The recent talk about difficulty and journalists is one that is baffling to me, as the point of a video game is, first and foremost, to always have fun with it. Difficulty is always hard to gauge because it's subjective. Some players love the “Nintendo Hard” of yesterday, the aggravating, annoying insanity difficulties akin to Cuphead that offers the perfect placebo for perfection. Others prefer the more casual experience, the simplistic charms of a Super Mario Odyssey that offers a fun experience without being overly hardcore.
Amid all of this are the worst kind of games, the ones hard for hard sake; the ones designed, intentionally or not, for the player to fail. These types of games are often difficult to describe, but it often boils down to the game's overall design working against the player by being overly unfair. A sad example of this, the indie game Warbanners, is textbook to this for various reasons- least of which the fact that I couldn't even finish the last mission of the game without cheating due to these design flaws.
Warbanners is a turn-based tactical RPG attempting to throwback to more classic, hardcore games in the vein of Warsong, Fantasy General or The Battle of Wesmoth. However, most of the design is a hodgepodge of ideas taken from much better tactical games, namely the Fire Emblem series. This sort of catch-all approach, coupled with its incredibly imbalanced gameplay, makes Warbanners a disappointing experience overall.
Part of this may be my own spoiling in playing other turn-based tactical games in the same vein, namely Battle Brothers. Both games play differently of course, and outside of the vague theme of overseeing a mercenary company there are little similarities other than sharing the same genre, but where Battle Brothers succeeds is how it artfully balances challenge with reward through the games overall design. To put it simply, mistakes I made in Battle Brothers feel like mistakes on my part, the kind that one can learn from and be better for it, whereas the mistakes in Warbanners feels completely artificial and just at the whims of the game's design.
To explain it in-depth, most of the problem stems from the games overall progression. Warbanners is a linear story game much like Fire Emblem, with over 40 different missions to follow in a long line to the game's conclusion. You have a hero character, Roderick, who oversees the Silver Griffons, a fledgling mercenary band in a stereotypical high fantasy world. The Dwarves are clannish drunkards, the undead are mindless corpses, orcs and goblins are marauding threats - much of the game is a Pathfinder checklist of derivative world building, doing very little by playing these clichés with a straight face instead of trying anything new.
With that, your goal is to make the Silver Griffons a successful company, taking numerous jobs for small amounts of gold to fund your operation. There are some deviating paths here that add a bit of choice to the overall progression of a mission, but it is ultimately of little consequence to the overall narrative. What’s more, the choices often have a Karma system attached to them, which can influence the statistics of your band of soldiers.
Outside of two “hero” characters who join you for a time, you can recruit generic mercenaries throughout the campaign, buy potions and bombs for them, and even hire “assistants” to offer you edges in big battles, such as poisoning enemy combatants or placing a catapult on the battlefield for you to use. Each unit has various strengths and weaknesses to track, including health, morale, and accuracy. Each level up sees the player choosing which stats gain statistics, and you can select to learn a special ability at certain levels.
Part of the problem with the game comes in the distribution of gold between missions. Each level gives a fixed amount of gold based on the game's difficulty, so your resources are always limited. Early on, this is not a problem in the game, but as your characters die in combat, the cost of resurrecting already leveled up characters becomes a problematic feature. It is also not just monetary cost, characters lose statistics if they are resurrected, which in turn makes them weaker overall despite the level they have earned.
This puts the player in a poor position in the latter stages, where a weaker tactician will lose half of his army and resources, or just simply suffer an unlucky hit that can cost you a character. This then leads to a choice; do you leave the character and hire a new, underleveled mercenary, or do you eat the cost and stat drop for that resurrection? Some may enjoy the choice, but it hurts the progression in the long run as players may eventually find themselves wholly gimped by the final stages of the game.
The second part of this problem is the battles themselves. To Warbanners' credit, there is a nice mix of scenarios and landscapes that you will fight on, from weathering sieges to escaping swamps; fighting at night or even massive military battles with A.I armies on your side. With this, you also get statistics changing based on terrain type, vision, and height, leading to a pretty complex tactical game on its surface. Ultimately, this is all undermined because Warbanners doesn’t play fair with the combat, creating a game of immense frustration throughout the experience.
The biggest issue is the hit-chance percentage often being a net negative. Even with high accuracy stats for your characters, you rarely achieve 90-100% hit chance. Other calculations such as position and line of sight can help or harm that accuracy of course, but the base range for hitting opponent’s hovers around the 40-60% range for the entire game. This is often coupled with the random chance percentage to hit varying wildly throughout the campaign, adding an overly unbalanced amount of variance in each mission.
Variance is an expected part of any tactical game, but in most cases, that variance is affected by the general statistics of your characters. Most tactical games your base statistics are often tied to equipment and character stats, for example, so a well-equipped character with mediocre stat rolls can help in alleviating some of the innate randomness found in most tactical games. In Warbanners, that same scenario is instead tied to static statistics based on your class, so the few bits of equipment you do get in-game only give cursory bonuses and situational abilities to an individual character.
Since the player can choose to level up one statistic between missions, the progression is also slower and often less helpful in the long run. For example, a generic soldier character can have their accuracy pumped up over the course of three levels to increase their hit percentage, but it does nothing to help them hit harder, so their damage will remain the same or lessen while enemy forces gain more health and overall defense. Other games that focus on individual stat growths, either by selecting them or at random, offer the chance to level up multiple stats at once instead of only one, so the only way to increase damage or defense is to focus on those statistics as you level up instead of a combination of stats that help you both offensively and defensively. This forces players to essentially min-max in the game to keep characters semi-competitive to the level scaling of your enemies.
Even here though it may not be enough to get through the game. Warbanners imbalance is also tied to the hordes you face. Every single mission, even those with guest A.I armies, will see you heavily outnumbered by enemy forces. The games difficulty slider doesn’t make the enemies easier to kill or hit; but rather removes the number of enemies on the field to fight, so even on the games easiest difficulty, you will be fighting an uphill battle, often against an enemy that not only outnumbers you, but can be overpowered due to the deficiencies within your own army.
The issue of being outnumbered is not hyperbole either. Enemies often swarm, forcing you to take defensive positions each time just to get through an enemy turn, let alone survive a battle. Enemies also have access to the same spells and bombs the player can have. These bombs can poison, curse, even slow down the amount of actions you have a turn, which greatly affects all your statistics for a few turns. This, combined with multiple attacks often whittling down your health bar or outright killing your soldiers over the course of a single turn, throw any form of tactics out the window when you are swarmed and surrounded without much of a chance of success.
This is the very problem I hinted at in the beginning of the review; the fact that I cannot beat the final level of the game without cheating. All of this is in part of the problems described above: The loss of my mercenaries over time leading to some in the company being under-leveled, the lack of funds to resurrect members of the company or adequately buy potions to slow down the enemies’ onslaught, the sheer strength of the game’s final boss who literally can one-shot members of my army with a single hit, flanked by an unforgiving horde of undead that has more attacks per turn than I ever will. All of this, along with plot reasons that further gimped my company by seeing named characters lose statistics, make it, to me, near impossible to complete, even on easy. My only course of action was to use a cheat code to increase the levels of my under-leveled soldiers, while giving myself more gold to resurrect my dead soldiers.
Getting to the ending of Warbanners was a chore in of itself because of the game's design, but to be stymied at the final battle where no amount of tactical genius I can muster can save me from defeat is excruciatingly frustrating beyond my own professional mandate to finish a game for review.
I can’t really recommend Warbanners to anyone. Even the most hardcore of tactic fans should really play it at their own risk in the end. The good ideas are there, the tactics can be complex, but the overall design of Warbanners is completely broken to the point of souring the entire experience. It is a shame too, as good turn-based tactical games outside of the Fire Emblems and X-Coms of the world are hard to come by, but there will always be another game that will try to fill that gap in the future.
Our Warbanners review was conducted on PC via Steam with a code provided by the developer.
The good ideas are there, the tactics can be complex, but the overall design of Warbanners is completely broken to the point of souring the entire experience.(Review Policy)
- Good In-Game Tactics...
- Various Missions Full of Choices...
- ...With Little Chance Of Using Tactics To Your Advantage
- ...Uninteresting, Linear Narrative
- Imbalanced Combat
- Poor In-Game Progression
- Wide Variance Of Randomness
- Forgettable Graphics and Music