The Banner Saga: Factions Multiplayer Review
By Jason Harper (Hhean), OnRPG Journalist
Made by three ex-bioware guys in a shed somewhere in Texas, Factions is one of the first generation of kickstarter babies to see the light of day. Set in a land not too dissimilar from Viking inhabited Scandinavia, Factions is a free to play multiplayer tactics game that sets the groundwork for the rest of the upcoming Banner Saga franchise. While Factions is currently in a finished state, the game will gain additional content accessible only to those who purchase the upcoming single player episodes.
They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but you certainly can judge Factions by its introduction. After booting up the game for the first time you will be treated to a beautifully crafted cutscene that sets the stage for the game, while also giving context for the game’s tutorial. You are established as a warlord helping a city’s jarl cull the various warring chieftains who would do him harm. Playing the part of these vicious cutthroats and thieves will be your online opponents.
Before dealing with the scum that threatens this good city, you must first assemble six of the holdfast’s fiercest warriors. Varls are massive horned giants that take up four squares. They can either be the game’s heaviest hitters or its burliest tanks. Raiders are normal sized men that grant defensive bonuses to units around them, while also having special abilities that can shatter an enemy line. Archers are women who attack from range, excelling at picking off weakened targets and denying areas of the battlefield.
With their warbands gathered, two viking warlords head to the Great Hall to do battle. The rules of their contest are simple. One has their forces enter the battlefield from one side, and the other enters opposite them. Once battle is joined, the warband with no warriors left standing is the loser. Surrender is for the weak!
You loyal retainers each have three important resources they have to manage. Their strength, Armour and Will. While going in for the kill seems your best option, considering which resource to hit offers some interesting choices every time you strike. As a character’s Strength is both their health pool and attacking power, it is the most obvious thing for the inexperienced player to go after. However, an attacking character only deals damage equal to how much their current Strength exceeds an enemy’s Armour, so it is often necessary to whittle down their Armour before hitting Strength. Since armour has no effect on their attacking power though, it can often be necessary to hit an enemy just to try and bring their strength total below a nearby ally’s armour, shielding them from harm. Hitting the right resource at the right time can often be the difference between glorious victory or shameful defeat.
Will is that extra sauce you can add to your characters, granting your warriors bonuses just when you need it. When attacking or moving, you can consume a point of Will to get an extra point of damage or move an extra square. Characters get a very limited pool of will, so choosing how you use it will set the pace of a match. Do you hold it in reserve to smash down a heavy hitter on the enemy team, or do you use it as quickly as possible, hoping your foe will be caught on the back foot as you steamroll forwards?
Will is also used to trigger one of your warrior’s activated abilities. These special skills grant added depth to experienced players who create teams to capitalise on different ability combinations. To give a couple of examples of some of the possibilities the game grants from just a single character on a team, the Shieldbasher can smack another character away from them with their shield. They could use this on an allied Backbiter, knocking him forwards before he uses his ability to dash through enemy targets, turning him into a one man missile. Alternatively, you could bash an enemy frontliner through a pool of burning pitch laid down by a friendly Siege Archer, dealing massive damage while also cutting them off from the rest of their team.
The game’s mechanics appear simple at first, but offer a great amount of depth. There is little luck in its combat system, so it has more in common with Chess than XCOM. The only time a dice roll comes into play is if you are knowingly attacking a target with a higher armour than your character’s current strength. You don’t lose matches by happenstance, you lose matches because you used the wrong ability at the wrong time, put the wrong person in the wrong place, or weren’t able to capitalise on an enemy’s mistakes.
It’s also no chance that Factions has some excellent visual and sound design. Every character looks like they could fit into a one of the hand drawn Disney films of old. The game’s sound takes a minimalist approach, fitting the Viking theme well. When music starts playing, it’s all horns, bellowing and drums. It would have been tempting to go the route of Skyrim and add in a bunch of orchestral themes to give a sense of grandeur to the proceedings, but the game instead opts to keep things grounded with a thematically appropriate soundtrack.
While the game has great mechanics and aesthetics, Factions is crippled by its own free to play model. The game really opens up when you have access to the advanced class abilities, but you don’t begin the game with access to any of the advanced characters. It will take a player at least ten matches of Factions to get a full roster of advanced classes, and that’s assuming they win every single game they play. While matches can be varied in length, it took me just over four hours to get to the ‘real’ game. It’s a time investment that many people aren’t going to bother with, so they’ll likely never see the ‘real’ game hidden inside Factions.
On the up side, their model does not allow players to buy power, and doesn’t lock content away from free players in any fashion. A paying player can only buy the game’s in-game currency, or different colour options for the various classes. Once you’re past the initial hump, the game’s F2P options are one of the most fair on the free player I’ve seen, since there’s not even a separate currency for paid and free users, it all comes under the one currency of Renown. You can even unlock aesthetic options for free, only half of them are gated behind a paywall.
Another irksome thing about the game is that friends earn no renown when playing against one another. This is a system that actively discourages you from recommending the game to the people you know, and absolutely hammers its ability to gain players through word of mouth.
Unsurprisingly, the game has a tiny user base, which I don’t see growing with any speed while these issues remain in place. This can make the queue times fairly long for a game that needs to find only one other human being in the world. When you do get into a match most people have little reason to chat, beyond the odd “Nice move” and “gg”. The lack of any cooperative or team aspects to the game limits the need for communication, so it’s not the ideal game to go and make friends in. When people talk, they’re quite polite and helpful, but you’ll only get a sense for the passion some people have for the game on its official forums.
Unlike many games with matchmaking systems, the game does not ask you to confirm you are ready when it finds a match for you. Due to the long queue times, this can often mean matches start pre-emptively or even when a player is AFK. I’ve played against a number of dummy opponents who clearly got fed up of waiting before leaving, granting me an incredibly dull victory.
Factions is a game worth checking out, but likely not one worth investing money in. No-one will blame you for not making it past the dull initial grind, but at least pop it on sometime and bask in the game’s excellent opening cutscene. The single player releases to come will likely be excellent, building on the good framework set down by Factions. Hopefully the game will get a larger userbase after people react positively to the later releases.
The Banner Saga: Factions is currently available through Steam, and is absolutely free.