Wot I Think: The Banner Saga

By Adam Smith on January 14th, 2014 at 2:01 pm.

The Banner Saga is a tantalising prospect. An independent release from a small team of former Bioware employees, it promises a rich story, a new world and intricate tactical combat. It also has the most stupendously attractive art I’ve seen in a long time. Impressed by the opening hours, I’ve since spent several days in the game’s icy company, I’ve deliberated long and hard to bring you my final verdict. Here’s wot I think.

A short time past the half-way mark of The Banner Saga’s campaign, one of the few characters willing to offer any exposition asks the party’s current leader, “How well do you know history?”

“We’re from a very small town in the woods”, he replies. Despite the distance travelled, the size of the map and the apparent complexity of the world’s history, the path from that small town to the world’s end (whether place, moment or pub) is related as a series of similar waypoints. If the saga were woven into a banner a thousand feet long, most of the space would be taken up with the same stitched scenes. Battles against the same few enemy types are repeated, if not quite ad nauseum, at least ad queasium.

During The Banner Saga’s campaign there are four types of shot – the attractive isometric battlefields, the handsome and mostly static dialogue scenes, the beautiful settlement views and the gorgeous profiles of the player’s caravan travelling across the world. The unifying quality is the artwork, as may already have been obvious if you’ve seen screenshots and videos of the game.
Almost any still plucked from the game could be mistaken for a cell from an accomplished animated film – the detail and craft of the work is luxurious, and the character and creature designs happily deviate from the usual fantasy RPG fare. Even the finest stitching cannot save an Amazon’s leather thong from ridicule, nor dwarf’s braided beard from the swamp of cliché.

There’s none of that here though. Alongside the men and women of the world, there are Varl and Dredge. The former are immortal horned giants and the Dredge are the Other. While Varl and man live in an uneasy peace, mostly living separately, the Dredge are an occasional blight in the world’s history, an ill-understood invading force of rock-like humanoids, flinty and naturally armoured. They’re the worst noun to pick when playing twenty questions – mineranimals maybe? – and as the campaign plays out, details of their existence are revealed, through historical and personal tales. In the bleached-white days that may be their world’s last, every culture and individual realises its strength and its shame. Everybody’s someone else’s freak.

The Banner Saga’s best moments are in the unpicking of its strange mythology. The lack of immediate exposition threw up a divide between John and me during our preview verdict. I admire the game’s faith in my ability to pick up the pieces of its narrative, which begins in media res and then splinters as new perspectives are introduced. I still find the (few) shifts from one group of protagonists to another uncomfortable but that’s an issue of pacing rather than confusion.

Pleasingly, the confidence I felt in those first few hours was rewarded. The storytelling finds a balance between mystery and meaning, balancing the local family histories emerging from the player’s caravan of refugees with mythological tales of cosmic significance. This is a saga that begins with the sun frozen in the sky and the gods long dead, although the memory of their existence is as real and true for the people of Stoic’s world as the memory of Pulp is to me. Their influence has not yet waned and monuments to their power litter the land.

It’s tremendously exciting, to be shown such a glorious new world to discover, but sadly, the journey becomes a trial long before the end. In tactical RPG fashion, the player is led from one fight to the next, with dialogue scenes breaking up the turn-based combat. There’s a management aspect to the game as well – as the caravan crosses the map, decisions must be made, affecting morale, supplies, relationships, and the number of survivors available. I call them survivors because this isn’t a game about taking the fight to the enemy and leading an army, it’s a game about preservation.

The caravan is made up of refugees and each new settlement that it reaches presents dilemmas. Some people will want to turn you away when you need to restock food supplies, others will want to join, their lands barren, adding the burden of extra mouths to feed. Managing the desperate and the dying certainly makes a change. There are acts of heroism in The Banner Saga and moments of earth-shattering enormity, but it’s the quieter moments that stick with me.

And then there’s the combat. The system is clever, with several tweaks to the usual grid-based biff ‘em up that make the early hours a gripping ride up the learning curve. And then the curve straightens out, but instead of following up with an exciting plunge into new depths or a series of loops and banked turns, The Banner Saga settles into a too-comfortable rhythm.

I readily admit that playing in a few long sessions, as I did, may contribute to the feeling of enduring rather than enjoying the latter half of the game, but even if I’d consumed it in a more piecemeal fashion, the lack of variety would have worn at my patience. Those four shots – the journey, the dialogue, the tactical field, the settlement – cycle with minor changes. The travel scenes are consistently the loveliest images of snow, forest and mountain outside a National Geographic spread, but they’re cutscenes. Stunningly attractive cutscenes, sure, but they’re the moments in between the tactics and the management.

As for the dialogue, it’s well-written and there are distinct voices with their own portions of a wider story to relate. The world-building, following a confused beginning, is superb, and the environments, characters and mythology are so artfully crafted that I wouldn’t advise against a journey through the fading splendour of it all. It’s just that this particular journey becomes something of a slog.

On the map, which is packed with succinct yet detailed lore, each settlement seems unique and each forest, mountain and coastline has something to recommend it to the visitor. However, strip away that flavour text and references in the dialogue, and there’d be very little to differentiate them from one another. Occasionally, when stopping for supplies or conversation, there’ll be a specific hotspot to click, a way to continue the story, but otherwise there’s an upgrade screen, a market and a training ground for mock battles. Like a touring musician, the player swiftly discovers that one town is much like another when reduced to a stage and a hotel room.

Battles are much the same. The limited enemy types and battlefield layouts mean that tactics may take a while to discover but can then be applied again and again. Changes come when a tougher variant of a certain foe is introduced, or a new character joins the party, but the intricate intelligence of the turn-based mechanics aren’t exercised as much as I’d hoped. The clever split between armour and health, and the use of willpower as reward and in-battle currency promise more than they deliver. Perhaps multiplayer brings out the best of the system.

The main tactical consideration in any Banner Saga combat is control of space and awareness of the difference between armour and health. Dredge splinter when they receive a solid blow so an essential tactic when fighting them on all but the easiest difficulty level (can be switched during a playthrough) is to herd them, creating a domino effect. Initial damage should be to their armour rather than their health, as the former is the higher number and reduces damage to the latter. However, chipping away at health reduces the damage that an enemy can inflict and in rare cases it can be helpful to switch a previously successful plan around a little.

Those rare cases are few and far between, however, usually arising as part of battles that are boss fights in all but name. Mostly, there’s a routine exchange of ranged attacks, a manoeuvring into position and then a series of clubbing blows. Aim at the right enemy at the right time and you’ll mostly come out on top without flexing your brain too strenuously.

Preparation is often more important than the battle itself but, again, gear and skill choices are limited. The same currency (renown) is used to raise levels, buy equipment (simple stat-boosting stuff) and secure supplies. On top of that, increases for higher level characters are more expensive than those for lower level characters, meaning there’s an implicit encouragement to lead a party of averages. On medium or hard difficulties, injured warriors suffer a reduction to their stats for several days so cycling the active roster is essential, and that adds tactical depth to the game. It’s punishing, however, to find yourself reliant on a level one eejit during a climactic battle simply because everybody else is hurt and the renown that would have improved his skills was spent on food and equipment.

There are often too many choices that seem somewhat arbitrary and not enough that seem to provide the player with real agency. I eventually found myself leading a band of a hundred people or more across the cracked and frozen remnants of an evaporated lake, with no food or mead to share among them. Every day some would die and morale was rock bottom. But, I the end, none of it seemed to make a difference. We reached the other side and continued on our way.

Occasionally, a fight larger than a skirmish breaks out and your numbers are pitted against those of an enemy. It’s possible to join the fray, in yet another turn-based battle, to tip the tide in your favour. It’s even possible to fight a second turn-based battle when the first is won to protect your soldiers even more. Hours before the end of the game, I was skipping them and taking the losses on the chin simply to avoid repeating the same (or very similar) sessions again and again.

Despite all of my gripes, I enjoyed at least half of my time with The Banner Saga enough to have come away from the experience with fond memories. It’s a shame that where there should be urgency and drama, there is instead an unforgiving slog through a world of fading splendour. I found the hardest difficulty too frustrating but would recommend playing on normal rather than easy – even though there are difficulty spikes, overcoming them brings about a surge of satisfaction that is entirely lacking when every fight is a walkover.

But, good heavens, it’s such a beautiful creation, and what is beautiful in it is often quietly subversive.

The heroes’ journeys in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy are catalogued in a regular series of wide-frame long distance shots. As well as pleasing the New Zealand Tourist Board, the footage of actors and their stand-ins striding across landscapes was short-hand for the days and miles that were passing, demonstrating the commitment and endurance of the Fellowship and, later, its fractured elements. Though they were all reduced to dwarves (and the hobbits and dwarves to baby dwarves) by the mountains that held them, those long shots also served as a reminder of their undertaking and the strength that they required to shoulder it.

In a twisting of a similar perspective, Stoic’s vision reduces those ‘hero shots’ to a rabble led by a fragile banner, carrying families, histories and entire cultures in its wake. Broken carts creak and clatter. It’s a picture of vulnerability and a different kind of strength, and at its best the game is about that as much as it’s about stats and tiles. It’s a shame that, in this instance, the world is more fascinating than the somewhat cumbersome game that inhabits it.

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97 Comments »

  1. Hanban says:

    The combat system is really quite something in the multiplayer version of the game. Can’t wait to try out the game proper when I come home tonight!

    • cherylruddnol says:

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  2. newc0253 says:

    So tell me this, do you think the slog will be lessened if I play this through on the easiest difficulty setting?

    I like the look of this game, I like the concept of this game. I backed this game on Kickstarter. But I don’t have forever to play this game and, from everything I’ve read, I fear I’m gonna fuck up everything because I don’t have a zillion hours to spend on tactics.

    • Adam Smith says:

      I played through twice – second time mostly on easy so I could make different choices without spending as much time – and I reckon it makes it worse in some ways. Takes away almost all the complexity in the battles and they become clickfests with no real thought involved.

      Didn’t lose a single winnable encounter on that playthrough and that’s not just because I knew what was coming.There are also several battles that you CAN lose without the game ending and that’s a good thing, I think.

      I’d say start on normal – you can always change down to easy for a particularly difficult fight and then back up again!

      • Lusketrollet says:

        Didn’t lose a single winnable encounter on that playthrough

        Good. That’s exactly how it should be.

        There are also several battles that you CAN lose without the game ending and that’s a good thing, I think.

        It’s only a good thing if the game doesn’t FORCE you to continue, but gives you the option. I should be allowed to re-try until I win if I want.

        • SanguineAngel says:

          “‘Didn’t lose a single winnable encounter on that playthrough’

          Good. That’s exactly how it should be.”

          I very strongly disagree with that but am interested to hear your reasoning? I have heard plenty of talk over the past few years regarding the design ethos of perfect balance meaning the player should never lose but always feel challenged. For me, this could not be further from the truth.

          • draglikepull says:

            I think the point is not that the player should never lose a winnable battle, but that they should never do so when playing on *easy*. A player who chooses the easiest difficulty level has indicated to the developer that they want an experience that doesn’t challenge them, but that they just want to enjoy the experience. (Generally speaking. There are probably exceptions for some specific games where the challenge is the entire point.)

          • KevinLew says:

            Draglikepull has the most succinct answer, but I’d like to add to it. I’m an old(er) gamer, and it’s getting harder for me to play modern games, but I still think that video games are fun. Here’s my thinking: For single player, story-driven games, there should be no reason to not make the game accessible. If most players can’t get the so-called “good” ending on the easiest difficulty, then you’re just annoying some of your audience.

            I need to emphasize that not every game needs it. Obviously, putting in super-easy mode in games like Super Hexagon or Spelunky sort of defeats the point.

          • Ragnar says:

            I agree with the “never lose, but always feel like you just barely won” idea as ideal design, but regardless of that, if you’ve beaten the game on normal and replay it on easy, the expectation is that you should win every battle. Someone playing on easy is not looking for a challenge, and if easy is challenging to someone who has beaten the game on normal, it will be punishing and frustrating towards someone who hasn’t.

    • skittles says:

      I will just add, since the other commentators seemed to go off topic a bit. The tactical gameplay isn’t the slog, or the difficulty. It is mostly the repetitious nature of the game added with the length, it isn’t a hugely long game, but neither is it particularly short. If your taking your time enjoying it, it will run for around 10+ hours.

      That said I think Adam missed something but not really recognising that this game is a budget game, it isn’t made on a particularly big budget. What they have done with the money here is phenomenal, and I greatly enjoyed my time. Sure some parts were a slog, and I would of preferred more variety. I wasn’t disappointed however because I went in fully expecting the game to be more hamstrung by the budget than it was.

  3. Premium User Badge amateurviking says:

    I guess it was too much to expect Final Fantasy Tactics levels of turn-based tour de forceattude. Ah well. Proud/glad this came out ok overall though. It was one of the first projects I backed on KS. Looking forward to it unlocking this evening.

  4. Premium User Badge Lexx87 says:

    Happy to have backed it for $10, seems worth trying at least.

  5. Premium User Badge Keirley says:

    Roughly how long did the runthrough on Normal take you, Adam? Really interested in trying this out, even if it can drag in places, but don’t want to spend 8 hours slogging through the same stretched-out encounters over and over again.

    • Adam Smith says:

      I think it came in around 14 hours but that’s probably bumped up a couple by down-time when I was tabbed out making notes or working on other things. But that’s not to say it’s 12 hours of slog – I only felt the blunt end of the repetition just over half way through.

      • Premium User Badge Keirley says:

        Ah, that’s a shame. Still interested, and may pick it up eventually, but 12 hours is a long time for me, even if over half of that is full of really good stuff – I’d love a 5-6 hour version of this, with all the guff taken out. That might undermine the game’s ‘desperate struggle to survive’ atmosphere, but I really, really don’t want to wade through multiple hours of repetitive fights.

        From playing Factions a bunch last year it seemed like the mechanics, while very solid in a multiplayer setting, might not be all that rich in a single-player campaign against the computer. I hoped they’d either make the single-layer game quite short, or introduce a load of interesting enemy/battlefield/objective variations to keep things fresh.

      • Cooper says:

        I’ve come to believe that about 4-8 hours is the sweet spot for pretty much every game type. It’s the perfect amount of time to introduce mechanics, get you comfortable with them and then explore some variations on a theme.

        Bar maybe XCOM and CK2 there hasn’t been a single game in the past few years I haven’t reached about 6-8 hours in and felt it couldn’t do with winding up.

        • jrodman says:

          I’m torn. I generally agree with you but I think there’s other interesting designs to be had.
          I’m currently playing Bard’s Tale 3 on the commodore 64, and I’m probably around 35 hours in. My play sessions involve exploring a dungeon or two, and then looking satisfyingly at my mapping handiwork, mulling over my notes, and shutting it down, after around 3 hours of play.

          The game form of meaty exploration could probably still work condensed to half the length (25-30 hours total) but down at 8 hours it cannot.

          —-
          Oh, Euro Truck Simulator 2 also would be silly at 4-8 hours.

  6. shadow9d9 says:

    This was exactly what I expected it to be. Disappointing, but most games of this type end up this way. Blackguards looks better.

    Can’t expect much from anyone related to Bioware, considering they haven’t made something interesting in over a decade.

    • Premium User Badge Lexx87 says:

      Go play Mass Effect

      • DragonOfTime says:

        Don’t you know that a vocal internet group disliking one thing about a series makes the entire series horrible and bad?

        • Lusketrollet says:

          Don’t you know that a vocal internet group disliking one thing about a series makes the entire series horrible and bad?

          Oooh. Aren’t we pissy.

          • Premium User Badge Thurgret says:

            To be fair, there does seem to be a certain strong opinion that sporadically drifts in from certain quarters, decrying the entire Mass Effect series because they didn’t like elements of the third game. Personally, I thought it was packed too full of fanservice, and the ending was kind of wonky, but it was still a damn good game, as was the first one, while number two was downright incredible.

            Dragon Age: Origins is one of my very favourite games, even now. Also, I enjoyed Dragon Age 2, silly enemy spawning system and repetitive maps notwithstanding.

            The Old Republic was kind of naff. Not sure what they were going for, really.

          • The Random One says:

            I find it entirely feasible that one might dislike Mass Effect for reasons other than “the ending ruined it”.

          • Premium User Badge Thurgret says:

            Oh, certainly. While I enjoyed the characters, as well as some of the sub-plots, the stories often left a little to be desired, but that’s often par for the course with games, sadly. I don’t have much to compare the fighting parts to, since I don’t really play many shooters, but I know a lot of people feel there’s room for improvement there, too.

            Also, those barren, empty planets in ME1. Argh. Not that they forced you to go to them, but they felt like a wasted opportunity, I guess?

            Still, I think saying that everything BioWare has turned out since KotOR is bad is somewhat unfair on them.

    • Mokinokaro says:

      Black guards is mediocre in every way unfortunately.

      This at least has a decent plot and art. Blackguard’s only good point is its combat system but even that was made by people who have no idea how to make a decent UI. It’s made for grognards stuck in the 80s.

      • shadow9d9 says:

        These games are pretty much ENTIRELY combat…

        • Mokinokaro says:

          And Blackguard’s combat is still mediocre. It’s just better than the rest of it

          • shadow9d9 says:

            Which of the games would you say have better combat?

          • Mokinokaro says:

            That’s a tough one to decide on actually.

            Banner Saga’s is a heck of a lot more polished and easier to get into currently though also doesn’t add mechanics as the game progresses, unfortunately. It plays pretty similarly from early game to late.

            Blackguard’s combat definitely is a bit deeper, but unfortunately suffers from an extreme lack of polish (and the devs keep adding new story content with updates, showing no interest in improving what they’ve implemented at all:) the UI is very rough, enemy AI is braindead and relies on boosted stats to pose any sort of challenge, and there’s bugs and balance issues all over the place.

            Blackguard’s combat, as I said earlier, reminds me of a very poorly done version of something you’d see in a late 80s or early 90s CRPG. It’s really a shame too as it shows potential IF the devs weren’t extremely stubborn about sticking to some major flaws and not fixing bugs.

          • shadow9d9 says:

            Thanks for the reply. Blackguards is Daedalic’s first non adventure game, so some roughness is to be expected. It also isn’t out yet. When I think Bioware related, I think polished, but generic. We shall see.

  7. Laurentius says:

    I wasn’t interested in this but it looks like a better version of XCOM for me. Repetition ? Hmm that’s the tough call but to me it sounds less like repetition and more like a game you go through a motions ( hey is Bejewled 3repetitive ? I have 50 hours spend playing Diamond Mine ).

    • Cooper says:

      Yes, Bejeweled is repetitive.

      • Laurentius says:

        So is Euro Truck Simulator 2 or any number of other games, thing is I kinda like repetition if it is my kind of repetition. And XCOM wasn’t my kind of repetition especially with whole underdeveloped strategy game build on top and shamless exploitation of clsssic title.

        • Mokinokaro says:

          You old XCOM grognards are ridiculous.

          The new game is good and worthy of the name even if it’s different from the old one. Declassified is the terrible game using the name as a cash in.

          • hamilcarp says:

            I respectfully disagree. I didn’t play the expansion but the base game was not all that great. The combat was oversimplified and the strategic decisions, including research, were linear and inconsequential. It seems to me that the people who enjoyed the reboot have never touched the original.

          • Grygus says:

            Saying that the research is linear, I could see, but research and strategic decisions inconsequential? Now I do not believe you actually played it.

          • Mokinokaro says:

            As someone who has played and enjoyed both versions I think a lot of old XCOM players are blinded by nostalgia.

            The original XCOM has not aged well. The combat system was always a mess and the strategic layer has a UI almost as bad as dwarf fortress.

            We tolerated it because we had to at the time but it was truly awful. Thankfully we do have open XCOM to somewhat fix it.

            I do agree the strategic layer is too simplified in the new one but don’t kid yourselves: the old game only had one real path to victory too. It just obfuscated it better.

            The tactical combat in the new one is far better except for the smaller squad/map size.

            But this has been debated over and over again. Can we just agree they’re both good games but with different design goals?

          • hamilcarp says:

            I recently played through X-COM again and I think it’s stood the test of time. The interface isn’t THAT bad. But that’s just me, I have no problem with DF either. I suppose what I really wanted out of the new XCOM was Silent Storm but with aliens.

          • Laurentius says:

            The point is devs of Banner’s Sage had balls to made their own game to their own vision without riding on others people’s work. Which is still not relevant in this case, thing is despite predefined maps turn base tactical combat in XCOM is quite enjoyable maybe because how sparse such games are these days. But for the life me i can’t bring myself to replay XCOM campaign which is plain horrible, unsatysfying base building, resaerch while hustling for satelites, i would rather play Banner’s Saga type of game or you know just linear of semi-linear chain of missions.

          • Mokinokaro says:

            I’d argue the base building is better than the original because you actually have to make choices instead of just building everything you want at multiple bases. The necessity of the satellite rush is an awful design though (there really should be special missions that pop up in high panic areas that drop it, at least temporarily.)

            That’s really my biggest issue with XCOM classic. That game is extremely easy to break and I’d argue actually easier than the new game since it’s designed around sacrificing a fair number of rookies when the new one pushes for preserving your smaller squad.

            There’s far less of a price to losing most soldiers in UFO Defense which I’ve always seen as a pretty big flaw.

            Silent Storm with aliens, though? That would’ve been awesome (no version of the panzers though. They imbalanced the game.)

  8. Nukies says:

    This game looks really interesting, I’d buy it if it weren’t for two reasons:
    1) No Linux version
    2) These ex-Biowarers are using the Bioware trademarked tactic of offering in-game pre-order bonuses. Not allowing people that purchase the game at a later date access to all content is just … off putting.

    • pepperfez says:

      Could you expand on the pre-order thing? I hadn’t heard anything about it.

      • Premium User Badge Thurgret says:

        There’s some quirky extra character and three pieces of music for those buying the game before release. Also, it’s 20% off.

      • Premium User Badge Illessa says:

        It’s still listed on Steam right now (don’t know how much longer) http://store.steampowered.com/app/237990
        Consists of:
        An extra character
        An item
        Three pieces from the soundtrack

        What I’ve heard from those that have beta tested is that the character is unremarkable and has no impact on the storyline beyond a cutscene when he joins, and that the item isn’t especially different from dozens of others you can pick up over the course of the game, but who knows. I’m not thrilled that it exists but I’ve seen worse.

    • Mokinokaro says:

      There’s some sort of preorder pack but according to my kickstarter email it will be up for purchase.

    • JFS says:

      Oh come on! They really did this? I backed for 50 bucks, most I’ve ever given, and now pre-order scumming…

    • bazbarrett says:

      There is certainly a linux version planned, it’s just not out yet. At least I sincerely hope so as that’s one of the reasons I backed them.

      • Nukies says:

        That is good to hear, but I won’t buy until there is a Linux version actually available… The lack of one now combined with the pre-order crap means I’ll probably wait until it is on sale for a few bucks.

    • somnolentsurfer says:

      Not so bothered about pre-order content when reviews appear while it’s still available.

  9. belgand says:

    Those long shots in Lord of the Rings were also an adaptation of the interminable amount of text that Tolkein devoted to describing the scenery in loving, Dickensian detail. Each sweeping shot of people walking about accounting for probably two pages at least.

    • RProxyOnly says:

      Exactly.

      Tolkien was an English language academic, first and foremost, the books weren’t just stories for his children, they were English lessons too… with the books he was grounding them in the proper use of their language. The books often took extraordinary time to describe the ‘mundane’ (ordinary not boring), there’s a part, (forgive me for not being able to say what page, shame on me) where he takes about a page to describe a tree.

      His use of language was exquisite.

  10. BooleanBob says:

    ” if not quite ad nauseum, at least ad queasium”

    Brilliant!

  11. Jimbo says:

    Staring eyes.

  12. SillyWizard says:

    THE GAME DOESN’T EVEN UNLOCK FOR ANOTHER 15 MINUTES!

    I just came here to say: I am boycotting this WIT until I get my greasy, feverish hands on the game and lovingly coax its entirety into my hungry, hungry soulmaw (or hippo).

    Okay. You may continue.

    • SillyWizard says:

      Okay! I managed to squeeze in about an hour’s play over lunch. I haven’t been this giddy about a game since I can remember!

      Good news: it’s awesome (so far). I’ve yet to really get into the meat of the game, I think, but so far, so good.

      It does seem like the plot suffers from a certain lack of polish. Specifically, there are a number of sudden, awkward transitions that feel like some quick expository scenes are missing. Nothing too major, but it’s a bit jarring.

      Still, I’m enjoying it quite a bit, so far. Stay tuned for more!

  13. MykulJaxin says:

    That lady’s face in the first image never ceases to make me laugh. Can someone provide me with the context for that face?

    • Koozer says:

      I do believe that is the face of someone who has just realised what they have stepped in.

    • azrd79 says:

      That guy’s axe is poking somewhere it shouldn’t?

    • LogicalDash says:

      The notgolem in the background is carrying an elk she shot like five minutes ago, and inspecting the arrow she shot it with. So now it knows there’s an archer nearby. The archer in question is clearly trying to hide, but it does look like combat’s inevitable.

  14. Dominus_Anulorum says:

    By any chance, does this game have a King of Dragon pass fell to it? I have been looking for a similar game to KoDP for ages and this is the first game that looks remotely similar.

  15. hurrakan says:

    This game seems like a “nomadic”, less deep version of King of Dragon Pass. Even the art styles are very similar. If Banner Saga looks interesting to you, check out King of Dragon Pass:

    http://www.gog.com/game/king_of_dragon_pass
    https://itunes.apple.com/gb/app/king-of-dragon-pass/id335545504?mt=8

    I have the PC version which is amazing, but the iPad version has been updated with more events and high resolution graphics.

    • hypercrisis says:

      It doesn’t sound much like KoDP at all. I was hoping it would be, but that level of complexity seems absent.

  16. Moraven says:

    Seems all the mention of XCom is either most PC gamers experience in Tactical RPG is XCom or there just is very few of them on PC.

    I will be playing it and see how it holds up to Final Fantasy Tactics, Tactics Ogre, Disgaea, Luminous Arc, Fire Emblem.

    No mention of comparing it to Shadowrun? Is the XCom comparison there since its a simple enough system but with depth?

    • vecordae says:

      This baffles me as there are plenty of games on the pc with similar tactical combat bits. Fallen Enchantress: Legendary Heroes, Conquistador, and any of the Disciples or Heroes of Might and Magic games spring immediately to mind. Even a few free-to-play games like El Col Tactics and Pirates 101 could draw comparisons and both have reasonable player bases.

      I suspect that XCOM had the twin advantages of having both a relatively modern/sci fi setting and being available on quite a few platforms, which both sets it apart and increases its potential player base. Hrm.

  17. Geebs says:

    Adam, your spellchecker seems to hate Latin.

  18. bongosabbath says:

    AHHH. IAMX. YES. Good music right there. RPS could use a little more IAMX/Sneaker Pimps.

    • Antistar says:

      Yes, nice choice on the IAMX song. Hell, it’s nice to encounter people who’ve even heard of them. Normally I just get blank expressions from people I mention them to.

  19. Berzee says:

    First picture after the break, I thought the man on the right had the largest of chin-beards.

    Sad to hear about the sloggish nature of the battles, but I’m glad to hear at least that the story parts of the game aren’t disappointing — that’s what caught my attention about this, mainly.

  20. Premium User Badge ffordesoon says:

    Isn’t this just the first episode of the game? If that’s the case, repetitive combat doesn’t bother me that much.

  21. Hmm-Hmm. says:

    Just.. er.. one thing. Staring eyes?

    At any rate.. sooooo pretty. Not a fan of the rest, though.

  22. Reapy says:

    It does sound much like what people mentioned in other articles about the game, that the mulitplayer balance test ended them up with too balanced of a game, missing the fun of skills and characters being slightly overpowered or asymmetric to the opponents. In addition the AI will not be able to provide the same level of intricacy and variance that human opponents have to highlight the system in place. Really the multiplayer beta test might have been better as humans vs AI in multiple detached scenarios, even letting people compose some units and combat set ups that are interesting.

    The weaving of an abstract simulation layer into the detailed combat is quite the tricky thing to do correctly and appears they struggled with that as well, not that many can get that right, it is hard to do.

    I guess as expected though that artists will make great art. Really glad the game exists, I hope they revisit it and can tweak and add upon what is already there. The artwork, animations, and structure are very interesting, so I don’t think it would take as much effort to alter it in some capacity to be more engaging a second time around.

    • Moraven says:

      That was a concern I had for a multiplayer first designed combat system. It sad that is how it ended up. Problem for most MMO trying to balance PvE and PvP in the same game. Most of the great tactical RPGs do not have some multiplayer component. They have fun combat, squad development and challenging battle scenarios.

      It would be interesting to see a Total War like feature where a human player can play in place of the AI.

    • Yglorba says:

      I think this hits the nail on the head — balancing a game for multiplayer is a terrible way to design single player.

      If you look at, say, Final Fantasy Tactics (which is probably the pinnacle of this kind of turn-based strategy RPG), a huge amount of the fun came from exploring and discovering broken tactics, playing around with utterly off-the-walls powers like the Calculator, finding weird combinations of abilities and so on. If you try to make a single-player game completely perfectly balanced, you’re going to end up stripping out a lot of what makes it interesting.

      (With multiplayer games it’s different because a lot of what makes the game interesting is expected to come from other players, so it’s more acceptable to have boring skills and items.)

  23. DatonKallandor says:

    “Perhaps multiplayer brings out the best of the system.”
    Or, you know, multiplayer is the REASON the system is so bad in singleplayer. They spent far too much time and work on making a pointless “balanced” multiplayer, they didn’t have any time and money left to make the kind of units you need in a singleplayer game: Imbalanced units. Units that simply don’t work in multiplayer because they would be unfair. Units that require large rule changes on the fly – which don’t work in multiplayer. But they couldn’t make those – because they started with the bland multiplayer and balanced everything around that.

  24. jamienobes says:

    I keep getting really really excited about games, then they get reviews which suggest I’m going to get bored of them. I think I need to take a breather for a bit or something… Space Hulk, Banner Saga… I just hope that Massive Chalice is gonna be a winner. But I’ve followed that since kickstarter so (time followed X excitement induced= disappointment) means that I’ll probably be mortified. Maybe I’ll get super nostalgia love from Wasteland 2. I dare not play it til its ready. Any other awesome TBS on the horizon? Also excited for Mount and Blade 2…

  25. Ur-Quan says:

    Is anyone else disappointed by the combat system?
    Maybe I’m playing the game wrong, but the best strategy seems to be to beat enemies until they are almost dead and then just ignore them. I don’t know but to me that seems extremely silly and unintuitive….

  26. Mhorhe says:

    Rock Paper Shotgun made me excited about Banner Saga, and personally I find (at least so far) that it delivers perfectly. A lot of negativity I’ve seen around here feels completely unjustified.

    For instance, the “issue” (?!) of perspective shifts and “not knowing who YOU are supposed to be” is faintly ridiculous. There’s an exposition where you’re X, and then you alternate between Z and Y. What’s so damn hard about that? Banner Saga is intensely story driven, and this alternation of povs is a technique in fairly intense use in fantasy and scifi (G.R.R Martin, Erikson and Reynolds instantly come to mind).

    Then the “issue” of too balanced a game. That one’s no longer ridiculous, it’s just plain funny.. and also wrong.

    For one, some of the units you use from the get-go in Banner Saga were not available for the longest time in Factions – the Spearmaster, the Hunter, the Warden.

    For another, the gritty hopeless atmosphere of the game would be completely shattered by Falcon Punch attack spectacularity, or neon colored engines of death a la Xcom. Where’s the sense of dread and despair if you know one Varl is going to twirl a stick twice and send 20 Dredge to oblivion in a flash of light and sound?

    For yet another, though, after only a few hours into the game, I have to say there *are* things that I personally find imbalanced, albeit functioning within the grim atmosphere of the game. The Spearmaster’s Impale coupled with the Strongarm’s Battering Ram will take a 16 armor Dredge to 3-4 points of str with contemptous ease and without bothering to chip away at said armor.

    Moreover, things that don’t work against human opponents for obvious reasons become stellar against the AI. The Raidmaster’s limited invulnerability sees wave after wave of Dredge wasting attacks on his shield. The above mentioned 3-4 str points super Dredge kills itself walking back into the fight. Etc etc.

    Simultaneously, it’s not nearly as tactically simplistic as (somewhat) suggested . A staple of multiplayer was bringing a unit down to 1 str, and having your opponent waste turns on an essentially impotent pawn. A monolithic Dredge I’d castrated and proceeded to ignore reduced the armor of my entire party to 30-40 % with a fortuitous positioning and use of its special attack.

    These are, of course, personal opinions and nothing more. Tl dr-ing, this is a damn good game which is not at all brought down by its combat system.

    • Ur-Quan says:

      Well to me the combat system just feels very unintuitive.
      As you already said most of the time the best option is to beat an enemy down to 1 strength and just leave him be.
      And worse: if one of your units is badly injured instead of trying to protect it the better option is actually to just sacrifice it and give all of your other units more turns by doing so.
      And that is my problem with the system: You are doing stuff that goes against any sort of “normal” gaming logic.

      • Mhorhe says:

        Er.. no, actually what I said was that in MULTIPLAYER the best option is to whittle something down to 1 str. While here it’s actually not the recommended course of action because the Dredge specials work just as well with 1 str. – I specifically gave the example of a dude that roflstomped more than 50 % of my party’s armor in one fell swoop, with 1 str.

        Another example is the 1-turn summoning of another dredge, that works just as well from 1 str.

        Also, what are you talking about? Sacrificing one of your units is a definite no-go here. It means that guy is injured for a number of days, and will be severely ineffective the next time you bump into a new batch of enemies.

        One other thing I had forgotten to mention against the “oh, balanced for MP, how boring” thesis: Factions allowed a combination of 2 Varl + 5 humans, regardless of class. The SP version lets you take however many Varl you have/want.. and this is significant, because Varl have a lot more hp/armor and punch than their punier, hornless allies.

      • SillyWizard says:

        It is unintuitive, just like Chess. Like most things worth doing, it requires time to learn the systems.

    • SillyWizard says:

      Thank you for writing this. I’m frankly flabbergasted by the write up.

      (Less so by the naysayers in the comments — since by their own admission, most of them have never actually bothered trying to play the game. Why do that when you can smugly judge something with an ill-formed opinion?)

      Combat
      The combat is exceptionally good. Not since playing the hand-held Fire Emblem games have I had such a compelling tactical single-player gaming experience — the fact that it works so well in multiplayer as well is a testament to its genius.

      I haven’t tried the game on Easy, but the Normal setting is quite challenging for me. I’ve felt like I’ve been holding on by the skin of my teeth essentially from the get-go, which is precisely what the devs were shooting for. And this game takes it to the next level: despite losing several important encounters, my poor desperate caravan is still struggling along — on the edge of starvation, their protectors perpetually wounded.

      It’s intense.

      Story Jump-Cuts
      While I can admit there are some awkwardly sudden transitions (at certain times within one perspective, as well as at the times of some of the jump cuts), for the most part it’s pretty forgivable. (I actually cocked up a pretty important story battle which seems to have confused the game about a certain plot element. I’ll have to try and get it right next time!)

      Frankly, the perspective shifts are one thing that I love about the game. Having simultaneous plot development through the eyes of two far-distant parties — not to mention having to adjust your play-style to suit the strengths of the two parties — is brilliant, and something that gaming needs 1000% more of.

      I must say, I generally hate plot development in games. Stories are trite, tropic, and so safe. The story as it’s told in TBS grips me like an exceptionally compelling novel. It’s not quite George RR Martin, but it absolutely is superior to many sci-fi/fantasy novels I’ve read (particularly recently). I’d say it’s at least on par with the Locke Lamora series or the books by KJ Parker.

      The Slog
      Adam complains of the “feeling of enduring rather than enjoying the latter half of the game….” Again, I’d argue that this is a large part of the the point. I’m about 9 or 10 hours in myself, and it’s exhausting.

      He’s right about your caravan’s population just sort of being a number that doesn’t seem to impact a whole lot, so when a handful of them die here or there (or they start falling in droves as starvation sets in), it’s not as
      impactful as it could be.

      (Quick correction here, though: when things are really shitty, your combat units effectiveness is negatively impacted in the form of a decreased Break stat, I think it’s called. Essentially they’re not as able to over-perform as they normally are. Conversely, if you keep everyone in great spirits, the Break stat increases beyond what would typically be available, accordingly. It can make a massive difference.)

      Still, despite that one element not being as home-hitting as perhaps it could be (though I can’t come up with any suggestions on how to improve it at the moment), I feel extremely invested in my caravan. I have more of a sense of responsibility over their fate and dread about the decisions I make than — I can honestly say this — I’ve ever felt in a video game before.

      Alright. I have to go boot it up again! Can’t help myself!

      • Adam Smith says:

        It’s willpower that morale decreases, aye. And high morale increases it beyond max as well for each character. Good stuff.

        Sorry to gast your flabbers! I actually agree with pretty much everything you’ve said – to an extent. I think the slog is intentional to an extent, as I hope came across in my analysis of the story and situation of the caravan. But I did find myself wanting to skip fights rather than sacrifice time and (possibly) heroes in order to protect my followers. The repetition became draining.

        I’m extremely pleased that people are feeling that level of investment in the characters and caravan though because, as I say above, I think the world-building and writing is top notch. The write-up doesn’t have a binary ‘yay or nay’ focus to it and I reckon I was fair in describing what didn’t work for me in enough detail that people could figure whether it might work for them! Certainly my aim.

        • SillyWizard says:

          Don’t worry: this being the internets, my gasts get flabbered relatively easily. Also, having been fortunate enough to be living in Austin when the Kickstarter took place, I got to meet the Stoic team and have a wonderful time with the community when Factions was in beta. So I’m likely to be more defensive of this project than most!

          About skipping those optional extra combats post-war: I skip them, too! (After an early one when I got my arse handed to me.) With Rook’s caravan, I can justify skipping them because they’re not on a military expedition. They’re scared people just trying to get to safety.

          To be fair: you’re right, the game isn’t perfect. And as you point out, there are some really Good Things going on in it. I’m really looking forward to seeing what difference multiple plays-through make. My maiden voyage here has been brutal, unforgiving, and exhausting. I’m loving every ass-handed-to-me minute of it.

          If I have the same experience every time, I could certainly see the luster wearing off. We’ll see.

          Here’s what I think is so compelling about the game: it has the brutality and unforgiving nature of a roguelike; story-telling that draws me and makes me want to devour the world like little I’ve read since childhood; and the time investment with the characters, coupled with the above, makes this game so much more gripping and impactful than games where you simply restart time and again.

          I can see the game not appealing to many. For me, it’s exactly what I’ve been looking for.

          • Hanban says:

            I feel the same way! And I might be biased because I kickstarted it but I’m so glad I did!

            Mainly it’s just the tone in the game. The very muted sense of weariness as you trudge through the snow. The artwork, music and writing do the game justice in crafting a vivid and somewhat realistic world. I think I spent half an hour just staring at the map and reading all the fluff. Which more games let you immerse yourself so!

        • bledcarrot says:

          Gotta say I find myself agreeing with SillyWizard. I fired up the game last night for a ‘quick go’ and spent 6 hours straight completely immersed. Like you say, Adam, the world is fantastic, the attention to detail that’s been put in to the mythology and history makes it a rich and believable place and the characters benefit from that. I genuinely felt the weight of leadership in my decisions. While I agree that your people are really just a meaningless number, the incentive to protect them and make the right decisions for them actually comes from my engagement with the characters themselves, more so than any engagement with the people, if that makes sense. I think this is where the game’s strength lies. When characters die you mourn them not just because of their Level 4 badassery, but because you knew some of their history, because they brought something to the group and because usually their death itself becomes part of the story.

          With regards to some choices feeling arbitrary, I haven’t found that yet. I’m positive there are many that have been, no doubt, but the game is very successful at making you feel like you could have made other decisions and making you feel like things went a certain way because of your choices, even if they didn’t. A lot of people bang on about real meaningful choice in games, and I agree it can be a wonderful thing, but so too can a game that’s crafted so well that even when it’s leading you down the garden path, so to speak, it makes you feel like you’re the one taking it there, that it could have gone otherwise. Sometimes that’s just as good as meaningful choice. I think Heavy Rain did this really well at times and Banner Saga for me so far has managed to give me that vibe.

          The combat is very well balanced and quite deep compared to some other recent attempts at TBC. It’s no Temple of Elemental Evil, but the simple system it does have makes for some challenging decisions.

          So yeah, like I say, I spent six hours immersed last night. If I can get another four or five hours (including replays, different decisions, etc) I’ll be happy with the price tag. I’m wondering if perhaps playing this for quite some time previously already Adam might have exhausted you a bit? Maybe it took away some of the magic.

  27. Antoran says:

    The more I know about videogames the more nearly all of them seem repetitive, i found the new xcom battles repetitive and slow, too. On low difficulty its boring and on higher you must only go step by step very slowly with your howle team always togehter, in some ways this is boring to.

    So far my impression on xcom
    sadly the banner saga seems to go somewhat in the same direction

    • Krull says:

      Wait, so how long have you played the game ? You need to add that information to your comment next time :)

  28. Krull says:

    I got my hands on it yesterday and game is just.. Beautiful ! Music + Graphics + Very simple but deep tactics combat.. Wow… This release is a must have for every Turn Based Strategy fan out there ! I forced myself to quit after 2 hours because I just want the gameplay to last forever ! :)

  29. msing says:

    Really not my type of game.

    That being said, I love it. I’m usually bored within 5 minutes of this kind of game.
    Great graphics, enjoying the story and interaction, and the fighting (on default difficulty) is challenging. When someone dies permanently I feel the loss and regret.

    My only real gripe is that the characters never die in battles. They’re just out for the round.

    • SillyWizard says:

      Out for the round and weakened for any battles in the near future. Believe me, this can be a big deal.

      The 2nd half of my first play-through was a (seemingly) never-ending up-hill slog through loss after narrow victory after loss. Meanwhile, my caravan was starving because I wasn’t earning enough Renown to acquire the required foodstuffs. A better tactician than myself would have been able to turn the tide of dredge around and come out victorious.

      Alas. All my caravan had was my poor leadership. I learned a number of hard — but valuable — lessons. My second play-through is proceeding much better (so far) — though there has AGAIN been an invaluable ally perma-killed!

      DAMN YOU THE BANNER SAGA! YOU BEAUTIFUL BASTARD!

      • Grayvern says:

        No the renown/ resource scarcity in the latter half of the game is entirely part of the game design as is reducing
        supply granting events.

        It’s also nearly always a mistake to spend renown on supplies as many trail battles will let you get two rests for your characters before the enemies get to them negating morale penalties to starting willpower.

        Having resources to enable resting to recover injuries is almost never needed on trail battles as most are greater than three days apart and most multiple battle story situations are one after the other with no chance to rest anyway.

        In fact the obviousness of the sausage making of game design while playing, not while thinking about it afterwards, annoys me.

  30. Mhorhe says:

    Well just stuck through with it to the (bitter) end..and I must say it is SPLENDID.

    The only thing that marred the experience (slightly) was the abruptness of the ending. I won’t mind that much if there’s an Episode 2. If there isn’t, however, I’ll just hate them forever and ever. Any other grievances are truly tiny and not worth expressing.

    I have only superlatives to throw at them, top to bottom, so I won’t bore anyone with a collection of adjectives. I’ll say one tiny thing on the story – I met a decidedly Red Wedding kind of moment, where one character turned on me, proceeding to kill 2 others and kidnap a third. It’s not *that* bad eventually, but I don’t think I *felt* even the Red Wedding that intensely :)

    A few spoilerish details to help out the future Viking braving Hard difficulty:

    SPOILERS

    SPOILERS

    SPOILERS

    -the Varl King will accept the necessity of breaking the brige if you fight on the bridge 3 times.

    - you can safely invest renown in Rook, Allette, Hakon and Iver. In fact it would be recommended to invest in Rook and Allette who *must* be there at the end of all things, and might make your fight inordinately difficult otherwise.

    -putting points in Break Armor will pay off for the endgame.

    -most of the really good items are level 5, and for me at least there was a dearth of level 4 items (only 1). There are some decent level 3s, too. This is important because spreading your party ranks too widely will result in being unable to use decent artifacts.

    -Renown is precious, hoard it like a miser. No, really.

    Have fun bashing obsidian! Here’s to the sequel! :D

  31. colinmarc says:

    I really liked it. But I agree that I wanted *more* out of the end game. Parts of it just feel a bit thin!

    More conversationy bits in camp would have really filled out the game – you get one per character in the beginning and then basically none after that. Also in the beginning there’s one actually animated cutscene that’s so beautiful and you never get any again (also that I understand, since they must cost a lot to produce).

  32. BaronessSteel says:

    Is it really true that there will be a sequel? As in a real one, not tons of anime-porn-mods??

    ps. Loved this game! Never been more satisfied after feeling doomed and dying before.

  33. Crudzilla says:

    Just wanted to say that this game blew me away.
    I have never felt as emotionally connected to a quest in a video game like I did with Banner Saga.

    I only read this review after finishing the game and wondering why it was languishing in the second page of Steam top sellers when I feel it deserves to be right up there at the top.

    I have to say, I think Adam was a bit narrow minded when it came to the combat. Just because he chose to approach in that way doesn’t mean its formulaic which is how his opinions paint it. I actually played it in a very different way and the changing compositions of the party forced me to change up my tactics.

    I think playing through it a second time on easy may have really had a negative impact on Adam’s review. Of course it would be a boring slog if you have literally just finished playing through the story and know it’s in’s and outs. Especially if you play on easy where I imagine you could sail through on the same repetitive tactics. That would make the combat seem bland and repetitive.

    But that’s not how the game will be experienced by most people and it certainly wasn’t my experience. I like many other posters at the bottom of these comments was spellbound by the game playing through it in 3 long sessions and having to tear myself away after each.

    Is it standard practice to play games over and over on easy difficulty until you are bored with it before writing the review? I can’t think of many games that would stand up under such conditions.

    And that ending, wow. No spoilers but I think it was a brilliant ending to the game while leaving space for the sequel. Something countless other games have failed at so badly. I desperately want to see more of the Banner Saga. I just hope some people will read all the way down here and aren’t put off by the review itself and all the guys chirping in at the top of the comments who haven’t actually played it. This is the kind of game that I feel RPS should putting on a pedestal.

    You were right that it’s beautiful, but that part of the review feels more like damning with faint praise.
    If you read all this and were remotely interested in the game, then I would urge you to buy it. I don’t think many people who play it as intended will be disappointed.

  34. XCrusherX says:

    I really don’t get why people are so excited and blown away by this game. It just feels like a half-hearted Fire Emblem copy that wanted to make something different at all costs and fails on all levels. The only thing that really stuck out was the artwork.

    The game itself, however, makes so many things wrong I found myself wanting to be already done with it. Which aspect exactly should make me excited?

    Combat: As stated in this review, it’s just repetitive and boring. Every stage is exactly the same and there’s no weapon triangle or anything else that mixes things up a bit. Taking health as the damage indicator is also one of the worst design decisions ever, making you leave enemies at low health instead of killing them so that they steal rounds from the strong enemies.

    Characters: Why should I care about what happens to characters who barely said more than 10 sentences? I didn’t care at all if someone died or not, they didn’t concern me much.

    Story: You have to search for interesting parts with a magnifying glass. Very rarely does anything happen that makes you interested and when that happens it’s already over within a few sentences. I get more interesting content between two maps in almost any Fire Emblem title than in the entire game here. Most of the time you just run from A to A (because almost every village and town feels the same!), hear that this place sucks and move to another.

    Decisions: They don’t really matter, which is the worst part to me. They just increase or decrease numbers, even deaths of the oh-so-important companions are only explained within a tiny text box. It’s ridiculous to read how important decisions are in this game and get something like this.

    That was really a waste of money for me. I don’t get how a game like this can get so many positive responses.