Free-to-Play Friday: The Banner Saga: Factions

by: Randy -

Free-to-play Friday is a weekly series that showcases some of the best and most interesting free-to-play games currently available for everyone to try. Did we miss a favorite free-to-play game of yours? Post your favorites in the comments and we'll be sure to give it a try for ourselves.

My view is from up in the nosebleed seats of a chessboard-like arena. The Nordic surroundings are drawn up with the classic lines of 1950’s and ‘60’s Disney art -- think less Cars, more Sleeping Beauty. Somber horns bellow and dirge over the wind. A chill nor’easter tosses handfuls of snow onto the playing field while torches snap against the crisp air and hearth fires smolder in mead halls. I’m about to lose my very first multiplayer match of The Banner Saga: Factions, and it’s going to be beautiful.

Developer Stoic is comprised of three former BioWare guys that, among other things, worked together on Star Wars: The Old Republic. To make The Banner Saga, Stoic asked for $100,000 on Kickstarter. They got it in 24 hours. Over 20,000 people continued throwing money at their computer screens until Stoic accumulated three-quarters-of-a-million dollars by the end of the Kickstarter campaign. As Stoic fires on all cylinders, working away at the single-player campaign, the 1-v-1 multiplayer portion of the game -- Factions -- has been free-to-play on the Steam store since February 25 of this year.
 

Gameplay is inspired by ‘90s turn-based strategy games like Final Fantasy Tactics and Shining Force. You assemble a team of six Vikings, building up experience from every match (even if you lose), and then taking those experience points and promoting individual characters to the next level. This builds up your power level. The servers’ auto-matching service attempts to place you in matches with players close to your power level. Don’t worry if you’re outgunned; you gain even more experience when facing a superior opponent, in terms of exposing you to higher-level players’ strategies, and in more practical terms by awarding greater experience points.

There’s depth to the character builds, but less variety to character models than I anticipated. In the lineup you’ll see female archers, melee dudes, and giant dudes. That’s basically it. There’s a color pallette change here and there, but to the untrained eye, it’s difficult to know what you’re really up against based on a character’s silhouette. My tactics were pretty run-and-gun and first, ganging up on individual enemies and focus-firing them to death. But The Banner Saga: Factions sidesteps those old tried-and-true tactics with some interesting twists. Namely, that your hitting power and your hit points are tied together -- so, if your character is beaten down to within an inch of his life, he’s understandably not able to dish out full damage anymore. This upsets some strategists, but this design choice makes so much sense it’s startling to realize it’s taken this many decades to implement.

Factions is simple enough to jump into after a two-minute tutorial, deep enough to keep me guessing and second-guessing strategies -- even with nearly a dozen hours under my belt -- and packed with enough shield-beating, axe-grinding intensity to palpitate my heart muscles and squeeze a little juice out of my adrenal glands. I’m stoked for the single-player campaign, reportedly due by the end of the year, but I’m still thrilled as my understanding and renown grows with each match.

The Banner Saga: Factions is available now through Steam.
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