The Banner Saga – Sorta Review
Posted by varewulf
I had my eye on this for a while. I am of viking heritage, this game is viking-ish. Logical connection, right?
I am at that point where I rarely, if ever, buy games sight-unseen, though. So I investigated. Looked at people playing it. Read up on it. Deliberated. Is this a thing I’d like? And I will in honesty say it wasn’t always a sure thing. The combat system gave me a weird vibe. The choices and dialogue seemed to have a certain vindictive streak about it. People talked of gotcha moments. And yet… I couldn’t deny that I wanted it. I wanted The Banner Saga. So about a week after launch I gave in and bought it.
I do seem to faintly recall the Kickstarter for this. As for remembering why I didn’t back it, if I’d been interested from the outset… I can’t remember. I probably wanted to see what people thought of the finished product. Yeah, let’s just assume I was a discerning consumer.
Stoic Studio are apparently a developer from Texas. Not the people you’d normally expect to make a viking epic. And yet they appear to have done their research. I might even go so far as to call them clever bastards. I especially enjoy that they picked up ‘faen’ as a curseword, and even used it appropriately. And all the names… good job! Both names of characters and places feel authentic, and in the one instance where I thought they’d made a comical error, it turned out that no, they were completely aware of what they were doing.
See, there’s a character named Oddleif. She’s a woman. But the problem is that Oddleif is a distinctly male name. The base Odd is a male name in and of itself, but that doesn’t really have to mean anything, since names here often have a second qualifier that determines if it’s actually a male or female name. Oddrun; Oddveig; Oddlaug; these all become female names because of the suffix. But Leif is both a male name, and male-determining suffix. So I was amused at first, until we had a conversation where she said her father had named her before she was even born, because he had wanted a boy so badly. At which point I went “clever bastards”.
So yes, I quite enjoy the world they’ve made. Norse-inspired, but with its own unique mythology. I like the story. Humans and giant Varl working together. And I came to enjoy the traveling as well, in time. It felt a little weird, if interesting, to begin with. It immediately makes me think of Oregon Trail, a game I have never played, but heard a lot about. The events that happen aren’t random though. They seem to be predetermined, though I assume some of them will change based on the choices you’ve made earlier. And the choices can sometimes be dicks. Gotchas. The game likes to punish you for making bad choices, occasionally by outright murdering one of your characters. “Oh, that’s what you wanna do? Yeah? Well! Sucks to be you, now your best fighter is gone. No, you can’t have him back. Well, you can reload an earlier save, but do you really want to go through all the stuff you had to do to get here between then and now?”
But even with that… I like it. I do wish I maybe got a little more indication of what a choice might result in, because some of the gotchas are right out of the blue. I like making choices that have an impact though. Big or small. And sometimes that impact isn’t felt until way later in the game, at which point I might be furious. Partly at the game, partly at myself. I think I’d quite enjoy a game set in this world, in more peaceful times, where you maybe were just a trade caravan or something, traveling the land, negotiating stuff, maybe doing the odd heroics, and dealing with highwaymen. That sort of stuff.
So after I finished my first playthrough I was immediately tempted to start a second and make other choices. I decided to hold off and digest my experience for a bit though, maybe write this first. Well… I did start my second playthrough before I started writing, but I haven’t gotten very far yet. I suppose it should be noted that you can’t really run several games at once. The auto-saving system will overwrite the old files for the days you were at. So I suppose you can run several, so long as you make sure one is always ahead of the other.
There are several things to monitor while traveling. The most important is probably supplies, which determines how long you can keep the caravan fed. Running out of supplies is not game over, but you will start losing people to starvation. I assume if everyone dies, it might be game over. Things never got quite that dire for me. And in the first few chapters supplies are not really an issue. From Chapter 4 onwards it starts to become a real problem though, especially if you make a lot of poor decisions, like I did. There is also the issue of morale. You need to rest and spend supplies to recover morale, outside of a few encounters that can also affect it. Morale is important for combat. It affects how much Willpower your heroes start with, and how well your ‘army’ does in a large-scale encounter.
I guess this brings me to the least favourite part of the game for me: the combat. It’s not bad. It really isn’t. It just… doesn’t suit me. I prefer my tactical RPGS to either have a set initiative for each unit (though I can’t think of an example off the top of my head), or have everyone on one team move first, and then everyone on the other team after, a la Fire Emblem or XCOM. Here you decide the order of your own team, and then one of yours takes a turn, before one of theirs takes a turn. So there’s a fair bit of strategy in looking at the initiative order, and deciding which of the enemies to kill, and which to just weaken. Because even if you have six heroes, and they have two, they still get to move inbetween each of your guys and might wreak havoc. The only change is that if one team has just one unit left, you enter Pillage Mode in which the whole team gets to move on that one unit.
You might notice some numbers above the heads of the units up there. The red number is strength, which doubles as hit points. If strength reaches zero, that unit goes down. Strength also affects how much damage the unit will do. The blue number is armour. When doing a strength attack, that is weighed against the enemy’s armour, and thus reduced. So you can instead choose to do an armour break, which is based off of a flat stat you can only see in the heroes screen from camp. The yellow number is willpower, which you can use to do special attacks, or to empower your regular attacks.
Your heroes can fall in battle, but they don’t die from that. Dying seems restricted to events and encounters. But if they fall, they become injured, and lose a certain amount of strength that you need to rest in camp to recover from, using precious supplies. Unless you play on Easy, in which case the injury stuff in omitted. So after half a dozen battles, I decided I’d had enough, and put it on Easy. While I felt slightly guilty about it for like 5 minutes, I didn’t feel bad after that.
The combat system has its moments. I won’t deny that. And I guess it’s suited for the small combat arenas. But it still doesn’t quite sit right with me. I wish I could better articulate why, but I just know that I prefer just breezing through it (well, okay, even on Easy it can get tricky at times) and rather focusing on the interesting stuff, like the lore, and the story, and the choices. I find the movement finicky, I get annoyed at the turn order, the Dredge Slingers are the worst (as well as some of the giant Dredge having silly stats), the Varl taking up so much space tends to get in the way more than it’s cool, Dredge Slingers are definitely the worst… I’m sure I could find more nitpicks if I really strained my brains, but it’s not worth it.
On the whole I enjoyed the game more than I was annoyed at it. Since I could make combat a mostly non-issue, and just focus on the things I did enjoy, even when they pulled a dick move on me, I got really into guiding these people through the world. Partially because I just wanted to see more of it. And I will do at least one more playthrough to see how much I can change through the choices. Maybe I’ll be able to keep some people alive. Maybe I’ll get others killed. Either way, I’m interested to see it.
And if you want to see a different take on the game, Jarenth did a write-up on it last week.