Now this is an oddity. We’re certainly no strangers to remasters and remakes, it seems like every week we find a game from the past rise its slightly refreshed head again on the latest range of consoles. Yet Mount & Blade: Warband is unlike any of those AAA releases, trying to wring out every penny from their aging IP. This is an extremely niche kingdom-building RPG that has a loyal following on PC, released over six years ago by Taleworlds, a tiny indie team based in Turkey. With ancient looks that serve to frighten rather than impress and reams of text that would knock out an insomniac, this is perhaps the most unlikely console game ever released, particularly as it has been left virtually untouched from its original release all those years ago.
It’s baffling. Everything about this game, from it’s unlikely console release to the basic structure is a mystery. Your first steps into the world of Calradia are by navigating a series of text-based questions, a form of interaction players will have to get used to very quickly. Depending upon these answers, your character will gain skills which will help them in their quest to become king, or queen, of the land. You’re then dumped unceremoniously into whichever land you choose, given a rudimentary opening mission of tracking down a group of bandits, and left to begin your journey.
Or not, if you do not wish to. The genius and curse of Mount & Blade: Warband is in its freedom. Less of a game, more like a simulation. A simulated world where warring factions continuously vie for land and resources, where lords and ladies romance and battle, and merchants barter over the fluctuating prices of resources. A world in which the player can interact however they choose. And there’s virtually no handholding. The game is more like a medieval Sid Meier's Pirates or perhaps Elite than the more typical fantasy RPGs.
Players will struggle initially to comprehend any of what is happening around them and instead run heedless across the world wondering upon their purpose. Unfortunately, because of the nature of the simulation, the world can be rather unkind to such aimlessness. For example on our first venture into Calradia, trotting just a few miles from the starting town, we were set upon by a gang of looters. Outmanned and outclassed, they stole everything and dragged us across the land perhaps to sell the hero into slavery. Escaping a few days later, we were left with no horse, no money and no clue about why the game would let this happen.
While the whole game is essentially open-world, you are not left to wander across it in a typical RPG manner. The player's main interaction with the game is through the map interface, only entering first or third-person view when plodding around towns or riding into battle. The most likely way players will experience the game is by riding around villages and recruiting peasants (all done in text-based conversation trees) to slowly build your very own warband. Indeed, to complete that opening quest mentioned earlier requires at least five men in your squad to track down and defeat the bandits. Once you believe your team to be strong enough you can begin the hunt and put a stop to their lawless ways. But, of course, these men are unlikely to agree to your terms and come quietly.
Battles in Mount & Blade: Warband range from tiny skirmishes to larger clashes between armies (albeit with a disappointing unit cap of only one hundred), though it is unlikely that the latter will be experienced until the player has fully grasped the basic concepts of the game several hours in. Mainly taking place on very basic terrain, with a few hills and trees scattered around, the two sides will charge towards each other before clashing somewhere in the middle, with you at the centre of your band. At first it seems like your role is simply to join in with the fray, either charging in with your mount (if you have one) or running alongside your men. Colliding with your foe, you hack away with your chosen weapon, attempting to block incoming attacks and generally bring down as many as possible while staying alive. There is some skill to this, with the ability to swing your blade and block in four directions, players can anticipate the incoming attack and riposte accordingly before retaliating.
As melee systems go it is certainly not as exciting or as dynamic as more freeform sword-swinging games such as Chivalry: Medieval Warfare, but it works, and when the skirmishes swell into battles it can become rather tense and exciting. At first it feels like a simple numbers game: if your team has more men than them you will overwhelm them no matter your actions. However, as with so much in this game, the more you experience the more you realise how nuanced every fight it is. All units have weapons ratings, armour ratings and enemies that they are better equipped to deal with and there is a lot going on behind the scenes.
It is a shame then that the tactical side of the battles is extremely limited. While it would be tempting to compare it to a third-person version of a Total War game, Mount & Blade: Warband falls short in many regards. It is certainly possible to play the game as a general, refraining from involving oneself in battles at all, but the practical limitations of the controls, particularly playing on a PS4 as opposed to mouse and keyboard, make this extremely frustrating. Hitting the directions on the D-pad brings up a list of commands that can be sent to assigned groups under your command, but it all happens in real time and is a logistical nightmare. Simple tasks such as getting archers to fire from on top of a mound, or have cavalry charge in from the flanks are all but impossible. Often it is easier, and certainly more honourable to order everyone to follow your commander and lead the charge yourself. Certainly the extremely basic enemy AI (and allies if you have any) seem to feel the same way and will rarely offer anything other than this tactic.
It is written in the Art of War that ‘every battle is won before it’s ever fought’, and indeed Mount & Blade: Warband certainly follows this sentiment. Preparation, planning and even knowing when to retreat are arguably more important than skills on the battlefield. Over time players will learn how to train their merry warband, upgrade their troops, form allegiances with other lords and ride as an organised battalion rather than a ramshackle group of village recruits. They may also find themselves owning breweries, claiming taxes from towns or even driving cattle across the lonesome plains. There seems to be a surprising and dizzying amount of depth hidden beneath this badly textured world covered in tacky medieval style font, if the player has the drive to discover it.
And yet, after some time with the game, players will begin to notice that this depth is something of an illusion. There’s a huge amount of repetition from the actions the player can take, to the lines that every single lord regurgitates. It starts to seep in that all these towns and villages, lords and ladies, are just clones following similar actions. Obviously it is the nature of any simulation, but when the same identical words are spoken by the hardy Nords to the desert Sultans it all begins to feel ridiculous. Just as the graphics lack any real depth, so too do all of the characters.
Mount & Blade: Warband also has its fair share of frustrating bugs and issues on the PS4. We’ve seen a huge array of glitches and broken textures, quests that inexplicably cannot be completed and on one heroic attempt to break free a lord from an enemy’s dungeon, the prisoner turned around and attacked his saviour. He obviously had to be put down, and the mission was a failure. However some of the greatest frustrations come from the game’s own design. Mount & Blade: Warband adopts what it calls a realistic save system which effective overwrites your save every time you enter the world map. On the whole it is an effective device to ensure the player thinks through each of their actions, since they cannot simply reload a save if they change their mind. However, each save can pause the game for around ten seconds which, seeing as the player will load the world map on average once every couple of minutes, quickly becomes infuriating.
Apart from the single-player campaign, which is definitely the game’s main focus, there is also the option of testing your skills in quick custom battles. Players can set up the unit types, commanders and battle sites as they choose and then charge straight into engagement. This is an interesting option if you need to improve your tactical or combat prowess without risking a devastating loss in your main campaign, but ultimately it will not hold your attention for more than a few fights.
There is also a similar multiplayer option where up to thirty-two players can team up and engage in pre-made skirmishes. Multiplayer has long been popular with the Mount & Blade fanbase on the PC where huge campaigns and tournaments have been drawn up in forums online, with the results of battles and their knock-on effects all recorded. It is unlikely that we will see anything similar with the much smaller player base on the PS4, but for the moment if you’re lucky enough to find any other willing combatants, it can be quite entertaining to enter duels and test your steel against human foes. It is rather disappointing that there is no way to add computer-controlled squads to the battlefield however (something added in the Napoleonic Wars DLC on PC, but not included here), so most multiplayer skirmishes feel small and underwhelming compared to the hundred unit single-player battles.
If you can break through Mount & Blade: Warband’s bewildering early stages, and begin to understand all the complexities that lie in its simulated world, then there is a lot of fun to be had. It is a hard but worthwhile slog of many hours and days to rise through ranks and reach the celebrated heights of king (or queen, although being female adds some interesting difficulties since ladies were not thought of highly in the medieval era). Unfortunately this PS4 release seems a rather unnecessary addition to the series. There’s no clear improvement in graphics, and indeed it is not uncommon to experience frame rate drops in the more intense moments of battle, and as such it may well win the dubious prize of ugliest release for this generation of consoles. Meanwhile the less than impressive control scheme that hinders tactical planning, an annoying save system that wastes huge swathes of time and the lack of modding potential only go to show that the PC version is a far more attractive proposition. Perhaps this is simply a testing of the water for the release of the Mount & Blade 2, which is due later in the year, and as such it shows that Taleworlds have a lot of work to do if they want to break into the console scene.