The Banner Saga - Review  

Splendid Desolation
by Zach Welhouse

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Less than 20 Hours
+ Challenging moral decisions
+ Beautiful presentation
+ Deep, atmospheric story
- Discrepancies between text and game
- Lackluster mass combat
- Abrupt ending
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   Most games these days are designed to be won; The Banner Saga is meant to be survived. Anything more would be a mockery of the Viking apocalypse suffered by its characters. The atmosphere of Stoic Studios' first title is so evocative of desolation and despair that succeeding too grandly feels like a betrayal of the twilight sagas. With the gods dead and the sun stalled in the sky, humans and giants work together to eke out a shattered existence. The arrival of an ancient enemy throws the tenuous balance into question and sends desperate warrior caravans across the hostile landscape. The displaced and hopeful follow in their wake, scraping together what lives they can. The leaders of these caravans are forced to make difficult decisions, by which their followers live and die.

   The point of view shifts several times throughout The Banner Saga, demonstrating the dire straits in which both humans and giants find themselves. However, in spite of the multiple views, so much about what's really happening remains unknown. Each caravan meets many people, most of whom have an angle for survival. Figuring out who can be trusted is one of the great challenges of the game, and also one of its greatest pleasures. It's easy to be trustworthy when supplies are high and no one's laid low by crippling wounds. Righteousness is more difficult to come by when the gods are dead, the horizon is alight with burning villages, and taking on new allies means condemning others to slow starvation.

   Despite the pervasive apocalypse, not all is lost. Stoic has done admirably at focusing on the personal stories at the epic's core. The key characters' motivations are well-explained, and their mysteries reveal themselves at an appropriate pace. Even when all seems lost, moments of heroism, compassion, and courage keep the narrative of doom from becoming crushing. The ending, such that it is, is powerful. Unfortunately, it is abrupt. Future chapters of the saga have already burdened themselves with the hype from the first installment's unanswered questions. With luck, these answers will include more measured copy editing. Typos gnaw at the saga's immersion. Most notably, event text frequently refers to characters or supplies that aren't in the active party.

   Everything looks and sounds amazing. Character designs are rich and colorful, and their animation is like something from out of a lost 80s classic. The visuals scale impressively, handling great crumbling monuments and fierce monsters as well as delicate human gestures. The deliberate staging extends to travel scenes where no actions are allowed. Watching the caravan struggle through the landscape to deep chants and mournful horn movements offers counterpoint to moments of blood and steel. These contrasts demonstrate relatable smallness against the enormity of the end. Occasionally animations look uncanny against their backgrounds, but the characters are nuanced enough that the strangeness almost feels like a stylistic choice. The music is professionally orchestrated, and would stand out as a compliment to the mood no matter what medium it accompanied.

Cutscenes show the full majesty of those horns. Cutscenes show the full majesty of those horns.

   Whereas The Banner Saga's story and sensory appeals are difficult to critique without gushing, its mechanics are more controversial. Combat has many quirks that may seem counter-intuitive to SRPG players. However, learning the ins and outs of the system can be an enjoyable puzzle. Battle takes place on a flat grid. Up to six plot-relevant allies, drawn from a frequently shifting pool, face off against a potentially frightening number of enemies. Battle proceeds in alternative rounds, with one member of the enemy force getting a turn for every allied turn. As a result, keeping weakened enemies alive is often an effective tactic. Hit points double as a character's damage capacity, so getting the enemy to waste a turn commanding a shattered unit can delay a stronger unit's attack. In addition to hit points/strength, each unit has armor. Armor can be depleted like strength; the less armor a target has, the easier it is to wound. It can be tempting to go right for an enemy's strength to limit its damage-causing potential; however, without a solid whack to the armor first, only the heartiest blows are going to deal substantial damage.

   Managing each character's reserve of willpower and exertion--the amount of willpower that can be spent in a turn--draws the resource conservation elements from the rest of the game into battle. Every enemy killed provides bonus willpower that can be distributed to any character, allowing momentum to build from a victorious thrust. Racking up death willpower isn't always a strong enough incentive to overcome the strangeness of alternating combat rounds, but it helps. If the battle quirks get too unmanageable, it's possible to dial the difficulty down from hard or normal to easy.

   Despite its enjoyable features, not every desperately calculated moment of battle is joyous. Many battles begin with a large-scale conflict, which pits the caravan's rank-and-file soldiers against enemy hordes. The formation options in this system don't feel as strongly tied as they could be to the skirmishes that follow. Most battlefields are devoid of terrain, and facing doesn't matter. As a result, character placement, willpower expenditure, and party composition become the major tactical elements. As fun as the battles are, many of them feel the same; a winning strategy in one battle will continue to serve the next time around. This issue is compounded by the limited number of enemy types. As splendid as they look, they aren't much for variety. Hopefully the later chapters of the saga show greater variety to further differentiate battles from one another.

   The sole currency for preparing for battle is renown. When all is lost, only a man's observed actions are important. Renown is used on stat-boosting treasure, character advancement, and purchasing supplies for the caravan. Focusing on any of these areas limits growth in the others, and doing everything is impossible. Keeping a trailing column of peasants fed is an admirable goal, but it becomes difficult to justify when contrasted with clicking the button that increases an ally's armor break ability. The choice is further complicated by the knowledge many more could die if the warriors aren't kept strong.

Battlefields are evocative, flat. Battlefields are evocative, flat.

   Playing The Banner Saga as a standard game of optimization and the greatest possible success may lead to disappointment. Trusting the crazy-eyed wanderer who smells of stale mead could be the best decision you make all week, or it could lead to a knife in your back. Rolling with the punches and accepting the permanent death of a favored ally (never in battle—battle only leaves scars) adds texture to the banner of a doomed people. Some choices are mechanically better than others, causing the more damaging answers to become less interesting during multiple replays. Certain tricks will only be novel the first time around, while others allow more strategic calculation. Playing through the game with the decision to live with the consequences can be frightening, but it's also liberating. Flying blind and being held responsible shares the protagonists' dilemmas. Justifying a heroic action is easy when a little meter with a smiley face goes up. The Banner Saga offers no such support. Letting allies die to uphold noble ideals means you're going to have to carry that weight. Or revert to an earlier autosave.

   All saves are autosaves, and are made at predetermined checkpoints. There's no indication when these saves occur, except manually checking the Load menu. Attempting the old Choose Your Own Adventure trick of sticking a bookmark in at a difficult decision point isn't so easy here. Loading a save to choose a new answer may require fighting several battles again. On the plus side, the game is short enough to invite multiple replays. Although the central narrative is the same every time, choices made along the way lead to different side paths and party composition. Simple, split-second decisions can lead to significant consequences.

   Stoic Studios have set themselves up with a difficult act to follow. The Banner Saga is a rare game that forces its player to think and feel, often in delightful opposition. Its subsystems combine to support the narrative of desperate heroism, hard choices, and survival. Like the doomed giants who fight its battles, The Banner Saga is powerful, thoughtful, and worthwhile. Recapturing this winning combination is going to be risky. When a game is so precariously excellent, a wiggle either way in the sequel could spoil the formula that made the first so magical. Regardless of whether future installments stand or fall, The Banner Saga has done its duty. It may not always give gamers what they want, but it gives them what they need: challenging questions, tactical gameplay, and a strong, fully realized atmosphere.

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