Banner Saga: Factions had a soft release to Kickstarter backers on Monday. For those who don’t know, Factions is the free-to-play multiplayer component to the Banner Saga that Stoic developed first to make sure their combat system for single-player Banner Saga worked properly. The release of Chapter One of Banner Saga proper has been set (rather optimistically, in my opinion) for this summer, so it’s not going to be arriving for quite some time. While I’m waiting for it, though, I figured I’d dip my toe into Factions now that it’s out of beta to see if this much-vaunted tactical combat is all it’s cracked up to be.
When you first load it up Factions shows you a gorgeous animated intro (more on this later), rushes you through a tutorial teaching the fundamental concepts of the game, and then dumps you into the menu masquerading as a city screen with a low level squad of six fighters. There are two of the horned giant-types — a Shield-Banger and a Warrior — two Archers, one Raider, and another Raider who has been upgraded into one of Factions’ prestige classes, the Thrasher. You take this squad and you enter the matchmaking system, which will automatically find an opponent for you to slug it out with over a small battlefield composed of square tiles. First person to kill all of the enemy fighters wins. Sounds simple enough.
Except it isn’t simple. Not in the slightest. Factions pleases me immensely by taking a leaf out of Darklands’ book and adopting a combat system where health and attack power have been combined into a single Strength stat. When one of your fighters gets hit for five damage, they also lose five attack power and are that much weaker in subsequent combat. The only thing preventing Strength loss is the Armour stat, which functions as a buffer to soak up Strength damage. If a character with eleven Strength attempts to make a Strength attack on a character with nine Armour, the armour value is subtracted from the attack value and the attack will only end up doing two points of damage. All characters – even Archers – start out with reasonably high Armour scores, so before you can do serious damage to somebody’s Strength stat you have to wear down their Armour first by attacking it directly.
It’s this Armour/Strength dichotomy which is the beating heart of Factions’ tactical combat. Games start with each side carefully jockeying for position, attempting to focus fire somebody’s armour down whilst trying to avoid the same being done to them. It takes two or three attacks to reduce armour to the point where serious Strength damage will start to bleed through to the character it is protecting, but if this happens you have a serious problem because it can only take one attack focused fully on Strength to render somebody more-or-less useless for the rest of the battle. A character with one Strength is basically a dead man walking; they might be able to use Willpower – a limited bonus stat used to boost movement range and power up attacks – to help out by whittling down armour (attacks on armour always hit), but they’ll have such a massive penalty to their ability to target strength it’s probably best to hope your opponent takes pity on you and puts them out of their misery.
I like this combat system. It’s somewhat flawed when implemented as part of a free-to-play multiplayer game (again, more on this later) with a human being controlling each side of the battle, but the basic concept is easy to understand while having a lot of tactical possibility. Armour is a temporary barrier that will go down eventually, but it will protect your troops during the first few turns of combat and moves things away from a situation where the person who strikes the first blow wins because the other guy can’t hit back any more. It also provokes some painful decisions: do you hit their Strength now and reduce their subsequent attack ability by a little, or do you further ruin their armour so that another character can possibly one-shot them down to almost nothing later on? Both choices have their advantages (and disadvantages), and precisely which one you choose will be determined by the specific situation on the battlefield at the time, which is always a good sign of tactical depth.
Said tactical depth is improved further by the way the various classes attack and buff/debuff those Armour and Strength stats. Raiders, Archers, Shield-Bangers and Warriors are the four base classes of Factions, with the prestige classes offering variations on a theme with extra abilities and higher stats. Warriors are the heavy hitters, able to demolish an opponent in one blow if their armour has been reduced sufficiently, and they also do additional damage to anyone caught nearby. Shield-Bangers are the tanks, with high Armour and Strength values and the ability to riposte and deal a point of armour damage in response to any melee attack made on them. Because they’re giants Warriors and Shield Bangers take up four squares instead of one which can make them very awkward to move around; if you want to slip somebody through a gap quickly you’re going to have to call upon the services of a Raider, who are basic human fighter-types who give temporary armour bonuses to characters standing next to them. Finally – and most interestingly of all – Archers get a Puncture ability which gives their ranged attack a bonus of two Strength per point of Armour their target has lost, which makes them excellent for following up attacks and killing battered targets.
Less excellent is the initiative system, where each player takes it in turns to move a single character in a set sequence1 rather than moving all their characters at once. This is completely necessary to prevent one side having one or two fighters alpha-striked off the map with nothing they can do in response, and also adds the additional tactical complication of targeting a character who has just moved (and thus won’t be doing anything for a while) versus targeting someone whose move is just coming up. However, if one side loses a few characters and (for example) the match goes to six versus three, the game will ploddingly continue to alternate between players as if each side still had a full roster. This means that the side with three fighters left will get to move each of those fighters twice in the time it takes for the side with six fighters to move each of them once, and in a scenario where a nearly-dead fighter is practically useless it makes more sense to keep them alive on one point of Strength so that they can take up a slot in your opponent’s turn order instead of killing them off. It’s a really bizarre, gamey phenomenon that arises purely as a result of the game rules, much like playing games of keep-away in Blood Bowl where you’d run the ball up and down the touchline and not score until the turn the half ended. I didn’t like it then, either; Factions incentivises being a dick by drawing things out for your opponent and making them waste their time instead of going in for the kill, and I can’t really call this anything other than a failure of the game’s design.
(In fairness I don’t really know what they can do to fix it that wouldn’t dramatically unbalance things somewhere else. Also, when you get an enemy team down to the last fighter the battle enters “Pillage mode” and you get to move all of your fighters at once, greatly speeding up the end of the game.)
Still, if you can overlook this slight oily sheen of artificiality that takes over towards the end of the game Factions is an enthralling tactical experience. I don’t like keeping wounded enemies alive but it’s hardly a game-ruining feature. No, if there’s a game-ruining feature in Factions it is (sigh) the inevitable microtransactions that come with every Free-to-Play game. Every game of Factions that you play will gain you Renown, which are the game’s experience points. You get one Renown for every enemy character you kill, plus a bonus for winning, plus other sundry bonuses, but in practice you’re going to be getting somewhere between four and ten Renown per game. While you’re gathering this XP your characters are accruing kills on the battlefield, and once they’ve hit five kills they can level up to one of three prestige classes via the Proving Ground. That is, if you have enough Renown.
You will hit the level one kill boundary for every single one of your starting characters by your fourth or fifth game. In this same time you will have gathered – along with the starting Renown the game gives you – about sixty Renown. It costs fifty Renown to level up one character to the first level of the prestige classes; god alone knows what subsequent levels cost. Once you’ve done that you’re looking at ten-ish games of Factions before you can level up another one, and when they take around half an hour each this is not an insignificant time investment. If you want to buy more characters to change your lineup that’ll cost more Renown. If you want more slots to store characters that’ll cost more Renown. And clicking on the Renown total at the top of screen will take you to the ever-present microtransaction store, where you can part with your hard-earned cash for precisely that. I wouldn’t exactly call it grasping, as such, since it never pressures you to spend your money, but it is certainly very grindy. It’ll be a long time before you can level your squad up from the base classes and branch out in the tactical options available to you, and this would be completely unnecessary if it weren’t for the game’s Free-to-Play funding model.
Fortunately I do think Factions has the depth to stand up to that kind of repeated play. I’ve only played seven games so far, but even with the basic characters available to me I’ve made plays – and had plays made against me – that were breathtakingly subtle in how they used movement, positioning and attacks to take out targets an opponent thought was safe. As I said at the start, I wasn’t that interested in Factions as an ongoing concern and was merely having a look to see what the combat system would be like for the full game, but now I think I might stick around and play for a while longer to see where Factions goes. It’s very fun, and – for now, at least – the playerbase is unfailingly polite2, so it’s never unpleasant to drop in for a game or two.
Based on the evidence provided by Factions the Banner Saga proper looks like it’s shaping up extremely well. My major problems with it are the microtransactions and the issues inherent in playing for advantage against another human being, and neither of those will be present in Chapter One when it eventually staggers towards its Steam release. The rotoscoped animation is incredible; perhaps it’s because the last game I played that used rotoscoping was the original Prince of Persia3 that it seems so fresh and vibrant, but it’s also combined with some stunning background art done in a different style which nevertheless meshes with the rotoscoped characters very well indeed. The combat works. The art and animation works. The voice acting is… kind of ropey, if I’m being completely honest, but I’m hoping that’s just the case for Factions. All they need to get right now is the scripting of the campaign itself, and based on Stoic’s recent namedropping of King of Dragon Pass in a Kickstarter update it seems like they’re heading in the right direction with that as well. All in all, I’m very excited for the RPG part of the Banner Saga now. There are very few upcoming games I can say that about.
Banner Saga: Factions will be available to everyone next Monday via Steam plus a few other places.
- So Player 1 moves Character 1, then on his next turn moves Character 2, and so on through to Character 6, and then loops back around to Character 1. ↩
- Admittedly I’m comparing the Factions playerbase to the Dota 2 playerbase here, and Goodfellas is a paragon tale of high social manners compared to those guys. ↩
- I have never played The Last Express. I intend to remedy this very shortly. ↩