The Banner Saga is proof that fantastic art and atmospheric music do not a decent game make.
Looking back at the original Kickstarter pledge I’m not sure I particularly have the right to be disappointed in this game. Stoic hit nearly all of their design goals, for all that the Banner Saga is very, very late: the best way I can describe it is as the choose your own adventure segments of King of Dragon Pass (if you haven’t yet played this game go and get it off of GoG and thank me later) mixed with the interesting tactical battle system they trialled in their Factions multiplayer offshoot. The premise of the game is that you’re in charge of a caravan of refugees fleeing from a unstoppable destructive force encroaching on your lands from the north, and that you have to manage supplies, keep morale up, defend the caravan and make key decisions that (in theory) have far-reaching consequences. The supplies are either acquired through events or by buying them whenever you reach a settlement and morale is improved by stopping the caravan and resting; neither of these are particularly deep systems but they do lend your progress (or lack of it) an air of desperation when you run out of food with no idea when you’ll be able to get more and people start dying from starvation. The primary mechanics of the game are the multiple-choice decisions that pop up every now and again and the turn-based tactical combat, but the sad catch is that the combat doesn’t even come close to living up the promising system demonstrated in Factions.
How this happened is a little bit of a puzzler when it’s using exactly the same ruleset (see the preview linked above if you want to know the detail), but I don’t think it works anywhere near as well when applied to a single-player game with repeated battles against an AI opponent. One problem is the extremely limited number of enemy types, which can be boiled down to “big baddies”, “big baddies with shields”, “small baddies” and “archer baddies”. There’s very little progression as you eke your way through the wilderness; you fight the same enemies in the thirtieth battle as you do in the third, and by that point you’ve mastered the tactics required to beat them down a long time ago so that you’re just going through the motions. Battles become unwelcome speedbumps to your progress in the caravan and plot side of things rather than a fun challenge, to be rushed through as quickly as possible with no real thought given to tactics or abilities beyond Swarm Enemy -> Break Armor -> Cripple (second step optional). Because of the weird initiative system that determines turn order – where each side moves a single unit at a time and turns always alternate between players, meaning that if you have two units and they have ten units you get to move each of your guys five times in the time it takes them to cycle through theirs once – it’s always far better to cripple an enemy so that they can do almost no damage instead of finishing them and taking them out of the turn order entirely. What seemed like a unique tactical quirk in multiplayer quickly becomes tedious and rote in single-player, and this is exacerbated by the half-baked War system.
Many of the fights in Banner Saga are scripted affairs involving your named heroes only, but occasionally the entire caravan is called upon to fight – this is ostensibly why it’s important to keep the “Fighters” and “Varl” segments of the caravan population high, although I never had a battle where I didn’t at least equal the enemy force in terms of numbers. Every time your caravan fights you get a multiple-choice popup where you can choose tactics, but whatever you do it always seems best to follow it up by charging in with your best and bravest to personally cleave some skulls in twain, which is done via — *sigh* — an autogenerated combat with exactly the same enemies you fought in the last ten War encounters. There’s not even any thought given to the War combats; the game just dumps you in an arena with some baddies and expects you to have fun.
As you may have gathered, I did not have fun. I had the opposite of fun, to the point where I actively tried to avoid combat if possible, but during the first three hours of the game it’s nothing but combat. Stoic have taken the staggeringly dumb decision to split their narrative into two1, and so the first half of the Banner Saga lurches back and forth between the tales of Rook and Hakon, both of whom end up leading large groups through the frozen wastes. Rook is in charge of the aforementioned caravan of refugees, and his story is interesting and engaging. I have very few complaints about Rook’s share of the plot. Unfortunately the start of the game is weighted far more towards the exploits of Hakon, who is leading an army of varl (read “horned giant”) back to the varl capital city. Because he’s part of an army Hakon’s tale involves far, far more War combats than Rook’s, and Hakon gets almost none of the interesting survival decisions to boot.
I’ll be honest, I nearly gave up on the Banner Saga after hour two, when it seemed like there’d be very few multiple choice events and that the game would just consist of combat after combat after combat. Fortunately it soon came to its senses and solely focused on Rook for the latter half of the game, at which point I started to enjoy myself far more than I had previously, but I still can’t get over the decision to start things off in such a ham-handedly awkward way. The weird thing is that Hakon’s story has almost no effect on Rook’s; some characters appear in both, but aside from some scene setting they’re almost totally independent of one another, and so apart from boring the crap out of me with War combats the only real effect this narrative split had was to prevent me from getting comfortable with one group or the other. When I finally switched back to Rook for the last time I actually had some difficulty remembering who was even in his party and how they’d gotten there, and so I think that breaking up the story like this is a hell of a self-inflicted wound. Maybe they couldn’t find a way to make the combat good in single-player, but the story split was absolutely not necessary; I would have much preferred a six hour game about Rook rather than an eight hour game about Rook and Hakon, and if that’s what I’d gotten I think I’d be a lot more positive about the Banner Saga than I currently am.
That narrative, anyway. Just how much of it is genuinely multiple-choice, and how much of it is a cleverly camouflaged railroad? Past experience has taught me that it can be very difficult to tell without playing through a game more than once. Alpha Protocol is the only one that’s really held up under prolonged scrutiny, and even though the Banner Saga’s low tech interface means that it’s somewhat easier to do branching narrative than it would be for something with full 3D art and animation I suspect it tends more towards the Mass Effect side of the spectrum; you can change how certain non-critical plot points unfold but not where they ultimately go. The choice you do get is very welcome and very good at making it feel like your decisions do matter, and I think in the end that’s what counts. By the end of the game I felt like I’d twisted things enough that it was just as much my story as it was the writers’, largely because I’d screwed up quite badly several times and everyone was dead. I have a sneaking suspicion, though, that a lot of those failure points were hardcoded to happen one way or another and that I was supposed to end the game feeling that way. Is that what the game actually does? Maybe not, but the only way to be sure is to play through it a second time, and given how badly the Banner Saga starts that is the last thing that I want to be doing.
For all the bone-headed design decisions that have been made there are some compensations, however. The music isn’t tremendous since it tends towards atmospheric mood stuff rather than distinct melodies that you can follow, but I’ll never call it anything less than appropriate for what the Banner Saga is trying to do, which is portray the flight of refugees from an unstoppable force pursuing them across a frozen hinterland. That art, though. Usually I wouldn’t use a screenshot that isn’t representative of the actual in-game experience to head up a review, but for the Banner Saga I’ll make an exception because the vast majority of the art is utterly gorgeous. I’m not talking so much about the character portraits and talking heads, since while these are pretty good they also get reused a hell of a lot with palette swaps to represent different characters; however, the parts where your caravan is trekking through a stylised representation of the northern wilderness are nothing short of incredible. The caravan animations suck, but you’re not looking at that, you’re looking at the backgrounds. You can spend a lot of time looking at the backgrounds. And when you reach a point of interest the view will zoom in to a close-up where you can ogle the scenery in fine detail. I’d almost say the Banner Saga is worth buying for its art alone2, since I can guarantee you that you will never see a properly commercial title employing 2D art assets anywhere near as well as they have been here3
That’s only almost, though. The final question, and one that I’m having some trouble coming up with an answer to, is: is the Banner Saga worth buying, period? It’s intensely frustrating at points when it didn’t have to be, and while the setting and story are great the quality of the actual writing is unexpectedly pedestrian. In so far as capturing that King of Dragon Pass feeling of not having absolute control, of only being a leader who can influence people and has to keep them happy, I’d say the Banner Saga does nail that successfully. It’s less than the sum of its parts, though: it has a good combat ruleset that it fails to take advantage of, and a compelling narrative that it’s split into two, and neither element really manages to synergise with the other at any point. I can’t help feeling that if you cut the combat and Hakon’s story from the game entirely you’d end up with a smaller game, but a much higher-quality one. As it is the Banner Saga feels tragically flawed in a way that the games it drew its inspiration from did not; there’s a lot in its that’s good, but because it couldn’t keep its focus the good elements are surrounded by a lot of useless mush. A lot of it may come down to personal taste – I know other people who are playing it and loving it, so my disappointment is by no means universal — but I can’t really recommend it unless you’re really in love with the art or happen to be in the market for an unusual story-driven RPG. Otherwise there’s enough to dislike about it that it falls squarely into “wait for sale” territory; I’m glad the Banner Saga exists but I’m not going to pretend the end result was anywhere near an ideal outcome.
- Last game I played that made this mistake was Total Annihilation: Kingdoms back in 1999, although I’m almost positive that there was something else in between that I’ve burned out of my brain because it was so bad. ↩
- Bizarrely the one place Stoic hasn’t taken advantage of their ability to generate high-quality art assets is during the multiple-choice decisions. King of Dragon Pass and Darklands both had great full-page pieces of static art accompanying each choice illustrating just what the hell you were being asked to decide on. The Banner Saga has jack shit besides text – yet another of the opportunities that it completely fails to capitalise on. ↩
- Or, indeed, employing 2D art assets at all. ↩