Impressions: The Banner Saga’s Single Player Story

By Nathan Grayson on September 5th, 2013 at 9:00 pm.

Multiplayer smart-o-battler The Banner Saga Factions might be out and (mostly) free for all, but even the former BioWare-ites at Stoic will readily admit that it was always a sideshow. The Banner Saga is, at heart, a story and a place. It’s a world in conflict, sure, but pensive Viking biffery is only one piece of a much larger, more varied puzzle. I recently got to spend a few hours with chapter one of the Kickstarter darling’s single-player campaign, and it prompted many thoughts. Here they are, freshly scooped from my brain and dribbled onto a page for your enrichment.

I am not meant to be a leader. In that sense, the main character (of a very large, frequently alternating cast) I played and I had a lot in common. Hakon was an icy mountain of a Varl – and a high-ranking one at that. But he was merely second-in-command, the studded, bone-shattering mail gauntlet to the Varl head, heart, and brain that was Vognir. Hakon knew how to break people, not inspire them.

Shortly into my treacherous trek in Hakon’s shoes, Vognir died. It was a plot-mandated death, but there were no theatrics, no cackling cliché villains or maniacally orchestrated plans to Take Over The Entiiiiiiiire Varl World (Varld). He’d rushed off to stop humanity’s hotheaded prince, Ludin, from getting in over his head with a band of Dredge, Banner Saga’s lumbering oblivion. Now, Vognir had sent plenty of Dredge to scrap heap in his day. They were monstrous, sure, but not unkillable. But this time was different. And it was different because it just… was. He made a mistake, and that was all it took.

This moment was significant for multiple reasons: 1) Because that forced Hakon – aka, me – to start calling the shots. He wasn’t happy about it, but a colossal caravan of Varl, humans, and peasants of all shapes and sizes wasn’t going to lead itself. And 2) Because it drove home a very important point: The Banner Saga’s howling snowscape is not a nice place. Each and every step clomps against emaciated ice. Eventually, inevitably, that ice will shatter – whether you’re the most helpless of villagers or the mightiest of kings. Life is fragile. Make every decision count.

The Banner Saga’s story mode does not feature permadeath. Not as a consequence of normal, no-frills battle, anyway. But I can’t think of a game I’ve played in recent memory where each and every choice I made felt so heavy. I went from telling tiny squads which squares to move to while fighting drunks (that was a fun tutorial) to managing a powder keg caravan of thousands. And if I didn’t keep it all together? If the whole thing went sky high, if I didn’t placate the spoiled human prince, if I didn’t show my Varl legions that I was just as firm yet wise as their old leader, if I didn’t keep our supplies topped off, if I didn’t get rid of the spoiled supplies some grateful merchant accidentally gave us when we saved his life, if I didn’t, if I didn’t, if I didn’t…

Then the ice would break. Characters I came to respect (if not necessarily befriend) would leave or die. Already tenuous Varl-human relations would be ruined. I’d have so much blood on my hands that I’d basically be drowning in the stuff. The Dredge – once scattered and disorganized, now unified for some mysterious purpose, inky lips smacking hungrily for conquest – would follow through with their war effort in earnest, and nobody would be even the slightest bit prepared. Everyone would be sad. No one would love me. The Dredge would hold celebrations to commemorate my cowardice, parades to spit on my banner. They’d tuck their ink blob children in at night with tales of their genocidal extermination of all magnificent viking beards – how it began with mine.

It was basically ultra-high-stakes Oregon Trail. Every few overworld steps brought some new decision, event, or disaster – of which battle was only one. And it wasn’t even close to the worst. It was actually kind of bizarre: I liked a lot of my caravan’s more visible members (many of whom I could converse with when we stopped to camp), but we got along about as well as Oregon Trail and my grades in elementary school computer class. So we’d trade verbal barbs, and oftentimes alliances, supplies, troops, and lives hung in the balance.

And it was frustrating. It was frustrating because I couldn’t be everything for everybody. For every one person I pleased, I pissed off another ten. But keeping people happy and keeping them alive, as it turned out, were two very, very different things. Going off the beaten path to rescue a village from Dredge assault might have sounded like the right thing to do, but was it really? For my steadily dwindling troops? For my tired, hungry peasants? For morale? For the respect of my best fighters? Playing hero, as it turned out, was rarely practical.

I had to deal with everything from unruly, nameless grunt soldiers to a self-described “witch” who spoke exclusively in maddening riddles, but my favorite foil was actually Prince Ludin. He joined my group by (un)happy accident when our purpose was merely to deliver collected taxes back to the Northern King, and he quickly revealed what I thought to be his true colors. Bratty, entitled, reckless. Idiotic. Endless bark with all the bite of a teething jellyfish. I think my group’s wispy haired, hunched yet still towering Varl scribe said it best: “He looks for all the world the sort of boy who grew up pulling the legs from spiders.”

But just when I thought I had him pegged, he surprised me. At the outset of a pivotal battle, he wanted to run off to war and glory. I wanted to send him away altogether – to safety, to stop him from hurting himself or, by proxy, anyone else like he did with Vognir. And of course, because he was the linchpin in the Varl-human alliance. He refused. He wanted to fight for his people. And then – without spoiling anything further – he dropped an ultimatum, and I had to concede the confrontation to his royal obnoxiousness and his snooty, upturned-to-the-point-of-stabbing-god-in-the-eye nose. I wanted to hit him.

The game then proceeded to give me the option to knock him unconscious and send him away. I was really angry. I wanted to. But I realized that it would’ve split my troops, been terrible for the alliance between Varlkind and humanity, and – worst of all – it wouldn’t have made the prince any less correct. Again: frustrating – but in a way that’s sadly absent from most games. Leadership isn’t about coordinating the synchronized march of a thousand lapdog-loyal drones. People have goals and priorities. You might be calling the shots, but that doesn’t mean characters have to listen. Moreover, leadership doesn’t mean you’re implicitly correct. Not by a long shot.

In another instance, I’d just finished up a grueling war campaign when disaster struck. Our most important wagon – the one that contained the money we were delivering to the King – slipped on ice and went careening over a cliff. At the last second, one of my best Varl fighters caught it in a crushing grip (he looked for all the world the sort of Varl who grew up pulling legs from rhinoceroses), but that left him dangling over the hungry mouth of an abyssal ledge. It quickly became apparent that it was either the wagon or his life, and he refused to let go. He was doing his duty, and if he had to die for our cause, then so be it.

But it was just money. This fighter, meanwhile, was a good man and a fantastic combatant on the battlefield. I wasn’t ready to lose him. So – after a quick yet brutal war of words – I ordered him to drop the wagon. He complied, and the wagon splintered against the rocks below. But I saved his life. Hooray! Except that he hated me for it. The Varl prized honor, duty, and bravery over life, so I’d just handed him a fate worse than death. Oof.

The Banner Saga’s approach to its genre, then, is a really, really interesting one. Battles themselves are like ever-evolving chess matches, but the world keeps on turning when you’re not outsmarting and out-smiting living embodiments of darkness. And that ties back into battle in very tangible ways. Party members can and will die or leave if you’re not careful, and sometimes it’s even advantageous to part ways with your best and brightest. For example, at one point I had the option of sending my first spearman back to The Strand, the game’s biggest city. On one hand, I’d have lost a really useful character, but on the other, he would’ve been able to aid and protect refugees – in turn granting me heaps of a stat called Renown, which among other things let me deck my characters out with new skills and abilities.

Battles themselves are still meaty, heavily positioning-based takes on the classic turn-based strategy RPG formula pioneered by games like Tactics Ogre/Final Fantasy Tactics. Basically, if you played F2P multiplayer spinoff The Banner Saga factions, you’ll have a pretty good idea of the nuts and bolts of single-player as well. Battles were tough and the AI rarely pulled punches, but I never felt like the game was being unfair. It does, however, bear mentioning that enemy special abilities weren’t switched on in the build I played, so I can only discern so much.

Single-player battles do have one major twist, though: war. Like its graphically lackluster, egregiously story-less forebear Chess, The Banner Saga’s combat is an abstraction of a much larger conflict – one with numbers that quickly escalate into the thousands. When your caravan comes across potential war scenarios, your conglomerate of nameless, faceless human and Varl fighters joins the fray. If they total out to, say, 700 while the Dredge force you’ve encountered can only manage a paltry, say, 400, then you’ll probably come away with only minor scratches and bruises.

But what if the scales tip in the opposite direction? Well then you can opt to make your party’s personal battle(s) tougher in order to take pressure off your combatants and the icicle-brittle peasants they’ve been charged with protecting. At that point, you pick the Charge option, and then the caravan screen fades into a typical (though again, markedly tougher) tactical battle with a normal party size. If you win, you can opt to fight another battle and leave your troops with a definitive upper hand, or you can cut your (already reduced) losses and call it a day. Bear in mind, however, that damage transfers over, and downed party members stay down. It’s entirely possible that you’ll be too banged up to dredge up more Dredge.

As of now, this is Banner Saga’s solution to the problem of players who easily make mincemeat of AI opponents and then slurp their fingers, hungry for a more substantial meal. It’s an interesting one, but I’m not entirely convinced. Way I see it, that just means skilled players fight two easy battles instead of one. Again, though, the AI often gave me all I could handle (even without access to special skills), so I’m not too worried.

Some players, however, might take issue with Banner Saga’s presentation. Yes, I say this about the game with the eye-searingly gorgeous classic-Disney-level animation. What you have to realize, though, is that Banner Saga is still being made under tremendous budgetary constraints – relatively speaking. Kickstarter was kind to Stoic, but not kind enough for an entire movie’s worth of obsessively crafted animation. Only important scenes, then, get the full Beauty and the Varl treatment. The rest of the story is told through (admittedly very well-written) text accompanied by largely unmoving characters, sound effects, and lavish scenery. It all still looks quite nice, but just be warned that it might not be exactly what you were expecting.

The Banner Saga’s single-player really did impress me, though. It’s still very obviously rough-around-the-edges (and it’s still missing a few of said edges, to boot), but there’s heaps of promise. I felt like an incompetent, indecisive leader every trudging step of the way, and it was magnificent. The Banner Saga’s world is a harsh, frigid place, and its cast of characters are far from simple lockstep lackeys. If you want their respect, you’ll have to earn it. Sometimes that means making tough calls – ugly decisions that’ll twist and writhe around inside your guts for days to come. But that’s leadership for you. It’s not about being loved. You get results, and you worry about popularity contests later.

And in the meantime, you take solace in the fact that at least you have a really, really cool beard.

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53 Comments »

  1. Drinking with Skeletons says:

    So everything in this game, from mechanics to presentation, fits somewhere between Final Fantasy Tactics and Fire Emblem: Awakening?

    ….

    Damn you for kindling this joy in my heart.

    • virginia_robinson01 says:

      I just got paid $7500 working off my computer this month. And if you think that’s cool, my divorced friend has twin toddlers and made over $8k her first month. It feels so good making so much money when other people have to work for so much less. This is what I do… w­w­w.c­n­n­1­3.c­ℴ­m

    • Shawnomatic says:

      Throw in a dash of King of Dragons Pass.

    • antoniodamala says:

      But from what I saw on Factions, the combat had more depth than those two you said. I mean, I love some FFT and FE, but sometimes the dice roll stays in the middle of my strategies too much.

  2. Tei says:

    This is a really, really pretty game. We don’t see many games with handdraw sprites here on the PC.
    I like the idea of some units using more than 1×1 tile size, protecting your weaker units and so on. Looking forward for the singleplayer.

    • Premium User Badge Gap Gen says:

      On that note, cover Rayman Lemons, RPS! It’s amazing. Anyone who doesn’t play it is a loooooser. *puts fingers to forehead in an L-shape*

  3. Otter says:

    Sorry, but the horns growing out of that fellow’s head are eye-searingly silly.

    • Strabo says:

      If by “eye-searingly silly” you mean awesomely metal I agree!

      • Max Planck says:

        If by “awesomely metal” you mean obnoxiously ridiculous, I agree as well.

        • Premium User Badge DrScuttles says:

          It’s interesting in that they manage to go from unintentionally hilarious to kinda working then right back to ridiculous. Maybe they’re compensating for something.
          The rest of the art looks beautiful, though.

  4. Totally heterosexual says:

    Oh god this looks so fucking cooooooool.

  5. Premium User Badge golem09 says:

    Sounds like the game idea I pledged for.

    • Premium User Badge particlese says:

      My thoughts exactly!

      I had actually forgotten just how bleak it’s meant to be*, but it sounds like it will be as interesting as it initially appeared. Meanwhile, the art is still great to look at, and the prospect of more Wintory music is still bouncing excitedly in its chair at the back of my mind.

      *Edit: I only read bits of the article to try to avoid memorable spoilers, but I assume this applies…

  6. TehK says:

    I only read the last paragraph since I’m trying to avoid as much spoilers as possible, but if Mr. Grayson is impressed, they seem to be doing a lot of things right.

    I have to say though, I’m only waiting for the Single Player. Backed it on Kickstarter, but I honestly never had any interest in playing this competitively against other people (although I can understand their reasoning behind Factions). I’m really glad that the campaign seems to turn out very well!

    • Niko says:

      I’m not really a fan of competitive playing either, but have played quite a couple of fights in Tactics – simple because of how good the gameplay feels. Can’t wait for single player.

    • Scurra says:

      Same here – backed the KS, trying to avoid spoilers (haven’t even looked at the “let’s play” videos) and only really interested in the single-player bit: too many unpleasant multiplayer experiences over twenty-odd years have scarred me; it’s a shame when one bad moment wipes out any number of good ones but my multiplayer gaming is now almost entirely face-to-face boardgaming. Players can still be unpleasant jerks but at least they have to do it to your face…

  7. LennyLeonardo says:

    This is looking pretty great. I’d buy it just for the pretty pictures, but it’s nice to hear that the Viking Battlestar thing is fun as well.

    TBS is a TBS.

  8. Premium User Badge TheApologist says:

    This sounds amazing – it stands alone in my list marked ‘day one purchases’.

  9. MasterDex says:

    If this is even half as rewarding and fun to play as War of the Lions, it’ll be fantastic. It’s always puzzled me why turn-based tacticals never really made their way to PC. It seems as if the genre would feel right at home.

    • 65 says:

      You mean like HOMM, Kings Bounty, Jagged Alliance or XCOM?

      • Premium User Badge jrodman says:

        i think RPG-on-squares is a slightly different flavor than those larger scale and squad-based games. The squad stuff isn’t too far off.

        I typically enjoy war of the lions stuff with its open door for silly overlevelling and amusing class combos, while the demanding nature of xcom and laser squad always turned me off.

      • Moraven says:

        HOMM and Kings Bounty are not quite along the same lines.

        Tactical RPGs, while not a ton of release have seen consistent games be released on handhelds and consoles.

        Tactics Ogre and Final Fantasy Tactics (made by the same developers) are the two most notable ones. Fire Emblem has a history as Nintendo’s mainstay. Shinging Force 1-3 are cult classics but sadly never been truly remade (SEGA choosing to develop slightly different RPGs using the Shining name). Sting develops some unique games in Japan. Growlanser has been around awhile. Disgaea and many more.

        You could call Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale in the same category (Playing in real time was death).

  10. twaitsfan says:

    I remember reading somewhere that this is to some degree a new iteration of the little known classic King of Dragon Pass – a really interesting game that came out in the early 90′s. You can pick it up over at gog. If this sounds like something you’d enjoy then check that out too – they now have an ios version.

    One thing though, there are NO battles in KoDP. You send men to battle, but only participate in the planning and an occasional battle text event.

  11. Penguin_Factory says:

    I don’t care how good this actually is, it looks absolutely bloody gorgeous. I will buy it and consume my monitor with me eyes.

  12. wodin says:

    Sounds great.

  13. epmode says:

    I want this game to get all the money. Then we’ll have more games looking like Eyvind Earle’s stuff and the world will be a better place.

    • Didden says:

      Thanks for that heads up, I now realise that Swords and Sorcery also uses his style (another game I instantly liked for its style as well)

  14. somnolentsurfer says:

    Have they given a release timeframe?

  15. S Jay says:

    Can’t wait for it!

  16. Didden says:

    Just love the art style. Will eventually pick it up for that alone, although not normally my sort of thing.

  17. S Jay says:

    Hotline Miami II thread being closed and all: are you going to talk about PAX rape jokes and dickwolves? http://www.wired.com/underwire/2013/09/penny-arcade-expo-dickwolves/?mbid=social11588084

    • qrter says:

      Oh jesus, they dredged that whole miserable story up again? Krahulik just cannot not be a dick.

      • MadTinkerer says:

        sigh The worst part about that story is how it’s been mutated by the Internet into a completely different issue. Not once were rape survivors ever mocked.

        The first cartoon’s punchline was satirizing MMO mechanics by observing that: “Hey, it’s kind of weird how we’re a veritable army of heroes running around and yet we can’t solve anything permanently, in fact I literally can’t save more than five slaves in this quest for a completely arbitrary reason.” There was a “rape survivor” character in that strip, included to exaggeratedly portray the plight of the NPCs, but the humor was not directed at the character. The “rape joke” was there as an exaggeration of how the Evil Villains treat the Helpless Victims in such typical scenarios. If anything, it was the villains who were being mocked, because, gee, raping the slaves is so evil it’s counterproductive and therefore nonsensical and therefore humorous. Refuge in audacity, and it’s not even the main point.

        Which is why in the second strip the two author surrogates are making fun of people who complained about the first strip. The author surrogates don’t seem to understand the complaint, because the complaint is technically not valid. A rape-survivor-character is being portrayed in a strip that was mocking, but that character was not the one being mocked.

        In truth, the real problem here is that both strips are (accidentally) offensive to people who want to help rape survivors, and those are the people who are actually getting offended. The problem is that the issue keeps getting repeated in an incorrect or misunderstood manner. Unfortunately, Jerry and Mike didn’t react to this widespread misunderstanding graciously at first. They were certainly right to complain that their audience hadn’t taken offense at the Fruit Fucker or any number of other arguably more offensive strips until that point. However, even I was immediately uncomfortable with the T shirts because that changed the context of the joke to something that was legitimately offensive.

        But the original problem goes back to people-who-want-to-help-rape-survivors being offended. Because in the first strip, third panel, the final punchline is that the hero comes off as an unhelpful asshole because he’s already helped five slaves and six is just too many. The subtext and main point of the strip being that the game won’t let the player try to help everyone, because then there wouldn’t be slaves for other players to help. It makes sense in a game context, of course, but in a fictional sense it makes the “hero” look like an asshole who is refusing to help a rape victim because

        Now who really takes offense to that? I say it’s people who are sensitive to the issue of rape (whether they encountered it personally or not) who on some level feel guilty for not doing more. In the real world, real people have to live their lives and can’t spend 24/7 being vigilantes who beat the shit out of rapists. But in the game in the strip, that’s exactly what’s happening: the game characters get to run around beating up rapists for loot.However, those characters are being portrayed in the third panel as assholes (because, again, the design of the game is being criticized, not the players or rape victims, and the implied rape itself is exaggeration with the intent of comically criticizing the way villains are written.).

        The whole issue is far more complicated and deeper than people give it credit for, because just the first strip is more complicated and deep than people give it credit for. And it just ticks me off when idiots oversimplify it to “Krahulik mocking rape victims again” when that’s not what happened. Yes, it’s entirely P.A.’s fault that they didn’t realize how bad an idea the T shirts were, and how that changed the context and muddied the issue. But rape victims, specifically, were never mocked at any point. It’s irritating that despite all this public information, so many miss the point (or perhaps some are deliberately misleading because they hate PA for other reasons; it happens) and adopt opinions based on hearsay instead of just paying attention to the information that’s publicly available.

        Did Mike and Jerry mess up? Big time. Is it for the reason(s) stated? Gosh darn it no, you idiots, stop parroting others’ opinions endlessly and pay attention to what’s actually happening.

        EDIT: Also, this article is about the Banner Saga, and has nothing to do P.A., damn you. It’s way too late here and I shouldn’t be typing. Tricked me into late-night-rant-mode again…

        • Premium User Badge jrodman says:

          I think the joke can be summed up more briefly:
          It’s absurdity.

        • S Jay says:

          I understand both yours and the point of view in the article I linked.

          If I have the creative power and influence that PA guys have, I imagine I would react differently though. I guess when you have such influence you need to think a bit critically. This is leadership in fact. I mean, maybe calling someone “bald” is not offensive to me, but it is to others. if some people get really really pissed by being called “bald”, would you keep calling the person bald because you think it is not offensive? I wouldn’t, and that is a bit of what PA folks did: “lol, come on, this is not offensive, let’s create a t-shirt saying I am from team rape”.

          Not cool.

          • Premium User Badge jrodman says:

            Humor is often offensive.
            Saying it failed because it is offensive is quite wide of the mark.

            In fact the comic strip is STILL HILARIOUS and not actually offensive.

            The problem was that instead of either ignoring the complaints (reasonable), or explaining “hey, we agree with the points you’re making except they’re ENTIRELY IRRELEVANT” which is true, they acted in a gamesmanship of tastelessness, running the issue into the ground, which was not funny in any respect except for possibly pure mockery. The cleverness quotient was exhausted and the boorishness level was raised to 11.

            The weird part is this is NORMAL for penny arcade. The dickwolves comic was the rare outlier of true brilliance. So what people got really offended at them for was the status quo. Which is kind of bizarre.

          • Bhazor says:

            I consider Penny Arcade as a comic utterly mediocre and constantly question the reason so many people pay attention to it. But that Dick Wolf comic was great.

            As they said afterwards they have made far more “offensive” comics (often about rape) that no one ever noticed. So yeah. I have no idea why people keep getting surprised when a gross out webcomic grosses someone out.

          • Jenks says:

            The tumblr army and progressive video game blogosphere joined forces on this one, that’s why.

            If something others found funny set off a traumatic event from my past, I’d click past and not think of it again. It’s pretty telling that they’re still railing against it years later.

  18. RProxyOnly says:

    Hahahah.. RPS have instituted a ‘feature’ that certain people can’t comment on certain stories… LMAO.

    That’s quite cowardly.. why bring up the topics in the first place if they can’t handle all the views?, even the one’s they don’t like.. Seems like they want to control the discussion/answers.. which defeats the whole point of allowing commenting on it in the first place.

    Granted they state they don’t have a ‘freedom of speech’ policy, which is a cop out in itself..but doing it this way is dumb, dumb, dumb.

    IT’S WORDS ON A PAGE PEOPLE.. NOT WHOLESALE SLAUGHTER.

    • qrter says:

      I think they’re perfectly able to handle all views, it tends to be the way those views are stated, that irks.

      And as you say, they do tell you upfront that freedom of speech as an ideal does not apply to their site’s comments. Saying that’s ‘a cop out in itself’ doesn’t negate that you have been fairly warned – saying it’s ‘a cop out in itself’, is in fact, a bit of a copout in itself.

      • MadTinkerer says:

        Freedom of Speech also only has to do with government censorship. Complaining about individuals or corporations doing the same on their own websites is (deliberately?) misunderstanding what FoS means.

    • Bhazor says:

      They can’t even prevent the repeated daily spam waves. Now they’re announcing “Hey trolls, please stop trolling us, we’re getting very upset.”

      This will end well.

  19. Chalk says:

    BUT HOW do we get this game?

    And when is it released?!

  20. Tyrmot says:

    Very annoyed I somehow missed the kickstarter for this, but will be picking it up on day 1 – can’t wait.

  21. Bhazor says:

    Awesome, been looking forward to this.

  22. King in Winter says:

    Sounds like my KS pledge money was well spent, then. I’m all for FFT/Ogre Battle turn-based goodness.

  23. jwfiore says:

    Nathan, I just want to note that I feel like your writing has come a long way since you started contributing to RPS. It no longer feels like you’re trying too hard to be clever, and reads much more naturally. You have some great insights here!

  24. toasthaste says:

    This sounds like everything I’ve been hoping for, and then some. I didn’t kickstart the game but whew I will definitely be picking it up when it launches.