Review: BANNERMEN06 Mar 2019 0
Released 21 Feb 2019
Do you remember those middle tier RTS games from the mid-2000s? The ones that all tried desperately to capture the success Age of Empires 2 had by following in its medieval footsteps and tweaking it just a little so as to not be caught cheating? Well, with the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia comes a new wave of homages and tributes and while Pathos Interactive’s Bannermen brings a few new ideas to the table, it’s inspiration is plain to see.
First up, the story in Bannermen follows what feels like the bog standard for RTS games. Dark lord beats combined army, survivor goes around helping folk and building a new army, new army beats dark lord, hurray. The only real surprise is the overall banality of it all.
After fleeing the Battle of Beckron (don’t worry if you forget about it, it gets mentioned two or three times a mission) your hero, Berrian, proceeds to help a farmer defend against some wolves, then the next mission is the exact same setup but with bandits! It was at this point that red flags started to raise. And sure enough, in the next few missions a cavalcade of minor annoyances and major grievances arose. From the non-stop voice stabs of “your ally is under attack,” to failing a mission because the friendly AI wouldn’t build any units to defend itself with, to the god awful tournament.
The tournament, which is a nice little idea to spruce up the frankly repetitive gameplay inherent in RTS campaigns is handled with about as much finesse as a goose in an egg in spoon race. The goal is to fight through each round with Berrian and a handful of units. Each round is more difficult than the last and requires, wait for it, creative pulling. That’s right, the solution is to run your soldiers into the corner and fight with their own attack AI which causes them to rush into battle. By moving a soldier forward, luring a couple of theirs, ganging up on them and repeating. It’s boring and not only is it boring, it’s frustrating because it seems counterproductive to how the game should work. I was stuck for half an hour on one battle because their mob rushed over to me and set about poor Berrian with swords and no matter what fair and sensible tactic I tried, there just wasn’t a way to win. I was reaching for the pen and paper to start working out the math before I discovered they stop and start picking their nose if you huddle in the corner.
In larger battles, moving your army more often resembles a 10k run as there is absolutely no unit cohesion. Archers fall to the back while footsoldiers rush on out of view of the follow cam. If you don’t accidentally rush into battle, you’re at least stuck waiting around for the rest of your army to catch up. Then, when they do finally engage, the dodgy pathfinding means that melee units often circle around with the tactical prowess of puppy’s at the teat. Of which, poor Berrian is the runt who often times rushes around the sword party trying to find an entrance until it’s all over.
And the game is unfortunately full of these oversights. As I mentioned above, one of the early missions involves teaming up with Lady Vanya to take on a traitor lord but she wouldn’t build anything other than a single house and a second gathering hub. She wouldn’t even attack enemy soldiers who were currently destroying her buildings if they were slightly out of range - all to the tune of “your ally is under attack” 60bpm remix.
All of these problems clump together and beg the question, was this game rushed out? It certainly feels like the playtesting got cut short and the content feels awkwardly spartan. There is only one faction with the medieval pick-n-mix of villager, swordsman, spearman, archerman, knightman, and catapult. The only outlandish/interesting units are the jester and the convict and the latter for entirely the wrong reason.
See, the story follows quite a straight forward arc with a slight Game of Thrones flavour but at the same time it’s also trying to paint grey areas in a world that has a literal death knight with green fire coming out of him. The idea that the small lords would be playing silly buggers when the big bad evil guy and his army are - seemingly, the map is awkward - less than a few days away, is laughable. And it is quickly revealed that anyone who is opposing you has some sort of tie to Green Sauron which brings us back into a traditional good vs evil narrative. And I’m mentioning this because very early in the game, the “good” Lady Vanya so helpfully donates a couple of convicts to our defence and enthusiastically informs us that:
“They have chosen to carry out their death sentences in the most honourable way: by blowing themselves up to save the realm.”
But hey, maybe the game isn’t about the story and as a writer I’m just picking up on the writing too much. “Raga raga, fight the shadows,” as my swarm might say.
Bannermen does include a few choice mechanics that, while not original, are at least underused enough to be novel to newcomers. Dotted around the map are ‘Creep Camps’ that you can send your hero to clear out and level up, making your hero stronger in various ways. Now, if only there was more of a point to it as it just feels so basic and binary. Kill creeps, get power with no real RPG elements, no upgrading of powers or gathering of gear to spice up the inevitable zerg rush.
With wood, gold, and population being your only concerns and safety in the knowledge that there isn’t much of a countering system, rushing becomes the greatest tactic. There are no walls or defensive structures beyond the archer tower which needs to be slowly stocked with units. And I’ll admit, I suck when APM becomes a factor but with the single worker per construction and slow training times, I can’t understand how every enemy rushes me with spearmen by the 6 minute mark.
At this point this article is feeling a bit too much like a rant so let’s switch gears and say, hey, the music is pretty damn good. And if you’re a fan of APM based RTS and other acronyms, then Bannermen might provide some enjoyment. Bizarrely, if it was early access, I would recommend it as the developers have been releasing patches every other day. But for £25, I don’t see enough here to recommend in its current state.