The Banner Saga: Factions Review

Game Information

Genre: 

Strategy

Price: 

Free to Play

Released: 

February 25th, 2013

Introduction

Back in March of 2012, three industry veterans formed Stoic Studios. After working together for half a decade on Star Wars: The Old Republic, they wanted to step out onto their own and make the kind of games they wanted to play. Thus, The Banner Saga was born. A mature, story-driven turn-based strategy game steeped in viking culture. After a very successful Kickstarter run that ended in April of 2012 with 700% funding, they dived into full game development.

TBS itself is to be a story driven single-player RPG game with choice and consequence that is still in development. Stoic took the time to create TBS: Factions, which is the multiplayer only variant of the game. While some would complain this delays the single-player game, Factions contains the full combat system going to be used in the single-player game. Not only did Stoic achieve a large player best to test and tweak their core combat system, they also created an ongoing fantastic free to play multiplayer title that is sure to garner them further fans and interest in their future single-player offering.

Gameplay

At its heart, TBS: Factions is a 1vs1 turn-based arena style game. Two teams of six units face off against each other on various maps. Victory is achieved by wiping out the other team completely. While it may sound simple, the game is deceptively complex and allows for a wide range of strategy, tactics and team structure which will either guide you to victory or defeat. A tutorial automatically plays when you first enter the game, and an advanced tutorial is also available from a menu. If you are a new player this is a must-watch or you will miss a lot of the details of gameplay.

Factions uses a simple but logical system to determine fights. Every unit has strength and armor and other stats that can be tweaked on a per-unit basis. Strength is both health and damage, but to do high damage you have to first get through a units armor. If your giant warrior has 14 strength and is attacking a unit with 10 armor, he will do 4 damage. This can be boosted with willpower or using a special ability instead. So every turn you need to decide to go after armor, strength or maybe setup a trap or passive special ability. It takes some time to learn how all the units can effectively work together, but its great fun to learn and even more fun once you get a hang of basic tactics.

If your units strength is lower than your enemy's armor then you don't get a guaranteed hit. Instead there is a scaling chance % to hit based on the difference. This makes sense, but whatever system used to calculate the actual hit chance seems iffy. I've lost a number of games based on a 90% hit chance that missed, and had several epic wins at 30% or 40% attacks that wen through. Still, it can be exhilarating and does add an extra element of tension since you aren't quite sure if that last shot from your archer with extra willpower will bring you glorious victory or shameful defeat.

Right now in the game there are four base classes of every unit. The archer, warrior, shieldbanger and raider. In turn, these each can be promoted to 3 different advanced classes, as well as earn higher rank promotions which boost stats and special abilities. You can mix and match your team setup largely as you see fit in addition to adjusting every units individual stats. Between the advanced class variety, stat changes and team choice you get a wide variety of possibilities. You are free to change any of this before or between every match you undertake. Turns are taken in order based on how you layout your team, and you are also allowed to change this up in your barracks. Want archers to go first? Move them to the front. Want to let units get in range before you move? Shift that unit to the middle or end of the line.

Archers are of course best suited for long range combat and feature excellent armor breaking capabilities as well as a lethal passive which grants them increased damage based on how much armor the target is missing. Warriors are giant units featuring significant amounts of health and armor and can be use area of effect specials that can strike multiple targets. Shieldbangers are your tanks, designed to have high armor and soak up punishment. Raiders are your basic fighters and can have a variety of roles based on your advanced class choice. My favorite is the backbiter who is best suited for hunting down those pesky archers in the back lines.

Every match you play gives you Renown, the game's currency. This is used to promote units to new ranks, expand your barracks, hire new soldiers from the Mead house or spend in the Marketplace on cosmetics or other things. Winning definitely gives you more renown, but even in loss, you can earn a fair amount of points. Extra renown can be earned for things like achievements, win streaks, being the "underdog" and more. This is a great system that encourages you to not only play more for the fun of the game, but to earn those precious renown points. I found I could earn about 12 renown a match on average, which I found to be a fair pace considering a rank 1 promotion costs 50 renown points.

You can surrender if a match isn't going your way, but you get zero renown points for doing so. This is a sound system that rewards players to stay and finish as you can get a decent amount of points even if you lose. While I wouldn't go so far as to call losing "fun" its still thrilling to have 1 or 2 warriors left against a superior team and see how many you can take with you before your last unit falls into a heap.

TBSF is free to play, but definitely has the look and feel of a regular paid game. Everything from the interface, to the game mechanics, to the artwork, sounds and music all feel top notch and like nothing was left out. Additionally the game is constantly being updated with tweaks or new units to promote.  A lot of F2P games have a stigma of "pay to win" where you can buy items or ranks to get ahead of non-paying players. Fortunately Factions does not have this problem. While there is a marketplace where you can buy renown, tier 1 upgraded units and color variations for your troops, it won't get you ahead even if you pay. The game's inherent learning curve to gameplay and strategy means that if a new player buys a whole tier 1 team it won't do them much good because the game's matchmaking system ranks you against players of same or similar power level. So its likely you'll go up against a player who earned a tier 1 team through dozens of matches and experience and consequently will have no trouble mopping the floor with you.

Otherwise veteran players have the option of buying more promoted units this way versus leveling them one by one. So it can save time, but it still doesn't make you better at the game. Sound strategy and tactics win matches, even against higher level teams. Personally I found the worthwhile purchase was the permanent +3 renown per match boost. This certainly isn't necessary and doesn't give you a gameplay advantage, but I like the game and know I'll be playing it a lot so I bought it.

Graphics & Sound

One of the first things you will notice about The Banner Saga is the absolutely gorgeous hand-drawn art and animations. From the introductory cut-scene, to the town, unit portraits, combat animations or subtly detailed maps the game will be pleasing to the eye. Its beautiful to see in motion, and even when standing still units will shift around or beat their weapons against their shield. Maps feature extra units watching your fight, practicing your fight, animals, glowing fires and other assorted small details that add to the experience.

The game's sound effects are terrific. From the heavy thud of a Varl stomping towards a foe, the clash of weapons upon armor or the last cry of a dying archer, everything sounds just as it should. Music is also good, adding nice background rhythm to the proceedings. In Pillage mode a new music track plays giving the last moments a dire and dangerous feeling.

Performance

Factions is a very lightweight game and should run on just about any computer. At only a few hundred megabytes its easy to download and try out. I had no performance issues. There are a few bugs still being ironed out as the game is developed, but it is mostly solid.

The Verdict

The Banner Saga: Factions is an outstanding strategy/rpg game that will satisfy not only your battle hunger, but also that part of your brain that always knew you wanted to play Viking chess with RPG abilities and upgrades. It has a few bugs, but nothing game-breaking. A friendly community, solid developers and ongoing updates make this a great experience. Don't miss it.

The Good:

Deep, engaging strategy
Fun RPG mechanics
Gorgeous hand-drawn artwork and animation
Good matchmaking system
Free!

The Bad:

High learning curve
90% chance to hit attacks have a way of missing frequently.
Occasional bugs or lag.

Final Score: 8.

Quick Links & Tips:

http://store.steampowered.com/app/219340

http://stoicstudio.com/forum/showthread.php?868-Welcome-to-the-Factions-Discussion-Area!-A-MUST-READ-FOR-NEW-VIKINGS!

If you want to play against me, add the_great_wumpus on steam. I play frequently!

The Banner Saga: Factions was reviewed using a free copy of the game from Steam. Read more on MacGameCast's review and ethics policy here.

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