Review: Warbanners18 Oct 2017 0
Released 18 Oct 2017
Calling out a game for being ‘difficult’, while remarkably topical at the moment, is always a challenging call to make. A game’s difficulty is not always fundamental to the experience at large, and as Wargamer’s James Cobb recently posited, dropping down to ‘Easy’ can actually be quite therapeutic at times. Warbanners, by Crasleen Games, doesn’t really have a difficulty problem, but it does have problems it will need address sooner rather than later. Before we get to that though, let’s take a quick step back.
Warbanners is a turn-based tactical RPG set in generic fantasy world. You are Roderick, commander of a mercenary company that you must lead through a linear narrative campaign of up to 42 missions. The game will put you in control of different unit types, and features hex-based combat featuring potions & equipment, unique abilities… similar to Battle Brothers. Or a linear Lord of the Rings-style XCOM, if you prefer. There’s actually nothing else to the game other than its campaign, which is a bit of a shame but at the very least you can tell they’ve put a lot of thought into the turn-based battles.
The RPG layer is a bit bare-bones and involves two main tasks – managing your company, and then navigating the story. The campaign takes place on a map that’s reminiscent of the old parchment-drawn aids of yester-year. As you complete a mission, another one unlocks that your counter will move over to, and there are usually text-based narrative elements before and after each battle. Once a level is complete, you can’t go back.
Sometimes, the text elements will throw choices at you that can affect your Karma (which can effect game-world interactions). Sometimes you can choose from several different mission options. Combined, the choices you make and the order you do missions in can have lasting effects that will be reflected in battles and story-elements you encounter later on. E.g., if you do a side mission before doing the next main mission, the nature of that mission will be different compared to if you’d just gone straight in. Saving often will allow you to feel out all of the short-term options with ease so you can re-load if you’re unhappy with how something turned out.
In terms of managing your company, you have a limited number of slots with which to hire soldiers. This will go up over time, allowing you hire more and better classes of troops. The game starts off with basic archers and men-at-arms, but will progress to Knights, magic-users and other weird & wonderful unit types. Each unit can carry items and potions, and as units gain XP they level up and can improve their stats and/or gain new abilities. If a unit dies, you can pay money to resurrect it although it will take some stat decreases. It’s only really worth it for high-level units though. Beyond that, there are ‘assistants’ you can hire that will give you extra tools or buffs that can be useful in battle. These range from morale boosts, to allowing you to place a catapult on the map before a battle starts.
The tactical battles in Warbanners are where most of the action happens, and are easily the best bits about the game. Each unit has action points, as well separate stats for health, stamina, morale, strength & accuracy and all the usual suspects you’d expect to see in a game of this nature. Facing is important, as is making the best use of the environment around you and managing your troops with care. The missions vary, from ambushes, to straight up battle lines, to sieges with unique terrain and weapons. The tactical possibilities can be quite varied, and your troops will get tired if you don’t give them opportunities to rest. Attacking revolves around hit-percentages and the amount of damage one can deal in a single blow. Killing enemy units increases morale, while suffering loses will decrease morale and cause troops to flee in panic.
The enemies you face will depend on where the story is going at that time. Orcs are a pretty common enemy in the early game, but you’ll also face off against undead and even Elves & Ents if you choose a particular side-mission. Each faction has different capabilities and tactics that you need to be aware of.
Credit where credit’s due, the missions in Warbanners are really quite fun. I love the siege battles in particular, and big set pieces between large armies (where your small mercenary band will be teamed up with a larger allied force) are also a treat. But this is also a very RNG-heavy game, which makes it unpredictable and a tad harsh. This brings us back to the underlying problem that really lets Warbanners down: Being a linear experience, you’re forced to go through mission after mission with very little opportunity to do anything else. Sometimes, those side missions can come with penalties or make later missions harder so they’re mostly fake-choices anyway. If you get stuck on a battle, the game literally offers you nothing else to do. No multiplayer, no offline skirmish and you can’t even go back and re-do past missions unless you start again.
This kind of design can be dangerous when coupled with resource management – money is limited, and a choice you made hours ago could come back to bite you hard so that you’re faced with an impossible situation. You’ll have no choice then but to restart, and that can be demoralising to a player who’s sunk many hours into the campaign.
It’s a difficult call, because as with any RNG-heavy game when things are going well for you the rigidity of the experience doesn’t really matter. Having to repeat the same mission upon failure also isn’t the end of the world because the tactical possibilities are actually quite deep. But when you’re facing a particularly nasty set-piece that you’ve tried to complete half a dozen or so times, it’s easy to lose hope. Warbanners isn’t really difficult per say, but it IS relentless. Even during the more creative set-pieces, the odds are always stacked against you and you will always have to pull out all the tricks at your disposal to win every match. Losses are inevitable, rewards are meagre, and you will feel constantly under pressure even in the early missions.
Recent similar games like Battle Brothers have also provided experiences that feature grim worlds, high mortality rates and an overall difficult and depressing universe. The big differential between that and this is that you usually have choices. Don’t feel like you’re ready? Go do something else! Pick on easier opponents, train up, earn some more money etc… you have options and things you can do outside of that one particularly hard fight you’re struggling with. Even a skirmish mode where you can practice or blow off steam outside of the main campaign would be good enough. It’s all about taking comfort in the ability to be able to choose to do something else.
Warbanners, for better or worse, offers you no such solace. You will either win, or you will die. Despite its incredibly engaging tactical layer this is not such a brilliant game that it can dissuade me from contemplating the secret third option, which is to not bother playing at all.