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Impressions

Manor Lords Is Good, But Let’s Pump Our Brakes A Little

It's got some good ideas, but it's also very unfinished

If you're into strategy games, and are at any way connected to any kind of social media algorithm, you've no doubt spent the last few weeks having your feeds bombarded with news about Manor Lords, an upcoming feudal city-builder that's been in development for YEARS but is finally about to hit Early Access.

Loads of streamers have been playing it, there's been a ton of promo, all building upon years of excellent social media work from the game's lone developer, all of which have combined to create some big numbers and loads of excitement. I honestly can't remember the last time I've been confronted with so much pre-release hype for a game like this:

Damn, that is a lot of interest. And if reading certain websites and gobbling up the content of streamers and content creators was all you were doing this week, or even just Googling it--where you'd be met with links like "Manor Lords is the real deal for strategy fans" and "Manor Lords: Early Reviews Suggest It's a Masterpiece"--you'd be forgiven for thinking this was some kind of Game of the Year contender, an upcoming strategy giant:

It's not. I've been playing the game for a few weeks and am here to remind you that this is an indie strategy game coming out in Early Access, made largely by a single person, and you absolutely need to adjust your expectations accordingly.

Manor Lords is a medieval city-builder with a twist: it also has a little bit of Total War-style real-time combat in it. So while you spend most of your time building houses and farms and windmills, you also need to get yourself a Manor, train and equip some troops and get ready to defend your lands (or strike out and do some damage yourself).

Your first hours with a Manor Lords game are always the best. The game's flexible, extremely satisfying building tools are its biggest strength. Winding little dirt roads through your village, adjusting building plot and marketplace sizes, it's a pure joy just to click on things and watch them grow as villagers hammer tiny wooden planks together and start living their tiny little lives around you. If this was a game just about building and watching peasants go about their daily business, it would be a very good video game.

It tries, however, to be so much more. You first have to keep these people alive by getting them shelter and food, then you have to set about making them prosperous, meaning there's a whole economy you get to develop and manage. You'll need to farm, hunt and tend livestock, all the while mining resources, felling trees and turning every resulting resource into something you can either make more of, sell for money or turn into something that makes you even more money.

There's lots of cool stuff here! In theory. Players can track each worker and their family individually on the map, white lines arcing out from homes and fields showing where everyone lives and toils. Families won't just work, either; they'll sell their wares in the village market, and homes can be turned into small shops, the people engaging in all kinds of work-from-home endeavours like blacksmithing and chicken farming.

The building blocks of this production system are clearly explained, and you can really get some engines humming when your peasants are mining iron which can then make its way through 3-4 different buildings to create various tools and items. Helping all this--and I need to remind you that this game was largely made by one guy--is a crisp, clean interface, which is easier to understand and looks nicer than many strategy/management games with 10x the staffing levels of Manor Lords.

I swear I've spent more time looking at my little peasants living their lives, watching them sell honey and go to church, than I have actually shaping them

Like I said, this is all great in theory. It all works to a certain point. But at time of release Manor Lords' economy is unfinished, especially at its more advanced end, and is also very much lacking in balance. When a city-builder's economy isn't finished--there's a whole big screen called PRODUCTION in the menu that just...isn't working, and loads blank--how are we supposed to evaluate Manor Lords at launch? What are we supposed to be acclaiming when there's only one map to play on? Or when half the perks you can unlock as you improve your town are literally greyed out saying they're not available in Early Access?

This is a work in progress that should be met with cautious optimism, not boundless adulation. And I'm clearly not the only person wary of all the hype ahead of the game's release; its solo creator, Greg Styczeń, has even written a lengthy blog post on the game's Steam page reminding folks that "It's my first serious game and not only some stuff is still unfinished, but I bet you guys will ask me to change some things you don't necessarily like".

As you expect of a lot of games in Early Access, Manor Lords has the shape of something great, but the devil is in the detail, and that devil is still a few miles down the road. Maybe Greg will get it all together and create a modern strategy masterpiece! Maybe he won't and, like last year's Jumplight Odyssey, we'll get a game that looked cool and got most stuff right but fell over where it was most important. That will require work, and it's work that separates good ideas from great executions.

Anyway, sorry, this blog kinda became as much about the forces around the game--which have annoyed me!--than the game itself. To bring things back to Manor Lords itself, I like a lot of the stuff that's already there--the building and "gardening work" of just watching everyone live their lives especially--but with so much locked away will probably be leaving it on the shelf for a little while before revisiting later in the year to see what's changed.

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