Saturday, March 2, 2013

The Banner Saga: Factions

I've had my eye on The Banner Saga for a while now, and the multiplayer component of the game, called Factions, is now available on Steam, for free. I've played a little of it, and it looks like the full game is going to be worth the wait.

At its heart, The Banner Saga is a turn-based tactical combat game, similar to Gladius, Final Fantasy Tactics, and Disgaea. From what I've seen so far, the element of luck is minimized, which means that victory comes down to careful positioning of your troops, knowing the strengths of your forces and the weaknesses of the enemy, and trying to think several moves ahead.

As I've said, only the multiplayer portion of the game is available right now, which is all player-versus-player skirmish combat. The good news for gamers closer to my age is that this isn't an action game where victory goes to the player who has the fastest reflexes, or who has the most precise mouse, or who has the fastest net connection or monitor, or who's managed to install his aimbot software correctly. If you lose a game of Factions, it's because the other player out-thought you.

It's no surprise that the game supports microtransactions; however, it looks like the game store only lets you buy cosmetic improvements or renown (which serves as experience points), or allows you to hire a few experienced warriors. Since renown is earned through play, and you can use renown both to level up your warriors and hire new warriors, these real-money purchases aren't giving you anything you couldn't earn yourself. Also, it looks like the multiplayer matchmaking service tries to match players whose forces have a similar strength level, so even if you buy enough renown to power-level your entire team, all this accomplishes is to thrown you into combat with other players who have teams as strong as yours. And if some those players have earned their renown through play instead of just buying it, they might actually be better at running their team than you are.

The most impressive part of the game is the style. There's more artistry and imagination in the first ten minutes of this game than in a lot of the mainstream games that will come out this year. It's a fantasy game, but the world is not just another Tolkien clone; it has more of a Norse-like flair to it. I found it was a distinct relief to start the tutorial battle and not see the usual assortment of elves and dwarves. The art is all 2d and hand-drawn, from the character images to the backgrounds, and it's all gorgeous. Even the little descriptions of each of the character classes are full of mystery and flavor.

It looks like the multiplayer game will get more interesting the more you play, since promoting your units allows you to choose new abilities for them, giving you more tactical options and giving your warriors a different strategic profile than the warriors of your opponents. If this small part of The Banner Saga is this good, I'm keenly anticipating the release of the full single-player game.