REVIEW: The Banner Saga

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Bottom Line: Nordic undertakes an epic journey with only a handful of supplies, making every little bit count.

The Banner Saga doesn’t feel like a full game, and it can easily be called insubstantial by the standards set by its most successful kin.  Narrative-driven tactics games are renowned for having a wide variety of content, with dozens of enemy types, stages, abilities, classes, and cutscenes to discover over weeks and months, but The Banner Saga has only a few of each and can be finished in a couple of days.  But I love it more than most, because it managed to actually make me care.  I’m going to try to explain why.

From a psychological point of view, we can say that deprivation always increases our sense of value.  Those who have very little tend to appreciate what they have, while an abundance leads to apathy.  Supply and demand, rare and exotic things versus the commonplace and mundane, etc.  It’s no surprise that this applies to game design as well.  Games that are simple and narrowly focused can engage players just as much as sprawling worlds of freedom and activities.  Our focus becomes concentrated, rather than spread out.  And because games consist of interlocked systems, simpler systems can often yield better focus.

Whether developers realize it or not, games will inevitably send messages to players about what’s important and what’s not.  We filter out irrelevant data and distill what “really matters” into a key considerations.  These considerations are usually things like keeping our mana bar full when we fight a boss, or staying more than 4 tiles away from ranged enemies; but they are almost never in harmony with the “story” being told.  The story tells us to protect innocent lives, but the gameplay is telling us to look after ourselves and grab as much money as we can.  This isn’t a problem, either.  Because when gameplay messages is powerfully, consistently reinforced, we become caught in their grip and feel challenged to invest our energy, focus, and pride into mastering them.

The Banner Saga doesn’t settle for simple messages, but it reinforces all of them brutally.

Like most tactics games, fighting isn’t the bulk of the game.  Between fights, you’ll need to immerse yourself into your role.  You are the accidental leader of a large group of fighters, and their families, who want to get to somewhere far away for reasons I won’t get into.  You’ll be forced to make on-the-spot decisions without much information, which can be shockingly stressful.  As your caravan travels along the road, you may suddenly be prompted whether to investigate suspicious activity in the forest next to the road.  You’ll have more than two options, and each of them will seem very reasonable.  If you’re feeling paranoid (perhaps thanks to past mistakes) and decide to investigate, you might waste a whole day, which consumes a day’s worth of supplies.  When this happens, morale may drop, as your group questions your judgment.  Low morale will limit the amount of Willpower you can use in a fight.  Why do you want Willpower?  Because it helps you do more, walk further, hit harder, and execute special abilities.  You want to do these things, because you want to win, because being defeated in fights will cause injuries, which weaken your character in future fights until they’re healed, by Resting.  Of course, Resting costs a day’s worth of supplies, so even that can be a hard call to make.

So the question is: do you investigate that suspicious activity?  You risk the chance of being caught off guard, which would make you feel like an even bigger fool, but keep in mind that if you walk away you may also be passing up a golden opportunity to find more supplies, meet a new group of people who can help you, etc. etc.  Much like real life, you’ll be begging for easy answers to unexpected problems, but you’ll have to figure it out on your own.  I found myself questioning my own judgment constantly, and appreciated that so many of the characters I talk to were just as beaten down and distrustful as I was.  The world recognized my struggles, and I recognized its struggles in return.  It was beautiful.

 

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