Stronghold 3 drops you into the boots of a feudal lord, charged with settling a plot of land, managing an economy, fighting bad guys, and completing missions. And castles! Proper castles, with gates and walls and great big cauldrons of burning pitch to dump on hapless skirmishers. Everything about it checks out on paper. But a torturous pace, unbalanced combat, and fundamentally flawed game mechanics turn what should've been a charming strategy game into a steaming pile of wasted potential.
Stronghold 3 is all about maintaining equilibrium. You need peasants to do your bidding, and they'll only show up if your settlement is popular. Offering plenty of food, low taxes, or keeping everyone good and drunk will add popularity points to your settlement, and keep minions coming. Run out of these perks and subjects will lose faith and bail.
Peasants can't be controlled directly. To harvest resources (and there are plenty) you build the appropriate workshop and idlers will move in and get to work. This is where Stronghold 3 starts to falls apart. Want some bread? A peasant harvests wheat from a farm and hauls it to the storehouse. Another takes that wheat to the windmill and grinds it into flour. A third peasant takes that flour to a bakery and, after a few neat animations, hauls a few loaves to the granary. The entire process takes maybe a minute, depending on how far apart you've spaced your workshops. The bread is consumed in seconds. You're also only allowed one storehouse and granary per map, which means keeping all of your workshops clustered together, or risk painfully long round trips for your labour force.
My inner-masochist reads that and gets giddy. I love this stuff: managing production chains, figuring out the bottlenecks in my supply lines, marshalling troops and setting up defences...I've poured close to a hundred hours into Dwarf Fortress, so I'm no stranger to obtuse resource-management sims.
But Stronghold 3 is a waiting game: waiting for your peasants to chop wood. Waiting for your soldiers to march to a defensive position. Waiting for your lord to finally catch up to that lone, rampaging bear that's wiped out half your settlement.
I haven't spent any time discussing combat, but there's not much to say: it's a finicky, unbalanced mess. Clicking on units is often unresponsive, and dragging a selection box around them could pull up any number of troops, or even nearby buildings. A single wolf will slaughter your peasants and weaker soldiers, which says nothing of the enemy troops. Sending beefier troops in for the rescue is a tricky proposition. Sometimes they'll dash into battle. Sometimes they'll saunter over casually, taking in the sights and leaving your populace to die. These sorts of issues (nerf the wolves!) can be fixed with patches.
Fundamentally broken game design can't be fixed, however. There's nothing inherently difficult about Stronghold 3. And while it does offer some complexity, much of that revolves around the sheer number of variables to keep track of. And even that's not so bad: keep taxes high, food rations low, and tweak the sliders to control that population count as you build up reserves. With patience you'll have a bustling castle, a massive army, and plenty of peasants mulling about their chores.
But it's all very boring. And there's the rub: you'll spend more time watching oxen haul chunks of stone than you will erecting those stone walls, and building a stout fortress is only satisfying when fending off foes is a satisfying, climatic experience.