The Banner Saga
The Good: Lovely graphics and music. Interesting mix of RPG and turn-based strategy elements.
The Bad: That turns out kind of thin on both the RPG and strategy elements.
The Ugly: Boy this game involves a lot of traveling.
In the ever-expanding roster of games which attempt to mix genres to create new hybrid playing experiences, The Banner Saga (which I plan to type out and avoid the unfortunate abbreviation BS) is an old-school, Viking-flavored, turn-based strategy game with some RPG bits included. The result is one of the most peculiar gaming experiences in recent memory, some pieces of which work, many more which don’t, and yet others that just leave me scratching my head. I think more than anything else, the turn-based combat of Banner Saga suffers from an unavoidable comparison (at least in my head) to XCOM: Enemy Within, and for people looking for anything like that level of strategy, well, you’re going to be disappointed. Equally, people hoping for an expansive RPG experience are going to find it lacking. So Banner Saga is a hybrid genre that fails to really check either box successfully.
The story of Banner Saga is pretty interesting: in the distant past there were these bad guys called The Dredge who killed off the gods (not quite clear about how they did that), but were ultimately defeated by a race of horned giants known as the Vlar, in an alliance with a race of humans known as the humans. Many years have passed, the humans and Vlar living in uneasy peace, when the Dredge make a new appearance, which is where the game starts. Oh, and did I mention that the sun has for some reason stopped in the sky, dooming the world to a hell of perpetual twilight? The story is told from multiple points of view, both human and Vlar, and how it works is you have a (mostly) decision-tree-less discussion with another character, but at some point are given a conversational choice through a menu. How you answer I understand directs the outcome of the game, and some of the choices are clearly logical or ethical. For many others, however, I would have to say that you don’t have enough information to make the decision either logically or ethically and many seem to have an almost Faster than Light randomness about them. Do I approach that distant campfire as if they are the enemy (in which case I might start a fight I don’t need to) or as a friend (in which case they might attack me without warning)? Do I trust this character that I know almost nothing about? How do I deal with the town drunk? Do I bargain with this merchant delegation with compromise or threats? Do I head to this city where Drudge have been sighted, or that one where Drudge have been sighted? Insufficient information. I’m just flipping coins and randomly clicking responses. The flow of the story is further hampered by the multiple points of view, because I figure to play the Vlar like headcrackers, a race that settles differences with alpha male behavior, while the humans I play as more democratic and diplomatic, but with the constant jumping back and forth I often find myself losing my motivations and I don’t end up caring about any of these characters. This is too bad, really, because as you start to dig into it, the story does go somewhere, but it takes a lot of work on the part of the player to get there.
Ultimately your choices are going to lead you into combat. A lot of this game is about combat. You select a subset (up to six) of your “heroes” to move onto the field of battle. This is a small area, very small, like phone booth small; most characters can cross the entire field in just three or four moves. Because the field is so small, some of the typical tactics like focusing your attacks on a single unit or trying to split up your enemies don’t work all that well and combat devolves into a mash up. The range of ranged units is for the most part quite short. This combined with the small field means that archers and the like often end up in melee combat where they get clouted. Combat as I’ve said is turn-based, one of your units moves, then one of the enemy’s. In a combat with ten or more units, any given unit spends a great deal of time idle (heck, they could be knocked out before they even get a move), though you can choose the move order among your units prior to combat. Also, if, for whatever reason, you decide to have a unit pass on its turn, it doesn’t get the opportunity to use that action at a later time – that turn is just lost.
Mathematically combat is quite simple. Your damage (which is based on your strength) minus their armor is the number of the damage points you cause. For those of you who can’t handle the math, the game calculates it for you prior to making the hit. There’s no probability of hit; the hit is guaranteed (though very wounded characters may have their attack deflected, and there is a probability for that). You can also direct your attack against a unit’s armor, making the next hit do more damage. Damage points go against an opponent’s strength, so as units are injured they in turn do less damage in combat. When they run out of strength points, a unit falls unconscious for the remainder of the battle. This sort of drives you to try and weaken an opponent’s entire force rather than concentrate on individual units to knock them out. Finally, you can opt to add points of willpower to your attack to do extra points of damage, but willpower is a finite resource in combat, so use it sparingly. All of this together results in combat that is fairly pat. You know your opponent’s hit points before you swing, and how much damage you will do, so the outcome is almost a given. Superior strategy is not going to win out with a weak set of heroes. Despite all of that, I must confess that I felt the combat portion of the game still somewhat addictive.
Killing opponents rewards experience to the unit that gets the kill; units that assist it earn nothing. So it’s pretty easy to end up with a spread of very high-level units who do all the killing teamed with lesser units who do very little except for get knocked unconscious a lot and make very little level progress. I had this same complaint with XCOM, by the way. Killing opponents and doing good deeds and such also earns you Renown. Renown in an odd way is this game’s all-purpose currency. You buy supplies using Renown, and pay for units to gain stats when they level up, and you can use it to buy magical items. If you want to buy that trinket of protection, you may not be able to afford to level up your heroes, or be able to purchase enough supplies to keep your caravan from starving on the way to the next town. Much of the game’s strategy, especially in later chapters, lies in your use of Renown. Leveling up itself is a grossly simplistic affair, as all you do is distribute two points among your statistics (strength, armor, willpower, etc). There are some special attacks in the game, but you don’t get to select those or level them up as you would like – they’re part of the character when they are generated, which is another activity you don’t have any control over, and they level up automatically.
The game has a nice regional map full of cities and interesting features, but you get darned little input into where you want to travel. The plot train is on the rails, and your destination, beyond some small decision points, is fixed. And speaking of rails, when you leave a city or break camp, you end up on a side view of the terrain which your caravan /army then marches across. It has a certain bizarre Monty Python animation flavor, this whole line of intricately drawn but very minimally animated soldiers traipsing along hills and dales. You can’t speed it up or skip it. Along the way occasionally you’ll get a popup telling you of some event (Hey! One of my oxen and the supply wagon attached to it fell off a cliff! or Yuk! My solders have dysentery!), most of which result in you making some decision, and some of which lead to combat. But beyond those events, it’s just a whole lot of sit back and watch the traipsing, and some of the cities are pretty far apart, so you could be watching it for some time. Did anyone playtest this thing and feel that was a good idea?
And speaking of bad ideas, you’re marching along with this whole army, and sometimes you come across a whole enemy army. A ridiculous popup informs you that they have, for example, 853 fighters, which is some mighty fine and speedy reconnaissance, and you know how many you have. The game allows you to have the outcome calculated for you at the click of a button, but warns you that the outcome may result in greater unit losses than you would have if you played through it (hint: it will). So if you decide to play through it, it becomes the exact same thing as regular combat, with some group of your heroes going up against a number of enemy units. How well you win that exchange then translates through to how many units your whole army loses. Either way, it’s grossly unsatisfying, and it makes me wonder why they chose to include whole-army engagements in the first place.
Despite some pretty nicely drawn units and characters, gameplay in The Banner Saga is disappointing. The strategic combat component lacks intricate strategy, the branching points of the story seem superficial and you have to make many apparently branching decisions more or less at random, and the RPG elements are as thin as I’ve seen since Wizardry 1 back in the early 1980’s. I could further go on and complain that even simple things, like buying supplies, are needlessly complicated because you don’t know how far it is, how many days travel, to the next town, so you can’t tell how many you’ll need, but you certainly don’t want to spend Renown if you don’t have to. Or how random events can shower you with Renoun or pay out a paltry amount, seemingly in no relationship whatsoever to how complex, important, or difficult the event. Or how the save game points just seem to occur whenever, without reason, and without even notification that it has happened. But I think you get the idea. While I applaud their artists and music, The Banner Saga has very little else to cheer about.
Reviewed By: Phil Soletsky
Publisher: Stoic Studio
This review is based on a digital copy of The Banner Saga for the PC provided by Stoic Studio.