The Banner Saga is a mature tactics game brought to us by Stoic Studio, an indie group comprised of ex-BioWare veterans. The game trilogy got some major attention earlier last year when it surpassed its Kickstarter goal at over 700x its original amount. While the single player portion is still in development the multiplayer component The Banner Saga Factions was just released to the public on Steam. For the hefty price of Free, players will get a competitive tactics game in a hand drawn art style that is reminiscent of old Disney movies. I could literally go on for a couple pages just talking about the art style but instead I think it is easier just to let you see for yourself.
A still from the Factions introduction cutscene
That wonderful art style is not restricted to just cutscenes, instead all of the game’s units and menus are drawn in the same way. The animations are fluid and believable, every part of the game’s art is top notch. If I had one complaint it would be how often the units stand still in battle. There are animations for attacking, special abilities, movement, taking damage, dying, and even an idle animation for every unit. Sadly when it is not a units turn they are either stationary or in their idle animation. Now this is perfectly reasonable as the sheer amount of work that goes into each animation is obvious, I just happen to be greedy.
This is the main menu and it’s purdy
The main menu for the game that leads to all of the different options is also well presented with a few animated assets to keep it lively, such as a patrolling guard or longships sailing in the background. The sound is also well done with the music fitting of the Viking inspired setting and the crunch of steel on shield satisfying if ever so brief. Truly The Banner Saga Factions has the most beautiful presentation I’ve seen in a game in a while. Getting past all that the real question becomes, is it fun? Well long story short: Yes! Yes it is!
Long story not quite as short, the gameplay is a great addition to the genre of grid based tactics games. The fact that the tactics game just happens to revolve around vikings and giants is a big bonus. The premise is pretty simple, two players meet on the field of battle with their customized army of 6 units and do battle with only one side walking away the victor (or alive for that matter). Playing the game is easy as can be as players take alternating turns ordering the troops one at a time. Move your Viking, attack if possible, choose a target and whether you want to do damage to their strength or their armor. Strength in Banner Saga Factions is a stat that combines both HP and damage dealing potential. The more strength a soldier has then the hardier they are and the harder they hit. Armor is a simple abstraction for blocking or reducing damage dealt with the formula being Strength – Armor = Damage. If you manage to bring somebody down a few points not only are they closer to dying but they are going to be able to inflict less pain on you come their turn. However, since your potential damage is reduced for every point of armor the defender has, it might be a good idea to take some of that armor out first. Every point of armor that is above the attacker’s strength also increases the chance they will miss, so the real tanky units of the game will be almost impossible to deal damage to at all if their armor is not brought down first. Another interesting note is that there is absolutely no healing or recovering in a fight so if your poor little viking raider is on his way to visit his ancestors, he better try and leave a big enough impact for his companions to avenge him.
So while the overall system is simple (Move, attack Armor or attack Strength) there lies in waiting a surprising amount of depth. Willpower is a set of special points that allow your troops to do extra things on their turn such as moving an extra square or dealing an extra point of damage. Letting your troop rest instead of moving or attacking will regenerate some Willpower, but Vikings cannot always afford to be so peaceful.
Pictured: Viking Diplomacy
Earlier I mentioned customizable troops. Well, I was not lying. On top of deciding when to spend your precious Willpower and where to assign your damage (Armor or Strength) you must also decide which troops to take into battle and how to improve them. There are 4 main unit types in the game with each one having 3 potential upgrades whose status can be customized even further on a point-buy system (You have 11 points to spend, do you want more Armor or does he need more Willpower for emergencies?). When the game starts, you will an assortment of the basic unit types, so I will try to cover them briefly.
Watch as your troops grow with you, customizing them to your playstyle.
Raider: Your run-of-the-mill Viking, complete with trusty axe and shield. His stats are overall pretty balanced, and he fits well into almost any army. His special ability gives bonus armor points to any ally that borders him and this bonus stacks with other Raiders. A Viking shield-wall is a real possibility in this game. The three possible upgrades focus on either dealing sheer amounts of damage, sneaking around and breaking armor, or being an indestructible shield.
Archer: This Norse woman does not take any sass, instead firing large amounts of sass from a safe distance. Her overall sturdiness leaves something to be desired, but the ability to deal damage from a range as well as having large stores of Willpower for those special ”ruin your enemies’ plans“ occasions makes her a useful unit in any army. Her upgrades focus on either firing from longer range, dropping AoE damage, or setting up potentially turn ruining traps.
Warrior: Sounds like another run-of-the-mill Viking, wait a minute…is this guy a giant? Why yes, he is a Varl, as they are referred to in game. Taking up 4 squares on the grid instead of 1, and having not the most impressive movement, the Warrior is not the ninja of the group. He makes up for that with his sheer power and ability to damage enemies that stand adjacent to his target. His upgrades focus on dealing even more damage, dealing damage in a 360 degree circle, or assisting allied units in getting the jump on the enemy.
Shieldbanger: Another Varl unit comes to join the party, only this time he does not deal the damage but instead absorbs it. This big tank has some of the highest natural Armor in game and ensures that anybody who attacks him loses some of their Armor in the process, making him a difficult target to bring down. Did I mention he also benefits from the Raider’s shield-wall? His upgrades allow him to focus on throwing enemies across the field, bashing their Armor with his Armor, or goading the enemy (forcing) them to attack him on their next turn.
Overall I am incredibly impressed with The Banner Saga Factions and eagerly await the arrival of the single-player game. The community has been more or less friendly with a few sour apples who don’t take being slaughtered too well. For the reasonable price of Free it is definitely worth checking out if you have patience for turn based games. As a matter of fact, I would highly recommend it to board-game enthusiast as well, even those who would normally avoid PC games. If you are worried about the catch to the game being free, worry not. The only real negative is the slow rate of Renown (the points you use to customize and upgrade your troops) if you lose your matches. They sell Renown for cash if you are in a hurry to upgrade but all that will do is place you against people with equally upgraded armies who are probably much better at the game than you. There are also some custom skins you can purchase for cash as well as a booster that increases your regular Renown gain instead of buying it in a lump sum. The Banner Saga Factions is not restricting at all for a totally free-player as it seems to exist mostly as an advertising tool for the future single-player game as well as a testing ground for new units and abilities. I have not spent a dime yet though I am tempted to simply so Gunndar will look pretty on the battlefield. I hope to see you on the Fields of Glory and, if we do poorly, in the grand halls of Valhalla.
Now for a brief Interview with Alex Thomas from Stoic Studio…
We’re tired but happy. Players don’t care whether you made a game with 200 people or 5, they just want to game to work. We weren’t prepared for the traffic we got in the first couple days and had a rocky first couple days but that’s all been ironed out and both the critical and fan response has been extremely positive. Can’t ask for more than that!
Q: What part of the game’s design and development was the most exhausting and time consuming for you guys? Would you handle it a different way if you had to do it again?
Well, to be completely honest, PR and running a business has been the biggest challenge by far. Not an exciting answer, I’m afraid, but true. Thing is, we’re content developers and we know how to make a game. The amount of progress we’ve made in only a handful of months with a tiny dev team is pretty absurd for a game of this scope. Again, though, we know people aren’t interested in our own tribulations, they just care about the game and that makes perfect sense. Obviously, we’ve never run our own studio before and dealt with a large player base and managed a community. That’s all very time-consuming and difficult stuff. Some people have suggested paying for a dedicated PR person- heh, that’s great advice but we’ve allocated our funding into the project itself. I suspect if we were paying someone to run community for us there’d be some backlash about misusing funds :). Actually working on the game itself is like a summer vacation compared to the business end of running a company.
That said, it’s not like we’re drowning in miserable players. Our community is actually incredibly positive and seem to really like the game. Again, I really think we couldn’t have asked for anything better!
Q: If it isn’t too much to ask has the in-game shop been successful so far? Any changes you plan on making to it?
I guess it depends on the definition of successful. Are we now able to buy food? Yes! Huzzah! Are we each taking home the salaries we made at our old jobs? Heh, not even close. It’s pretty much exactly what we expected, the numbers for these sort of games are well documented.
Q: Any future plans for The Banner Saga Factions that you could share with us? New Units or maps after the single-player release maybe?
As we continue working on the single player game we’re releasing that content in Factions. We’ll be adding single player fights tied together by a simple narrative to let you play against the computer. We’ll be adding new classes as we make them. We’ve also got some city-building in the works, also part of single player, but that’ll come in the future. As for AFTER single player release, who knows? It’ll depend on how much interest there is at the time. We’ll be making chapters 2 and 3 and supporting Factions as we go, same as now.
Hmm, just one? I always liked to play the units that are difficult to use. It’s very easy to put together a team of backbiters and warmasters and run around the board smashing stuff, but playing the archers takes some skill. Skystriker’s my personal favorite, ever since we started balancing the game. At the time she could trap multiple tiles and nothing brought me greater joy than tagging Arnie’s (the other designer) units in unpredictable ways.
As for the art, some of the stuff we haven’t shown yet has absolutely blown us away. In particular the Hunter and Berserker classes look incredible, thanks to the professionals down at Powerhouse Animation.