The RPS Verdict: The Banner Saga

By Alec Meer on January 21st, 2014 at 7:00 pm.

Separated from all else by a great storm that ripped the land asunder, Alec and Adam huddle on a fragile, knife-shaped peninsula to watch the world freeze and die. They dream of old gods, they think of roads not taken, they mourn for the lost. And they have a right old natter about Stoic’s recently released, uncommonly beautiful, Viking-inspired roleplaying/strategy/giants’n’conversation game The Banner Saga.

Alec: Well then, The Banner Saga. It’s the tale of what happened when an unlucky scientist got caught in the explosion of a gamma bomb.

Adam: Ha ha. Very astute. He turned into a big chap with horns and then…events occurred.

Alec: He smashed the very sun, plunging the whole world into ice.

Adam: But what IS The Banner Saga about? I claimed it was about refugees rather than war, which I think is sort of correct. The pursuit, the constant threat of decline and need for shelter. It’s a game about running away from overwhelming forces. Or is it?
Alec: Well, this raises probably the central issue, which we’ll get to later no doubt, which is that it’s trying to be simultaneously a game about a colossal war at the end of the world and The Walking Dead. It’s the latter that’s the strongest, the refugee tale filled with difficult decisions and terrible consequences. The threat of running out of food or a safe place to stay feels much more pressing and motivating than winning a fight ever does.

Adam: Agreed. And the fact that the story can continue when a fight is lost is wonderful. It (almost) eliminates the quickload reflex, at least for those willing to engage on that level.

Alec: tell you what though, I find it jarring that when your guys get ‘killed’ in combat they’re not dead, as they are if something unfortunate happens in the roleplaying bits. I’d love it if the narrative adjusted to reflect casualties, but it’d be a nightmarish balance job for the devs.

Adam: The fact that there are story branches and characters that only exist because of failures does seem at odds with the fact that death isn’t death. Unless it was foretold by the writers. It’s somewhere in the middle – it has its ‘DEATH HAS CONSEQUENCES’ cake but it’s taken a big bite out of it.

Alec: But given an important character can be killed by falling off a cliff in dialogue but not by being chopped in the head by a stone sword, it does often feel as though two entirely different games have been welded together. And the seams aren’t all that neat, I tell you. I think I’d have almost preferred it if it was two different games The Banner Saga, the interactive fictiony thing with the most lovely art I might ever have seen, and The Banner Saga Battles to see your chaps in action if you wished.

Adam: That is at the core of my problem with the game. I’d expected it to take more from King of Dragon Pass and while I quickly accepted that wasn’t the case, I still think that the supply and personnel management side of things, with the story decisions attached, felt like a bit of a game that had been attached to the Banner Saga: Factions combat engine.

Alec: Indeed. Though I’d have liked them to have fleshed out the supply/personnel aspect more, and gone Full Oregon Trail.

Adam: It doesn’t MEAN enough. We’re told that people are dying, that the WORLD is dying, but when my caravan starved, I had less willpower to use in battle and skirmishes tested my patience more. It was an annoyance rather than a tragedy.

Alec: and the battles are pretty annoying as it is . Especially the slingshot guys who run away all the damn time. So arduous, slowly pursuing them across a map just to deliver a killing blow.

Aargh: typically, I’ve gone almost immediately to moaning, but I should note that this is the first released game this year to grab me and show no signs of letting go. It’s a mess, but I do love it. Whenever a game transports me to a different place, especially when that place is a melancholy one, it has me. And I’m so enjoying feeling its chill and grandeur and its frightening solitude. It’s not just the art – it’s the solemnity and the sound too.

Adam: I like it a lot more than many people seem to think I do! The disappointment was in the places it fell short. Battles are too repetitive, the journey becomes too abstract, a pile of numbers that don’t relate effectively to the happenings and beautiful panoramic shots. Obviously that disconnect hasn’t been apparent everyone but I found my input became secondary to the desire to see things through.

When I’m skipping battles that could have saved lives simply because I don’t want to spend ten minutes clicking on the same grid, something has gone wrong. But the music – I shall be cursed unto my dying day for ignoring the music in my review. Oops. It’s bloody fantastic.

Alec: I’d agree on the battle-skipping – I watch my guys trooping across the landscape praying that they’ll get to the next settlement without getting into a scrap. Which perhaps evokes what they feel, except I’m doing it from fear of boredom rather than fear of a massacre.

And what’s really a shame is the talk of all these off-camera battles between hundreds, while all you get to see/control is a dozen people very slowly slapping each other.

Adam: It’s a fantastic world though, isn’t it? And I like the characters, on the whole. They flirt with cliche but have something to bring to the table. I’m glad to have met them. There’s a beautiful strangeness about the impetus of the story. It’s so mundane to begin with, despite the utterly unknown surroundings. You play a delivery boy, except he’s an immortal giant. And then, BOOM. World’s end.

Alec: I almost bounced off it to start with because I couldn’t tell what was going on or who these people are, but the slow unraveling of what the situation is and the lore behind this place builds so well, so that everything gradually makes sense without having to have someone intone a slew of old bollocks at you for ten minutes straight at the start. Without knowing quite when it happened, past a certain point I just… understood.

I do struggle to tell some of the Varl apart though. I’m worried I’m racist towards horned viking giants.

Adam: It’s all the archer ladies and axemen I can’t tell apart. Women use bows, men use axes. Tale as old as time. Although, to be clear, The Banner Saga handles everybody’s involvement in combat, or lack of it, extremely well, I thought.
Alec: Well its other inspiration is Game of Thrones I think, both in the typecasting and in the idea that anyone could get offed at any moment.

John has entered the room

John: You’re all willies!

John has left the room

Alec: …Must have been rats.

Adam: Someone taffing about?

Game of Thrones, yes. Although it never feels as gratuitous in its cruelty. A combination of the constant forward motion of the caravan and the lack of distinct villains prevents it from descending into the same sort of grimdark. And I like Game of Throne but, crikey, it’s like being punched in the Middle Earth.

Alec: It’s a different sort of sadism, certainly. It never revels in a death and they’re never quite done for shock value, but it does have no rules. You’re picking dialogue options pretty blindly, Fighting Fantasy style, rather than with any sense of the outcome they might lead to. It’s a Death Lottery.

Adam: That’s interesting. John said the same in the preview verdict – that it felt arbitrary at times. That never bothered me, oddly. I think, in terms of the narrative voice, it explains itself sufficiently that I feel a sense of responsibility. Even if the dice are certainly rigged against me. And they’re not even dice, as you say, they’re much more like the turn of a page.

Again, predetermined outcomes. With some numbers at the top. I’m being harsh again! Slap me.

Alec: After the event the explanations are certainly suitable, but it’s consciously opaque beforehand, it never wants you to expect what’s going to happen. And I like that, that I’m gambling with people’s lives every time I allow new folk to join my caravan or make a call as to whether to raid somewhere for supplies. I don’t really know what those numbers of people following me really mean, but not letting it drop feels incredibly important.

Adam: The moment that hit me the hardest was ending up in a fight with some villagers who were trying to protect their own. I forget her name – I forget quickly – but Rook’s daughter killed one, under my command in battle, and said afterwards “I didn’t want that to happen” or something of the sort. I remembered a conversation with her earlier, when I’d had Rook kill a human to protect his own, and she says she’s happy to fight monsters, but not her own kind. It’s brave, sad and fragile.

Alec: Ah yes, I experienced similar. Disturbing that, in addition to killing some people who perhaps didn’t deserve it, you’re also corrupting a young mind. Oddly, the subplot that most engrossed me was trying to stop the twatty young human prince from stropping off every time he didn’t get his way. The game’s so careful not to give you any obsequious dialogue options when talking to him, because that would be against the nature of the hard-bitten Varl you’re playing as, so you’re gambling as to which grumpy option will make the prince least hysterical. It’s like trying to talk down one of our more irate commenters.

Adam: Yeah, I liked that as well. He referred to me as a social justice giant at one point and I just had to stop and pat him on the head. There there. Perhaps another sort of realism but many of the subplots fizzle out – maybe to be picked up in a later episode or maybe not at all.

Alec: Yes, and the arbitrary splitting of the party is a bit too frequent. I suppose it’s to prevent any routines from establishing, as you don’t want a nightmarish trek through a dying world to ever feel comfortable ,but occasionally it’s “oh come on! We were really getting somewhere!”

Adam: Do you feel that Stoic captured the arduous and punishing nature of the journey sufficiently to justify the repetition and occasional disconnect? I do think that many of my criticisms are countered by the dedication to a mood and a setting.

Alec: In terms of anything with regard to narrative and choice/consequence, yes, but the battles feel shoe-horned in, abstracted, an attempt to be more gamey. And the main resource system, Renown, being both experience and gold, is extremely awkward. I’m spending how much people have heard of me on food? Guh?

Adam: Oh (dead) gods, yes. It really is.

“We hate you and don’t want you here.” “Yes, but I resolved a marital dispute between two of my followers on the road a few days ago.” “TAKE ALL OUR FOOD.”

Alec: Though I do like the constant tension it creates in terms of whether to upgrade your heroes or focus on keeping the hundreds of shivering plebs following them alive – I just think there could have been a more elegant, logical system for it. As it is, you’re basically going into shops and pulling the Don’t You Know Who I Am card. Like a 2004 Big Brother contestant trying to blag free shoes from JD Sports.

Adam: Except, as I noted earlier, not quite as grimdark.

Alec: even The Red Wedding wasn’t as grimdark as being on Big Brother.

Adam: They should occasionally pipe in that music, just to see the reactions. Except Big Brother and GRRRR Martin are possibly from different canons of pop culture.

Alec: ‘GoT characters in the Big Brother house’ feels like a webcomic that should already exist. ‘Joffrey has slipped some shampoo into Sansa’s tea again.’

Adam: Can it use badly edited Sega sprites to tell its marvellous tale?

Alec: it is The Only Way.

Adam: Question time:

1) Will you be back for the next chapters of the saga?

Alec: I don’t know. It depends on how this one ends, somewhat. And on whether there’s any change to the glacial, tiresome battles. If not I do kind of like the idea of instead choosing to walk away now, leaving everyone out there in the snow and never coming back.

Adam: Some leader you are! “Let’s all go sledding in the old forest, Uncle Alec!” “Sure. Sure.”

Alec: ‘if you can’t kill a dredge by yourself by now, you’re no nephew of mine.’ And also, to nod at GoT again, coming back depends on whether there’s a clear destination in sight and a steady release schedule, or if we’re going to have to wait bloody years for the devs to finish buying sports cars and come do the next bit.

Adam: Question the second: how utterly fucking gorgeous is the entire bloody thing?

Alec: MY EIGHT-MONTH-OLD BABY COULD DRAW BETTER VIKING GIANTS THAN THAT

Adam: GASP

Alec: Yes, it’s extraordinary. I mean, you can see the wires, so to speak, which is distracting at times – the static poses, the assembly kit-figures and animations – but it all comes together so well. It pulls off Gigantic like nothing else. Also I guess it’s vector art or something like that? Because it just scales to whatever resolution – looks so good, so crisp at 2560×1440.

Adam: How many times have you presumed screenshots represent something unreal? Very much not the case for The Banner Saga’s viking giants and their buddies. Best landscapes.

Question 3) Dredge – animal, mineral or vegetable?

Alec: you only reveal the limitations of your pathetic meatspace mind with such a small set of possible replies.

Adam: Are you
Dredge?
Or Shodan?
DREDGE ARE COMPUTERBORGS

Alec: SHODREDGE. DRED-DAN.

Adam: Judge Dredd’s brother. DREDD_IAN.

Alec: IAN DREDD, an accountant from Mega-Norwich.

Adam: Mega-Milton Keynes would be the worst city. Just. No arguments. The worst city.

Alec: I have a question for you:

Where do you get off, hating the Banner Saga so much? HOW DARE YOU SAY SOMETHING CRITICAL ABOUT A VIDEOGAME SOME PEOPLE REALLY LIKE.

Adam: Oh no. I think it’s an extremely lovely game, with outstanding features (this is like an OFSTED report), but people NEED TO KNOW ABOUT THE FLAWS.

In seriousness, it’d be easy to see it as an ‘all things to all men’ kind of game – the management side, the journey, the narrative choices, the tactical battles, the RPG. It’s an attractive combination with graphics that say ‘I am beautiful and capable’. And where it fails, it is as interesting to me as where it succeeds. But I really like it as well and if you’re that one guy who thinks I’m being paid by Big Pharma to criticise the Stoics of this world…

Alec: Yeah, I love the world and the existential agony of it all, but I just don’t think it’s a particularly well-realised strategy game too. I’m confident I’d have enjoyed it even more if they weren’t there, or were somehow realised in the style of the narrative. But as I say, it’s the first game out this year to grab me and I suspect I’ll struggle not to at least try future installments.

Adam: Oh, I’m definitely onboard.

Alec: and let’s hope they manage to offer a lady with an axe in those.

Adam: NEVER. GENETICS, ALEC.

Alec: they just don’t have the Axe-Tendon in their forearms like we men do. They got an extra rib instead.

Adam: My bloody rib, I’ll have you know.

Alec: ‘Cast out of Eden, the father of humankind is now reduced to reviewing videogames’.

Oh: I wonder if there are lady Varls? It’s never discussed, is it?

Adam: Do you know about lady Dredge yet?

Alec: I do not.

Adam: That may be the moment that brings you back for the second part. Best bit of writing and myth-creation in the game, I thought. I’ll say no more.

Alec: I shall discover this secret later today, I hope.

Adam: To the meadhall!

Alec: Oh, one more thing: the map. What an excellent map. And what a great way to sate lore-fetishists without boring everyone else to tears.

Adam: ah – well, that’s an interesting point. That you raised it now and that I’d forgotten it.

Alec: So much myth, so much implied information, just hidden away there.

Adam: It’s the sort of game that is so thick with lore and small touches that a chap can spend fifteen hours with it and forget entire swathes. I love that. Probably in my top ten maps.

Alec: Get thee to buzzfeed, satan.

Adam: END?

Alec: END. As we sit facing each other in the endless snow, silent, staring, challenging. Like in The Thing.

The Banner Saga is out now

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97 Comments »

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  1. gritz says:

    We need a top 10 maps article out of you, Adam. Ignore that buzzfeed comment.

    • Firkragg says:

      I second this, I have a modest collection of game maps that I mean to some day, when I finally get the room, frame and put up (if the future Companion allows it, of course). I’d read such a list with glee!

      • Canadave says:

        I’d read the hell out of a top ten maps article. Hopefully with at least an honourable mention to Miasmata for having one of the more interesting mapping mechanics to appear in a game.

        • mr.black says:

          TBS map is definitely in my 5 best maps overall. When I first time got to see it, I just stopped caring about the whole game, just started reading everything, enjoying the music, exploring for an hour. So much rich world building in there!
          One other I remember would be the map from Curse of the Monkey island game. My first close detailed beautiful encounter with pirate themed iconography.

      • captain nemo says:

        third-ed-ed

        I’d love such an article too. The Skyrim map is probably a certainty, maybe the wall map from HL2 too.

        • seles04 says:

          my neighbor’s mom makes $66 an hour on the internet. She has been without work for 5 months but last month her income was $16989 just working on the internet for a few hours. Read more on this site …………… http://flx.im/22RT7

      • idiotapocs says:

        Myth the Fallen Lords

    • Cung1947 says:

      my best friend’s step-mother makes $74 an hour on the computer . She has been unemployed for 10 months but last month her check was $13881 just working on the computer for a few hours. go to website……
      http://www.Jobs84.com

  2. lautalocos says:

    i still havent played the game, because my bloddy internet is the slowest thing ever, but if he combat is like the one from the free-to-play version, it won´t dissapoint me.

  3. Wulfram says:

    Does the Vikingy stuff manage to be fresh? I’m rather getting bored of “Nords”.

    p.s Milton Keynes is the best city

    • Premium User Badge

      Hanban says:

      I find it refreshing. Since it’s set in Vikingy lands it dwells less on the “LOOK WE’RE BLONDE AND TALL AND GRUFF AND NOT FROM THE SOUTH” and focuses more on the setting. So, yeah, it does manage to keep it quite fresh.

      • somnolentsurfer says:

        Setting is lovely. And, maybe it’s just me, but the map being all foreign sounding makes the world a whole lot more believable than a thousand Riverwoods, and Redcliffes, and Kings Highways.

    • LennyLeonardo says:

      I’m completely obsessed with vikings, and this feels fresh.

      • Blad the impaler says:

        Indeed, it’s cut from a much more pure viking cloth – though I told it not to get fresh with me or else.

  4. Premium User Badge

    Hanban says:

    I think this game grabbed me more than any game I played 2013. If they listen to some of the criticism levelled at them before the next chapter it could quite possibly turn out to be one of my all time favourite series.

    • DonJefe says:

      Agreed. I found 2013 to be a very disappointing game year after the excellent 2012, but The Banner Saga is a great start to 2014. And I really dont understand the criticism of the battles. I love them. Its like chess meets XCOM… A daft comparison, I know, but it was the only one I could think of.

  5. TheIronSky says:

    You’re missing a “<" before that strong attribute, but I always thought that the formatting errors and shoddy site design were part of RPS's charm, so I say keep it.

  6. Mhorhe says:

    In..teresting. By the dead gods you better not abandon Banner Saga for future installments. :) Rock Paper Shotgun made me excited about it, keep at it!

    Sort of spoilers?

    But you can consider yourselves warned – there are no She-Varls. Each and every Varl was made by one of the gods, and he’s dead (it’s explained at one point, and at the said god’s godstone)

  7. karthink says:

    The Banner Saga is bloody brilliant.

    I started the game early last weekend and suddenly it was Sunday night–it gripped me and didn’t let go. And Alec nails the why perfectly here: “Whenever a game transports me to a different place, especially when that place is a melancholy one, it has me. And I’m so enjoying feeling its chill and grandeur and its frightening solitude. It’s not just the art – it’s the solemnity and the sound too.”

    The game drops you in the deep end without a vest, but the worldbuilding is exquisite stuff. This setting has me more curious to explore than Dishonored & the new Torment do.

    (I understand them not making combat deaths stick–jeez, what a nightmare that would be. The game is bleak enough. But the one mechanic that I couldn’t get behind was the Renown system. It’s money and experience, and the trade-off makes no sense on any level. Some of the mechanics are all over the place. Seriously, Stoic, get it together for the sequel.)

    • Moraven says:

      Works well in Fire Emblem. Generally a loss criteria is the main couple characters can not die. Otherwise everyone else can be permanently killed.

      • Klonopin says:

        The problem with using this mechanic in Banner Saga is that combat is often down to one or two units at the end. Every hit weakens a unit’s damage dealing ability, and the turn structure does not take into account how many units each side has, so it’s almost a requirement to sacrifice weakened units sometimes.

      • 0positivo says:

        Let’s be honest here. Who doesn’t reset on Fire Emblem when a character dies?
        I’d much rather have this system than endless resets

    • Ich Will says:

      Wait a sec, I’m sure the guy who I said looked like a frog died after being defeated twice in a row n combat.. I certainly don’t have him anymore… I’ve been going to the most extraordinary lengths to make sure everyone survives every time, its been really tough!!

      • machopineapple says:

        There is an event where you can lose him in dialogue. I remember it well because there was no way in hell I was losing my 19 str varl over some supplies or whatever it was.

        • karthink says:

          It was gold. But the player has no reason to care about the gold, because you couldn’t do anything with it in the game anyway. That’s the thing about the game, the tradeoffs rarely make sense.

          I do wish there were consequences to losing people (to starvation) from your caravan.

  8. Ultra Superior says:

    6/10 with 2 points given solely for stealing from great artists.

    • MrWolf says:

      I suspect you and I have a different definition of “stealing.”

      • Ultra Superior says:

        I go by (allegedly) Picasso’s quote:

        “Good artists copy, great artists steal.”

        Banner Saga has great art, stolen from E.Earle and I.Bilibin

        • Ich Will says:

          So they created original art in a style similar to other artists. Because you using the term “steal” infers that they did not create the art in the game but took art created by someone else. By your measure, Eyvind Earle stole from Picasso and Georgia O’Keefe, Rockwell, Kent and Cezanne while Bilibin stole from Vasnetsov.

          They stole from….. and so on and so on.

          • Ultra Superior says:

            No.

          • Ich Will says:

            When you say No, I assume you confirm that “no, the game artists didn’t steal their art from those two painters who have never painted any of the pictures in the game”

            Glad we agree.

            By the way, Picasso also supported the purge of intellectuals and believed communism to be the only way to guarantee a future worth living for the working class. Not everything that man said was worth listening to.

          • Scrooge McDuck says:

            Well, “stealing” in this context is “taking something and make it yours” as opposed to copying/plagiarizing.

            By the way, the quote most likely didn’t even come from Picasso.

  9. Universal Quitter says:

    “Aargh: typically, I’ve gone”

    Matt Thrower. Aargh. If you’re just going to be making up names, at least make them plausible.

    • Darth Gangrel says:

      Yeah, I thought that was kind of odd. Did someone named Aargh just suddenly enter the conversation? They did point out when John entered and said a few quick words before leaving, so why shouldn’t they do the same when Mr/Ms/Mrs Aargh joins in? Then there’s also the mysterious Oh character, “Oh: I wonder if there are lady Varls?”. You can’t just let new characters in without explaining/acknowledging their presence and who they are!

  10. Premium User Badge

    Thurgret says:

    I was absolutely enthralled by this game and played it through in its entirety in all of two evenings.

    Mild spoilers may follow. Spoilers spoilers spoilers.

    Spoilers.

    Fair warning.

    I didn’t feel that it was about refugees, though. There was certainly a sense of … yep, there’s a damn big war at the end of the world going on, that’s for sure. But playing the Varl section, my guys just attacked the dredge head-on, again and again. I never lost a battle in the turn-based strategy part. Breaking out from that place, they attacked the dredge head-on. When pursued by dredge, instead of risk being harried, they turned, and attacked head-on. An utterly paltry number of Varl died — then again, I do realise that these are the only Varl that will ever exist, and no more are going to come into being, short of the gods returning to life. Also, the human prince struck me as a little arrogant, but not so irritating as some seem to think he was. I kept him along, particularly for the sake of his almost 200 fighters. I kept the several hundred other Varl that joined along the way. It was like one big juggernaught.

    SPOILERS. No, really.

    Okay, then there’s the bit with Rook. There was some connection to the suffering of people. The written parts were absolutely superb. That little number of clansmen, though? It didn’t mean a lot. Stuff like keeping Ekkill alive? That was actually interesting, to see how it spun out. I, briefly, felt the loss of a character after a certain betrayal. When it came to the city under siege, though, I took almost every opportunity there was to defend the walls rather than try to help the clansmen. There were simply more fighters dying to dredge than there were my people starving if I didn’t. Then Hakon showed up. The need to kill the end boss with a special attack felt a little contrived, what with the fact that an army which had driven off or slain thousands of dredge with casualties not even reaching three figures having just shown up. And having said all that, what with the dredge not actually being straight-up evil, as I initially assumed (I thought they were soulless automatons), I wonder if the wholesale massacre of dredge might turn out to be a really bad thing for the second instalment of the Saga.

    Okay, you’re safe now, no more spoilers.

    No, really, it’s okay. Just don’t read above this line.

    • SillyWizard says:

      What makes you say the Dredge aren’t evil? Just because their primary motivation for invading in this game isn’t necessarily solely to be assholes doesn’t mean that they’re not evil. They have a long history of being assholes, and despite other motivations, they’re dealing with a certain crisis in an assholey way.

      Wreck ‘em up, I say.

      SPOILERS

      However obviously the Dredge baby you possibly save is going to have an impact in later chapters.

      • Premium User Badge

        Thurgret says:

        Okay. Maybe… no more evil than anyone else? They aren’t quite the Shivan/Reaper-like creatures/automatons (though goodness only knows what the Shivan motivation was) that I expected– or insert other bad guys as appropriate, if those two don’t ring any bells.

        Also, there’s Iver’s story of he slew that first Sundr.

  11. Tychoxi says:

    I’m glad I backed it, it’s not perfect, it falls a bit short but I was captivated from start to finish.

  12. phelix says:

    Damn rats, into everything!

    • Ich Will says:

      … and when are they going to bring me my dinner, that’s what I want to know….

  13. SillyWizard says:

    Thank you for this follow-up, guys!

    As a rabid fan of TBS, I will say I agree with most of the concerns you’ve listed in the above (at least to a point). Some things, though, might resolve themselves for you with more play. (You haven’t learned about she-Dredge yet?! What are you, 10 minutes in?!)

    The thing that seems like the biggest stumbling block is the fact that you aren’t particularly fond of the battles. Being that they’re an important chunk of the game, that’s really too bad.

    I would suggest that you guys perhaps hop on to TBS: Factions and have a go at some head-to-head slaughtering: playing against an ostensibly intelligent human opponent might give you a deeper appreciation for the nuance and puzzle-like aspects of the combat system.

    (But seriously, Renown being both Exp and $$ is incredibly painful. Entirely intentionally. And I have some plans for my next play-through to deal with this situation….)

    • Moraven says:

      I think that is why the combat is not as well designed for a single player experience. They designed the combat around balanced PvP play. Unless you come up with some magical AI the PvE experience is going to suffer greatly. They should have focused the combat mechanics on PvE then either expand it or re design it for PvP.

      Something as straight forward as Advance Wars or Kronos usually have reasonable AI. You get into tactical RPGs that try to work for PvP and PvE and they will usually suffer on one side.

      • Mhorhe says:

        I heard this argument from a bunch of people in the other RPS Banner Saga thread.

        For one, I did not find the combat dull. The relatively reduced length of the matches compensated for the (perhaps) too abundant fight scenes. I found myself bored a lot more in other TBS games (Xcom, by the 15th UFO…)

        For another, though, I find the argument to be false. At its core the combat system was designed and used for a MP component, there are not-so-subtle differences – mainly new classes with potent specials (spearmaster..mender!), some flexibility in party composition (no longer confined to 2 Varl/5 humans), aggro based AI decisions, artifacts etc etc

        The AI is not quite at Deep Blue levels but on Normal it wasn’t too bad. Good use of specials, decent target priorities..

        All in all, I say this again, the TBS part of the game is meritous. More so than RPS might indicate.

        • SillyWizard says:

          One thing that makes me wonder about the lukewarm reception to the combat from some folks is if they’re simply not doing very well.

          In my first playthrough of the game, I made a series of boneheaded mistakes, lost a number of battles, and as I moved forward, I started to dread going into combat with my crew of perpetually-maimed fighters. I avoided as many combats as I could, always looking for breathing-room and an opportunity to rest up and heal my mans — at the cost of losing large chunks of my caravan to starvation.

          In my next playthrough, I paid much more attention to what I was doing, and it was a completely different experience. I started hungering for more and more battles to give me opportunities to get my greasy hands on that sweet, sweet Renown.

          The combat is a comparatively hard for your typical game’s “Normal” setting. I’m thinking that as people learn to exploit their options and the enemy’s weaknesses more effectively, their frustrations with combat will recede.

      • SillyWizard says:

        Have you played TBS and TBS: Factions? If so, how about you explain how it is that the combat is better in one experience than the other.

        Even in the unlikely circumstance that you have any clue as to what you’re talking about, there is no hard-and-fast rule that PvP cannot be better or worse than vs AI for any particular system, much less this one.

        People enjoy playing Chess head-to-head, and many enjoy playing vs AI with the exact same systems.

        People enjoy playing Fire Emblem single-player vs the AI, and many enjoy playing it head-to-head with the exact same systems.

        People enjoy playing many FPS against human opponents, and many enjoy playing vs bots with the exact same systems.

        The combat in TBS is identical between PvP and playing single-player. They did not expand or redesign it. (The one caveat being that the Dredge are not yet available in Factions, though they could easily be introduced at any time should the devs choose to do so — which I wouldn’t expect simply because it wouldn’t make sense lore-wise.)

        I suggested that Adam and Alec (and whoever else) get their feet wet in Factions because it grants more of an opportunity to learn the nuances of the systems, which they could then take to the single-player game. Not because one is better than the other, but because greater familiarity with the mechanics might inspire greater appreciation for the combat, both within Factions itself and within the single-player game.

        I keep hearing this rubbish, and rubbish is what it is. You may prefer the combat in single-player or in Factions, but your opinion is just that.

  14. Blackseraph says:

    I do believe lady dredges are those stonethrower dredges.

  15. The Random One says:

    Hmmmm. I have King of Dragon Pass from GoG and haven’t played it yet, so I think I’ll play that instead.

  16. bladedsmoke says:

    I watched some preview videos of this, and I thought the dialogue was very badly written, so much so that it put me off the game completely. Did I just hit a bad patch?

    • Tusque D'Ivoire says:

      Actually I find the dialogue and relationships between the various characters very engaging and sometimes even full of subtle humour and commentary. I agree it’s clunky at the beginning, but as Adam and Alec say, the game throws you in that large and complicated world and doesn’t flesh it out immediately, but all the more persistently.

    • karthink says:

      The dialog is fairly good, establishing worldviews and relationships with minimal text. There are bad patches, though. The word “crap” really shouldn’t appear anywhere in The Banner Saga.

  17. Premium User Badge

    draglikepull says:

    I liked the combat a lot more than Adam and Alec seem to have. Perhaps it was because the game I’d been playing previous was Fire Emblem: Awakening (in which battles routinely take 30-45 minutes), but I thought the pace of fighting in The Banner Saga was reasonably brisk. I also found the trade-offs it asks you to make – armor vs health, saving vs expending willpower, slow, difficult to kill varl vs nimble, easily killed humans, etc. – to be pretty interesting. It didn’t quite grab me as much early on when there’s little choice in team composition and armor isn’t very important, but the further I got in the game the more I appreciated the nuances.

    The one real complaint I have about the battles is that, while the combat system in general is fun, there’s not enough tactical difference from fight-to-fight. I only ever played on one map that wasn’t just a big, flat square. Other tactical RPGs throw in things like hills, bridges, and the like so that the player has to vary their approach, and I would have liked to have seen more of that here. Also, like in Fire Emblem, the best tactic is virtually always to keep your team huddled together and move as a group. I wish the enemy had tactics or abilities that made that strategy riskier.

    • Klonopin says:

      Interesting, I found keeping my units in a clump to generally be a terrible strategy, You cut off your back characters from moving, and can waste a lot of turns that way. It also makes it impossible to split up and kite the enemy with Oddleif or Fasolt, you’re also leaving multiple characters open to the dredge explosives and shield slams. These disadvantages always seemed to outweigh the bonus you got from raider shield bonuses and keeping your archers safer. I rarely used any raiders though so maybe a different team composition would work better.

      I also think their moaning about the combat system is a bit overblown, I’ve played through the game twice on Hard Mode and have never really gotten bored of the battles.

      • Mhorhe says:

        I quite agree. Varl being 2 by 2 and archers shooting just about as far as you can spit made clumping my guys a fairly ineffective tactic.

  18. Werthead says:

    The fantasy reference for me wasn’t quite so much GAME OF THRONES, but more Steven Erikson’s second MALAZAN novel, DEADHOUSE GATES, which features a small but highly effective armed force shepherding 40,000-odd civilians through more than 1500 miles of hostile terrain, pursued by unrelenting foes and facing critical supply problems most of the way. THE BANNER SAGA does a great job of tapping into that kind of feeling (other reference points: THE OREGON TRAIL, natch, BATTLESTAR GALACTICA and HOMEWORLD, only with less lasers and more Viking horns).

    I did like the game, but one thing that did irk was how easy it was to balls up the management of Renown. I spent way too much early on on levelling my characters, so was crippled by supply problems for most of the latter half of the game. I switched to buying supplies exclusively and so couldn’t level the characters any more, resulting in a TPK in the final battle with Bellower and, as far as I can tell, no prospect of winning. It’s got that roguelike, “Learn by failing,” thing going on, except most roguelikes don’t demand you replay 10+ hours after each failure. Still, I’m impressed enough to check out Part 2 when it does appear.

    Biggest complaint of the game: it never let me know when it was saving, so it felt like a little of a gambit every time I logged out whether I was going to log back in where I was, or 3 tough battles earlier. Seriously, after this and SHADOWRUN RETURNS I’m looking forwards to a Kickstarted game that actually lets me save where the hell I want.

    • Laurentius says:

      Indeed Save system is a failure exectly like in Shadowrun Returns.

      • SillyWizard says:

        To be fair, Stoic is intentionally working to encourage people not to save scum. Their game is full of shitty things happening to your characters. If you could just save right before every decision and scum to get the “right” one, it would defeat pretty much the entire purpose of the game.

        The game auto-saves pretty much whenever anything significant happens. When hitting Resume, I’ve always jumped in right where I left off, with conversations/purchases/etc all in the state that I left them.

        Whereas in SR:R, the save situation was due to some questionable architecture or some such thing, in TBS it’s to force the player into a play-style which is unknown to many: having to live with the consequences of your choices and mistakes.

        “As the player, I should get to decide how to play!”

        As a reader, do you get to decide what’s in the books you buy? No. There’s an inexhaustible supply of games that already let you save scum to your heart’s content. This isn’t one of them. Enjoy it.

    • SillyWizard says:

      RE: Renown management —

      I’m about to begin my 3rd playthrough. (I’ve gotten to Bellower on my first two runs, but have not yet taken him down. To be fair, I didn’t try much on attempt #2, due to some horrifying story events messing with my head for the end-game.)

      I have a theory about why it’s so difficult to keep your party fed. Essentially, the theory boils down to: in order to have a shot at winning, you need kickass combat units. Fuck everything else. Screw all these hangers-on sucking at your poor, withered teat.

      So. In playthrough #3 I plan on being an asshole to civilians, and see what happens.

      • Premium User Badge

        Thurgret says:

        That’s kind of funny, actually. In my playthrough, Hakon and co. attacked the dredge with full force at every single opportunity. Rook and co. did the exact same thing, although I think they skirted around a couple potentially hostile encounters with other humans. The one time I changed that up, Rook’s people suffered a few dozen losses due to taking a long road around when the Summer Pass– I think it was– turned out to be blocked, and I wonder if going at it head-on would be better. Same with the bit at the very end, where more fighters were dying to dredge than civilians were starving, and eighty-eight civilians left the group to go their own way– but why would I care terribly?– while a relatively small number of others starved as Rook held the walls. I mean, I guess my particular Rook was trying to save a city, not just his own band within it.

        My guys milled through Bellower’s bodyguard in the last section – not least due to a couple Varl with strength in excess of twenty (had Hakon, Iver, Ubin’s green-shirted bodyguard, Tryggvi– he had some remarkable armour break value– Rook and Alette). I may have lucked out in that they were all level 5, bar Alette, who was at 4, and very well geared up– partly because you seem to get extra rewards for chasing down fleeing dredge after a fight. I may reload at some stage and see what happens if you try and kill Bellower in one turn without the arrow– I mean, maybe they can rip him apart before he can even regenerate? I dunno.

    • jenkins says:

      Oh good call mentioning Deadhouse Gates! And I agree – plenty of similarities between Coltain’s Chain of Dogs and The Banner Saga. Deadhouse Gates is one of those few books that I enjoyed enough to reread every few years.

    • Premium User Badge

      Hanban says:

      *SPOILER*
      I can only speculate as to whether or not your units are powerful enough to fight him. But it took me I think five tries before I had a strategy in mind to defeat him. It basically boils down to focusing on the big ‘uns til the bellower is close enough to start attacking and then go all in on him/her.

      Admittedly I managed to cock it up after I’d realized what I needed to do because I didn’t realize the arrow costed willpower, but after I’d figured out what to do I could fairly easily down him agian.

  19. Klonopin says:

    I do think it’s a little strange that both reviewers seem so bored by the combat; playing on hard mode, I found it to be a series of nail-bitingly difficult puzzles. I wonder if they would have the same complaints about the combat and renown system if it were more abstracted like Puzzle Quest or something. I found the ‘combat’ in puzzle quest to be way more repetitive and boring, but I recall it being enthusiastically celebrated by RPS.

    The renown system is incredibly harsh, but I don’t think it’s that much of a lore-breaker if you just take in to account it representing certain spoils of war as well. I don’t think that much would have been gained in the game if they had added a ‘gold’ resource that could be used for buying supplies; and it would take away the difficult decision of strengthening your party or feeding your clansmen. That said, the starvation mechanics definitely don’t have enough weight to them, and have seem to have very little story impact, which is too bad. I also thought that morale should help determine the speed of your caravan.

    Excising the combat seems like such a ridiculous idea to me though.

    • Jenks says:

      I played TBS on normal and found it to be one of the best SRPGs I’ve played. Because of the way strength works, and always taking turns with the opponent, there are tactics you can employ that wouldn’t work in any other SRPG.

      Isn’t Puzzle Quest another Bejeweled clone? I thought that stuff was for the Facebook game crowd, weird.

      • Scurra says:

        Puzzle Quest is superficially another match-3 clone, except for the fact that you are playing against someone else, meaning that it’s absolutely never a case of “pick the best move possible” but “pick a move that isn’t going to set your opponent up for a huge play” which is incredibly counter-intuitive sometimes. Especially when the game so flagrantly cheats to keep you in check… Yes, it is far more of a TBS game – it is just disguised as a match-3. Don’t be fooled.
        Having said that, I will stress that it’s not exactly tough apart, perhaps, from the final boss if you just rush there too quickly. But it is definitely worth the praise it got, and still stands up pretty well today.

    • Rally.Plane says:

      They are just bad at it.

      The combat of TBS is excellent, smart and nuanced – therefor requires attention and punishes for mistakes, and, unlike XCOM:EU/EW, doesn’t allow for write off mistakes on bad luck with RNG.

      But game writers tend to be bad at games in general, and most of them don’t just play for sake of playing, but multitask with twitting writing and browsing on second monitor, as with any other boring job, never giving a game their full attention. Hence being unable to appreciate combat. Hence the complaints about not understanding what’s going with the story early in the game and being confused by transition from one group to another.

      • Laurentius says:

        I don’t think that is the case, it’s rather being burnt out, playing turn based strategy games for a living that does not work well imo. When you start prefering fancy cutscenes over meat of the game, when next round means slog or repetition, and every tbs game released recently, there must something going on with a player not a games themselves.
        Mr Smith take on tbs strategies as I recall from last year : Elemental:Legendary Heroes – pretty much meh, imo far from perfect but really enjoyable, Civ5-DLC- meh again, imo still not perfect but if you are into strategy games again great evening past time for at least couple of months, Endless Space -not even a WiT, Expeditios Conquistador- meh again, Dominions 4 – meh again and now The Banner Saga. Reviews being mostly just info dumps and mostly of the same “game’s there, you may enjoyed it but I just skimmed past it, etc ” .

  20. Lusketrollet says:

    And what’s really a shame is the talk of all these off-camera battles between hundreds, while all you get to see/control is a dozen people very slowly slapping each other.

    Ugh. I thought it might be one of *those* games.

    Lost me, then.

    and let’s hope they manage to offer a lady with an axe in those.

    By that logic, you should be equally ego-wankingly displeased that men apparently aren’t allowed to be archers.

    • Rally.Plane says:

      Parts of review that talk about combat are to be dismissed – reviewers failed to grasp it.

      There is one man with a bow actually, and there are also slingshot-men among enemies.

      • Mhorhe says:

        Slingshoters are dudettes. Dredge dudettes, that is.

      • Crudzilla says:

        Yeah I feel combat parts of the game went completely over their heads…

  21. Shadow says:

    I haven’t played this game yet, but it’d seem the team’s Bioware origins shows. The “template” is very similar to what we’ve recently seen from their former employers. That is, good story, great art, great production values… around a surprisingly basic actual game.

    That’s what I’ve seen at least in Dragon Age 2 and Mass Effect 2 and 3. Somewhere along the line, someone in Bioware said, “drop the complexity, make it more movie-like, er… cinematic!” It’s decidedly a mixed blessing, and I personally dislike it when videogames forget they’re videogames, that at their core they’re supposed to provide compelling gameplay, which is what sets them apart from the other arts.

    • Mhorhe says:

      “I haven’t played the game yet” I stopped reading right there ;) go play it! You’ll be surprised. It’s a solid TBS with some original elements. Comparatively much more sophisticated than the bland cover based shooter at the base of the (otherwise solid) ME.

      • Shadow says:

        I do intend to play it, since strategy is my thing, after all. But 25 dollars isn’t a sum I can spend at the moment. I’ll have to wait for a discount or a time when I have less games vying for my attention.

    • Laurentius says:

      The Banner Saga is nothing like anything from Bioware recently. I don’t really know what is going here to be honest, I defnietly find combat of The Banner Saga to be the best element and actually whished to be more of it, yeah story is ok and graphics is really nice but that alone wouldn’t keep me playing nad finishing it in three very long evenings.

  22. DavidMG says:

    Alec,

    I’m not going to go into detail to justify why the combat system in The Banner Saga is so tightly well done. However, I am going to point out something you seem to be missing. If those slingers annoy you so much, just learn how to play with spearmasters. Use their Impale ability on the slingers and the latter practically kill themselves by walking.

    You’re welcome.

  23. Quiffle says:

    From the get-go I was hoping for an Oregon Trail-meets-King of Dragon Pass-meets-Darklands, and I wasn’t disappointed. Looking back, there was plenty wrong with the game: tactical battles that in the end wound up being a bit less tactical and more of an exercise in damage control against ‘more of the same enemies’, just with more armor.

    Still, the rising tension of the story and all the little nuances of the world kept me hooked, which is much more than I can say than with other games that go through that end-game slog. I eagerly await the next chapter.

    • Vinraith says:

      ” Oregon Trail-meets-King of Dragon Pass-meets-Darklands”

      Really? This game doesn’t sound anything like any of those games, from the reviews and descriptions. Can you elaborate, here? That would be a lot more interesting than the current impression I have of this game.

      • SillyWizard says:

        a la Oregon Trail: you control a caravan of people traveling through the wilderness from point A to point B, and have to meet and overcome numerous obstacles in your path.

        a la King of Dragon’s Pass: the main character you control is the de facto leader of this caravan, and over the course of the game he must settle disputes among his people; make decisions as to what the destination will be; how to get there; how to interact with people along the way; etc. And for every decision, there are consequences with which you must live.

        a la Darklands: I haven’t played this myself, but I gather it’s a game in which you can essentially mold the world’s perception of you based on your actions? If so, there’s some of that in here, too. I’m not sure to what degree, yet…my next playthrough of the game should shed some light on that. But I look forward to finding out!

        • Vinraith says:

          Am I wrong, however, that in TBS everything you just described there is pre-scripted?

          • SillyWizard says:

            Yes.

          • Vinraith says:

            Sorry, that was badly phrased. Do you mean everything IS prescripted, of everything is not (i.e. some elements of this are dynamic).?

  24. jenkins says:

    [finally delurking after two years]

    Twelve hours in and I have found the game to be beautiful, evocative, and original.

    Notable experience: I reached a point relatively early in narrative where I felt that the consequences of my actions did not represent an optimal outcome. And as I started to save scum back to an earlier autosave, I thought: “No. I want to see where this decision takes me.”

    And I did a thing in a game that I have never done before in a game: I was given the option to save scum and actually chose not to. For the first time ever, I felt that I could trust a narrative to take me somewhere interesting instead of punishing me for a non-optimal choice.

    It was in that moment that I fell in love with The Banner Saga and have yet to be let down.

    I have been particularly pleased that story has never felt arbitrary or capricious to me in the way that ‘choose your own adventure’-style story trees frequently do. The player still needs to make hard choices with incomplete information, but I have never felt blindsided by lazy scriptwriting. Everything feels very internally consistent with the hints and cues that are woven into the dialogue sequences.

    I’ve been savoring the game in smaller chunks – 2-3 hours at a crack – and have yet to feel the sense of repetitiveness set in that our faithful RPS writers have described. I still get a sinking feeling of dread in the pit of my stomach every time I engage a new batch of Dredge. Yes, you keep squaring off against the same six or seven types of units, but both the specific Dredge involved and (in particular) their positioning makes each battle feel like a fresh tactical challenge.

  25. Crudzilla says:

    Firstly (and again) I’ll say this is one of the best games I’ve played in a long while. And an amazing SRPG.
    That said, this article was pretty much just the review again with added lame gags.
    I won’t follow suit and post the same long winded defense of the game that it did after the WIT.

    I’ll just say that for people that supposedly support innovation in games you seem to be pretty horrified by it here.
    Basically you are just arguing for the game to use the same combat system as every other SRPG since the start of time.

    I felt that health=damage output and XP(renown)=money made for a very interesting experience that stood alone from other games and I feel that these two systems contribute a lot to the feeling of desperation both in the combat and on the journey.

    It put me off at first too, and I guess I had the same reaction that caused Adam and Alec to bounce off it. It felt very strange having people go down in battle as in traditional SRPGs this feels like a huge failure. In banner saga I soon realized that letting people go down in combat is not failure and coming though battles by the skin of your teeth are kind of what the game is all about.

    People also complain about the strategy of leaving foes alive once they are weakened in order to focus on more dangerous opponents. I think this was a fantastic idea and made the battles feel very real. If I had crippled an enemy and a more fearsome opponent remained a threat, I think the correct strategy would be to engage and deal with the biggest threat. Perhaps the game would have benefited from additional animations showing just messed up that guy with 1hp left is (missing limbs etc would be amazing! Maybe in the sequel?

    By the end of XCOM I was just stomping all comers but these battles stayed tense and gritty to the last. I don’t think the pacing is particularly slow compared to other games in the genre either.

    Glad to see that I’m not the only one hoping Stoic sticks to their guns and follows their vision. If they listen to criticism like this and make part 2 into some bland by the books empowerment trip for the likes of Adam and Alec then we’ll have lost one of the most unique and evocative RPG’s I’ve ever played.

    Edit – wow that turned out pretty long winded again… Something about this game really makes me want to stick up for it!

    • karthink says:

      The renown=XP=money system really doesn’t work, on both a mechanical and narrative level.

      Mechanically, it’s a fake, unnecessary (or at least underdeveloped) tradeoff. Why would you not spend all (or most) of your renown on leveling up your fighters instead of buying supplies? This lets you tackle more fights and win more renown still. In choosing the opposite, there is no mechanical advantage to fielding and feeding more clansmen.

      And in the narrative,
      1. as Alec/Adam pointed out, it does not follow how one pays for food with your performance in battle.

      2. where is the motivation to keep your caravan well fed? The player feels little connection to the nameless numbers (not even NPCs) that die of starvation each day. I was expecting someone Rook knows to die or leave, or at least for conversations with Alette or Oddleif about going hungry. But the supplies/renown system felt simply tacked on and entirely disjoint from the main narrative.

      I conserved my renown and used it mostly to buy supplies, but realized well into the game that the trade-off here does not make any sense. Doing so just sends you into a losing spiral where you can’t win battles to gain renown to buy supplies. And I was rewarded for taking care of Rook’s clansmen with an impossible confrontation against Bellower at the end, at least on normal difficulty.

      I’m with you on everything else, though. The Banner Saga was quietly brilliant, and vice-gripped me all the way to the end. Excepting the hidden complexity of combat–which was always intense and a skin-of-my-teeth affair, never boring–I thought Adam gave it a fair shake in his review.

      • Crudzilla says:

        You’re quite right about the lack of attachment to your caravan.

        I put all my renown into leveling characters and as a result I had no fighters or varl and only a handful of clansmen as I rolled into the final city. There was no drawback to this as far as I could see, though I did feel rather bad seeing the numbers dwindle on that final march. I then got an obscene number of supplies in that final city that had no use (maybe they’ll carry over to the sequel?)

        Still I think the idea of balancing your renown between your characters and your caravan is a good idea and just needs the addition of a meaningful caravan. Even seeing the weak and starving clansmen sprites fall by the side of the way on those beautiful landscapes would add a little more impact to it.

        I see that there are steam achievements linked to keeping your caravan alive so I will probably try and use that as a motivation to spend renown on supplies in a second playthrough. I imagine that trying to keep everyone alive while maintaining an effective combat party will be quite an enjoyable challenge! I do agree that the game should have some system to make this necessary though, rather than just and challenge to yourself or for the achievement

    • Premium User Badge

      jrodman says:

      Supporting innovation doesn’t mean all novel systems are successful.

      • Crudzilla says:

        Indeed,
        But this one was in my opinion. It just went straight over Adam & Alecs’ heads.
        There are numerous posts above explaining why the battle system was an interesting innovation so I won’t bother to argue them all again.

  26. Geebs says:

    Reading this his gave me the urge to play Myth again. Believe it or not, there’s a bunch of people called Project Magma who have actually kept it up to date! Yay for the inevitable slaughter of my troops.

  27. Tei says:

    There are other 51 games listed in http://www.esrb.org/ with the word Saga in the name. This is beyond ridiculous.

    I think this is one of these occasions where Internet justice is the only justice available. Candy Crush need to have server facing servers to control players progression. It will be ~sad if something bad happends to these, like a DDoS. I think the russian mafia lease zombie networks for these things for a price.

  28. nemchenk says:

    Everything I read about The Banner Saga reminds me of “Shadow Sorcerer” from 1991 — did nobody else play that game but me?

    http://www.mobygames.com/game/shadow-sorcerer