The Free Agent: Episode 11 - The Banner Saga

Can Viking chess be the answer we're looking for?

Hello to all our new readers, and welcome back to those who have been following ZAM's bi-weekly column, The Free Agent. Our mission, as always, is to answer the question "Can gaming REALLY be free?"

In our last episode we diverged from the usual format to bring you the Free Agent's coverage of PAX Prime, including our top three most anticipated free-to-play titles from the show floor. If you're looking to get excited about some up and coming games that won't put a dent in your wallet be sure to check out the full episode.

This week we're back to business as usual, bringing you our analysis of an indie free-to-play title from Stoic Studios. Available on Steam, The Banner Saga: Factions is a strategic turn based RPG with a refreshingly unique art style and tons of character, that can best be described as Viking chess on steroids. Intrigued? Well then grab a horn of mead and read on.

I had no idea what to expect when I downloaded this title from Steam two weeks ago. To be honest, I'm a sucker for high production value, so I usually avoid indie games. I've passed over The Banner Saga several times before and it was only the fact that I stopped by their booth at PAX Prime that finally put them on my radar. To put it simply, boy am I glad I ran into these guys.

If you follow indie gaming or spend your coffee breaks at work lurking around Kickstarter you probably already know that The Banner Saga is a successfully funded single played, story-driven, turn-based strategy game. In fact it managed to raise more than seven times what the developers original asked for. Pretty impressive, but sadly Kickstarter involves money so the Free Agent spends very little time there.

As such I was a little confused at first about exactly what The Banner Saga: Factions was when I saw it on Steam's free-to-play list (a place the Free Agent spends PLENTY of time). So for anyone who was confused like me, Factions (as I'll be referring to it from here on out) is a multiplayer free-to-play version of The Banner Saga that focuses almost exclusively on the combat portion of the budding franchise.

But don't let that fool you into thinking that it's not a complete game in its own right. The Banner Saga's combat system has layer upon layer strategy that I feel would impress even the most discerning tacticians among us. Best of all, compared to everything else out there, Factions offers up something completely different.

And Now for Something Completely Different

Sure, it's a bold statement (but to be fair Monty Python  made it up so blame them), I think it's fair to say that Factions really does offer a unique experience. Certainly it looks, feels and plays very differently than most of the free-to-play titles we've covered on the Free Agent and perhaps that's simply because its core components are just that, different.

For starters, there's the art style. It's retro; but not in the way-over-done indie 8-bit sense of the word retro. Playing Factions fills me with the warm nostalgia of watching Saturday morning cartoons, but at the same time re-imagines those classic hand drawn adventures in a crisper, cleaner, and inexplicably pleasing nod to the digital age.

It's surprising how natural the minimal combat animations and simple battle fields tie together to provide an elegant game play experience. Faction's unique art style draws you into its world and makes you feel like a part of it. Which is is an impressive feat when you consider that there is virtually no story line to this game beyond the opening cinematic (please keep in mind I'm only referring to Factions here, not the parent game.)

An since we're talking about the world they've created, yet again it's worth pointing out how unique it is compared to some of the fantasy worlds in circulation at the moment. Believe me, I love Elves and Dwarves and all that jazz just as much as the next guy. But I have to admit how refreshing it is to see a fantasy world created from a different mold, with just enough Viking mythos rolled in to make it familiar but a race of big badass horned-giants to keep it fantastical.

Maybe it's just my Canadian blood talking, but I'm absolutely in love with the romantic notion of the cold north, with all its sorrowful silence and epic heroism. Queue the ambient sound effects of wind gusting across a frozen shoreline and the crackle of a fire in a distant hearth. Oh wait, we don't need to, they included all that already. Well done!

All of this of course is just the dressing on yet another core component of Factions, combat. Here once again Stoic has managed to cook up something fresh, enjoyable and unique, while still remaining simple enough that you don't get lost in the details.

After going through the tutorial players will form up a team of six units, drawn from four classes. Each class can eventually be promoted into one of three sub-classes, rounding out the total number of units available to 12. Each unit has different strengths and weaknesses, as well as both a passive and an active special ability. When used in combination this provides enough nuance to keep battles interesting and promote strategic game play without inundating us with unnecessary options.

Ok, now that I re-read that, it doesn't sound that different, but I'm not done talking yet. Factions possesses a stat system that I've honestly never seen before; that doesn't mean it doesn't exist elsewhere, but I can't speak to that. To my credit I've played a lot of games over the years, and I've seen stats handled a lot of different ways, so I'm impressed to see something new.

I won't get into all the particulars as you'll learn that soon enough when you go try it out for yourself. But suffice it to say that right off the bat there are really only two stats that you need to worry about, conveniently displayed on a banner over both you and your enemies units.

Beyond that, there are a couple more advanced stats that can really make your strategies shine. But in the end it's all about knowing who, how and when to hit your enemies. Each piece on the board has its place, kind of like chess... except with Vikings.

Hmmmm, I like Viking Chess, Can I Play for Free?

Well of course you can! But I hate this part here, because unfortunately you might find free to be a little too slow for your liking. You see each battle fought, and particularly fought and won, will grant you in-game currency called renown. Renown does a whole bunch for you.

It allows you to purchase new units from the Mead Hall (cuz if I was a unit that's where I'd hang out too) or promote basic units into advanced units with higher (and customizable) stats OR you can change a units name to sound more awesome (like I dunno, Caergan or something) OOOR you could spend renown to buy alternate costumes for your units (which in a game with such gorgeous art is rather tempting) OOOOR you could expand your barracks to increase your selection of units when you put a team together OOOOOR you could spend it to enter tournaments to prove how awesome you are OOOOOOR; okay that's all I could find.

Yes I'm aware that was a massive run on sentence, that was kind of my point. Renown is the sole in-game currency to do just about everything. Unfortunately, even when you win a match you only earn around 10-15 renown, which doesn't take you very far. And with matches sometimes running up to half an hour, it takes a considerable time investment if you want to advance in Factions.

Let me show you what I mean...

Ummm, yeah I apologize for whatever the heck that was. Mr. Spendy Pants knocked me out cold with a sack of quarters while I was at my computer. Clearly we need to improve security around here.

But, despite being a total jerk, my arch nemesis does make a good point. There are some very enticing reasons to throw down cash on The Banner Saga: Factions, particularly if you want to actively pursue tournaments, because you're always going to want more renown.

Can gaming REALLY be free when it comes to The Banner Saga: Factions? Well, I think as a casual experience I'm prepared to say that Factions is one of the best games free can buy at the moment. If you equate it to sitting down to play a game of chess with a friend, then I think you'll very much enjoy this title and largely manage to avoid the temptation to spend.

I know for myself that was the case. Heck, I enjoy a good game of chess every once in a while. Considering I had had no aspirations to play at a tournament in Factions, I was more than content to go at a slow pace (unlike my impulsive arch nemesis that spent $12,000 dollars and still hasn't won a tournament match).

Speaking of which, my head hurts and I need to go lie down

If anything about The Banner Saga: Factions truly could tempt me to spend real money it would be promise of so much more enjoyment from the story-laden single player version yet to come.

Every once in a while a game comes along that reminds us, yes, game design can be an art form. Factions is that game. The story and characters that have been promised to follow are likely the only elements remaining for The Banner Saga to become a masterpiece.

Sadly however, that is for someone else to judge, as the Free Agent must move on once again. Where do we go from here you ask? Well you'll just have to follow on Twitter to find out what game we'll be covering next.  But in the meantime, watch out for Mr. Spendy Pants and his dastardly sack of quarters.

See you next time on the Free Agent.

Robert "Caergan" Gray
Follow me on Twitter @Caergan

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