You’ll spend most of your time and have the most fun with Mount & Blade’s combat, particularly the horse-mounted fighting that made the game famous in its beta stages. No other game conveys quite the same feeling of overwhelming power as Mount & Blade does when you charge through a unit, your lance jousted, taking out your target while your horse tramples other troops in the way. All the other elements play a supporting role, but play it well.
Don’t be fooled into thinking this is some sort of shallow Dynasty Warriors clone. Mount & Blade could almost be considered a medieval combat simulation thanks to all the different equipment and the relative realism with which everything is handled. You’ll need different tactics to handle swords, bows, pikes and javelins, both when you’re using them and fending them off. Add different armor types, horses and terrain to the equation and you’ve got a great variety of situations to deal with. Even the land of Calradia, where the game takes place, is not your typical fantasy world. You won’t be seeing any elves here. Instead, you’ll meet war-mongering kings, selfish lords and raiding bandit parties while wandering Calradia’s five nations.
The chaos of battle is truly thrilling in Mount & Blade. Certainly, other titles have allowed you to command even larger forces, but Mount & Blade really makes you feel like a powerful leader, fighting right beside your troops while shouting orders. That role of leadership extends beyond battle, as keeping a large army’s morale high requires proper management. Let it slide too low and your troops won’t think twice before deserting.
As a pure sandbox game, there’s no actual story mode to conquer, yet you still get a sense of accomplishment and progress as your character and army grow in power. In the game’s early stages, you’ll mostly fight small bandit parties roaming the land. Anything tougher will spell your defeat and set you further back, having wasted precious trained troops and valuables. Before long, you’ll raise an army large and varied enough to fight military deserters. Later, you’ll attack enemy nations, some of whom became your foes through your own actions. The icing on the cake comes with the sieges, allowing you to take over castles and cities on behalf of your allegiance and occasionally earn them as your rightful fiefs.
Your interaction with Calradia’s residents will also provide a feeling of progress. It’s up to you to make yourself known by conversing with citizens or nobles for information, accepting various quests, trading goods or equipment and recruiting additional troops. Some characters give out mundane tasks while others offer interesting challenges. The more engrossing activities include quests to start wars between nations, capturing spies, winning regional arena tournaments and restoring the questionable honor of ladies. Some can even be completed in more ways than one. As an example, two rival warlords can be bribed or captured for a peace treaty to become possible.
Your relations with the various parties and factions can be altered by your choice of skills, your renown, and past interaction with them. You can make friends who will follow you to war and enemies who hate you enough to traverse half the world just to attack your fiefs. Under special circumstances, you can even attempt to recruit some of your enemies and their response will realistically depend on a number of factors, mainly their personality and how it matches your past actions. Eventually, you will become a well-known figure, loved and hated by an equal amount of men, lords and kings. As your renown increases, you will come across unexpected rewards or consequences.
Another aspect worth mentioning is the very active community which helps remedy some of the game’s faults. Fans have created tweaks and modifications to enhance the gameplay in meaningful ways. Some of these add more commanding options, improve the AI behavior, fix the occasional bug and even vastly improve the visuals with texture packs and HDR lighting applications. The selection is limited for the latest version of the game, but this will be remedied once the tools required for their creation are updated.
Despite its flaws, Mount & Blade comes together to form one of the most engrossing sandbox experiences this side of PC gaming. Any gamer intrigued by the idea of leading a medieval, conflict-ridden life will look past the negatives and view this game as the rare independent gem it is.