With more and more platforms like Kickstarter and Steam Greenlight showing small-time developers that all types of games, small or big, can have a chance out there in the world. Indie studios means minimal budgets so plenty of these developers opt for the free-to-play model.

The free-to-play model can be utilized by obscure indie studios to put their name out there. After all, who wants to pay for a game from a developer they’ve never heard of? However, free-to-play models, as harmless as it sounds, drastically affect a game’s dynamic. It is easy to spot a great game beneath a free-to-play model. However, The Banner Saga: Factions, on the other hand, is more of a free-to-pay-to-play title.

The Banner Saga: Factions is a turn-based RPG set in a Viking-themed world. It was developed by the three-man indie studio Stoic which is comprised of Alex Thomas, John Watson and Arnie Jorgensen, all of whom worked on BioWare’s Star Wars: The Old Republic. The game draws its roots from other turn-based RPGs like Final Fantasy Tactics and Shining force.

The Banner Saga: Factions a multiplayer-only game, aside from the tutorial at the very beginning, all battles are fought online with other real players.

The player takes control of a party initially comprised of six warriors. There are four starting classes: the Shieldbanger, the Archer, the Raider and the Warrior. All four of these classes may be upgraded to more powerful and specific classes the player may choose from.

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Like other turn-based RPGs, the battles are fought on a set of tiles. The player may move across these tiles and attack in one turn but only with one warrior at a time. A unit’s attack damage is dictated by its remaining strength which also serves as its HP. However, each unit is also equipped with a specific number of armor which negates some damage. Players can only attack either strength or armor, never both on the same turn (some exceptions apply with specific class-based abilities). The player may also use Willpower to move a little further or hit a little harder.

All levels are bare; there are absolutely no environmental factors that can be used strategically. Though this is good news for those who enjoy a game that relies completely on your own strategic prowess, it gets incredibly stale later on especially when playing against starting level players. There is also a huge lack of unit actions; there is attack, move and rest which somewhat replenishes Willpower. The last option, however, is quite useless as regaining one or two more Willpower doesn’t outweigh moving and shaving off enemy armor or strength.

Each kill made by a unit rewards you with +1 Renown which is used as currency to unlock unit upgrades. Units need 5 kills in order to be allowed to progress to the next level. However, it costs 50 Renown to upgrade to the next level. The problem with this is that, without paying, you can only gain a maximum of 6 Renown’s per battle assuming you don’t lose. So if you want no part in the microtransactions, it will take you a minimum of 8 battles in order to upgrade a unit which is plenty enough time to get 5 kills per unit. However, after 8 battles you’ll only be able to upgrade one unit.

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Playing 8 battles straight to upgrade my team would be okay if the battles themselves were actually fun. However, regardless whether you and the enemy team is well-equipped, it doesn’t remove the utterly simplistic strategies.

There are also other ways to gain better units or acquire renown. Tournament mode is a scheduled event whose 1st place winner wins 200 Renown. However, joining the tournament costs 20 Renown so let’s say you manage to save up 20 in order to enter. If you don’t win, well, that’s 20 Renown you’ll never get back unless you pay. Experienced warriors may also be hired for 50 Renown. At first, I was quite glad that Stoic left out the 5 kill requirement for levelling units up but the experience is further cheapened by offering the option of just purchasing a warrior that has already been levelled up.

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The one redeeming factor in The Banner Saga: Factions is the visuals which features very well-drawn animations. The drawings are crisp and the backdrops provide an atmosphere that effectively conveys the cold Viking world the game is set in. The well-executed animation, however, falls a bit short in the battles. For a game which battle’s focus on single attacks, the attack animations feel a bit anti-climactic. It would have been great if the animators added a little bit more stylish attacks. For example, the Thrasher has a skill called Bloody Flail. I would expect an epic attack with lots of blood and flailing as its name suggests. Instead, the Thrasher sort of just waves his little axe around while the receiving enemy stands there and makes some noises.

I was thoroughly impressed by the intro cinematic which put across a standing issue between the humans and a race of horned-giants called the Varl. However, this impression faded quite quickly as fast as the intro ended.

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In the beginning, you take control of two Varls that proceed to kill a few human guards within a human-controlled stronghold. The human leader then drifts off into a monologue about how things aren’t what they used to be and that there has been too much bloodshed. After the game establishes this divide between two races, it suddenly gives you a team that includes both humans and Varls to fight other teams that include human and Varl alike.

The Banner Saga: Factions is more of a free-to-pay-to-play title. The game will not let you have fun unless you decide to purchase in-game currency. Even if you do end up succumbing to the microtransactions, the battles are so simplistic to the point that they actually start to feel stale. Strategic prowess isn’t rewarded and what little rewards gained won’t be enough to keep you going. This game’s beautiful visuals are wasted on a poorly executed free-to-play model with ineffective strategic gameplay.