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Indie gaming is very appealing. Thanks to development tools becoming more accessible and resources such as the Internet, independent developers all over the world are creating and distributing wonderful video games to satiate the appetites of gamers looking for something with more "soul" than the industry's more mainstream corporate titles. The Aveyond series by Amaranth Games, Fatal Hearts by Hanako Games, and Aquaria by Bit-Blot are just a few of the independently developed titles I've really enjoyed. Eternal Eden by Blossomsoft and Black Sigil: Blade of the Exiled by Studio Archcraft are a couple of games I'm looking forward to.
Anyway, there's been a good amount of positive buzz among underground gaming communities for Mount & Blade, a PC RPG by TaleWorlds- an independent developer out of Turkey. Being the indie gaming buff that I am, I had to check it out. Unfortunately, I did not enjoy the game that much. I then had to ask myself, "why not?" Was it because Mount & Blade was a bad game or just that it was not my kind of game? It's most likely the latter because even though I did not enjoy the game, I am positive that many of you out there reading this review will absolutely love it. So without further ado, here's my opinion of Mount & Blade.
One aspect that's both appealing and unappealing is the low system specs of the game. It is appealing because a wider audience can play the game since not everyone can afford a Crysis-spec PC. On the other hand, it is less appealing because the graphics look rather dated for a 2008 game. Don't get me wrong, I do not think that a game needs to push polygons like Crysis does to look good. I thought Anachronox looked fine and 16-bit classics such as Chrono Trigger still look good to me. Environments looked as they should, even though the color palette and textures weren't as vivid as modern gamers may be used to. While walking through towns, the buildings looked a bit blocky. People too were a tad blocky and animated somewhat stiffly, but had decently detailed faces. In fact, the character creator allows you to tweak your avatar's face in a variety of ways (though you have no choice in body type.) Despite that, though, I found the character designs rather bland. The horses were the most appealing visual element, which was good considering the importance of horseback combat. The least appealing graphics belonged to the bland overland with its monochrome colors, tiny polygon buildings and a tiny polygon horseback rider representing your avatar. And before I forget to mention it, there can be some slowdown when a lot of simultaneous activity occurs, especially when playing on a lower end PC without DirectX 9.
The music was not very impressive and consisted of forgettable orchestral fare. Sound effects were passable. There was no voice acting present save for some pre-battle taunts, battle cries and grunts. I found myself muting the game and just playing my own CDs or vinyl LPs in the background. I normally never do that when I play video games, so if I do that the sound must be pretty sad to my ears.
Gamers expecting strong narrative plots rivaling those of, say, Planescape: Torment or Vampire: The Masquerade- Bloodlines should look elsewhere for an RPG fix. That's not to say Mount & Blade had no plot at all, but this is the kind of game where the story being told is your own. You are an adventurer in the land of Calradia, which has multiple kingdoms, multiple factions, loads of places to explore and many choices as to how you live your life. It is up to you to decide what actions you take and how they impact the world. Characters and dialogue are nothing special and I found both rather wooden. The development one sees in the game is in the world. For example, you can see a village's status increase from "Very Poor" to merely "Poor" because you taught the peasants how to defend themselves against bandits and looters. In a game like this, the world is your oyster. You can go anywhere you want and pretty much do anything you want. It's very much a sandbox game and your story is what you make of it. Explore the various villages. Learn about the various factions. Decide where your loyalties lie. You're unrestricted in your ultimate goal to become a great lord in Calradia like all the other lords described in the menu screen. As expected, you are also unrestricted in what kind of lord you become.
Mount & Blade is unabashedly a sandbox game and fans of sandbox games will really enjoy it. However, I'm not the biggest fan of sandbox gameplay. On the one hand, I like the idea of freedom and being able to choose what quests to undertake, which villages to liberate, which places to plunder, and all that. On the other hand, though, I find myself more drawn to games with deeper storylines and stronger narratives so that I have some motivation to do tasks rather than just doing them for the hell of it. I like how games such as Mass Effect or Vampire: The Masquerade- Bloodlines balance linearity with freedom and have really snappy dialogue, compelling characters, and intriguing storylines to follow. Characters are what really make an RPG worth playing for me and Mount & Blade's characters were nothing to write home about. I also did not find Calradia itself a very thrilling world, and did not get attached to it or its inhabitants at all. However, people reading this out there may find the world of Calradia rich with possibilities and opportunities. It should be noted that Calradia is quite an expansive world with many areas to explore. Depending on the choices you make for your character's backstory during character creation, your adventure will start in different realms within Calradia and you will have different starting equipment. Every gamer's experience with Mount & Blade is sure to be unique.
One universal aspect of any RPG is combat. Whether an RPG hails from the US, Asia, Europe, Turkey, or wherever, and is on a console, PC, cell phone, tabletop or whatever, a healthy portion of said RPG's play time will be spent in combat. Combat is the most robust feature in Mount & Blade and its big selling point is that not only is there standard on-foot combat but there is also copious amounts of cavalry combat with you and members of your party charging into battle on horseback. All combat occurs in real time.
Your avatar can wield various kinds of weapons such as swords, polearms, and bows. In addition, your avatar can possess multiple horses with unique characteristics to adapt to a variety of battle situations. Control both during, and out of, combat uses the standard WASD for movement and the mouse buttons for striking with a weapon and defending either with a shield or with weapon. Combat takes on a more realistic flair in that patience and strategy are the keys to winning. When fighting an opponent, judiciously defending then striking when the opponent leaves an opening is more prudent than all out click-mashing offense. Besides, clicking a mouse sets the weapon swing into motion, so learning the timing and motion of that swing is useful. Collision detection is spotty, though, and sometimes obstacles obstruct the camera during battles. In addition, because of the more patient and strategic nature of combat, it can be slow. I personally found the combat tedious, but others may really like it.
Using bows and arrows are important too, especially when fighting on horseback. Clicking the mouse has you draw an arrow from your quiver and a targeting module appears as you hold the button down. Releasing the mouse button shoots the arrow. I found the targeting imprecise and finicky. There were times when my aim was spot on a still target, yet the game would not register a hit. That being said, though, fighting on horseback with my weapon in hand (I liked using bows and polearms on horseback) and my cavalry charging was the more fun form of combat. The characteristics of your steed along with figuring out how best to use the terrain of the area made cavalry combat faster and more dynamic. You have full control over your character and the AI controls your party members, though you can give them orders by pressing hotkeys. However, the imprecise aiming, the spotty collision detection, the clunky feeling controls, and the occasional slowdown made combat less fun for me. Still, I would like to see this kind of dynamic horseback cavalry combat expanded on in future RPGs. Battles started out as small skirmishes with bandit parties of 5 but gradually escalated and eventually pitted me up against legions of 50 knights or more. It was not uncommon to be in battles where I was outnumbered and/or outclassed so the game can be challenging.
During battles, it is very important to keep tabs on your party members. Since the game aims more for realism and does not have staples such as healing potions and instant heal inns (a stay at an inn in Mount & Blade only increases recovery speed rather than granting instant full recovery), you had better make sure your troops don't get hurt or killed. Keeping their morale high, their bellies fed, and their wages paid will insure their loyalty to you. People can be recruited from towns and villages, but if you so want to, you can be a lone adventurer without a party. There are probably even ways to play the game with minimal fighting, but I never tried that since the combat was the best part of the game and the game itself was pretty boring when I wasn't fighting.
The standard WASD, mouse, and hotkey control scheme is not complicated and the menu interfaces are navigable. However, control itself left something to be desired. Movement was often stiff and did not make for fun combat. Riding on horseback was also more clunky than on-foot movement because the former used a character relative "Resident Evil" style control scheme and the latter was standard. I also felt that the camera did not pan as smoothly as I would have liked and often got hung up on walls and obstacles. This allowed some enemies to get cheap hits on me during combat. One positive aspect I should note is that the game was pretty stable and I did not encounter any game crashing bugs. Considering how buggy modern PC releases can be and the need for update patches, it's nice to play a PC game that pretty much works correctly right from the start, graphical glitches notwithstanding.
My final verdict is that I obviously did not enjoy Mount & Blade. It was too sandboxy for my tastes (I prefer more story driven RPGs), I wasn't into the combat, and I just generally found the game boring and sometimes needlessly frustrating. I can appreciate developers wanting to add more realistic touches to games, but to me realism does not always equate to fun. However, for some gamers Mount & Blade offers everything they could want and the buzz in underground gaming communities has been very positive. There is a demo available for download on the official website so you can try the game for yourself and see if it is up your alley or not. If it is your cup of tea, great. If not, there is certainly an independently developed RPG out there that will suit your taste. So long as gamers lend their support to independent developers, the creative spirit of gaming can live on.