Wednesday, 20 August 2014

The Banner Saga

Post-Launch Review
The Banner Saga
Developer: Stoic
Released: January 2014
Played: story complete in 9h:40min


A Kickstarter success now available to the public, The Banner Saga is a tale of vikings, giants, and monsters in a world where the gods and the sun are dead. This strategy game follows two groups of humans and varl in the sparsely populated north. The dredge are forming armies and pushing south, razing settlements as they travel... but even the dredge and their immortal leaders are afraid of something.

At Launch

The Banner Saga received positive reviews, earning average scores of 82%. Reviewers were impressed by the story, the variety of impactful choices, and the combat, art, and music. The most prominent criticism was of a lack of variety in combat, fighting the same enemies on flat empty battlefields for the whole game.

Post Launch

Several patches have been released to fix bugs, adjust game balance, add more save slots, and add new convenience features and language options.

One of the first things you'll notice about The Banner Saga is its excellent art and style. The entire game is hand-drawn and looks like a cartoon from the 1980s. The bright colours and beautiful landscapes create a unique feel for the game, though the Kickstarter budget does show through in dialogue scenes, where character animation exists but is limited to occasional eye movement and hair or clothing briefly fluttering in the wind.

Despite the colour I mentioned, The Banner Saga is relentlessly bleak. Not like a post-apocalyptic everything is awful vibe, but in the sense that the pursuit of the dredge swarms seems tireless, and you're constantly worrying about supplies and morale and knowing that every little incident could be a huge blow to your fragile caravan. Events compound on each other and the situation gets worse and worse. threatening to overwhelm your caravan's meager resources. And the music complements the tone beautifully with a slow, mournful, traditional ballad kind of feel.

Speaking of caravans, I'm impressed with how the game handles long-term travel. Many games are content to fade out and give you a "two weeks later" message, but here every day is a tick off the supply and morale meters, with the possibility of slow starvation if supplies run low. Every single day you'll be faced with at least one incident on the road, and weighing the balance of camping for a morale boost against the expenditure of supplies and time you may not be able to spare.

There are moments of levity and touching personal interactions amid the constant struggle. Hakon's party showcases the political troubles of the world
and is often somewhat dry, but Rook's party holds many characters with interesting histories or relationships. Iver has a (rather shocking) hidden past; Rook struggles over how best to raise and protect his daughter Alette, a highly skilled archer; Oddleif has lost a great deal but still manages to look to the future. These four characters are the core of the game to me, and their stories are usually the most interesting and personal - though it's also quite intriguing to learn about the Menders and the public perception versus their true power.

The actual mechanics of gameplay are rather low pressure, which is nice for a game that can feel so heavy at times. It's split between tactical combat and dialogue / caravan management sections. Dialogue and travel are mostly well written (with a few odd stylistic diversions here and there), though the dialogue and narration are more bits where the relatively low budget shows through: a few short monologues are voiced, but everything else is text-based. You get a lot of information and flexibility this way, which is nice, but it can come as quite a shock to be told about a violent attack and character death in a single short paragraph. On the other hand it does help convey how suddenly a situation can go bad. So I'm a little conflicted there.

Combat is exceedingly well put together. I've played a lot of games where one or more stats can simply be ignored, but this is absolutely not the case in The Banner Saga. Each one of the five character statistics is vital, and it's important to consider everything in combat - but at the same time, the system is very easy to pick up and understand. Every character has a strength and armour value. Strength functions as both health and attack power, and armour reduces damage done to a character's strength. This creates an intriguing balance: you'll want to knock down enemy armour to maximize the damage you deal since many (or most) of your units deal little to no damage through armour, but in many situations you can't afford to wait - an enemy might have so much strength that they can deal severe damage right through your armour. Armour break is another stat, by the way, that dictates how much armour damage you can deal with a single attack.

You've also got willpower and exertion. Willpower points are a limited resource (that refill every fight) that you can spend to augment your attacks or activate special abilities, while exertion determines how many will points you can spend on a single action. Again, this creates dilemmas - do you spend your last will point to finish off an enemy, or will you need to use your special ability next turn? 

One fairly significant flaw in combat is that you can't preview a move + attack range, and you can't take back a move once it's been made. Many times I've moved a character into range only to find out that I was mistaken and they're not in range at all, and at that point it's too late and I've wasted a turn.

That aside, though I had minor complaints about animation, combat animation is pretty great. While there aren't enough frames to provide super smooth animation, the character movements are clear and interesting without being overly showy.

My biggest complaint about The Banner Saga is that it's not a complete story - felt like more of a part one - and this wasn't advertised on the store page. I had to go to Wikipedia to find that it's part one of a planned trilogy. There are many satisfying character arcs and a very strong final boss, but after the final battle the game just ends without resolving any of the major mysteries about the colossal serpent, the end of the world, and the coming darkness that scared the dredge south (highlight for spoilers). But I'm only making this complaint because I enjoyed the game so much and I want to know what happens next!

Recommendation: play it.

I loved this game. The setting, the characters, the music, the visuals, the atmosphere, the choices and non-choices... I even enjoyed the strategy elements and how cleverly they were put together, even though strategy games aren't usually my thing. There are a few small cracks where you can see how the game might have benefited from a larger budget, but overall The Banner Saga is excellent and you should play it.

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