Hands On Verdict: The Banner Saga

The Banner Saga‘s first chapter is due out next month. It’s certainly much anticipated, coming from a team of ex-Biowares, and following a phenomenally successful Kickstarter. A tactical RPG, turn-based combat combined with a unique way of delivering its narrative, it’s going to be interesting to see how it suits people’s tastes. It certainly divided John and Adam, as they played through the first three or four hours of the game.

John: Right, I’ve just reached the climax of the preview version of The Banner Saga, and I’m not entirely sure what happened. I was one group in the West, then another in the East, and there was some walking. What did I just do?

Adam: You led a group of giants, a few humans and a snotty prince through confusing and dangerous battles. Sometimes they were fighting men, mostly they were fighting angry people made out of pebbles. You may have noticed that the sun had frozen in the sky? That is because of lore. The group in the East fired some arrows, became refugees and panicked quite a lot. Everyone probably died more than once. Does that sound about right?

John: Seems to. I was so confused when it switched to the weaklings in the East, with no warning, or mention of who anyone was. I really felt like I’d arrived mid-story. Was that my being stupid, or was that the game not having that info in yet?

Adam: I don’t know how intentional it is. There’s an enormous amount of history already in there – the map is like a miniature Lonely Planet guide to the world – but nothing is explained directly. The very first fight is against some humans in a great hall, with other people watching on in a seemingly relaxed manner. I didn’t know why my units were giants with horns, or why they were killing some of the people and not others. I didn’t know where they were going or why, but by the end of the three hours or so, things were starting to make sense.

John: Yeah, I figured they were the baddies. I was surprised when I was playing them. Am I fair in saying this is the first on-rails RPG?

Adam: I felt like I was being held at arm’s length at first, and I’m still not convinced by the sudden switch to the East, but I appreciated the slow-build by the end. Like a slightly clogged drip feed.

It feels a little like Fire Emblem. Tactical turn-based combat interspersed with journeying, conversation and levelling up. That’s the closest comparison I can think of. And with perma-death too, although not in combat. Units that fall in combat are injured for a while, with reduced stats, but during the journey itself, decisions can kill characters.

John: And entirely reshape your army. But an army you really have no consciousness of.

Adam: Yeah. During travel the composition of the group is listed at the top of the screen – peasants, warriors and Varl (the giants) – and during large battles or other incidents, numbers rise and fall. And there are supplies as well, to keep everyone fed and fit. But it does sometimes feel arbitrary – I collected loads of supplies, never had to worry about them, and then lost most of them due to one poor decision. The supply numbers, in particular, seem more suited to a journey with more player agency. If you could choose to take long routes through barren land or fertile ground with many enemies and space for ambushes, it’d make more sense to monitor that and make decisions that felt like they had weight.

John: I felt like I had no agency at all. Which was the strangest part of this. I felt like I was being dragged from fight to fight, asked questions I didn’t understand that had an impact I wasn’t able to measure.

And that wasn’t helped by my having no idea who I was throughout. Characters appear and disappear, and the way conversations are displayed makes it furiously difficult to work out who’s saying what to whom.

Adam: The most confusing part of the conversations is being referred to as ‘you’. It took me a while to realise who ‘I’ was. And then it changed! IDENTITY CRISIS. I thought I was the scribe at first, which made a certain kind of sense – a character not directly involved in combat and therefore unable to perish. But then I realised I was a giant with an axe.

John: I was certain I was the scribe. Now I’ve no idea who I was.

Adam: You are a casualty of war. All of that said, I appreciate the lack of lengthy exposition. To an extent. It’d be helpful to have a brief primer though.

John: Okay, so the fights. I’m not the best at turn-based tactics, obviously. But I found them extremely difficult.

Adam: They are. And I think that’s partly because everything is so easy at first. Walk here, hit the man, the man falls down. Everybody is happy. And suddenly the distinction between armour and health becomes extremely important – which to target when and which character to use – and special abilities are absolutely necessary. I cracked it, but it took a while. And there were moments of frustration, when I thought I’d have to give up.

John: I’m certain I’m doing everything available. Firing of special moves early and until I run out of juice, chipping at armour before going for health, and making sure Varl are in the front lines. But I still only take 2 armour off an enemy who then thwacks me for 9, and am massively overpowered in every situation.

And with the fighters in the West, I’ve not been given a chance to buy items at any point I can recall, and prevented from resting between big fights, and too often not given chances to level up my characters. It feels really strangely restrictive. The screens offering me a choice of whom to take into battle are pretty meaningless. Um, everyone, obviously. And then there’s no freedom, no option to use an archer, or rebalance my tanks, etc.

Adam: It’s punishing, no doubt about it. Any attack that can create separation, pushing enemies back or grouping them together for knock-on effects, works wonders. There are chain reactions that chip away at a whole group. I tended to have a couple of varls hang back and only plod into battle when armour was already depleted. And sometimes that meant sacrificing another character to an early injury – a sort of kamikaze attack.

Agreed on the restrictiveness though. Squad selection is meaningless – presumably that changes later in the game, perhaps when the two groups meet? And there aren’t enough chances to shop or level up. It doesn’t help that there are SO many different classes, all with one special ability. And mostly unique to a single character, at this point.


John: See, I don’t!

Adam: Pistols at dawn!

John: Tell me why you like it. Explain why a game that doesn’t let you really do anything between the fights, but make arbitrary decisions based on guessing, has won you over?

Adam: Here goes – I just cracked my knuckles and took a giant swig of coffee. I’m not excusing all of the restraints by saying this next part, but I think it’s important. It isn’t a game about war, at least not from the perspective of the characters we’ve seen so far on this portion of the journey (about a quarter of the game, we’re told). They are refugees, even if they don’t begin that way, attempting to escape a larger more powerful force that most of them don’t understand. The side-long shots of the party travelling have a heroic aspect to them when seen as stills, but they show a baggage train of the wounded and the weary seeking some kind of sanctuary.

Now, that doesn’t make the lack of assistance or suitable pauses for rest and customisation a perfect choice, but I think digging into the chain of events is helpful. It’s almost an anti-heroic saga at the moment, a depiction of futility. Backs against the wall stuff. But I think, even by the end when I’d lost my best units and raged against the unfairness of it all, I managed to pick my way through and felt pretty good about it. I did have a strong sense of achievement – but, admittedly, it was lessened by the lack of involvement with the characters.

John: I’m at a point now where I can’t win a fight. My guys are injured, the game won’t let me rest before the next fight, and it’s packed with ridiculously overpowered enemies. So I won’t win it, no matter how often I replay. So is that a game over? Am I done now?

Adam: This is the big problem – I haven’t ended up in that situation, even though I thought I had for a while, and I can’t see how it’s avoided. And that I do not like.

I’m not sure how the heroes are rebalanced when somebody is lost – I did seem to receive a couple of level one replacements whenever I lost anyone stronger, but I think that was by chance rather than design.

John: So presumably you’re now looking forward to the rest of the game. The other three quarters. What are you expecting from them?

Adam: There’s a fairly unsurprising but effective ending shot in the preview code, just after the tower fight. I do want to see what happens in the world they’ve created – I like the setting a lot, even if I’ve taken a while to warm to the characters. I’m actually becoming fond of the petulant prince, even though the game keeps giving me the option to beat him up and tie him to a tree.

John: I did eventually give up, knock him out, and send him home.

Adam: And I enjoy the combat, stupid difficulty spikes aside. I’m hoping that’s balanced somewhat – and just realised I don’t remember a difficulty option.

John: There is one. I played on Normal. I may try Easy.

Adam: I’d be interested to see how much those kind of decisions change things. I’m tempted to play again to see if I can keep certain people alive. Did you get the impression that some events on the road occur randomly? I did, but haven’t been able to test that.

John: Honestly, I gave up trying to follow what was going on. The story was so incomprehensible to me that everything felt random.

We should probably mention the art. It’s ludicrously beautiful.

Adam: Oh yes. Let’s do that. It looks as good as the early screenshots suggested it might.

John: It looks like something Disney might have created if Disney weren’t smug and evil.

Adam: Even the battles, which are possibly the least attractive part, have lovely touches. The death and pain animations are wonderfully detailed.

John: I love how someone will stagger, and only just stand up again.

Adam: Yeah, dropping their weapons. The prince is my favourite – when he takes a hard blow, he drops his spear, falls to his knees and scrambles to get up again. When he goes down for good, it’s almost the same, but the spear snaps in half as he raises it to defend himself.

John: It’s pretty obvious this is a team made of artists. So, say something conclusive.

Adam: I think the problems with the combat are encapsulated in the different classes – too many, with no real direction over their progression when they level up, and all tied to a specific skill. It creates detachment and the harder battles have to be approached with an eye to perfection. But I found myself sucked into the mystery of the world – it’s a beautifully strange place – and I’m willing to struggle through the hard patches.

John: I feel like The Banner Saga is someone making a tactical RPG especially for me. An emphasis on story, character ahead of stats, and a relatively simply interface. And I just didn’t enjoy it. I felt remote from it, entirely confused at every point, and never engaged. And that frustrates me, as I really wanted to.

Adam: Will you play the full version?

John: I’m put off. I can’t deny that. If someone promised me it were rebalanced, and there was some attempt to tell you who you were and why you were, I’d be interested to come back.

Adam: I do think it needs some rebalancing. Particularly, I want to know that it’s impossible to hit a dead-end. The large retinue is a perfect excuse to throw out some extra units when a player is struggling.

John: Say something final and optimistic.

Adam: It’s one of the most beautiful games I’ve played though, not just in its style but in the craft that has gone into making that a reality. It’s challenging, mysterious and not quite like anything else, and I mean that last part mostly in a positive way.


  1. Myrdinn says:

    It’s a pity that the story isn’t very engaging (at least in the first part of the game) as that won’t be easily changed overnight – except if they can bandaid it with some extra dialogue and scenes that is. I’m sure the combat is pretty much intended – didn’t they have an entire MP beta to kinda balance that stuff out?

    Despite the somewhat negative comments made by John I’m still very much interested in the final product. Might buy.

  2. Deano2099 says:

    Anyone who backed this, but not at beta level (or indeed, any other gaming Kickstarter) find themselves slightly discomforted by journos getting review code before backers get it? Not so bothered on this project in particular (it was more music albums I’ve backed where it really bothered me) but I find it a little cheeky. Why are people that didn’t back the game at all getting code before the people that paid to make it possible? Obviously it’s because they want reviews out on release day, but it seems to me that’s a sacrifice they should be expected to make when doing a Kickstarter (or send out to backers and journos a week before actual release).

    Just interested in what people think. Obviously people get very wound up about the smallest of things in some Kickstarter projects, stuff that barely bothers me, but this one rarely gets bought up.

    • Bull0 says:

      I haven’t backed this, but I’ve backed other kickstarters, and I can’t say the thought of journalists, bloggers, vloggers or whatever getting preview code before I get my beta bothers me at all. I’ve never thought about it. That’s just how that industry works. As you said, they do it for pretty clear promotional reasons. The alternative, to not provide preview code to promoters, could be pretty commercially damaging.

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      Bluerps says:

      I backed it, and I am not bothered (neither here nor in general) by that. As long as I get the game not later than the people who buy it regularly, I am content.

    • S Jay says:

      Backed, not bothered by it at all. Journalists are not “people” (calm down, folks, I will explain), their review copy is not for enjoyment, it is for PR. Kickstarting the game pay for the development costs (at best), there is still an uphill battle to make the game profitable – and that is done by non-backers buying it.

    • welverin says:

      Just because a game was kickstarted, doesn’t change the fact it’s a commercial product that needs to promoted so that it has every chance it can to sell well, so it doesn’t bother me in the slightest. Well, when it comes to things I have backed, which I did not do for this game.

      Whenever I see a backer of something complain about the press getting to know something about a project before backers I just want to yell at them for being stupid, annoying entitled children.

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      FhnuZoag says:

      Getting a pre-release build of a narrative game is not a reward, it is a burden. It means you potentially ruin your enjoyment of the game by seeing one with flaws, you lose the surprise of encountering plot twists, you poison the intended depiction of characters by seeing them written out *wrong*. Worse, you are disallowed from talking about it to other people, since were you allowed, the necessary secrets of the plot will almost certainly be exposed across the entire internet, lessening the enjoyment of everyone else.

    • SillyWizard says:

      I’m mostly bothered by Adam and John going into this without being comfortable with TBS: Factions.

      Yes, the combat in this game is relatively complex, requires a lot of finesse, and apparently you need to be pretty comfortable with it in order to do well in TBS (which makes sense). Factions is a training ground for learning how to play TBS.

      I would like to see first impressions from someone who knows what they’re doing. If that guy says there are problem, oh noes. Right now, it sounds to me like things are as they should be!

      • Bull0 says:

        I understood what you meant when I realised TBS stands for The Banner Saga, and not Turn-Based Strategy. For a minute there I was seriously confused. I’m not ashamed to admit it but I probably should be

        • SillyWizard says:

          Ha, no, you’re right. If I had learned how to write well, I’d have preceded the acronym with the full name: The Banner Saga: Factions (hereafter TBS:F).

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        Aerothorn says:

        I think that demanding that players play a multiplayer game in order to learn a singleplayer game is pretty unreasonable. Not everyone likes multiplayer, and this was kickstarted as a singleplayer game, unless I missed something.

        • SillyWizard says:

          It’s a recommendation for enhancing familiarity with the combat. The combat is (supposed to be) identical between the two games.

          I’m recommending spending time in TBS:F because I expect that the build of TBS that RPS has doesn’t have much in the way of tutorials/opportunity to learn to fight.

          And from what I recall of getting involved in TBS:F myself, the best way to learn is to actually play. If I remember correctly, the tutorials weren’t really very clear until I had the opportunity to see how things worked first-hand.

          • Reapy says:

            That is a problem though. I was going to jump in and kind of say the same thing, that the combat in TBS (now we know what it means :) ) is different than in other tactics/rpg games. I did not play Factions but read a few strategy guides and watched some videos of matches and it really seemed non intuitive.

            I forget the details now but I remember the interplay between armor and health and the importance of wounding characters and leaving alive were things that stood out as off the cuff from what I’d expect from a tactics style game.

            Knowing this, they should really write it into the early levels as a tutorial. Very easy to flash back to being trained as a boy, his first fight in the meadhall, knocking out a character outright and your father chastising you for your mistake or at least talking about basic strategy as you go into the fight.

            As john said above that he put his varls up front, and I THINK (not sure) from what I read that is exactly what you don’t want to do, but all gaming before has pointed us to putting large, tank looking characters up front.

            Personally i am mixed on this game, but will probably get it on its first steam sale. The artwork and style of the game is beautiful, but I think Stoic has trouble getting some ‘soul’ into the gameplay itself. The reason I read up so much on factions was I was planning to try it out, but something about the way the grind and team building was organized in that pushed me away. It seems that blandness is present in the single player as well based on the writing here.

            I do really wish this game finds that ‘something’ that makes a game like this all click together, as a PC tactics game that looks this good is rare.

          • SillyWizard says:

            Certain Varls are tanks. For the most part, though, it’s simply a game where you don’t want to rush in with any of your mans, ever. The first half of a match is intended to be jockeying for position, and then once one player commits, the other comes in, and you see how the dust settles.

            (One reason I kind of like this set up is that it reminds me of how battle sequences in Akira Kurosawa movies tend to play out: a bunch of people who really don’t want to get sliced up all edging forward and then hopping back/running away. It adds a lot of humanity to your generic everyone-is-fearless-in-combat nonsense in typical games/movies.)

            You’re right about there needing to be an effective introduction to the combat for new players. I just can’t stress enough that once some familiarity develops, it really is a worthwhile system!

        • DatonKallandor says:

          It’s the reason the singleplayer is probably crap in terms of balance. You can’t EVER start with a multiplayer game and build a good singleplayer on top on a budget. It doesn’t work. A good singleplayer is UNbalanced, but they tried to make every unit balanced first and then build something interesting out of it.
          You can’t do it, at least not when you don’t have an entire budget and dev team set aside just for the singleplayer. And even then it’ll end up underwhelming.

          It’s pretty clear the devs for Banner Saga are mostly artists and coders (and writers), but not game designers.

          • darkChozo says:

            That’s highly debatable. While you’re right that singleplayer and multiplayer have differing balance expectations, it’s not like you can’t take a balanced multiplayer system and create unbalanced singleplayer scenarios out of them. RTS campaigns are a prime (and extremely relevant) example.

          • Reapy says:

            Right, it is not an axiom, but pure balance does run contrary to strong personality at times. Memorable characters in RPGs and the like are often stronger than everyone else in game, but not to the point they trivialize all the challenge from the game. A character like that in in a multiplayer game would suck, but it was my assumption here that they would have ‘story classes’ that aren’t available in factions, that are a bit stronger/versatile than the rest.

          • SillyWizard says:

            The multiplayer aspect of the game was a side-effect of the single-player system just being fun to play head-to-head, as well.

            I don’t think it should be so “clear” to you that the devs aren’t gifted game designers until you’re personally familiar with the game they’ve designed, and can point out its objective failings.

          • SillyWizard says:


            “…but they tried to make every unit balanced first and then build something interesting out of it.”

            Why are you making things up? The objective has never been about “balance” for Stoic. It’s about having a lot of units which do different things, and encouraging players to try different builds.

            There’s no perfect solutions in this game. A good player with relatively lackluster units can still demolish a poor player with ostensibly stronger units. And right when you think you’ve got an unbeatable build — right when you’ve won half a dozen matches in a row, and think you have it all figured out — here comes someone to wipe the floor with you using a full team of whatever unit you thought was the most worthless.

            Ha ha…I guess I get it that you’re upset about some other game doing something you didn’t like. But you should really hold off on your opinion about TBS until you at least try it for a few minutes….

      • GunnerMcCaffrey says:

        If the only way I can learn to play your game is by first playing another game, then your game is poorly designed.

        • SillyWizard says:

          TBS: Factions, strictly speaking, isn’t “another game.” It’s the combat system from the single player TBS, presented to us by the devs (very kindly, I’d add) for your free, multiplayer enjoyment.

          Y’know how a lot of games these days ship with both a single player campaign and an option multiplayer? It’s like that, except the multiplayer has been available for a few months already, and the 2 aspects of the 1 game are going to be in slightly different places in your Steam library. Like one will be literally one space below the other, if you have both games (and put them in the same category).

          And there’s no requisite to play TBS:F in order to enjoy TBS. RPS got early code for the first bit of the game. Clearly they would have benefited from more guidance on how to succeed at combat. TBS:F is a place where you can find that guidance, right now!

          If you want to!

          That’s all!

          • TWChristine says:

            Well I have a question about the Factions game. I understand that it’s a multiplayer focused component of the series, but (and this could just be me misunderstanding what is being said) but I get the impression that you can also play it against bots? Is that correct, or is it purely multiplayer?

          • SillyWizard says:

            I’m not 100% on this, but at this time I don’t think there’s an option to play vs bots.

    • darkChozo says:

      Journalists arguably do way more to support individual games than the vast majority of Kickstarter backers do. A backer might give you $25, a journalist probably gives you many times that in sales. Suggesting that the former is more important than the latter just because the latter didn’t literally give you money is a tad silly.

      • Deano2099 says:

        I certainly get that point of view, this review and comments though is highlighting a different issue it seems – I’m not convinced that given how difficult the game apparently is, and unfriendly to newbies it is, they’d have been better off having backers who are already invested in Factions and the systems play it first, and start the positive word of mouth (perhaps along with the caveat: it’s hard) before the press got hold of it.

        • darkChozo says:

          Well, while pampering your community is usually a pretty good thing to do, I’m not convinced that it’s a great marketing plan. Your fans may be positive about your game; that’s to be expected, they’re fans for a reason. But they tend to not have the reach and the trust to either inform unknowns about the game or convince people who are on the fence.

          TBH, it’s a bit hard for me to say anything concrete because I’m just speaking off the cuff here. But the games journalism industry is still going and indies are still big on pushing their games on news sites and commentators, so it stands to reason that there’s a reason why that’s the case.

  3. UncleLou says:

    Every time there’s an article about The Banner Saga, I can barely get over how extra-ordinarily pretty this game is. How ever the game may end up, it’s already a stylistic triumph.

    • mouton says:

      It is quite polarizing, though, I know people who say it is ugly and looks like a flash game. I call them tasteless fools, of course.

      • pepperfez says:

        We’ve come to a weird spot where fluid hand-drawn animation is taken as a sign of cheapness. If it were a little more pixelized, nobody would have a problem.

    • Hmm-Hmm. says:

      Oh, definitely agreed. I tried my hand at the multiplayer bit earlier and found I was really bad at it and certain aspects were really unintuitive and given I didn’t want to do the time to learn the intricacies of it (I’m already not that good at strategic games to start with) I abandoned it. But my, does it look good!

  4. Screwie says:

    A question from someone who’s not played the preview:

    Is the seemingly disjointed nature of the narrative just a symptom of the preview jumping separate parts of the story, skipping over some underlying context? Or are you lead to believe that is in fact intended as a single continuous chunk of narrative progression?

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      Adam Smith says:

      It’s the first quarter of the game, as far as we understand, presented as it will be when it releases. There may well be outside sources that help to introduce the world and characters, but the game itself begins in media res and without any preamble to explain the setting.

      I like that, in principle, but it leads to a rough opening. Curiosity kept me involved even when the sudden jump to a new party in a different part of the world threatened to lose me. That’s the moment that I found the most disruptive – just as I was beginning to get a handle on the personalities and abilities of one group, the game switched to another, and then back again.

      Part of the confusion comes from the setting itself. It has familiar elements that reminded me of certain mythologies or tropes, but mixes them with the unexpected and unfamiliar. Again, I think that’s a good thing but would have liked a little more prompting.

      It feels a bit like turning on episode one of a TV series you’ve never seen before and realising that it might well be the first episode but it’s also the third season.

      • Burzmali says:

        Didn’t the Myth series pull this from time to time?You’d have 3 – 4 battles in a row from one story thread, then suddenly 3 months would pass and you were in command of an entirely different set of troops. Though, at least it was always the same conflict in those titles.

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          Adam Smith says:

          Aha! Didn’t think of Myth at all while playing but that’s a good comparison. The Banner Saga’s conflicts are linked and will no doubt converge, and the narrative often has a similar battle-weary gloom.

          • Burzmali says:

            I’d say that Banner Saga appears to do a better job of inflicting the doom and gloom atmosphere as even after a handful of missions Myth, it’s clear that the forces of good are (literally) destined to win. I played a handful of games with this “dis-empowerment” mindset and I’ve yet to find one that reasonably conveys to the player the transition from where they need to conserve resources and play for time to where they need to expend those resources to sprint to the end.

          • mouton says:


            Haven’t finished myth, but I did play up to mission number 20 and I never felt like I was winning. Sure, I might have been technically progressing, but the whole experience left me quite downtrodden.

      • Screwie says:

        Thanks for the clarification!

      • Drinking with Skeletons says:

        Having just started playing Final Fantasy XIII–thanks, new console generation clearing sale!–this whole thing sounds very familiar. Very linear? Check. Jumping back and forth between various characters? Check. Largely linear progression through different classes? Check. Very gradual reveal about the nature of the world and the story, such that you might not know what’s going on for several hours? Check.

        Given the decidedly…mixed reception for FF13, the team for this might want to be a little worried.

        • Burzmali says:

          One could argue that throwing “Saga” right into the title should be enough to inform potential buyers that the game follows a series of linear threads that are woven into a epic (in the original meaning) narrative.

          On the other hand, there are probably a dozen titles of the form “X’s Journey: the Saga of Y” that are FPS sandbox games with RPG elements that are tied into an MMO framework. So I can understand how consumers won’t take a title at its word.

        • thelongshot says:

          The difference I see with FF XIII and this game is that the former holds your hand for about 20 hours before opening up the battle system, while it looks like this throws you into the deep end fairly quickly.

        • mouton says:

          In my book, Banner Saga is still in another league due to not being animu.

  5. daphne says:

    Was the first KS I backed. I would be interested to hear Alec’s thoughts in this game, to possibly see how this game’s difficulty compares with something like XCOM.

    One thing that does seem worrisome is that unlike XCOM, this game doesn’t seem to allow you much meaningful choice during periods of downtime. But there’s still time, and certainly I’ll have to play this for myself.

  6. Burzmali says:

    How would you say the battles in Banner Saga compare to Expeditions: Conquistador? More than a few of the combats in that game come with surprise plot twist that put you against ridiculous odds that require high levels of skill and luck to prevail at.

  7. spacedyemeerkat says:

    As a backer, this Hands On Verdict disturbs me a little. Still, it was but a gamble as with all Kickstarters.

    • Rahdulf123 says:

      Only thing that disturbs is that RPS needs their hand held as if it was a blockbuster AAA game aimed at my grandmother.

      • jrodman says:

        I am curious which blockbuster AAA games are aimed at your grandmother. Can you tell us about that?

    • SillyWizard says:

      As a backer who spent a lot of time in Factions, this hands-on to me mostly seems like an opportunity wasted by unfamiliarity with the project.

      The combat system in the game is not intuitive, but it’s great fun once you get the hang of it. I’m guessing the game doesn’t work right if you’re crap at the combat.

      Learn how to fight! Start over! Play through it again!

  8. Snargelfargen says:

    Sounds a bit like my experience with Final Fantasy: Tactics´. Great TBS, but the railroad portions of the game contained brutal difficulty spikes. It really killed any interest in the narrative when I discovered that my party composition wasn’t going to cut it, and I had to go back half a chapter to grind, or just start over. Not a big problem for the type of player who enjoys reading strategy guides and plotting character builds, but it punishes people who just jump in.

    I like to learn most TBS’ via experimentation, but that doesn’t work well with a linear plot.

    • hungrycookpot says:

      I, for one, enjoy when a game allows you to lose. I think that when I play a game that I’m guaranteed to win, if I just keep trying enough, can get boring. However, I also don’t like being led down the wrong trail and wasting hours of my life when I effectively lost the game at a decision I made 10 hours ago.

  9. mukuste says:

    I played the multiplayer component quite extensively for a while and really loved it, it’s very tactical and deeper than it looks. So probably they balanced the Normal mode for someone who already played with that, but in fairness it’s the developers’ job to either point that out or rebalance it so Normal is easier and add a Hard mode.

    I’m really looking forward to the whole thing, even if this preview sounds very disappointing. I hope they can smooth out some of the rough edges of the story and such. I really want to love this game. Let me love you, game!

  10. S Jay says:

    I heard the devs mention that losing battles doesn’t really mean game over, you just have different outcomes from the story. Does this hold up?

  11. almostDead says:

    I would like the TV series or animated movies. I want all that art to have maximum usage.

    I quite liked the MP for a bit. Did a bit of grinding to unlock the classes and try them out. I am not smart enough to plan out the moves via the initiative list though.

    After reading this, I will still play the SP.

  12. Premium User Badge

    FhnuZoag says:

    Here’s hoping John is just very bad at the game…

  13. Tychoxi says:

    Well, this sounds awful. I backed this game and have been eagerly awaiting for 1.5 years… but this sounds like a complete failure of the game they were supposedly going to make! Don’t get me wrong, I’d back it again if I went back in time because this is still a marvelous project to back, but I was certainly expecting something more than this.

    • SillyWizard says:

      Don’t get too upset yet. I’m thinking there’s some operator error involved in this hands-on.

      • greywolf00 says:

        I’m kind of thinking the same thing. Killing low HP units off completely is bad mmkay.

        • SillyWizard says:

          Ha ha indeed!

          Interpret John’s impressions as a kid who gets trounced in a game of Chess because he was focusing on getting every pawn kill he could.

          “But I took 6 of his pieces! He only killed my King…! This game sucks!

          • Ich Will says:

            So is it better to cripple your enemy’s troops and leave them alive because if you kill them, they bring reinforcements on at full health?

          • SillyWizard says:

            If your opponent has 4 units with 1 health each, and 1 unit with 15 health, that means that every 5th turn of his, you have a scary 15-health monster who will wreck up your mans.

            If you kill off all of the 1-health units, that means your opponent’s 15-health beast will go every single time he takes a turn.

            Turns always alternate between plays, like chess. But within your own turn, your units have initiative which determines who you get to move next. So having a board full of wounded units can really mess you up, if you’re banking on one or two remaining powerful units to clinch the win for you.

            (This can also lead to some epic end-games where an outnumbered unit can wreck up a team that’s trying to swamp him. They have some rules to make it hard for one unit to kill off a lot of enemies at the end, though.)

          • Ich Will says:

            Ah, yes, I see. I have tyo admit, I am looking forward to this game – I’ll be terrible at it, but I’ll sure have fun being terrible! I hope you don’t mind if I catch you in the comments to grab some advice though, if I run myself into a corner!

  14. MarkB says:

    I think this is gonna be one of those games that I have to buy despite all the apparent problems. It just hits too many of my buttons to not try.

    (At the very least it should be better a better way to get my TRPG fix than Agarest. Has anyone else played that game? I took a risk on it because I really really wanted to play a TRPG, but so far it’s just really dull. I suspect it gets better eventually but I don’t want to sink a million hours in just to get to something interesting).

  15. killias2 says:

    Man, it does not seem that RPS likes tactical RPGs. Not only did they hate the relatively well received Blackguards, but they hit on this too.
    Sure, I may very well agree with RPS when I play Banner Saga, but lines like this don’t give me much confidence: “Am I fair in saying this is the first on-rails RPG?”

    *cough*Tactical RPGs*cough*

    • Premium User Badge

      Adam Smith says:

      I liked it!

      Can’t speak for Blackguards though as I haven’t had chance to play it yet.

      • killias2 says:

        Fair enough, but, like I said, I may end up agreeing with you guys. It’s just that even your comments on the game came off as pretty negative.

        • Grygus says:

          It seems to be in the nature of conversation about games: when one person doesn’t like the game, the whole dialogue tends to be from that person’s point of view. I suppose without that, the person who doesn’t like the game has no real reason to participate. It’s hard to say much positive in a conversational format when the other person is just shaking their head; much easier to try to address their criticisms. Problem is, if a few of their criticisms are legitimate, the talk ends up being more negative. I think that’s why negativity has such momentum online.

    • saluk says:

      Yeah some of the things they say are like… well, it’s a tactical rpg – this is how they work guys. At the same time, as someone who was not thrilled with the slow plodding tactics in factions, where it’s hard to tell if you are playing well or not until late into the game, and the decisions you make feel very abstract and not tied to the real battle; I was counting on at least the story to draw me in. And if they had issues with that it does worry me. If I have to play through the entire game for the story to connect and make sense, I don’t know if that’s going to be enough to push me through a combat system that I dislike.

  16. SillyWizard says:

    Okay, so TBS combat plays out like if Fantasy Flight were to release their version of Chess.

    You’ll have 5 or 6 guys. The enemy will have 5 or 6 guys. You array your guys on your respective sides of the board. Then you move one guy, and then the enemy moves one guy, until one of you has no more guys left.

    See? Simple. Chess.

    Except, not at all simple. Because despite all these simple trappings, you don’t get to just go thwack at the enemies and if you get in a bit of clever positioning you win. No. There are people designed to be thwacked at. There are people that do special kinds of thwacking! And then there’s the third kind of thwacking!

    It’s a wonderful system once you get to know it. And I really encourage you all to check out the FREE TBS: Factions through Steam to get in some practice. Maybe we should set up an RPS Forums thread about it so we can get some lessons in….

    • Ich Will says:

      I think it’s quite fair to criticise a game that relies on you understanding it’s systems from a different game. Fair enough, if you don’t want to muddy your campaign with a tutorial at the start, provide a training room option or whatever, but to say “Go learn it in our other game” IS something potential buyers should be made aware of.

      Right now, I’ll be honest, you sound a lot like the Blizzard fans who insisted that D3* gets really fun if you play through the campaign 3 times for 60 hours of drudgery for each character. Fine, but it’s still valid criticism to point this out.

      Maybe that’s what factions is, a training room for this game, or will I be forced to sit through hours of a game I already decided I didn’t want to play just so I can know whether I can play a game I might want to play.

      EDIT: It’s multiplayer only…. yeah, you can keep that.

      * What is with this comments section that we can’t write out the full name of this game without the comment being swallowed? Will someone please acknowledge this as a bug or a problem? It’s persisted for months now at least and is really problematic when one of the biggest gaming franchises in the world has that word as it’s title. It’s not as if it’s rude.

      • mouton says:

        Factions’/Banner Saga combat system is actually quite simple. They probably need to make a better help system/tutorial or something, but it really isn’t rocket science.

      • SillyWizard says:

        Okay so as I understand it Factions was released because they’d come up with a combat system which worked really well as a head-to-head game on its own merits. TBS was taking a bit longer to develop than they’d planned, so as a way to stave off hungry fans and possibly monetize what they’d worked on so far, they released Factions.

        You can play a very small number of matches in Factions and figure out how everything works. (Especially if you have someone there explaining the systems to you.) I’m recommending it because at this early date, I’m guessing that it would be helpful in having a better experience with TBS, since clearly John and Adam weren’t given an adequate tutorial with the code they received.

        I look at Factions as precisely what you said: a training room for TBS. It’s strictly a hop-in, hop-out, 1 v 1 battle arena, so you can play it as much or as little as you’d like: for free!

        I’m gonna go set up a thread in the forums and see if anyone wants lessons.

        • darkChozo says:

          Does Factions have a tutorial, or at least a bot mode? Learning an unintuitive battle system by jumping into public 1v1 matches seems like it would be an awful, awful idea, particularly in a game that probably attracted a lot of singleplayer-focused games.

          • SillyWizard says:

            i do think there’s an introductory tutorial built in to TBS:F when you first start it.

            As I’ve said somewhere else around here, I don’t recall it being particularly helpful (though I also may have learned to play before the tutorial was built. Way-back-when there was a pretty small handful of us playing together a lot, learning as we went.)

            In any case it’s been a while, so the tutorial may have changed, and it may be perfectly clear to you! Only one way to find out!

  17. Geebs says:

    I love the expression on the lady archer’s face in that screenshot. It looks like somebody has just told her that the toilet paper has just run out and it’s leaves from here on.

  18. ExpendablePanda says:

    Game looks fantastic visually. I hope the difficulty can indeed be meaningfully tweaked as I’m just frankly crap at strategy games/tactical rpgs even though I tend to enjoy the systems involved. The strange cohesiveness of the story intrigues me and hopefully it’ll lead somewhere interesting.

  19. Ashbery76 says:

    Well tactical combat is supposed to be a challenge so I am more than happy.You should be able to lose.

  20. Zekiel says:

    I love RPS Verdicts. They remind me why I keep coming back to RPS, they feel like a matey chat, not Professional Reviewers Pretending To Be Professional. (That’s supposed to be compliment, by the way). “Say something final and optimistic.” Love it.

  21. greywolf00 says:

    I’m curious if John was committing the cardinal sin of the battle system, killing off weakened enemies. Since HP & Strength are shared the mechanics require a slightly different approach than normal. Weakened units are effectively gimped characters you don’t want to kill. They force your enemy to waste a turn using a low danger character. Killing them allows them faster access to healthy units still capable of doing lots of damage which can quickly turn a battle against you.

    • jrodman says:

      Huh, that sounds unworkably unintuitive.

      • greywolf00 says:

        It’s actually a neat mechanic that simulates an incredibly injured unit not being able to do full damage. It is unusual and they should do a better job pointing it out in a tutorial, but it works perfectly in the battle system and once you notice it, fights can be a lot easier.

        • jrodman says:

          An injured unit being less capable sounds sensible.
          An injured unit being worse than a dead unit sounds unworkably unintuitive.

          • Burzmali says:

            To be fair, wedging a debuffed enemy between yourself and a dangerous opponent is a time honored Turn based strategy tradition.

  22. foda500 says:

    So the game requires mastery of its rules and systems and punishes you for not being very good at it? Good.

    • Emeraude says:

      I guess one important question would be: does the game come with a manual ?

  23. denizsi says:

    Perhaps RPS needs somebody new who is more familiar with tactical RPGs, has a thing for learning new rulesets and will do them justice with proper analysis as opposed to Adam and John’s rather pedestrian and popamole impressions. Yes, it is true, it is no Skyrim so you need to pay attention to the underlying system. And it is great. I haven’t had such an involving TB combat experience on computer in a while.

    • pepperfez says:

      Wait, not just games but opinions can be “popamole” now? Being part of the RPG master race is getting so complicated.

  24. John Walker says:

    It’s interesting how the comments have so often focused on criticising us for not being very good at the combat, when Adam spoke about how much he enjoyed it, and how he succeeded at it.

    The idea here was for someone who was good at the game to discuss it with someone who struggled at it. Reflecting two sides of the potential audience. I think it’s people’s own prejudices that they could come away from this with the impression that “RPS hates tactical combat” or similar. What absolutely nonsense! Adam adores it, and I am a big fan of it in its simplified form, say with something like King’s Bounty.

    It’s also extremely important to note that this complete, standalone game doesn’t make any attempt to explain the nuances of its combat in any way. You may like that about it. It remains useful to report.

    But most of all, the craziest thing of all bearing in mind the fury in some responses, is that we really didn’t focus on the combat as problematic. We focused on the garbled telling of the story (which Adam liked), and the sense of detachment you have from the decisions you’re asked to make between battles, and any effect they may have on the game. This wasn’t, as some people wanted it to be, a comment on the multiplayer version of the game. It was a discussion of the single-player, story-focused version.

    • SillyWizard says:

      Hmm. Well. Yes, I suppose I did get a bit fixated on the one thing! (Mostly because that’s the bit I’ve met before.)

      I guess I, for one, simply wasn’t that worried about your notes on the story’s failings. I can’t imagine that the story will be anything less than perfectly adequate once we get access to the final version!

      I could be wrong, of course. But it’s easier for me to expect that you guys played a version of the game that still has a number of kinks to be ironed out, than that Stoic will be delivering something less than epic.

      John: Honestly, I gave up trying to follow what was going on. The story was so incomprehensible to me that everything felt random.

      Anyway, for all I know, a story being incomprehensible to you may mean it’s right up my alley. Mulholland Drive? One of my favorite movies ever! I don’t know what our comparative tolerances for different types of story-telling are, so the single-player portion of the game is just something I’ll have to experience first-hand.

    • Jenks says:

      Isn’t King’s Bounty an on rails HOMM with all agency removed from the player? It’s weird to use that as an example of what you like after the complaints you had for TBS.

      • Ich Will says:

        Kings bounty is not on rails.

        • Jenks says:

          I tried a couple of them and it seemed to keep me on an incredibly narrow path in both. Maybe they open up later in the game, I wasn’t really interested after about 5 hours of follow the dots.

          • MellowKrogoth says:

            King’s Bounty is kind of like the single-hero missions of the Heroes series, except fun.

            In King’s Bounty you run around pretty large maps trying to find the weakest creatures to gain XP to beat some larger creatures and so on. Can’t remember after how many hours it opens up, but for most of the game you have access to 3-5 connected areas to explore freely. There are loads of humorous side-quests, too.

            Oh and by the way King’s Bounty: The Legend is on sale in the Wars of Ages bundle on Bundle Stars: link to bundlestars.com

  25. RanDomino says:

    So it’s NOT King of Dragon Pass 2: The Road to Dragon Pass?

  26. Hanban says:

    I’m still super excited. Factions was the most engrossing TBS I have played in years.

  27. MrEvilGuy says:

    I’m amazed at how a man like John who I assume has been playing games for at least 10 years longer than I have still can’t manage to handle a semi-difficult game like this.

    The game is brilliant, haven’t played anything this good in a long time. John’s ‘on-rail RPG’ critique seems to me to be a result of him playing it on normal difficulty. Take my word and play it on hard, it becomes quite ‘derailed’ in a splendid way.