Manor Lords Early Access Review – Hamfisted Hochadel

For a long time, one of the best documentaries I ever watched on PBS was the adaptation of David Macaulay’s book, Castle. While the animated segments clearly were intended to grab the younger set, the live action sections were equally enlightening. Macaulay (along with actress Sarah Bullen) managed to give a good thumbnail overview of medieval life from the nobles down to the peasants. And while Castle was very much set in England, I can’t imagine the conditions were terribly different in Franconia (part of what is today Germany). So it’s not like I was completely coming in cold on the period which Manor Lords covers, nor in the basic premises of feudalism. Heck, I even played an early demo version a while back, which is what moved me to keep an eye on it for when it was ready to go out to the world. Unfortunately, it almost feels like the solo developer Slavic Magic has stumbled badly getting out of the blocks.

Manor Lords puts you in charge of a small section of an undifferentiated region of Franconia, sometime during the High Middle Ages. Three scenarios purport to give you either a “relaxed” pure city building experience, a “normal” slice-of-life setup where you have to make sure bandits and raubritter aren’t threatening your demenses, and a “combat” focused scenario. Varying degrees of difficulty are possible, with a general preset or customized by adjusting different factors. There’s only a single map at the present, though the resources on it are randomized each time, allowing for some replayability.

Let the agony commence.

About the only unequivocal bright spot in Manor Lords are the visuals. It’s clear that Slavic Magic knows how to wring the best out of the Unreal Engine. The landscapes feel organic, while the construction of various structures has that note of authenticity you’d expect in a well researched documentary or historical simulation. Weather effects are well-employed. The overlays you get for things like fertility and water are immediately useful and easy to read. Being able to zoom in on your villagers or even passing merchants and watch them move about their daily routines is the sort of dopamine kick normally reserved for hardcore players of The Sims. You do get some nifty smoke and fire effects (particularly when a place is burning down), though they’re decidedly restrained for the most part. It’s supposed to be showing a bucolic German village, not making your eyes bleed from all the pretty lights, and you get just that. The user interface is contextual and gives you all the information that you could want. As for the “grand strategy” portions of the UI, zooming out far enough gives you the entire map, done up in a pen-and-ink visual style that keeps with the aesthetic, while the “Development” section shows off the tech tree in a slightly illuminated style. Cohesive art and visual styling is certainly one thing that Manor Lords gets right.

When it comes to the audio, Manor Lords doesn’t excel, but it’s not terrible, either. There is a soundtrack, but for the life of me, I can’t think of any particularly memorable pieces from it. It’s the sort of thing that sits in the background, just below your conscious threshold, and helps establish a mood. There might be pieces I missed, but that’s probably a consequence of the gameplay. Voice work is pretty minimal, mostly the occasional bark from villagers calling out that they have something to sell. Sound effects work is decent, not spectacular, but certainly helps reinforce certain ideas about what structures you’re interacting with. Overall, solid work.

Useful information. Not terribly useful land, but good to know.

The gameplay I experienced in Manor Lords, being blunt, has killed any hope of enjoyment for me. Probably the greatest shortcoming is not information overload but information opacity. It’s fine and well to say that a structure has material requirements for construction. That makes sense. But the ongoing supply question is a giant blank space. Sure, you’ve got visual indicators that residences aren’t getting enough food or firewood or clothes, but it doesn’t tell me the rate of use for resources outside of firewood. Worse, it seems like the virtual villagers didn’t seem to remember that they had jobs to be performing. That the continued survival of the village depended on their ability to keep a steady supply of food and fuel moving around. At certain points, I was sitting on ridiculous amounts of firewood in the village storehouse, but half the village was complaining they didn’t have firewood. I understand that pathing and variable factors for simulations is always kind of a tricky thing to pull off, but this just fell flat on its face. Compounding this was the absolute lack of information about the rate of decay for negative modifiers in the Reputation mechanic. High Reputation attracts new villagers. Yet the first year or so of every game, the penalty for homelessness (because you hadn’t built homes fast enough) pretty much lingers the entire time, making it hard to grow.

The “Development” tech tree is kind of a shambles, suffering both from that same opacity as well as missing a number of options because it’s an Early Access build. You have no way to undo a choice that you didn’t want to make or shouldn’t have made, short of reloading the game before you apply the Development Points you earn, and you have no way to reallocate points when the factors that led to an initial choice are no longer relevant. And just to make things extra painful, the Development tree is local to the region of the map in question. There are no “universal” policies which apply should you manage to expand into another region on the map. Nope, you’re gonna specialize each village according to its resources and damned well like it, or else. The Policies screen is even worse, since you literally had only two options described, and the other two were pickable but undescribed. The existence of a Production screen (the thing that would maybe have helped make sense of the chaos) was completely blank.

“But Dad, there’s firewood to use in the storehouse!”
“We don’t do that here.”

I briefly tried out the combat system, not out of reluctance to fight but out of the sheer frustration factor trying to get even a basic village stood up in a growth scenario. The combat scenario went with fighting bandits rather than facing off against a noble rival. Unfortunately, that added all new frustrations. Periodically, resources would be stolen by the bandits, even if you had a militia unit standing by. The actual combat mechanics are not great. Slavic Magic has gone on record saying they’re not trying for a Total War-style experience, but at the same time, they’re factoring in morale and stamina in a way which feels like something Creative Assembly might have tried out (and subsequently rejected). Your orders to hold ground, give ground, or charge all feel essentially meaningless. It’s especially excruciating when you’re having to march a unit of militia across three regions to reach a bandit camp, make them stand around for an in-game month to catch their breath, and then watch them get their asses kicked in five minutes.

The fact Slavic Magic is one person, working on their own, and has managed to get this much done is not lost on me. But if this is the state that Manor Lords is going to be in when it finally goes out into Early Access, I foresee a very long and agonizing period for people who try their luck. It’s not simply “rough,” it’s badly incomplete. Not “unfinished,” but missing just enough in functionality to question if it can be a viable product in the end. It makes you wish you could attach riders to Early Access purchases and tell developers, “Hire more people!” If you wish to make the investment in Manor Lords, don’t expect an immediate return on your investment anytime soon.

Axel played Manor Lords in Early Access on PC with a review code.

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