of a living, vibrant world, where kingdoms and nobles have grand goals and overarching relationships. Sadly, that's not the case. Bannerlord's world is busy enough, with caravans of traders, robber bands, parties of warriors, and peasants scurrying about between settlements like ants, but all that really only exists so you have something of your enemy's to raid, pillage, loot, and burn. Even the diverse settlement characters and noble clans are just an empty relationship bar for you to grind up for bonuses.
Much of that anemia would be a forgivable indulgence if Bannerlord wasn't so rife with simple bugs. Quests will trigger relating to a faction you're not part of. Perks from leveling up, constructing buildings, or enacting kingdom laws sometimes just… have no effect at all. Multiplayer is rife with network and server errors. Perhaps most pervasive are the graphical glitches, which are legion but mostly involve gaps in weapon models and an array of clipping that speaks to a broader lack of attention to detail. Seriously: the would-be empress Rhagaea, one of the eight most important NPCs in the world, consistently has her chin clipping out of her chainmail coif. What the hell is that?
Bored, Then Sword
Fighting is the meat here. The massive clash of as many as a thousand soldiers on the field is unrivaled, at least at the scale and level of simulation Bannerlord attempts. Whereas the overworld map is very transparently not a simulation of a real world, the combat tries to stick to at least historically plausible outcomes, so swinging a sword often feels desperate and real. No matter how potent you are as a single combatant, a handful of opponents of decent skill can quickly overwhelm you: you are not a god of the battlefield who cuts down a dozen enemies at a stroke. You're just another person, albeit a smarter one than the AI grunts.
On that person-to-person level, Bannerlord's combat is delightful. Chaotic and confusing at first, I soon started to understand the interplay of the four attack angles, parrying, blocking, and types of weapons. Every attack has its velocity measured against the target's, subtracting or adding damage relatively, and tracking the location hit to determine how armored it is. It tracks relative weapon and shield position, allowing attacks to catch on an opponent's counterattack or nearby object. Weapon weight plays a factor, as does elevation, swing length, and even what part of your weapon hits the enemy: Hitting someone with the haft of your axe, for example, does far less damage than the head.
Learning all of these little details, then tweaking the difficulty to suit yourself, is what makes Bannerlord’s combat superb. Desperately aiming your attacks, picking targets, and outfighting opponents is pulse-pounding absorption entirely different from the more furious combat of over-the-top action games. That's most on display in multiplayer, where you can test your skill against others in one-on-one duels. For some that's really the whole game, as the fighting-game-like interaction of weapon options builds depth.
Oh, and then throw your character's personal skill out the window when you get into large-scale fights against the AI or another player. Your quick blade might matter a lot in the arena, but when you're crushed into a melee among dozens of others there's no easy escape from enemy attacks, and wide sweeps of your sword are as likely to catch on an ally's spear haft as strike your opponent directly. The chaotic clash of shield walls, or the mixed scrum of a running cavalry battle, is the absolute peak of Bannerlord.
Playing online, Bannerlord's Captains mode has two teams of six go up against each other, with each player in command of their own squad of soldiers. The metagame of play here is wild due to Bannerlord's robust commands and troop variety.
Organizing and commanding your soldiers is a high point. Figuring out how to use terrain, elevation, formations, and more on any of the many, quite varied battlefields is a really nice pre-battle puzzle. One hundreds-strong block of infantry is fine in an open field, but terrible for siege assault, for example. I love breaking my infantry off into a formation of pikes when I breached enemy walls, letting those long-reach weapons clear the gap while the heavily armored and shielded troops stormed the intact walls via siege towers. It takes a bit of learning, but thankfully bringing up the orders menu in combat slows time way down (not in multiplayer, of course), giving you precious moments to consider orders and placement before executing a plan.
Combine all those considerations with the broad variety of troops to collect and maintain and you're all but guaranteed to find a playstyle that suits you well. A Mongol-esque horde of horse archers? A shield wall of heavy Germanic infantry? A thundering charge of knights? A hit-and-run force of light cavalry? All of those and more are viable choices in Bannerlord precisely because it tries so hard to mimic the ideas of medieval combat. Put them in the hands of other players online and you'll be cursing the guy who invented the shield wall, the crossbow, or my new nemesis: The jerk who figured out you could use a bow from horseback.
I just wish that same attention to detail was demonstrated elsewhere, specifically in the overworld aspect of the campaign. Many other parts of Bannerlord feel woefully underdeveloped, from diplomatic relations to roleplaying decisions, and much of it feels like busywork you can do that has no real impact on the outcome of a campaign. A more focused sandbox that didn't feel the need to have arbitrage-trading economics, or a system of laws and privileges for factions to vote on, would serve to highlight that delicious combat much better, rather than bury each instance of a standout cool fight under an hour of grinding to make it happen.
Much like the creepy, lifeless eyes of its many NPCs and their stiff animations, Bannerlord's world never feels alive. You can go about talking to people, fulfilling their fetch or kill quests, doing empty minigames to convince them of things, even playing Tablut against them, but it's all about finding your way into the next fight. Playing it as a trader simulation or political strategy game will be shallow and repetitive, with little reward. NPCs have no deep motivation and an extremely limited pool of awful dialogue, and even when a relationship meter says you're best friends or bitter enemies, there's no real weight behind it. For a game that's remarkably text-based, Bannerlord just doesn't have any interesting text.
In short, it's good that the combat is fun: Everything that's not a fight is ultimately just a bit of color before you get caught up in a brawl somewhere or decide to kick off a new war.
In that way Bannerlord's closest comparable genre is arguably the space sim. You can do a load of different things in a big world, but that world trades detail for scale. All that everything quickly turns to a somewhat-bland nothing via repetition. And there is a lot of repetition: progressing your skills or kingdom in Bannerlord requires an interminable amount of grind, brutally forcing me to repeat the same tasks until I begged for mercy at raiding the same bandit lair maps or retaking a castle the NPCs of your clan have lost for the umpteenth time.
That’s what really hobbles the exceedingly simple strategy layer. Most of the challenge there comes from herding NPCs and running around to give in-person orders. It's so difficult to coordinate the actions of the braindead AI without gathering them into a single army that you'll likely resent any time the other lords in your faction gather one for themselves, because they'll inevitably waste it on whatever objective is closest rather than which one is more vital to your cause.
There are just a hundred obvious things missing from this world, in even their simplest forms. I can't send messengers to the AI characters and factions asking for things? Did nobody in this entire world manage to invent boats? Plus, some of what's there is tedious. It's telling that a popular PC mod automates for-profit trading, while another adds copious defensive options so you don't have to spend hours picking off bandits or reclaiming the same castle twice in a single war.
Which brings us back around to combat, because it's most of the way you interact with the world. You can auto-resolve fights when two armies meet, which is nice for skipping past overwhelming stomps, but for real battles it's not worth it for two reasons: The auto-resolve will almost always get dramatically worse results than you could (which is a fairly standard consequence of taking a shortcut like this), and second, opting out of the majority of fights just makes Bannerlord a worse version of medieval strategy games like Crusader Kings or Total War.
Without rich features a sandbox quickly looks like a desert, and barren is what Bannerlord's overworld becomes after 10 or 15 hours of play. And 10 or 15 hours isn't even half of what you'll need to finish a campaign – try 40 to 70 hours. You'll still be playing long after you've seen everything there is to see, seeing it again and again with little by way of variety to distinguish one time from the next. Whether you're still having fun comes down to how richly you're roleplaying to yourself and how much you enjoy the battles.
For all that it gets wrong, however, Bannerlord does have one huge thing going for it: Play sessions can be really short. All those bite-size fights, epic battles, minigames, and quests can fit in a very satisfying hour-long sitting, something that other games of this long-term scope struggle to do. It's a paradox to say that it's a very long short game, but Bannerlord clears that game design hurdle pretty heroically.