Warbanners Review: A Collision of Unique Combat and Uninspired Design
Just this week, developer Crasleen Games released its debut game on Steam. Dubbed Warbanners, this turn-based game mixes tactical strategy with some mild RPG elements. I've been keeping an eye on this game throughout its development cycle and have been looking forward to its imminent release. But now that I've gotten my hands on it, I've never been so conflicted about how to score a game.
Leading the Silver Griffins
Warbanners has you taking on the role of Roderick, and you'll loosely guide his direct actions in order to build up a mercenary company called the Silver Griffins. You begin your campaign with some standard swordsmen and archers, but the progression system will allow you to command bigger armies and unlock extra units for hire -- such as Knights, Mages, or Priestesses.
You build up these units by seeing them through battle and reaping experience to level up stats like magical resistance, evasion, and strength. You can also reward your mercenary army with unique magical items to give them bonuses or special traits that will make them more effective in your campaign.
The battles you fight with your army are based on a hexagonal grid map which features elements like foliage, structures, water, and obstacles. Vision and tactical strategy play an important part in combat for your units and adversaries, which means you want to use the map's landscape to your advantage however you can. So you can't just throw some units on the map and hope for the best -- Warbanners demands that you make careful decisions about placement and tactics if you want your units to make it out of battle alive.
More Than Mere Brute Force
Although it is a war-focused game, Warbanners encourages players to utilize resources outside of their normal battle units. In addition to your fighting soldiers, the game includes non-combat assistants that are available for hire. These assistants offer extra advantages to your company throughout the campaign -- including constructing a catapult on the battle map, poisoning several enemies, or setting certain tile hexes on fire. When these boons are used intelligently, it can turn the tides of battle and ensure your army's survival.
There are even potions to help you level the playing field. Liquid fire potinos can help you fight more effectively in the dark, while health/mana/stamina potions will keep your men in the fight longer. And if you want to take a more offensive approach, there are also potions that conjure poison-ridden stink bombs, and freeze bombs that reduce action points. Including these types of secondary resources adds variety to the game and the tactics at your disposal.
A Series of Unfortunate Developments
Warbanners has a lot working in its favor, but it suffers from a mediocre, cliche storyline. Once upon a time, an evil undead force nearly killed all of humanity, but a hero saved everything and vanished. Now the undead are back, and orcs are besieging the kingdom. It's your job to go save the cities from them.
I've seen this narrative so many times before, retold in so many different ways. But the game's take on it was generic and uninspired, so it failed utterly to engage or immerse me in the storytelling. I would have like to see Crasleen Games bring a fresh angle to this tired story -- or better yet, found a more interesting (and less downtrodden) narrative that would better serve its unique combat style and its mix of turn-based tactical play and RPG elements.
An Unfair Comparison
Crasleen Games sold itself short on the story front, but outright shot itself in the foot by making certain claims about the game before its release. The developer of Warbanners has often compared the game to Battle Brothers, the acclaimed turn-based tactical RPG from Overhype Studios. And although both games share the similar premise of commanding a mercenary company, their execution in terms of gameplay is vastly different. In fact, I believe comparing the two at all is extremely misleading -- and I bring this up because I've seen this comparison coming back to haunt Warbanners and I think it ultimately undercuts what players should really be expecting from the gameplay.
Battle Brothers is a sandbox style game that can be played in any fashion, while Warbanners forces you to follow along its (admittedly bland) story line. Additionally, Warbanners doesn't allow nearly as much variation when approaching most missions, because they're designed so that only some tactics will work and all others will fail. Though this isn't inherently a bad thing, it does limit the player's ability to play in a style they want to -- and when you're comparing that experience to something like the open-ended Battle Brothers, players are bound to feel disappointed by the lack of freedom.
It's also worth noting that Warbanners and Battle Brothers have vastly different aesthetics. Warbanners features movement and combat animations, while Battle Brothers does not. This may be the one leg up that Warbanners has, as many players complained about Battle Brothers' lack thereof. Even so, the animations that Warbanners does have are extremely basic and don't add much visual interest -- which means that even in this regard, Battle Brothers made the better choice to forgo animations in service of a unique art style, while Warbanners included rudimentary, uninteresting animations that add no value to the experience.
The Saving Grace
In spite of its flaws, Warbanners has one excellent quality: the combat has a lot of variety thanks to the environment. You can freeze rivers, burn down trees, dig trenches, and construct barricades or fords to pass through water. There's so many options at your disposal to make combat more interesting -- and because the combat is challenging on its own without being overwhelmingly complex, it's easy to experiment with this kind of environmental warfare and further enhance your overall experience with the game.
This mechanics really lent itself well to the multiple siege battles that you must endure over the course of the campaign. I wasn't sure if they would work well together, but I was surprised at how complimentary they proved to be. The siege battles were incredibly engaging and added some real scope to the game -- forcing you to think quickly and intelligently about how to defeat your adversaries.
Verdict: Enjoyable, But Flat
Warbanners is a fine game with some redeeming qualities -- but it also has its fair share of uninspired elements. It's certainly not a bad game, but it's no Battle Brothers either. Unless you're specifically looking for a game like this, I'm not sure that you'll enjoy it. And even if you are a fan of this genre, you might find yourself struggling to stay engaged because it simply doesn't offer a unique enough experience to hold your attention.
Despite my conflicting feelings about this game, I do think it's worth giving a try just to check out the interesting combat system and the few interesting mechanics that has to offer.
If you want to check out Warbanners for yourself, you can pick it up on Steam for $19.99.
[Note: A copy of Warbanners was provided to the writer for the purpose of this review.]