Manor Lords Review

May 2, 2024

It’s finally here. A game we’ve had on our Steam wishlist since the coronavirus was beginning its journey around the globe in 2020, Manor Lords has just launched for early access on Windows, Xbox Series X/S and Xbox One. We’ve been city-building for about a couple of weeks now to bring you an in-depth look at what’s available at the launch of the most-Steam-wishlisted game of all time.

Manor Lords at this point in its development is a city-building strategy game with basic warfare elements. We’d be surprised if you’re reading this and didn’t already know that, because that’s basically the only headline we’ve seen for the game. While the battle mechanics are in the game at its early access launch, you can switch it off entirely, making Manor Lords one of the most peaceful city-building games around, and certainly one of the most beautiful.

These days, many city-building games operate on grids with set locations for placing buildings and roads. Manor Lords steers away from this, and although there are fixed roads that go through each region of the map, the rest of the environment is yours to map out. While some will endeavour to make the ultimate grid-shaped medieval town, we’re looking forward to seeing some of the more creative layouts that are possible thanks to the organic tools provided by the developer. Burgage plots, as an example, are one of the coolest parts of building your settlement, as you can snap them to your roads and buildings to maximise the space, creating some interesting sized plots with backyards that can sweep around other buildings.

But before you start building your city, there are a few things to set up at the start of each game. Players choose from nine Lords and Ladies and then create your very own Coat of Arms. While you can name your lord and the Coat of Arms creator is quite intricate, the actual lord you control when doing a walkthrough of your settlements is still an early access default character model. After you set up your Manor Lord, it’s time to choose what type of game you want to play. As mentioned, Manor Lords is a city-builder with battle elements, and when setting up a new game there’s a lot of customisation over just how much battling you want to do. There are three scenarios that we’ll delve into: Rise to Prosperity, Restore the Peace and On the Edge. 

Rise to Prosperity is your classic city builder where the objective is simply to reach the ‘Large Town’ settlement level, though you can continue to build your world afterwards. Restoring the Peace sees you take on an off-map Baron who is claiming land around your region. Currently, the Baron appears to be quite overpowered, claiming lands and sending large armies faster than we could muster, but it is not impossible to beat the Baron and therefore it’s difficult for us to say that this mode needs any urgent early access attention – it is simply a hard mode to play the game in. Winning this mode requires conquering every region on the map, which is also no easy task but not unachievable. Lastly, On the Edge sees bandits and raiders running rampant through the map. Although the victory condition here is the same as Rise to Prosperity (build a Large Town), raiders will burn and pillage your settlements if left undefended.

While you can choose from the template difficulty levels of relaxing, default and challenging, there are plenty of sliders allowing you to create the game you wish to play. We found it was a good idea to begin with no battles while we figured out the mechanics, then slowly introducing the frequency of raids and bandit camps, then once we had a good grasp over the economy and trading, we challenged the Baron. It will be interesting to see how these game modes evolve over the roadmap towards full release and whether we see multiplayer in the future. It would be quite fun to take on the Baron with your friends, and it would also be fun to visit his region and destroy some of his settlements in revenge. Battle mechanics in Manor Lords are actually pretty good, though much like the rest of the game there is still plenty of room for improvement. There’s no siege warfare, for example, and the archers at the moment don’t do much damage at all.

Disappointingly, the final part of setting up a game of Manor Lords is choosing the map, and by ‘disappointingly’ we mean there is currently only one to choose from. We really hope that the developer allows for some kind of community assistance with creating new maps. While the default map is beautiful, at the end of the day it’s a fairly plain map of trees, minor slopes, and roads that weave their way through. We were hoping to see some water on the map, as it’s hard to call the game historically accurate when none of the settlements are settling alongside rivers. We’re sure the future will bring water to Manor Lords maps with features like bridges, fishing and water trade routes, but with no roadmap we are left wondering how long the wait for a fairly prominent but currently absent feature will be.

Where Manor Lords shines almost without comparison is in its city-building mechanics. Greg at Slavic Magic has always stressed this is the core component of the game and everything else you experience (i.e. warfare) is secondary. Starting with a homeless settlement in a region of your choosing, the pace of Manor Lords soon becomes apparent. Building is not instant, it’s not even quick. You need to direct your peasants to chop wood and then with the help of your oxen you take it to the building site where the construction then commences. Strategic planning is imperative, and it’s literally worthwhile checking out how villages and towns used to look in the medieval period.

Houses, or ‘burgage plots’ as they are known, are usually best constructed in a row, with lengthy backyards to allow for their backyard extensions. Carrots and eggs are your staple diet here if you haven’t managed to settle near a wild animal food source, as prospering from farming takes a lot longer than other games. When your town levels up, you begin to utilise the backyard extensions for more advanced professions like brewing beer and making clothes and weapons. Not only does this make your settlements more practical, it’s also realistic to its time and looks so much cooler in the third person ‘visit’ mode. Progressing to a large town requires you to upgrade your burgage plots, and upgrading your citizens’ housing requires you to keep them happy by providing for their needs. This usually means that you need to get good at trading, economics, and farming.

While trading and managing your economy will surely change throughout early access, the farming component appears to be basically complete. Players soon learn that you must allocate huge swathes of land for your farms if you want to have success, but also they must be placed on fertile lands. Our first settlement was built in a region with next to no fertile land and our farms struggled, but once opening up a second region and setting up trade, we soon had two flourishing settlements that almost merged to become one on the map. One trick with the world map is that you can extend the burgage backyards out across the border, meaning you can technically create mega cities and we look forward to seeing what the Manor Lords community comes up with.

One of the coolest features of Manor Lords has to be visit mode which allows you to control your lord and walk around your region in third person. At this stage in development, that’s literally all it is, and your lord doesn’t even look like the avatar you created at the start of the game, but it puts your creation into a perspective that other strategy games don’t. Outside of visit mode you can still zoom down to a street level view, though the game is typically played in the standard strategy game birds-eye perspective. We’re looking forward to how the visit mode develops in the future, perhaps with options to interact with buildings or peasants, and the option to be mounted on a horse like what’s shown in the game’s main image on Steam.

At first glance, Manor Lords provides incredible visuals. It’s hard to fault just how beautiful the world looks, whether it be the lush forests, sweeping farmlands, or the buildings in your settlements. From the start of your city-building to the intricate stages of levelling up the burgages and sorting out your economic movements, Manor Lords has to be one of the most realistic looking medieval city-building games to date. Where it hurts however is in the animations and in the lack of interactivity with each of the buildings. Yes, it’s still in early access, but we do wonder whether some of the animations of the peasants are temporary or if they will be revisited and if so, when.

The soundtrack of Manor Lords is exactly how you would expect it to sound – medieval-inspired, relaxing, engaging. Combining this with the sounds of the settlement grinding away, construction, lopping trees, and the villagers selling their goods, the sounds of Manor Lords help set the scene for medieval city-building, but stop short of adding stories and charm. It would be great to hear villagers telling stories, e.g. speaking positively or negatively about their neighbours or their Lord, but at this stage of early access the limited dialogue sequences become repetitive quite quickly.

Let’s be clear, despite being in development for seven years, Manor Lords is still in very early access at this point. In fact, when taking everything into account with the development trees, policies and production tabs are still overwhelmingly locked behind the ‘early access’ label, Manor Lords is a long way from being called a full product. Even when you load the game, a message from Greg appears stating game and platform features are not available yet and bugs are aplenty. Therefore we can only conclude that Manor Lords is, by all accounts, an amazing demo.

Rocket Chainsaw reviewed Manor Lords on Windows PC via Steam with review provided by the publisher. Manor Lords is also available on Xbox Series X/S and Xbox One. For more information, head to the official website.

Positives:

- Beautiful and usually peaceful city-building
- Fantastic amount of historical authenticity
- Just one developer

Negatives:

- Serious lack of content for the price
- Unclear roadmap to full release
- Just one developer

Overall Score: