Tobold's Blog
Saturday, January 18, 2014
The Banner Saga

I am happy to report that The Banner Saga, a game I supported on Kickstarter, finally came out. It took longer than expected, because the devs decided to make the multiplayer version first, but now the single-player version is out. And I'm reasonably happy with the result.

I don't know if you know King of Dragon Pass, a game the critics loved but which didn't sell very well. I bought it, twice actually, but never played it for long. Because while I love the story and the decision making, the actual gameplay is a bit dry. The Banner Saga has a similar setting, a similar system of decision making, but a very different core gameplay: Turn-based tactical fighting instead of a resource management sim. The result is a lot more playable.

Nevertheless one word of caution: At least as far as I played it, the game is rather linear. That is you can make decisions in situations which arise, and those decisions have consequences. But you can't decide on such basic stuff as where you are going. Your "caravan" is moving where the story needs it to be, and you can only influence it a bit, for example by deciding how much you want to rest.

But I do like the story, and the tactical combat system is good too. So if you haven't gotten the game via Kickstarter, you can now buy The Banner Saga from Steam for $25. Europeans pay €23, which is over $30. So the Kickstarter thing turned out to be a rather good deal, as I only had to pledge $10 to get the game.

I don't understand why "linear" is such a Bad Word when it comes to games, I'd rather a well-polished, fun linear game than a messy open world game. In fact, seems like it's a lot harder to make even a mediocre open world than an excellent linear game.

Perhaps I'm biased. Still, The Banner Saga looks great.
Man. The game is pretty good, but I can't help but feel a tiny bit disappointed.

Broken Age - the Double Fine adventure - was the first big thing in Kickstarting videogames, and that came out just recently as well. Between the hype for that and The Banner Saga, there was easily a couple years and a few million litres of nerd-glee invested in these things, which turned out to be wonderful little diversions for a few hours on the weekend.

After such hype and media attention about every pitfall or promise, the final result - while good - doesn't seem to justify the hype. I think this is one of the blessings of not being personally invested in a project when it's only a twinkle in the developer's eye, as opposed to finding out about it some 3-9 months (depending on franchise size) in advance when the publisher kicks off their mass hype machine.
I liked the game!

The art was very pretty. I would've loved to see more animation, though. I think there are maybe all of three animated scenes in the entire game, giving us a glimpse at that 60s-70s-era animation which teases at something more grand.

Despite the story being fairly simplistic, it still took plenty of turns which genuinely caught me by surprise, and the difficulty you have in trying to keep your struggling caravan alive really invested me more than I thought it would. Especially on the multiple occasions when my lack of foresight and my compassion caused them to run out of supplies and people started dying from starvation. Forget keeping morale up, I couldn't even keep people fed - my compassion went out the window at that point whenever it came time to make a decision about gaining supplies.

The whole 'Anyone Can Die' trope plays out very nicely in the game, and I'm actually very tempted to undergo a second or third playthrough (probably with trainers activated) just to see how things pan out as a result of all your different choices. Especially tense when it comes to choosing which of your warriors to invest precious resources in levelling-up, on account of not knowing if they'll survive the story parts, or leave the party, taking all those resources with them.

Lore in this new IP is amazing, to me. I drank it right up. The map you're introduced to early on is pretty much fully-explored, with encyclopaedia notes for almost every feature. I spent a really long time reading up on all that when I first gained access to it, and it filled in a LOT of details. But at the end of the day, it's all realized very well. Racial tensions between humanity and an immortal race of giants who are immortal but can't procreate, who had been at war until a few generations ago... The sun stopping in the sky, the common knowledge that the Gods are all dead - having killed each other. All great things.

The combat was pretty servicable. Seemed to get the hang of it early, but didn't really grasp all of its nuances until the end. That's probably a compliment to the devs.

Ultimately it felt too short, though, very few - if any - of the major plot points resolved, and a cliff-hanger ending. I'm not sure if it's because they ran out of time or money (that was apparently the reason for releasing the F2P multiplayer part first - cash injection), but it definitely left me wanting more. Maybe there'll be a sequel. I will buy it.
Non-linearity sounds superior in theory, so all the arty types rave about it and sneer at linearity. Let me know when the hyperbook replaces the novel...
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