Dragon Banner takes a while to come into its own. Shoddy audiovisuals and stilted gameplay dominate first impressions, especially during missions where the goal is simply to reach a certain point on the map, cutting your way through enemies alone with the game’s clunky combat mechanics. The story is extremely simplistic, the game lacks a number of quality-of-life features like an autosave, and basic controls and pathfinding easily frustrate.
However, once all the game’s mechanics come into play, and once you’re allowed to tackle strategic problems as you see fit, a more compelling gameplay loop starts to shine through.
- What is Dragon Banner? It’s a building-block-based RTS with some RPG elements. The Skull Queen’s army has all but eradicated the dragons, imposing tyrannical rule over the people. Only Arc, capable of communing with a dragon spirit, can break the power of the Skull Army and usher in a new era of hope and change.
- Reviewed On: PC
- Developer: Soulnata
- Release Date: May 2020
- Website: www.soulnata.com
Rally ‘Round the Flag
The best quests in Dragon Banner task you with breaching an enemy fort and killing all of its defenders. You are free to use all of the various tools at your disposal: spawn miners and villagers to establish a pool of resources, build various objects to develop your infrastructure, then, when you can support them, spawn troops and war machines before taking the fight to the enemy. Sound monotonous? Not necessarily. As the game progresses and you’re given more options in terms of troop composition and equipment, your methodology for tackling a given fort may change significantly.
My typical process is much like the one described above. However, once I unlocked the Assassin unit, I tried out a different approach. While most units require a combination of Gold and Materials to spawn, necessitating the gathering of said resources or the hiring of miners and/or villagers, the Assassin requires gold alone. Seeing this, I decided to hire only a small number of villagers to pump out gold for me. Then I hired a couple Assassins and launched a series of raids throughout the enemy stronghold, carrying off resources to build a cookfire and sustain my health, and to replace any lost units. Soon, my small strike force had exterminated the enemy garrison and claimed victory. Unlike the tedious building and traversal quests, this variance in gameplay feels meaningful and exciting.
These missions are still far from perfect. Unit AI is especially aggravating: if you spawn soldiers right on top of hostiles, they’ll stand there and let the enemy wail on them for a few seconds, which means that many units will die shortly after spawning. But you can’t really spawn them further away either, because there doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to their walking patterns, so they won’t necessarily go fight. Still, when the game finds its rhythm, the effect is oddly hypnotic. Even optimizing the efficiency of your resource production is fun in its own way. When I had created a robust, self-sustaining process, the ringing of the miners’ pickaxes became music to my ears.
Dragon Banner reaches its meridian when the player is given agency to enact a plan of their choosing and see whether it meets with success. For instance, in quests where the goal is to defend the titular Dragon Banner for a period of time, enemy spawning can be disrupted just like it can (and must) be in the sieges. This factor means that you can focus on fortification and defense in depth, or you can sally forth in a daring counterattack, destroying their spawn-points and stemming the tide of foes. And even though timers run a bit long in these defensive missions, both approaches yield their own sense of challenge and satisfaction.
Ahead of its May release, there are already updates and additions planned for Dragon Banner. According to David Fuller, the solo developer behind the game, he’s planning on improving draw distance in-game, adding new units and quests, and new modes, “such as a skirmish mode with randomly generated areas or a fortress mode with persistent fortresses the player can revisit and continually build upon, maybe even share with other players.” This is currently the extent of his post-release content plans, but other changes could be forthcoming depending on player feedback.
Personally, it will be interesting to see whether these new units can have the same transformative impact on gameplay as something like the Assassin. It would be nice to see different strategic options afforded to the player, and additional game modes that emphasize skirmishes and battles over solo missions are a step in the right direction. As it stands, Dragon Banner is a rough, janky experience that shows promise in its core gameplay loop. There’s fun to be had prosecuting a war in this blocky world, but only time will tell if the potential in its RTS mechanics will be fully realized.
You can check out Dragon Banner on Steam.