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The Banner Saga review for PC

Platform: PC
Publisher: Versus Evil
Developer: Stoic
Medium: Digital
Players: 1
Online: N/A
ESRB: NR

This being the first Kickstarted game I'll ever review, there's a bracing nakedness in the lack of barriers between the audience and artist which casts an air of intimacy over the whole critique.  In no way do I feel that this separates it from any other indie or AAA game I'd likewise be writing about, but it's worth acknowledging that I feel a responsibility of being more careful about what I have to say, namely because I know that it's being read by a handful of guys who worked really hard on bringing a vision to life.  The least that can be done in a review is to be as thoughtful in writing as Kickstarter stuff intends to be in practice.

Anyway, it's really rad of me to pat myself on the back.  Let's get on with this.

The first thing anyone's going to notice about The Banner Saga is that its aesthetics are no longer interpretations of concepts, but simply the art itself, in-engine, with nothing lost in translation. It's a visual treat and we're almost a little bit spoiled by the fact that there are even a few fully-animated cutscenes, considering the exhaustive process of hand-drawn animation.  Instead of risking any half-imagined ideas you have of what that looks like, we'll just leave gifs to speak for themselves.

Banner Saga starts off on a strong note with one of those cool cutscenes and then levels out over the next few hours, as characters are introduced enough to hint at their moral compass.  Clearly the fictional world on display has a lot of backstory, or at least we could be lead to believe so due to subtexts for almost every character interaction.  What's fascinating is how rarely I can recall the game's interest in explaining much about anything before the events taking place in Banner Saga, outside of some rough outlines of who the Dredge are, why everyone hates each other, and that some gods used to be alive.

The last game I remember denying itself the temptation of having characters speak to each other as if there's suddenly an uninformed audience is The Witcher, and that game was about a guy with amnesia.  Writing in games is important to me, which is why bias clouds my judgement over a game's quality– especially when the writing is there to uphold a contrivance for whatever the actually gameplay is doing.

This isn't to say I loathe The Banner Saga's tactical systems, although they managed to confound me for a while.  However, the secret reason to play Banner Saga is to appreciate the detail with which each character's actions are described, and in every small conflict that roots your choices even further in the reality that your decisions – for better or worse – persistently affect your caravan.

The lack of familiarity with this new fiction only further serves to throw us for a loop, eking uncertainty into many of the gut-based responses you'll commit to in a conversation.  It's nerve-wracking at times, and refreshingly unfamiliar its uncaring outcomes.  Just how many refugees are you going to shelter before you get sick of the percentage that turn out to be bandits– leaving you high and dry with a few casualties to boot?

You'll wish for revenge, feel blessed at good fortune, wonder what could have been, and all the while flying by the seat of your pants in a perpetual state of self-doubt.  The Banner Saga doesn't just make you second guess its characters, but pits players against themselves at committing to most decisions.  It's an agonizing feeling at times, but almost a rarity to experience when playing any other video game.  If I could buy this game an ice cream for how much I hated playing it, I'd do that in a heartbeat.

As for combat, the game operates on characters possessing attributes of Strength and Shields – the former being a collective resource which directly connects the damage points you can inflict with the amount of HP you have.  The weaker the soldier, the less harmful.  Shields are a more traditional value, being a straightforward number that determines your level of defense. While these are two separate resources, they can be targeted individually or collectively with special attacks that use Willpower– the wildcard of the bunch.

Willpower points are a multipurpose asset that can be used to extend movement on the map for a tile-per-point, finagle out a couple more points of damage on attacks, or used previously mentioned special abilities which are specific to characters.  They also hold the special talent of being the one thing enemies can't draw out of you in some way, so they're yours alone to waste.

Each battle operates like a game of chess with strings attached, as every moving piece can make combat dynamic to a point of being unpredictable, while still offering endgame opportunities to turn the tables in a moments notice.  Most tacticians will find themselves surgically removing the enemy from the map, or surreptitiously building a domino's finale of unmatched proportions.  Me, personally, I was shit at combat for the first four hours at least.  While battles offer the potential to level up, regain willpower through kills, and sharpen your skills, they were a losing battle for me until I began opening strong on specific enemies with as much added willpower as I could muster to each opening attack.  Bring down the shields, that's what worked for me, only I finally got the hang of Banner Saga's systems fairly late in the game.

This will backfire on players not anticipating the game's demanding incline as enemies grow stronger.  Unlike XCOM or Fire Emblem, losing a battle simply means the story continues with no loss of characters.  The cost of being allowed to continue past a lost battle is instead a more subtle, long term consequence of units failing to achieve kills over time, preventing them from leveling up, and effectively setting players up for repeated failure save for a few gimme's.

While this gradual decline in unit competence is a shared trait between a game like XCOM, what's not so clear is the contingency plan is for players: load an earlier save file or give in and change the difficulty level to get those levels.  Levels, and perks, which don't seem to have nearly the impact in battle that you'd hope they will– or at least are only useful in the rare situation where enemies are lined up just right.

Myself, I'm not sure if the dynamic nature of Banner Saga's combat is inventive or simply experimental, but for the time being, it's at least different.  I also can't tell if there's any scaling going on or if the game just expects a difficulty dial to stand in for more thorough design.  My take is that it's a great starting point for 1v1 tactical gameplay that could use more time in the oven, although other people seem to like it and you may be one of them.

Unfortunately, one of the main elements of a game was what I found most lacking, which is why it's being mentioned only now: the audio. I can't for the life of me remember any track out of this game, and while I like Austin Wintory, medieval stuff has almost never done it for me– this falling prey to that trend. Battle effects likewise fell flat for the most part, although the chunky rumbling of the Dredg has a nice identity, cementing it as the one thing I could identify with this game besides the occasional voiceover. And it's such a great piece of voice acting, too– one which quickly becomes a double-edged when discovering it so rarely appears. This paragraph would be a different story if they'd traded the sparsely strewn gems of music and voicework for the ample amount of serviceable stuff supporting the game.

Despite the fact that the game's battle system never fully clicked for me, I was won over by the well-rounded universe that Stoic has established, providing players a few good reasons to count their lucky stars when training some women later beget archers for combat, or just for having collected some supplies without losing fighters in the process.  Unfortunately, the well-conveyed frustration of surviving the universe Stoic has built is coupled with the actual frustration brought on by the game's battle system. If anything, we now have another target for game writing and visuals.

Grade: B-