There’s little more that needs to be said than “smithing” when talking about the absolutely strange design choices seen in Bannerlord that lead the game to become a tedious walk of trying to break the game instead of playing it naturally. But that’s only true when talking to veterans of the Mount and Blade series, so I’ll pretend you know nothing about it and explain myself.
Bannerlord is the second installment in the Mount and Blade series. Its ultimate goal as a game was to refine the gameplay offered by its predecessor, Warband. The meat of which amounted to roaming around a kingdom divided, offering your warband’s military prowess to various lords in return for cash, favor, and, ultimately, land. Acquiring land and becoming king of your own kingdom, too, was the ultimate goal of the game, generally speaking. In Bannerlord, the name of the game is just the same. Roam the lands, get into fights, and build up a reputation that can back a King.
The problem with Bannerlord in relation to its predecessor, in my opinion, is that it mars this gameplay loop with a collection of outrageous design choices that benefit grindy tactics as opposed to leaning on the strengths that it has as a medieval battle sim. Where Warband annoyed players because of its dated combat, troop control scheme, and limited diplomatic features, Bannerlord annoys players because of its intentional design: Clearing bandit camps is a tedious and needlessly long game of sending your troops while alt-tabbing to do something else, grinding out skills and controlling the development of your own family and companions is unbelievably taxing on the fun to be had in the moment to moment fluidity of Bannerlord thanks to the perk system and steep XP curve, while the quest system, in some cases, finds itself wanting with groups of easy-to-accomplish and lucrative quests that one completes on repeat while others are borderline cheese with their impossible-to-fail, easy-to-bore design, such as the “Inn and out” quest which gives the player no opportunity to scale up skills, but still requires a rather large time investment for what amounts to beating poorly designed AI in a game of Calradic Checkers.
The Second-Worst of it is the Skill System
The almost most egregious of the problems aforementioned is the skill system. When grinding out skills in Warband, the player character didn’t have to worry about the perk system. That is to say, the player character did not need to make perk selections at every meaningful juncture in XP gain. Instead, the player would update their favorite skill, assign some weapon points, and be on their way. Bannerlord took this system and added perks on top of it so that when each skill hits a certain milestone, the player is offered the choice between two choices that give respective bonuses.
Ignoring the fact that these bonuses, in most cases, are wildly different in power levels, the most annoying thing about this is that each of these decisions has to be made for family members and companions. And before you say “You can enable the auto-perk selection options!”, remember that these perks are wildly different in power levels. That is to say, one is going to be useful, while the other is going to be useless.
This means that rolling the dice on whether or not an important companion gets a perk that does not affect the weapons they use isn’t a viable option. A system that could fix this would include giving the game a learning system for perk selection that opts to select perks that benefit an NPC’s habits, but even that wouldn’t solve the severe power discretion they suffer from. And even a fix to that doesn’t change the outrageous grind being asked of players to cap out their skills.
Take trading, for example. If you google “how to get 300 trading Bannerlord“, you do not get a collection of responses telling you to trade effectively. Instead, you get responses detailing how to exploit the game because the actual methods for XP gain are both painfully slow and dreadfully boring. You’d think a game about leading parties and kingdoms would reward the player with trade XP for conducting all kinds of business ventures, but instead, you only get XP for trading at a profit within your own party. No other forms of business matter, which means your caravans and businesses, even when operating at massive profits, yield no XP. You’ll be spending the entirety of your characters 50-70 years trading at a profit in tedious fashion just for the option to buy a few settlements that you could have just taken via combat.
And that leads us back to smithing. Another skill that turns the game into an absolute nightmare of tedium and balance issues. Smithing, conceptually, should have been a way to let the player roleplay as a tradesperson. Instead, it functions as a means to buy out the entire wealth of kingdoms. No, seriously. If you make a weapon that is moderately sharper and longer than other weapons you can find on dead looters, the whole of Calradia will go bankrupt trying to buy it.
It’s goofy, and while I like developers taking chances on outrageous balancing, this feels like an oversight more than it does a legitimate, immersive way to play the game. This feeling doubles over with the boredom factor as it asks you to manually rest your character in between smithing and smelting items to simulate the passing of time instead of just passing the time in relation to how much you’ve smithed. That sounds like a non-issue, but anyone who has tried leveling smithing knows how tedious it is to hop back and forth between the various UI just to facilitate smelting down one skirmish’s worth of loot.
The Actual Worst of it
The worst part of all this is that I like it. The strengths of the game, that is, the combat, sieging, currying favor with lords, and watching your Warband grow in size and quality, are stronger than the game’s weaknesses are annoying. It puts the player in a strange position of loving the game when the game is good and absolutely dreading it when it’s fucky, for lack of a better word. I honestly find myself having a better time playing Vanilla Warband over Bannerlord just because the former does not seek to waste my time in ways that Bannerlord chooses to.
I give credit to TaleWorlds Entertainment where it’s due: They’ve been consistently updating the game and making improvements to the basic functions found within, so I can count on some of these issues being addressed. That said, I have only so much patience. And at the current point in time, I’d much rather spend my days with something that I don’t have to make exceptions for.