Mount & Blade is the kind of series where, even if you've not tried to conquer Calradia yourself, you've probably heard some stories. It's a sandbox that can't help spinning yarns through emergent shenanigans. After years of anticipation, Mount & Blade 2: Bannerlord is in Early Access, but while you've heard the anecdotes, the series is hard to nail down, so you might be still wondering what the heck it actually is.
Broadly, Mount & Blade is a lot like a medieval Elite Dangerous. You've got a big map to explore any way you like, fights to get into and money making opportunities to exploit. There are countless paths for you to go down and complex systems for you to learn, but ultimately most of what you're doing falls into two categories: combat and trade.
Starting off, you're basically a nobody. You have a horse, some equipment and some history, but you're broke and no one knows your name. Once you finish the tutorial, you can set off on your misadventure and tug at whatever thread you want, but thankfully Bannerlord offers a little bit of optional direction, just giving you a bit of a nudge.
As it's a sandbox, you can set your own goals, and boy are they plentiful. You can eventually forge an empire where you're in charge of multiple armies and cities, leading war efforts and redrawing the borders of the continent. That's a pretty intimidating objective, but like Elite you can ease into things by just travelling across the map, making a bit of cash and taking on jobs.
In towns and villages you can dabble in the dynamic economy by trading goods, and some of them also house NPCs that offer work. In Bannerlord, there are only a few different types of side quest at the moment, so you'll see the same ones crop up a lot, but they're a great way to earn a bit of cash and build up your reputation early on. With that cash, you can upgrade your gear, hire companions and recruit warriors.
You can play the whole game as a peaceful trader, and even start manufacturing your own stuff to sell; Calradia is just as dangerous as space, however, so even transporting tonnes and tonnes of butter can attract bandits or, during times of war, enemy armies. Combat is a mix of skill-based action and real-time tactics. You control your character directly, using the mouse to determine the direction of their attacks and blocks, but you can also command your warriors, putting them in formation and telling them where to go or who to attack. If you're a coward like me, just hang back and let them do all the dirty work.
Once you get over the initial shock of that massive map and all those menus, Mount & Blade quickly becomes leisurely and pressure free for as long as you want it to be. You don't need to engage with every single system straight away, and can instead dip in and out, just browsing, or focus on the thing that gives you pleasure most. In Elite I'm a space trucker, but in Bannerlord I'm a king's vassal, besieging fortresses in my boss's name.
The further you get into Mount & Blade, however, the more it starts to feel like another pair of sandboxes: Dwarf Fortress and Crusader Kings 2. Elite is all about work. Whatever you're doing, it's part of your job, but Mount & Blade is also concerned with what you do when you're not on the clock. The series often veers into life sim territory, and this is doubly true for Bannerlord. You can make new pals, find love and even start a family. Characters can die, but through your clan and family you can create a legacy and play on. And you can mix work and pleasure, building up relationships so you can influence the kingdom or arranging political marriages.
Once you've grown from a wandering mercenary or travelling merchant into a lord or a CEO, the strategy and management elements really start to come to the fore, too. If you've opted for the life of a trader, you'll eventually want to buy up businesses and start sending out caravans far and wide, turning Mount & Blade into an economic management game. Or you can swear fealty to a lord, become a member of the landed aristocracy and command multiple armies as you try to gobble up more territory. When you choose to take the plunge is up to you, though, and if you're happy being a butter trader forever, go for it.
Then there are the mods. Mount & Blade has a long history as a platform for inventive mods and beefy overhauls. It's obviously ripe for Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones mods, but it's also spawned some great Star Wars overhauls, as well as trips into different eras. The mods are the game for a lot of players.
If any of this tickles your fancy, Bannerlord is out now, though it's in Early Access. far I've found it to be a pretty polished Early Access game, though there's definitely still quite a lot of work to do. If you're just starting out, here are 9 tips to help you survive Bannerlord.