The Banner Saga: Factions
Be it coincidence or otherwise, the turn based strategy genre has seen somewhat of a renaissance as of late. XCOM: Enemy Unknown set the world alight last fall, while Fire Emblem and Skulls of the Shogun have ensured those looking to scratch that particular itch have not been left wanting. Now Stoic are entering the fray with The Banner Saga: Factions, the multiplayer component of a Kickstarter funded campaign which found funding success last year. Releasing as a free to play title, Factions is a solid, if not spectacular offering that isn’t without fault.
At its core a very typical turn based-strategy, Factions takes place on a grid based map and puts players in command of a team comprised of 6 Vikings made up from the 16 available classes. While that sounds like a lot of variety, these fall into 4 distinct types, with each being upgradeable into different variants. The Shieldbanger is your force’s tank and can absorb plenty of punishment. Raiders are your quick moving units, able to traverse the board at speed to flank enemies. Warriors excel at dealing damage and their specials allow him to deal damage to multiple units, while Archers round out the base classes and unsurprisingly act as ranged combat options. There is also scope to further customise your team by altering the base stats of any individual unit, thus catering to a specific play style, meaning that even when two teams are comprised of similar classes they could play completely different depending on how an individual has spread out their available points.
A game of numbers
Once grasped, the combat in Factions becomes second nature. For example, a unit with a strength of 10 will deal 10 damage. If attacking an enemy with 8 armour remaining, that unit actually deals 2 damage (10 strength – 8 armour). If during the course of battle that same unit had their strength reduced to 7, it would then only have a 90% change of dealing a single point of damage (7 damage – 8 armour). Thankfully, this is all made clear on the on screen interface, but it’s a core concept necessary to plan your strategy
And you’ll want to study your opponent carefully, as very little is left to chance in Factions. A unit’s two most prominent stats are strength (attack damage) and armour (defense). However the caveat here is that a unit’s strength is also its health, meaning hurting an opposing unit also limits the amount of damage it can deal on future turns. Attacks can target either stat specifically, with armour damage being a guaranteed hit and strength damage determined by subtracting the armour stat from the damage value. This throws up a number of viable strategies and interesting decisions to be considered at each turn. Do you aim to reduce the opposition’s armour early, hoping to deal big damage in later turns, or attack a unit’s health from the get-go, mitigating the risk of that unit being able to cause serious damage when it comes their turn to act? Each unit also has a finite number of willpower, allowing for the use of special abilities and the boosting of movement and attack, adding a further element of complexity and strategy to the mix.
Each match plays out like a game of chess, which is either a blessing or a curse depending on your outlook. Slow and deliberate movement, positioning and forward thinking are absolutely crucial to be successful. Yet while differing strategies are definitely viable depending on the makeup of your team, as I progressed, I found myself targeting armour less and less. The chance to cause some strength damage and reduce how much my opponent could hurt me was too much to pass up. Late game comebacks were rare, and the outcome of any individual match was often determined by how well one player or the other could impose their strategy early. While it is no doubt rewarding to come out on top and see a well planned move pay off, being on the opposite side of the scenario led to tedium and a sense of going through the motions.
Aesthetically, The Banner Saga: Factions radiates charm. Developers Stoic have publicly cited American artist Eyvind Earle as an inspiration on the art style, consequently meaning the game takes on the look of a classic Disney animated feature circa 1950. Each and every element is beautifully hand drawn and detailed, with the character models in particular being well realised. But the problem is they don’t do much; unless it’s a particular unit’s turn, said unit stands there mostly stationary, with the occasional brief animation. It doesn’t take long to tire of the Shieldbanger who, as the name suggests, infuriatingly bangs his shield every few moments.
Each match in Factions earns Renown, which is used to upgrade your classes into the aforementioned variants as well as allowing for the purchase of alternate character skins and other perks such as extending your barracks. Stoic are continuously tweaking the amount of Renown needed for upgrades, but even still, earning enough to upgrade each member of your party will take a long time. That’s where the marketplace of Factions comes in. Renown can be purchased in blocks, or boosts can be used to increase the amount of Renown earned from playing. While many will turn their nose up at the idea of paying for in game currency and quickly begin preaching about “pay to win”, the key is that there is nothing available to those who pay that can’t be earned by actually putting in the hours and playing the game. It could even be argued that paying for Renown from the beginning would be detrimental to the experience, as anyone doing so would lack the experience built up over many matches to effectively use the forces at their disposal.
The Banner Saga: Factions’ slower pace and current lack of class variety will be enough to discourage many from trying this particular brand of turn-based strategy. But those who can look past these flaws will find a somewhat deep combat system that necessitates tactical awareness and forethought, and a rewarding experience for those who invest the time needed to learn its intricacies.