Gaming: The Banner Saga Factions

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The game is free-to-play, so you can pick it up and jump right in if you have a Steam account and the Steam client installed. One of the big pluses to
this game is its well-crafted animation. Stoic is an indie studio and isn’t a big developer like EA, Blizzard or Nintendo, all of which have the budget to hire the best animators and artists, so the big budget to make a stunning visual game wasn’t present, and for what they had, they did an amazing job. Kickstarter and Steam Greenlight have allowed gaming projects from smaller studios and developers to come to light, which allows us to see new and unique games that give us a break from the mainstream games that come our way every year from the big boys.

The Banner Saga: Factions is multiplayer-only, aside from the tutorial. You start with four classes, the Shieldbanger, a tank-like unit; the Archer, a ranged unit, the Raider, a melee unit, and the Warrior, another melee unit. You play six of your characters at a time, and can upgrade the initial four classes as you gain more renown, which is the currency of the game. As a free-to-play game, the only ways to gain renown is by playing a lot of matches or purchasing renown through the store with real money.

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Most turn-based RPGs are fought on a tile board resembling a chess game, and Factions is no exception. The player alternates turns with their opponent
back and forth. Each unit has two statistics: armor and strength. You can attack a unit’s armor, which makes it more vulnerable to future attacks; or you can attack its strength, which is essentially the unit’s life force. Some units have the ability to attack both armor and strength. Another stat is willpower, which can be used to move extra tiles beyond your normal move range or used to hit harder-although it should be used sparingly as you only have a limited amount of willpower each match. However, you can gain back some willpower by using the rest command, but it will cost a turn. Other than moving, attacking, and a unit’s special move, there really isn’t much in the way of unit customization. You can also adjust a unit’s statistics, but you probably shouldn’t if you’re new to the game.

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If you kill an enemy unit, you gain one renown, which will help you unlock unit upgrades. Units need five kills to reach the next level, and then another 50 renown to unlock the next level. This caps renown at six per battle, which means it takes a very long time to get a formidable team going. However,  you can enter a tournament where the overall winner will get 200 renown. The tournament costs 20 renown to join, however, so you will have to play and win at least four complete games without losing a single unit just to enter.

The matchmaking system could also use some work. For example, I had only one rank one unit (all units start at rank zero) and I faced an entire team with all rank one units, which indicates the most careful planning can and will be beaten by the matchmaking system and your own bad luck as well. If you have friends that also have this game, you’ll probably be better off playing against them instead of racking up losses if the matchmaking system really decides to pull a fast one on you. To get really good at this game, you will need to play, play, and play some more. You might even need to pay some more as well, to get the renown to acquire the best units if you really want to beat the best opponents early on. Essentially, it follows the pay-to-win model that many hardcore garners criticize.

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The Banner Saga: Factions isn’t a bad game, but it is a massive time sink, and you’d be better off just waiting for the full release of the game. It is one of those games with beautiful graphics, but the rest of the game just doesn’t quite live up to the stunning visuals. If you’re a patient person and are a fan of
turn-based strategy games, however, you’ll enjoy investing the time and effort. Although it might not be a hit with your non-gamer friends, it could be considered a solid variation of chess.

First published in Gadgets Magazine, April 2013

Words by Jose Alvarez