Let me start by quickly getting something out of the way. The Mount & Blade series, to me, has always been key to one of the greatest arguments in modern gaming. How much does graphical fidelity really matter? And I do mean graphical fidelity. Aesthetic fidelity is something else entirely. So do sub-par graphics detract from the overall quality of a game? If you think the answer is yes, then Mount & Blade will prove you wrong. It looks like it belongs on the PS2 but it’s a brilliant game, case closed. Good, glad we’re all agreed.
What makes Mount & Blade games special is the depth and complexity crammed into every single one of it’s systems. Few games, indie AAA, or anything in between can boast the same level of intricacy. I remember the moment that the true scope of just one of the game’s systems became apparent to me. Early in my career as a wandering adventurer, I came across a friendly fellow calling himself Jarl Dirigun and we really hit it off. Our friendship gradually grew and we became fast friends. Much later in the game, after we had parted ways I was laying siege to a particularly well-defended town when who should come riding past but Jarl Dirigun himself. I said hello, we caught up, and then I asked for help taking the town, help my old friend was only too willing to give. Our combined forces swarmed the town and victory was ours! We then went back to my castle for a feast.
This is the true strength of the game, complex systems that allow for some of the best organic storytelling I have ever seen. Open world games so often struggle with pacing and tone that I can’t help feeling that the way TaleWorlds Entertainment do things is almost always the superior approach. Despite the total lack of a structured story, the narrative experiences I have had in Mount & Blade are far better than the ones I’ve had in games like Fallout 4, which has a much more rigid storytelling structure.
Of course, without a solid combat system, the game would fall apart pretty quickly. Fortunately, solid is exactly the word I’d use when describing Mount & Blade combat. I’ve argued in the past that realism isn’t something that games should necessarily be trying to achieve, but the combat in these games manages to be both realistic and fun. At its core, the combat is actually very simple, centered around blocking incoming attacks by moving your sword in the right direction. However, the all-importance of timing soon becomes clear. Every swing, every thrust, and every parry must be timed to perfection. This is even more evident when on horseback, the speed of your horse and angle of attack, things not a lot of games ask you to consider, are everything. Some people might find this a bit much but I find it to be a nice change of pace (and you can tailor the difficulty to a psychotic degree anyway). Playing a game where every victory, no matter how small, felt earned was just such a breath of fresh air.
Something many people probably ignore, but that I think deserves attention, is the way that Mount & Blade manages to seamlessly blend genres. It seems obvious really, strategy, simulation, and action RPG, why not throw them together? But I don’t think I have seen anyone else even attempt this, outside of maybe Dragon Commander (correct me if I’m wrong). Other games are beginning to merge other genres together and it’s going very well (see Hand of Fate) but strategy games seem to have been pigeonholed somewhat. Maybe it’s something you’ve never considered, but to my mind, grand strategy and action gameplay go together brilliantly. Something along the lines of Dynasty Warriors meets Rome: Total War sounds incredible.
But maybe I’m just crazy. Anyway, the take away here is that the Mount & Blade series is deep, complex and unique. It might not look the part but it more than makes up for it.