Warbanners – Welcome to Difficultville

This is a weird one. I do enjoy the basics of Warbanners, I find the graphics fine, and the mechanics for the most part intriguing, however, the difficulty is just out of this world. I can appreciate that fact to a certain degree, but the older I get, the less time I have to go full autismo mode like in my younger days. With this, I mean the time it takes for a game to go from challenging to tear-out-your-hair frustrating. This usually ends up with me banging my head against a wall, until the one and only perfect strategy forms. My tolerance for that kind of gameplay is almost gone nowadays. There is a subset of gamers that love this kind of Stalingrad -esque difficulty in their games, and I salute them. Crasleen Games surely has made something for them to dig into, but for the rest of us mere mortals…

Warbanners are pretty thin on story, but what is there works as a fantasy backdrop. Evil necromancers once ravaged the land, but eventually, they were defeated. However, as things go in fantasy, this particular evil never rests for long and is now back – with a vengeance. You play as Roderick, a warrior hell-bent on forming his own mercenary company, the Silver Griffins. The story starts rather low-key with a skirmish against some orcs, but quickly gains momentum and becomes grander after that. Besides having a few optional sidequests, the game is linear, as in you following the marked line on the campaign map. The narrative is presented through text boxes, and I find it overall interesting and well-written. There is some light world-building done through these texts too, but it is fairly generic with dwarves, elves, and orcs. You know what to expect here. The concept as a whole reminds me of The Black Company by Glen Cook and I would say that is some good praise because that fantasy mercenary series is just gritty awesomeness.

Unfortunately, I did not finish the game, so I can’t tell if the story holds up until the end, but I assume it does since the narrative doesn’t seem that important beyond creating a reason for the slaughter. There is one other aspect that I didn’t see pan out thanks to me giving up and that is the morality system. Depending on what you do in quests, you get either plus or minus karma. I don’t know if this has any significance in the story, but from what I can tell it does affect recruiting.

It’s no Helm’s Deep, but it will do

The fighting takes place in turn-based mode, and movement and action, as in hitting things with the pointy end use action points, but this is also limited by stamina. Units got a lot of different stats, a rogue type of unit for example are much more agile and can move further than a basic swordsman. However, they have less defense and die quicker. Every action also costs stamina, but this can also be reduced by being attacked, so harassing a unit with several of your own can make that mob useless. It’s a viable tactic that can be used, and are in use by AI. Units also got access to a few different abilities, like mages can shoot fireballs, and priests can heal, all in all, it’s well-balanced when it comes to classes, and you can easily tell what their strengths and weaknesses are.

Remember, the molotov is not for drinking!

Combat will also lower the morale of the mercenary getting hit, which means their stats will be lowered for an easier kill. It also means they will flee if their courage gets totally shattered. Taking casualties affects the morale of the unit seeing the carnage – who knew watching your childhood pal getting his head crushed by an orc mallet would affect you? There is plenty of different potions to use in combat as well, from molotov cocktails to health potions, and it’s a must-have to invest in. A well-placed firewall that the molotovs create can change the tide of battle from oh-no-we-are-gonna-get-eaten to I-might-get-out-of-this-alive-but-horribly-crippled.

Anyone that has played Battle Brothers know what they will get, except for a few crucial differences. There is no zone of control, as you can move away from a unit whenever you feel like it. There is no penalty, like getting a free hit, so it’s much harder to lock down the enemy. Often they will make a beeline for your weaker units, without you being able to do much to protect them. Another thing is that every merc that eats it in battle can be resurrected after the skirmish for a cost in money and stats. No perma-death unless you want it to be, however, losing stats might as well be a death sentence in a stat-dependent game like Warbanners. It makes the game feel more boardgame:y than it has to be, and it does affect my immersion a fair bit. Together with the linear fashion of the campaign, it feels lacking in the mercenary-company building aspect. It is there, but comparable to other similar games, there isn’t much to do here, and having to delete a unit to get room to hire a new one feels a bit off to me. I guess loyalty mechanics is just not that a thing, however, I can recognize the game for going for a different approach here, but it makes the game less in my opinion in contrast to other games in the genre.

We got some big, ehm, assets to protect

What about the difficulty? It starts rather manageable and fun, but already after a few missions, it spirals out of the control – at least for my skill level. I would probably pass the hard missions if I was willing to retry them until the strategy and RNG works out perfectly in my favor, but that is not how I game, nor find particularly enjoyable. There is a minimum off sandbox here, and failure is punished with a game over screen, and a quick reload. Things that make Warbanners hard are not the mechanics per se, but the overwhelming odds stacked against you. Not only got the bad guys the numbers, but they also got the skills, magic, and potions to use against you. Prepare your ass to get bombarded by different AOE “damages” from the get-go – sometimes in a row for several turns. It’s brutal and it hurts a lot. Not to forget enemy heroes, and phew, what beasts they are. The one I fought could take down most of my men with one or two hits, and if not demoralizing enough, it is game-ending. This is too far out for a casual scrub like me, so be warned. However, if you like being punished by huge orcs, this is the game for you!

Jon Snow falls once again

The visuals and sound feel a bit on the simple side, but they work, and it’s easy to tell what is going on by sound and sight. The graphics didn’t wow me in any way, but I find myself more forgiving in games like this. The music is okay, however, there aren’t too many tracks, so it does repeat a lot over the campaign. What is there works alright. Looking up a fantasy album might have a greater effect if I’m being totally honest here, but all that can be forgiving given it’s a budget title with one mind – making a tactical and extremely punishing wargame.

Even if I gave up on Warbanners, I can’t call it bad, but I have to stipulate that this game is brutally hard, even on easy. It does not lend itself to a casual experience – if you are looking for that. So, only get it if you are willing to suffer for the cause, and are ready to redo a lot of missions to eventually succeed… maybe.

Thanks for reading.


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