The Banner Saga was a game that I’d considered backing on KickStarter but I eventually decided to wait for it to be released. When it did, its reception was decidedly mixed but after checking out its amazing art style I thought I’d give it a whirl. On balance, I have to give it a down vote but it’s a very close thing.
- What I really, really love about this game is its art style. It’s cartoonish without being childish or over the top, retaining plenty of detail without straining the art budget with 3D models. Plus the animations are fantastic to boot. I really want more game developers to use art like this. This is certainly not a game for children, what with its grim and pretty tragic story, yet it doesn’t feel the need to have art that is all dark and gloomy.
- I’m also happy that it uses novel game mechanics that practically no one else does. Finally a game in which getting hurt directly impacts your combat effectiveness! Rules that encourage you to weaken all enemies, starting with the strongest one on the field instead of eliminating the weakest one first! An interesting differentiation of combat roles, i.e. armor breaker, damage dealer, support etc. that is different from the norm! Innovation and willingness to experiment are always worthy of praise.
- That said, I’m not sure that it works out that well in practice. I understand why they made it so that each side always takes turns alternately, but I found it very unintuitive and frustrating. It actually punishes you for killing weak enemies since you’d much rather that they use up the opposing side’s turns instead. Needing to take into account the fixed sequence of all future actions to plan out actions was also very taxing on my brain. I found the tactical battles much more challenging that I’d expected. With so little randomness involved and fixed turn orders, it’s almost like a very elaborate version of chess.
- I’m also upset that the final battle is bullshit level difficult. It could well be that I just suck at it, but I felt that they were really trying to pad out the game’s length by making the key battles really difficult. The battle areas are also all wide, enclosed spaces with no obstacles or features, which makes them boring. Since the battles are the only real gameplay the games has, it’s no wonder that many players complained about them being repetitive.
- Then we come to the real litany of complaints. I really liked the Nordic feel of the world and would have loved to see more of it. But the game is so stingy about doling out details that we’re left mostly in the dark. The only thing we have is an absurdly detailed map that is of absolutely no use because you have no control over your direction of travel anyway. As it is, we start out not knowing anything of where the story is set, who all these characters are, what are the varl and what is the nature of their relationship with men, what are the drudge and so forth. This makes it almost impossible to care about the characters until quite a fair bit into the story. Good worldbuilding but bad storytelling.
- Compound this with how the story picks up and drops characters. If Rook and Alette are the main characters, why the heck did the game start with the varl and Prince Ludin? Why even have more than one caravan in the story? It makes them feel disposable and so you have a hard time caring about them. I know that this game is supposed to only be the first of three parts, but it still felt frustrating that Ludin’s story, among that of many others, never went anywhere. Plus of course, we end the game without really knowing much about what is really going on.
- As mentioned above, not only do you have zero control over the caravan’s route, you also have no means of knowing how many days it will take to get to the next stop where supplies might potentially be available. Between this and the unpredictability of events, the survival of the people in your caravan feels completely arbitrary. Then at the end of it all after you’ve spent an entire game agonizing over whether or not spend more renown on buying food to ensure survival or upgrading your warriors, you learn that how many clansmen survive doesn’t matter at all. Cue forehead-slap.
For all of these reasons while there is a lot that I like about this game, on balance the downsides still outweigh the upsides. It really feels like a game that was rushed out too early with too little content and too little time spent on the caravan management system. I can sympathize with the KickStarter backers who felt cheated by this. Whether or not I buy the sequel will depend on whether or not they fix this system and add enough content.