Carrying The Wounds Of Wisdom – The Banner Saga: Factions

The Banner Saga: Factions

Dozens of Vikings have died under my command in The Banner Saga: Factions. They died due to misclicks. They died due to my failure to make a decision within the 60-second turn limit, leaving them stranded and out of position. They died piecemeal as I accidentally advanced them to within striking distance of my opponent’s archers.

They died so I could get the mechanics of this game through my horned helmet and into my stupid skull. Tactical RPGs are often deep, and The Banner Saga: Factions is about as deep as the wreckage of a longship, resting somewhere in the murk of the North Atlantic. Whereas most tactical RPGs feel like fleshed out puzzles, The Banner Saga is nearly as stark and abstract as chess.

“Heroes aren’t supposed to die”

It is too easy to describe anything Norse as “cold,” (I’ve yet to read a review of a Sigur Ros record that didn’t describe their music as “glacial,” which is a silly adjective). But I can’t describe this game without using the word. It is coldly brutal, brutally cold. The attack animations are graceful, but not meretricious. The death animations are not gory, but almost horrific in their own cruel way. It is gut-wrenchingly hard to watch your own Vikings die, but so viscerally satisfying to watch your opponent’s Vikings fall. And when they fall, they remain on the battlefield in a crumpled heap, sometimes piled up in particularly crowded areas of the battle. I have a strong stomach for violence, but I caught myself wincing at every loss while playing The Banner Saga. “Everything feels so final,” said one opponent of mine in chat.

Wave The Flag

The Banner Saga

This finality is what makes The Banner Saga an extremely interesting game. I would almost say it’s too intense for me; I actually began to dread playing after a few losses. I was scared by the potential for fatal errors that haunted every one of my turns. My fears were exacerbated by my inexperience and the game’s current lack of a matchmaking system based on player experience. Stoic intends for The Banner Saga to be an RPG for adults. I know nothing about the lore yet, but the multiplayer iteration of the game feels bleak enough without the details of the forthcoming dark fantasy story. The animation is intentionally reminiscent of Disney’s classic Sleeping Beauty. I was initially confused by this, but then I remembered the climactic battle, when Maleficent surrounds the Prince and Princess in a forest of thorns and transforms into a dragon (one of the most fearsome creatures in animation history). Yeah, that’s the Disney vibe that The Banner Saga is going for.

The Banner SagaThe feeling of doom certainly extended to my experience with the combat. It’s harsh, and the gorgeous animations and sounds only emphasize this harshness further. In most RPGs, when you see a dead unit you equate it with the experience points you gained. In The Banner Saga you feel the cost of every unit weighing on you. The scariest, most eye-opening part of Saving Private Ryan is when the door on the landing craft comes down and the German machine guns immediately begin ripping through the American soldiers. That moment serves the movie so well because it’s completely unexpected. Heroes aren’t supposed to die en masse in the first five minutes of a movie. This de-heroization of the soldiers by means of terrible, sudden, and impersonal violence makes you feel the loss of their potential stories. Some soldiers weren’t lucky enough to make it to the beach on which their fellows died.

With that in mind, The Banner Saga: Factions might be the Saving Private Ryan of RPGs. The units that I thought would be safe were the least likely to be. There are giant units that take up four squares on the map (rather than the regular one unit), but in my experience players overestimate their stamina and get cocky, leading to frequent early demise. Then there are the archers, who are always kept in theoretical safety behind the devastating melee-type Vikings. But it takes excellent positioning to keep your opponent from sneaking through your line with a disruptive axeman. No unit can remain unsullied by battle unless you take extreme care to guard it, especially when you play against an experienced opponent who knows how to exploit his units’ special abilities.

Die By The Blade

In most tactical RPGs, you keep weak units safe and have them retreat from the front so that you can use their attacks and abilities in the future. The Banner Saga applies its irrevocabality to damage, too. Health and damage are the same stat: strength. If you lose one, then you lose the other. There is no such thing as a glass cannon here. It is very important to protect your strength supply (the sum total of the strengths of all six of your units), and for that you must build your units with sufficient armor. The points you apply in strength and armor, as well as special abilities, are all drawn from the same pool. There is potential for enormous variations in builds, and the community is already busy comparing them on the forums.

“…a cold, cold Viking death”

The Banner SagaIt stands to reason that if units become utterly ruined once they are wounded, then whoever gains the early momentum might keep it for the rest of the game. The Banner Saga addresses this with its turn order. Units act consecutively in an order determined by the players before the match, and each player always gets a turn following that of their opponent (like in chess). If a unit dies then it is removed from the order. So the player with fewer units gets the same number of actions as their opponent, but is left with (potentially) stronger units, who can do more with those turns. This makes leaving severely wounded units alive a vitally important tactic. The turns that a unit barely clinging to life takes will be much less useful than the turns that another healthier unit would take. Traditionally we like to focus our fire on one target, either the most important or the weakest. The Banner Saga rewards players for spreading the damage, and holding off on the killing blow until the right moment.

There is so much original depth here. The Banner Saga seems primed to attract a hardcore demographic. On Stoic’s forums there is already a healthy amount of theory being written about the game. On the other hand, I’ve faced some of these extremely knowledgeable players with min-maxed builds, and it is utterly discouraging for a newcomer. But even if you are (like me) afraid to see many a cold, cold Viking death that you should have prevented, it is hard to deny that it all has a certain beauty. The Banner Saga: Factions is a dark challenge, and one I believe the Vikings would have appreciated.

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  • RancidShamble

    How many people to you think are playing in the beta? I know they let some people in in waves. Do they wipe builds/clans/whatever to even the playing field when new content is added or changed? It’s does sound pretty dreadful to go up against the best haha. But lessons are learned in the loss, yeah? I don’t know how to play chess and I hardly play other strategy games but I can’t wait to try this :)

  • KRD

    Devs say over 8000 keys have been sent out so far, I believe. And yeah, it is still relatively early beta, so stats and characters get wiped from time to time, but we get a generous helping of renown points to rebuild our teams with when that happens. Once the matchmaking system is in place (again), you will more reliably meet opponents with the same amount of renown invested into their characters, so failure on the battlefield will decidedly be your fault and your fault alone. :D

    Enjoyed the article, by the way!

  • Matt Lemmons

    Thanks for your helpful response, KRD.

    @RancidShamble: Yeah, lessons are learned in defeat. In the current state of the beta it’s just going to take some time before new players can catch up with the people who have logged 20+ hours. It’s just something to bear in mind right now, but it doesn’t look like it’s an issue that will hurt the game on release.

  • jacob

    I wouldn’t mind playing this 4 or 5 times.