Free-to-play multiplayer isn’t my cup of tea as the idea of bleeding money into a game after buying it never had me convinced. Even worse, when I come across people buying their way through levels because they can afford it, and those who can’t either get stuck, frustrated, or sooner or later are forced to leave the game. I was, however, inspired by a fellow teammate and his preview on The Banner Saga, and I decided to give its multiplayer version, The Banner Saga: Factions, a go. After weeks of nonstop playing, I stand in a line that neither allows me to be overwhelmed or dissatisfied with it. The Banner Saga: Factions can be a tricky game that makes you addicted to it, making you look for reasons to stop playing it. Be aware that, even though it was launched in February 2013, it still hasn’t made it to its refined state.
Without any doubt, The Banner Saga: Factions makes an immediate good impression in the way that it begins. There isn’t much of a story to look forward to, but the marvelously presented cutscene that sets up the journey is noteworthy. Inspired by a Viking legend, this role-playing themed multiplayer game doesn’t prolong the story after its intro, as players continue to gain allies and battle each other in several different modes for an endless period of time. Each battle is unique and requires players to implement precise strategies. Every decision made has its consequences, and the victory belongs to those who capitalize most out of opponents’ mistakes. Victors are rewarded with in-game currency known as Renown, while losers earn little. There is, however, no reward for the cowards that flee the battlefield.
Players begin their journey by hiring six fearsome warriors from the Mead House, a place that features a variety of several ranked warriors. A total of twenty-five playable characters from two different races, Varls and Human, are featured in the game. Varls are the most powerful, massive warriors that appear in two major races. They are huge giants with horns and take four squares in the battle zone, while human warriors take only two squares. Warrior and Shildbanger are the two types of Varls distinct by their abilities, and once players earn a given number of kills they can be upgraded to Warleader, Provoker, Strongarm or Warhawk. Human warriors also come in two major kinds: Archer and Raider. Archers are the only female characters and can be upgraded to Bowmaster, Skystriker and Siege Archer, while Raiders can upgrade to Thrasher, Backbiter and Raidmaster. Each of these warriors has a unique set of abilities, and with the right combination players can gain vital battle advantages. Choosing the right warriors and formatting them in a proper sequence is one of the trickiest challenges because in no time players find out that using the strongest warriors doesn't always lead to a victory.
Battle is the main feature of The Banner Saga: Factions, and its rules are simple. Two Viking warlords stand head to head, and the last man standing wins. Each has their turn to move the warriors within their ranges. A great deal of strategy is involved in positioning the warriors because one slip or a bad move can bring a series of disorder. There is a sixty second time-limit to make the move, thirty in expert mode, and during this given time players need to figure out whether to attack or make a defense stand. As stated earlier, each warrior has unique sets of abilities, and based on their abilities the best possible outcome must be calculated before moving them. Besides the abilities, each warrior has a limited amount of armor and strength, and these two attributes are basically the defining factors of the battles. A warrior with higher armor and strength inevitably causes more damage, while one lower in armor has a chance to miss-hit the opponent. Obviously, the Varls have higher strength and armor than a human, but only two of them are allowed in a team. Even though human warriors are low in strength, they can be tactically handier. During a battle players need to decide whether to attack opponents’ armor or strength first because even with high strength a warrior low in armor does less damage. If a warrior has full armor and little strength s/he can do serious damage to a higher strength opponent with low armor.
Strategically, the possibilities in a battle are endless, and more hours playing is likely the only way to master this game. Another important attribute of the game is the warriors’ Will. Will allows them to either make more damage or take extra steps beyond their ranges. Like armor and strength, Will too isn’t restorable and comes very low in number. It provides huge tactical battle advantages and needs to be used appropriately. A feature called The Horn generates up to five redeemable Will for the warlords when opponents are killed during a battle. At the Proving Grounds, players can shuffle warriors or replace them depending on the basic strategy followed during most battles. But once inside a battle no shuffling can be done. So before reaching out for the battle arena, players need to adjust their warriors’ abilities according to the strategy they have in mind.
Speaking of battles, there are several ways to get into the action. In general, The Great Hall is the place to look for one. At the Versus mode there are options for Quick and Ranked matches. Only equally matched players can battle each other in every mode, unless challenging a friend. To break off the monotony, a regular on-going tournament is hosted for days and players battle their ways to the top of the ladder to win bonus renown. The skillful warlords aren’t necessarily the winners as there are always moments when battles can be turned down. Players can limitlessly upgrade their warriors ranks, but ranked and tournament matches allow only till level twelve. Each player has barracks to expand upon by hiring new warriors and they don’t always have to be of higher levels. There can be times when only low ranked battles are available and to match the level warriors from the barracks, warriors need to be swapped.
When the gameplay is blissful for the pros, it can get quite frustrating for the newcomers. Even guided by the brief tutorials, getting along with the game is time consuming. There is no way a player can learn how to master the game unless they have gone through a large amount of battles. There is a Market Place for purchasing packs to strengthen the barracks and renown to upgrade the warriors, but this hardly provides any added benefit. Unlike any other online multiplayer, The Banner Saga: Factions doesn’t sell out levels to give players any advantage. So the only way to have your name written at the Hall of Valor is by battling through opponents and mastering the strategies.
Presentation wise, Factions brings 2D graphics to a delightful state. Each character is precisely drawn and the battle scenarios are filled with eye catching detail. Not just the battle arenas, but their animated surroundings are simply stunning. There are, however, only four different playable arenas which can cause little bleakness when playing the game for countless hours. While the graphical presentation is stunning, sound effects are rather lackluster. The Viking themed background music doesn’t make an impact as the character’s movement and attack sounds remain the same the entire time. Different voice effects based on a character’s battle conditions would’ve made things more stimulating. Though, it’s only reasonable that Factions is an indie game and much enhancement is need for its future success. Surprisingly, launching nearly a year ago, Factions didn’t grow a large active user base. There are times when finding an opponent becomes a rarity. I’ve come across situations when it took me up to ten minutes to find a battle. The developers have promised to make several improvements once the single player version of The Banner Saga is launched. So this is something that fans of Factions can look forward to during the upcoming days.
The three ex-BioWare guys behind The Banner Saga: Factions have truly delivered something unique, and the game speaks of great promise. When the micro-transaction has taken a toll out of this genre, Factions walks a diverse path. It provides a wonderful online multiplayer experience, and free-to-play games simply can’t get any better than this. Any action, strategy or PvP fan will love this game and since it’s free to play on Steam, I highly recommend you try it out.