When we first heard of The Banner Saga and its success on Kickstarter last spring, it was a single-player focused turn-based RPG. Since then, it has split off into two releases: a narrative-driven single-player game to come and a free-to-player multiplayer game called Factions, a taste of what's to come and a standalone release that will receive its own updates in upcoming months.
While I was foaming at the mouth for Banner Saga when I checked it out in the fall, it now enters a post-Fire Emblem and XCOM world. By the time the beta rolled out, my interest had faded. Despite these lowered expectations and the misguided community concerns over this free-to-play release, I've been having a good time with Banner Saga and see much promise in how Factions and the upcoming commercial release will improve upon an already solid foundation.
The Banner Saga: Factions (PC, Mac)
Developer: Stoic Studio
Publisher: Stoic Studio
Release: February 25, 2013
Factions is a turn-based tactical RPG played on a grid with a team of six. Characters can be hired, swapped out, and upgraded across matches. Keep those archers behind tanks and use your speedy thrashers to flank; you know the type of game. At a glance, it's Fire Emblem with mouse controls, but its particular systems put Factions in its own class that will win over some while turning away others.
You will fail and fail Factions until you take note of one very important detail: Your characters' strength not only fluctuates in matches, but it is also tied to a unit's hit points. A warrior that does 12 damage will also die from 12 damage, if dealt without any armor. Armor subtracts damage taken, so that a 12 damage strike becomes 2 damage if armor is at 10 (12 - 10 = 2); though, there is a minimum of one damage dealt, if armor is greater than an opponent's strength/hit points.
When attacking, either armor or strength can be specifically addressed (only specials can damage both). This results in some very different approaches to the game. Some players will try to eat away the armor of opponents so they can have a late-game comeback, while I like to lower the strength/HP early on so there is no great threat present. It's an interesting dynamic that Stoic has created; one that I'm still not sure will result in a healthy community with evolving strategies, but it's one that continues to excite me, match-to-match.
Combat is further complicated with the ability to respec individual units' stats outside combat and the willpower system that enables extra movement, damage, and special abilities. Fool around with these systems and you'll discover game-changing strategies. Right now, I'm winning every match with an archer that has high strength and willpower. I use her to do major damage from a distance, until it stops working.
I'll tell you what's not exciting: the speed and presentation. I won't say the gorgeous art style isn't gorgeous, but I do wish there was more movement and animation throughout matches. The game feels like a chess match at times, both from its complexity and its snail-like pace. In its current state, a lack of variety in character classes and abilities also lends a monotony to the first five minutes of these ~20-minute matches. While I don't expect XCOM-style cinematic flourishes, I would like some of the snappiness that keeps matches moving in Fire Emblem: Awakening.
All players of Factions are tied into its renown-based economy, which dictates everything from how characters look to their abilities. At 50 renown, characters can be upgraded once they've killed enough enemies. Player skins can also be altered by spending extra renown or paying money for skins locked behind a pay wall. And, yes you can pay for a lot of things in Factions, if you wish. Stoic may say the game is not pay-to-win, but when players who paid played against me, they certainly did a good job of winning. Though, I can match them in time and I hardly feel frustrated.
Factions' matching system does its best to match by ability and experience, but I did run into two matches that were laughable. One, with a user that had all sorts of abilities I didn't even know could be accessed. While my guys were still moving, he threw two traps that did significant damage to my party, making it very hard to comeback. The other match was with a user who did not pay for any extras but had a team with 300+ kills under their belt. This is just two matches out of ~10 and you can always quit out at the beginning without penalty. I do worry how these systems will work, should players continue to pay and the playerbase shrink.
Some users are calling Factions a grindfest and I can see why: 20 is the most renown I've won in a match, while a losing match often earns between five and seven renown. The path to unlocking new abilities and expanding your roster is a long one. It can be shortened at the marketplace which offers 30 renown for $1.99 to 1,000 for $39.99. Call it a grind, but I never felt I had to pay and rarely did I not have fun because of my decision. In fact, I'm often happy when I come across someone who has, since the display of new abilities and outfits breaks up the monotony that comes from playing multiple sessions. I think the economy isn't fair to those who pay, but that hardly matters when it doesn't greatly effect those who choose not to purchase renown.
I may be harsh on Factions, but it's only because Stoic let the economy -- the one thing that it can't so easily patch -- sour some of the experience in an effort to get that F2P green. Let it be clear then that it never sours the game to the extent that I want to stop playing, though the lackluster pacing and ability set discourages me from coming back. Even so, the rules of Banner Saga's battles are unlike any SRPG I've played and require the player to rethink strategy that applies to similar games. This is a good thing and it keeps me returning, despite my misgivings.
Consider Factions for what it is: A testing ground and potential cash cow for Stoic's upcoming commercial release, and a fun sample of what's to come. If I were not in the middle of Fire Emblem, I may continue to play Factions -- hell, I may play a random match here and there, anyway. This unorthodox release that has Kickstarter backers in a frenzy is not worth getting so worked up over, as it suggests the single-player Banner Saga may be a gem -- a gem that some will have Factions users to thank for helping make it what it is.
While testing Banner Saga through Factions is not exactly social work, it's not what you've been waiting for, either. Call it a scenic detour that gives the dinner hosts at Stoic some extra time to cook more side dishes while testing out the current ones on guests. Don't worry: Factions is plenty of fun on its own and will only get better as updates roll out.