Published on April 10th, 2013 | by Jason Halsey
The Banner Saga: Factions
For those of you not obsessively trawling Kickstarter for the next crowd-funded whirlwind, April marks twelve months since The Banner Saga’s triumphant campaign conclusion. With a modest goal of just $100,000, developer Stoic quickly discovered an unexpected appetite for the turn-based genre, culminating in $723,886 delivered to their doorstep. The neighbours must’ve been jealous.
In addition to the narrative-driven single-player campaign, Stoic peeled back the outer layers of the story, leaving the core mechanics perfect for a standalone multiplayer experience. ‘Factions’ is that core, now formally released on Steam in its own right. Think Final Fantasy Tactics, Fire Emblem and the multiplayer portion of X-Com, with a bit of chess thrown in for good measure.
Before I delve into the gameplay I must warn you, be prepared to lose. Not just beaten, but utterly decimated. To have your lovingly nurtured veteran slaughtered before landing a swing. Importantly, their demise will invariably be your fault, a simple misclick, a miscounting of squares, or wildly misjudging your opponent’s next move. Accept your fate with the grace of your ancestors, for in battle only death is certain.
Matches are fought with a modest company of six hairy Norsemen (and Norsewomen), on beautifully hand-drawn boards. Each one thoughtfully animated and bursting with personality, providing plenty of atmosphere without ever becoming a distraction. The great hall, for example, hosts a central cooking pit; drunken warriors slump in corners, and great tapestries hang from every rafter as the Jarl looks on expectantly. Aside from the spectacle, map design has a significant impact on strategy; you can move across the fire if you wish, but poor Erik’s beard will be forfeit.
Turns alternate regardless of number of units, so knowing when to cripple your opponent and when to succumb to the blood rush and murder them off becomes an important skill, no more picking on the little guy just because he has a tiny sword no matter how funny it is. This all changes when one merry band is whittled to a last man standing. In “pillage” mode units take turns rather than teams, and your fearless solitary figure is in for a right proper kicking.
The vengeful random number generator is a factor but rarely overwhelmingly so, and as such you’ll feel personally responsible for the outcome. I confess to publicly dancing after a close high-ranked victory, and launching the mouse across the room after a “thrashing”. When you do finally secure that hard-fought victory, you’ll earn renown to spend on promotions and other goodies.
As your horde climb the ranks their stats and power will predictably increase. Sometimes this takes the form of additional functionality rather than potency, introducing a bit more variety to progression. Promotions open up a world of possibilities depending on unit type, play style, and so on. There’s enough depth that cookie-cutter formulas have yet to establish a foothold, and restrictions force the player to consider unit combinations rather than abusing a single type. Twenty-five renown for the first upgrade is a point of contention, seeing as most matches will reward between four and ten. So there is a grind for those looking for one, but I was so engrossed that it never descended into a numbers game.
For the ultra-competitive among you, and if you’ve read this far you’re probably one of them, fear not. Matchmaking is based on ELO ranking (a chess system awarding points based on the ranking of your opponents). Great in theory, but with a relatively small player base it can take a while. The Steam deal should hopefully sort that out, but the difference in power levels will likely divide the community until new players find their feet. Quick matches bypass rankings, so make a better choice for earning renown or getting a game going in a hurry.
Finally, there’s tournament mode; typically five games a day for five days. It’s more for bragging rights than anything else, but the top three will earn a token amount of renown. Claim victory and your name will be forever etched in the Hall of Valor, along with a host of stats detailing your glorious triumph.
Being free-to-play, the highly debated and emotionally fueled topic of microtransactions must be addressed. Renown can be purchased, as well as a few upgraded units and fancy coloured skins. Do these provide a significant advantage? The answer is a resounding no. All it really does is skip the learning process and throw you in at the deep end for a good old ass whooping. Imagine turning up to a master’s Chess tournament having only ever previously played your mate. On the other hand the cosmetic stuff feels about right, so tipping the developers for their trouble won’t sting too much.
I like Factions, I like it a lot, but I can’t deny its niche appeal. The comparison to chess is a common theme throughout, so if that’s not your thing you probably won’t enjoy Factions in its current form. If you’re after ranked matches this is for you, but expect a wait and be prepared for defeat, lots and lots of defeat. Such a robust combat system bodes well for the still-in-development single-player campaign, which will perhaps make a better introduction to the mindset in a less punishing environment. Although, in a stroke of genius, Stoic hinted at recording data from Factions to craft their AI, so don’t expect a pushover there either.