REVIEW: The Banner Saga

 

Here are some more great design choices by Nordic:

  1. “Health points” and “attack power” are combined into “Strength”.  When you get hurt, you don’t do as much damage to enemies, which means that protecting yourself (defense) is always an important part attack plans (offense).  I consider this to be a next-gen feature, and one that I’ve wanted to see for years.
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  2. There is no traditional currency, only “Renown” and “Supplies”.  You gain renown by not only killing enemies, but by making respectable decisions during events that pop up along the way.  Basically, you gain “currency” when a risk you took pays off; even when there’s no logical reason why traditional “currency” would be involved.  If you avoid taking risks, you may not be able to spend as much later.
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  3. Almost nothing is random.  Unlike many hard games that have gotten praised for punishing players mistakes, The Banner Saga isn’t about coping with constant randomness.  Every attack can be calculated, usually by subtracting the attacker’s Strength from the defender’s Armor.  If they have 5 armor and you have 10 strength, you’ll do 5 damage.  (This also means you can tell how much damage they’ll be able to do when it’s their turn.)  This simple formula is complicated by passive abilities, reaction abilities, items being worn, and special abilities, but it’s never too overwhelming.  Planning ahead is actually possible here, even if you hate math.

Here are some valid criticisms I’ve seen, with my counter-points:

  1. Enemy AI is simple.  Even though I can’t think of any tactics game where enemy AI felt particularly good, a lot more could have been done here.  Enemies approach you and attack, and there is a system of “aggro” to determine who they hate most.  But even so, you won’t be able to predict how they’ll attack, or who, which is all you really need to keep the tension high in combat as pure as this.
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  2. Battle areas are small and simple.  There’s only one terrain height, and about two dozen spaces squared.  Most battle areas don’t even have obstacles in the middle anywhere.  This can create a feeling of claustrophobia, which I think works great.  You never have room to run away very far, which means you won’t waste turns walking across a huge map.  The pressure will almost always be high, from the first turn until the last.
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  3. The game isn’t finished.  Nobody who plays this game would pretend like the central plot is resolved by the end, although there is a sort of climax.  At $25, this means if you didn’t get satisfaction the whole way through your journey, you won’t get much of a payoff at the end either.  However, there is considerable replay value in the choices you can make along the way, and the looming mysteries are enough to keep me looking forward to the next installment.

 

Conclusion

Ultimately, there are two reasons why I can’t stop appreciating The Banner Saga.  One is that it rewards a type of player that I’ve never seen catered to before, and the second is that it’s willing to back up its systems using serious consequence.

As I explained before, gameplay systems send a message to players, and The Banner Saga is not content with a simple message.  As you fumble and curse along the way, you’ll slowly start to put together the mentality you need if you want to succeed, and it’s a very special one indeed.  I found myself trusting my gut, placing myself in the situation and imagining the consequences of everything around me.  I found myself actually being forced to play my character’s role, which is completely unheard of in a Role-Playing Game.  The entire RPG concept has been turned on its head (if it was ever upright to begin with).  RPG’s have always been synonymous with making goofy choices that betray your character’s supposed personality, as bored players flaunt the developer’s wishes and abuse the freedom they’re given.  But in The Banner Saga, even though you’re constantly required to make choices, you never have the freedom to screw around and break that somber immersion.

The game industry struggles with the idea of consequences these days.  Demon Souls and Dark Souls prove just how far we’ve lost our appetite for punishment, because they are the only examples people even know to point to.  It’s pathetic that we have so few good examples, but I want to add The Banner Saga to the short list.  We’ve certainly seen a bunch of “hard” games which might even have “permadeath” (which The Banner Saga does not have, for the most part, mercifully) but most of this is actually a joke in terms of consequence.  Real consequence is about suffering with your choices and making you regret (or celebrate) things for a long time, not just restarting a level instantly until you get it right.  Although I’d like to write a separate article on the misconceptions around consequence in game design, for now I’ll point to The Banner Saga as a game that made me care about everything because all of it mattered and made sense.  That shows a deep confidence in itself and its gameplay, and Nordic deserves respect for that.

 

RATING: +2.5

GREAT LEAGUE

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[Find out more about the Rating System]

The Banner Saga is a beautiful, confident, and unique example of how turn-based tactics still has room to improve and experiment.  The underlying systems are as strong as they are clean, and this is a rare treat in any RPG.  It’s one of the few games that feels accessible while also being extremely demanding of the player’s respect.  Knowing what to include and what to remove is a fine art, and Nordic chose wisely — except for the scope of the story, which could have benefited from more chapters at its full price.

 


 

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