Ah, the 90’s were a hell of a time for the real-time strategy genre. It was the birthplace of one of my favorite games of all time; Total Annihilation. It was also the time of Command & Conquer, Age of Empires, Homeworld and Starcraft. It seems that developer Pathos Interactive view this as a golden age, too, because Bannermen feels and looks like it was ripped out of the 90’s and shoved into 2019. The problem is, even by the standards of the 90’s Bannermen isn’t very interesting.
The campaign follows a chap by the name of Lord Berrian who, along with everyone else, gets his arse kicked by an evil lord named Karthor. Due to his bruised backside Berrian sets out to take Karthor down and free the kingdom from evil. From there a few minor characters get introduced, but if you’re looking for a deep, engrossing plot then Bannermen is not it.
What you do get is a series of 18 fairly basic missions that have you building bases, crushing armies or occasionally dabbling in some light stealth. Between missions you’re given points to spend on upgrading Lord Berrian’s basic stats as well as his three special abilities, such as a powerful area of effect attack or a handy shield. Personally I discovered that sinking everything into Berrian’s basic stats and his area of effect attack turned him into a one-man wrecking crew.
A couple of missions do attempt to try something novel and fresh. In one early example you control Lord Berrian while sneaking through an area, carefully avoiding patrols. It’s clumsy stuff since you can’t tell a soldier is coming into he appears in your limited field of view, but the developers have already made a few tweaks to help. Later missions might limit your resources and troops, or even present a fun idea where the most direct route is covered in quicksand and surrounded by archers and is thus a deathtrap.
The campaign could be passably fun if it wasn’t for the lacklustre enemy A.I. who seem content to throw the occasional group of three or four soldiers at you. The only times I lost in the campaign were when I was given an A.I. ally who would inevitably make no attempt to defend themselves, get wiped out and cause a mission failure.
In short, the campaign exists, it somewhat teaches you about the game and it offers just enough plot to be able to say it has a story. Just.
So let’s get down the details. How does this real-time strategy game play?
The economy in Bannermen is extremely streamlined with just two resources to use: gold and wood. By tossing a hapless villager or ten into one of the resource spots they’ll proceed to ferry resources back to the base. Since each resource node has a finite supply expansion is inevitable and this marks the only way in which you can somewhat disrupt an enemy’s supply lines. Raiding a supply base they’ve constructed can bring their economy to a halt, especially if their first base has already run out of resources. In other words, expansion rather than pure defence is encouraged and rewarded. If you can snag the resources around the map you can afford to pump out more and more soldiers, and as I’ll talk about it’s ultimately numbers that tend to win in Bannermen.
You can recruit one of just three heroes to bolster your army; Lord Berrian, Vanya or the evil Karthor himself. These units are powerful and can potentially swing the tide of a battle by themselves, which would be fine except that there’s never any reason to split your forces or to not have your hero in the fight.
In terms of offensive units you four basic ones that form your army; the footmen are the cheapest of the bunch and act like cannon fodder; the archers are pricier but have good range and can garrison archery towers; the spearmen also offer ranged attacks but at a shorter distance, though they can also get up close and personal; and finally the knights are the most expensive unit in the game but can soak up damage as well as dish it out.
Outside of this you have a couple of specialized options. Trebuchets are good at taking down buildings, for example, although your regular troops are pretty good at doing that too. From the same building as the trebuchets convicts can also be produced who are basically suicide bombers whose job is to run toward a group of enemies and explode. Good stuff.
Finally, there are two specialized units that, like your hero, boast specific abilities that can be activated. The jester is all about being a sneaky bugger, with a handy ability that lets him throw a knife at a target, then teleport to said target for a back stab. His role on the battlefield seems to be geared toward targeting an enemy hero or perhaps getting in behind some archers. The other unit is a priest of sorts who boasts a couple of fun powers such as summoning some crows.
With just a single faction in the game and such a small selection of units to play with the combat in Bannermen feels…empty. I’m not sure that Bannermen really knows what it actually wants to be. On the one hand it lacks scale and therefore doesn’t focus on grand strategy, but at the same time there’s really no tactical thinking or micromanagement required, either. There are a few abilities to employ here or there and that’s it. Everything boils down to building some soldiers and hurling them at the enemy en masse.
The anaemic animations and effects don’t help, either. The troops move and attack with all the weight and power of snails engaging in a mild tiff. The mighty knight may wield a hammer, but there’s no sense of impact when he swings it into someone’s face. Indeed, nothing in the game looks particularly good, something which is very noticeable when you get a close-up view of Lord Berrian between campaign missions. There’s a general lack of detail on the character models and the overall aesthetic style is incredibly generic.
Of course, the lacklustre graphics can be simply put down to a tight budget and a small group of developers. What’s harder to understand and to forgive is the user interface. It isn’t bad in any sense; everything can be navigated easily and quickly, even if the lack of descriptions can be annoying in the first hour of play. No, the problem is that it’s just really bloody ugly. It looks more like it was taken out of a crappy game from the 80’s, the simple silver metal look never really gelling with the rest of the game.
A couple of issues with the basic mechanics left me feeling a little frustrating, too. If you order troops to a location in Bannermen the various types will travel at different speeds, so to keep everyone together you need to form them into groups and then spend time micromanaging their movement. There’s no option to put them into formations, either, which would help with both movement and with fighting in general.
Production buildings can only have three things queued up, so if you want your King’s Court to pump out knights you have to keep jumping back to add a couple more to the queue. This adds nothing but pointless micromanagement to the game, although I suppose you could argue that it gives players something to think about during fights.
I would also have liked a little panel in the U.I. for quick selection of the few units who have special abilities. Right now you either have to pick them out in a crowd and try to click on them, or group selecting your army then click on the unit you want from the portraits.
Skirmish mode does chuck in one interesting feature in the form of Creeps. These little pockets of enemies exist solely to act as fodder for your hero so that they can level up. Each pocket of Creeps respawn every minute, so you can just keep going back as a match progresses, with the Creeps getting stronger. It’s a neat little idea clearly inspired by the MOBA genre, but one that I found myself typically forgetting about during matches.
You can also construct special temples on specific areas of the map which grant nature powers, such as a lighting storm. Again, lifeless graphics don’t help much, but these powerful abilities are fun to use and when someone builds a temple all players are given a notification so that they can try to stop it.
Like the campaign A.I. the skirmish computer doesn’t offer much challenge, nor is there any way to select a difficulty. If you want competition you’ll need to head online and fight other people, but the amount of players available is low. If you do get into a game you’ll likely find out that rushing is the primary means of play with people churning out basic footmen and throwing them at the opposition. With a single defensive building available the only counter is to build a crap-load of footmen yourself or perhaps try to pick them off with archers.
The maps you battle on are mostly just serviceable with nothing setting any of them apart visually or mechanically. They’re quite small, offer a few specific routes and for some reason your starting base only ever has a single entry/exit point, which limits tactical choices when it comes to attacking.
Technical problems rear their ugly little heads quite a bit, too. At launch the game had no way of limiting the framerate, so when I first fired Bannermen up my GTX 1080 Ti decided to go full tilt and nearly took off like a helicopter. A v-sync option has since been added, but for me it decided that 120FPS is the target, so in the end I found that forcing v-sync via the Nvidia panel is the best option.
I also had quite a few random crashes, some audio bugs, units getting stuck and the A.I. doing nothing.
However, to the developers credit they’ve been putting out patches consistently and quickly.
I always feel like an utter jerk when I rag on a small indie game like this. But honesty is what I aim for and the honest truth is that Bannermen is an RTS in 2019 that feels and looks like it was ripped directly from the 90’s via a time portal. It offers nothing that hasn’t already been done plenty of times, and done much better. There’s no room for strategical or tactical thinking, the single faction and very small selection of buildings and units means there are no varying play styles, and the campaign is forgettable. It isn’t a terrible game and die-hard fans of the genre might get a little enjoyment out of it, but Bannermen is ultimately dull. Go fire up Total Annihilation and Warcraft III instead.
1.5 out of 5