Friday, June 6, 2014

The Banner Saga Review

Name: The Banner Saga
Developer: Stoic Studios
Negative Review Title: The Banner Slog-a
Porn Title: The Boner Saga
Rating: 6 / 10

I purchased The Banner Saga as a post-Galactic Menace reward for finishing the book. For me, personally, a $25 sticker price represents a huge investment on my part. The promise of bleak, sprawling, turn-based Viking epic, however, was more than enough.

In the end, I got my money's worth. Just barely.

The Game:
Humans and giants struggle for survival in a forbidding frozen landscape. Steeped in Norse mythology, The Banner Saga is a ponderous, plodding game of moral choices, turn-based-combat and rich worldbuilding, with a heavy dose of resource management and tactical deployment.

The Pros:
The art is unreasonably beautiful and the first thing everyone mentions. The 60s-era Disney movie aesthetic really, really translates to this setting, with vibrant colors and sharp, storybook characters that only help to enhance the epic quality of the narrative. For me, though, it was the landscapes that were the most breathtaking part. Since so much of the game is spent in travel, you're really treated to a wide array of fucking gorgeous Nordic vistas and frosty mountainsides.

The worldbuilding, similarly, is nearly as rich and vibrant. The narrative plops you into a textured world that, in many ways, specifically recalls Middle Earth and Tolkien's Nordic influence, detailing the ancient work of gods now absent and the strained relationships between two similar, but diametrically opposed races. For all the exposition there is, it's hardly ever dumped on you; you're simply placed in the midst of all the swirling political tension. For not being Martin,  they sure manage to facsimile a decent Westerosi vibe.

It's the map, for me, that's really the strength of the worldbuilding, though. A sprawling, Jackson-era film nod, it's immense and filled with hundreds of locations, nations, geographical features and names, each one outfitted with a tiny slice of lore. I loved whenever I could make an excuse to pour over the map. (That gives me an ideal, actually...)

The combat, having played my fair share of Banner Saga: Factions, I continue to enjoy, mostly for its extreme difficulty. It's very punishing to lose and has set me swearing and stomping angrily around the apartment more than once but, when you do win, you feel clever – you feel like a tactician.

There are elements of the narrative that I enjoyed. I legitimately felt for many of the supporting cast (supporting cast exclusively – the main players bugged me) and I was heartbroken when many of them died, partially because of how unfair their deaths seemed to me. I do think, for the cast of thousands aesthetic they're going for, the game really succeeds at distinguishing the individual characters.

Hakon is a bodyguard thrust into a leadership position. Ubin is a world-weary tax collector. Oddleif is a chieftain's wife, never given the opportunity to shine until her husband's death. Some of the side characters – Ekkil and Ludin, specifically – are shockingly complex, I thought, considering how little they're used in the story. Overall, the character sketching was excellent, if the narrative less so.

The Cons:
I found Rook, the game's painful Aragon-meets-William Wallace protagonist, to be a bore and I found the game's main relationship, between Rook and his daughter Alette, to be even more boring. The game warns you early on that moral choices will define the scope of the story (more on this later), but then plants you into a character with a predefined set of principles – help people, most of all his daughter.

The empty vessel character really works best in games where I'm expected to insert my own ethics and reflect on them. If I'm trying to accurately play Rook – who only comes with half a personality – I can't really explore or address how I'd face these problems.

And that's the real tragedy of The Banner Saga; there are no moral choices. The game seems to pride itself on its divergent narrative, on the freedom it gives the player. I understand the illusion of choice as well as anyone, but not since that absolute horseshit "decision" at the end of Arkham City have I observed a game dangle choice meaninglessly out of my reach.

At one point in the game, all my forces were sequestered in a stronghold, accessible only by a narrow bridge, Khazad-Dûm style. A massive enemy army was marshaling on the opposite side of the bridge and the characters were uncertain how to proceed. At the time, there were two opposing factions within the stronghold; those who wished to blow the bridge and those who wished to preserve it. Personally, since the king of the stronghold wanted the bridge in tact and I was his guest, it was my inclination to keep the bridge in tact.

I therefore refused to destroy the bridge and, instead, waded out into what I expected would simply be a much harder battle. On its face a good choice; preserving your good reputation with the king requires a harder battle, whereas an easy victory costs you points with the king.

However, instead, the game informed me in a cutscene that a valuable member of my party was slain in battle because I refused to destroy the bridge. It then asked me a second time: wanna blow up the bridge now? Fearful of losing more characters, I complied and the train continuing chugging down the railroad it always intended to lead me down.

It only adds insult to injury, then, that battle is actually the safest place for your characters. While they can become wounded and require rest, the act of fighting the enemy won't ever actually endanger your characters. If a character dies in The Banner Saga, they die unexpectedly in a cut-scene, as an unforeseen consequence to one of your decisions. This always, always feels like punishment for choosing the wrong path, is never communicated to be inevitable and worst of all, it's telegraphed as the worst option.

The game, at points, is uninterestingly, unimaginatively bleak. There's a long stretch where your wounded and demoralized caravan is trekking through a succession of burnt and destroyed towns, all identical, all filled with more enemies and all lacking anything more interesting to do that starve. The fifth time I arrive hopeful to a village, expecting some story or at least a refueling station, only to find the place ransacked and filled with enemies, grows old very quickly.

Beyond this, the stakes of resources and morale are more or less pointless. There doesn't seem to be any real consequence to morale beyond player guilt and there's no more consequence to lack of resources than the starving of several unnamed extras, literally relegated to numbers flashing on your screen. The notion of dragging a massive caravan around is an interesting one but, if there's no enforcement of the consequences, I guess I don't really care if they die, especially when I could be using the money I would've spent on resources to outfit the heroes, the characters that actually deserve names.

My final grief is how abrupt the ending comes. Maybe I'm naive, but $25 for 10 hours of playtime is pretty egregious, in my opinion. Plus, the game simply throws up a title at the end of a pivotal battle, makes no point of suggesting any further episodes or games and doesn't conclude 90% of the story lines introduced. I was frankly shocked and appalled to see rolling credits, since I honestly felt the game was merely beginning.

For all my griping and its serious narrative issues, The Banner Saga is a singular, enjoyable and addicting game. Even describing its flaws, I want to neglect the rest of my chores for the day and run off to play again. I eagerly await the next installment and my earliest opportunity to explore more of the game's rich tapestry.

Recommended, but with serious reservations.

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