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
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 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.
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