Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Review - The Banner Saga

Much has already been written about the unique art style of The Banner Saga, so I will simply say, “It is breathtaking.” I did not even notice that the character portraits were not animated (besides their shifting eyes) until I was halfway through the game. I realized that the hand-drawn art served to activate my imagination and fill in the action. In my mind’s eye, I saw their struggles on the road and their battles in the field. Despite the lack of voice-overs, I heard them speak. Despite the lack of animation, I saw them march and fight, suffer and starve, smile and rejoice. The storytelling in The Banner Saga is so strong that these characters were truly drawn to life.

The breathtaking portraits and wind-swpet landscapes aside, I found that the captivating story of The Banner Saga became its main gameplay mechanic. Players are thrust into the role of a leader who must guide his people along seemingly endless roads of hardship that twist throughout a world on the brink of collapse. A race of dark, statue-like creatures known as Dredge have been spotted, active again after hundreds of years, encroaching upon the boundaries of men and giant beings called the Varl. Forces of Dredge sweep over villages and kingdoms alike, destroying everything in sight, but not everything is as it seems, as these monsters are being driven by an even darker, more ancient force.

The game unfolds mostly along stretches of travel that are punctuated by about a hundred scenarios that revolve around player choice. A drunk trips and accidentally sets fire to a wagon of invaluable, life-sustaining supplies. How will you dispense justice? Your scouts report a large force of Dredge is lingering just outside the village ahead where you had hoped to rest and raise morale. Will you press on and risk lives? An enemy soldier that you spared several days ago sprints toward your caravan, out of breath, claiming his friends are under attack in a nearby forest. Is it a trap? Every choice has a consequence. Your people will live and die depending on your leadership. The true enjoyment of experiencing The Banner Saga is found in these choices. It was hard not to be emotionally impacted when my caravan’s supplies ran out, but I knew we had to press on despite starvation to escape the Dredge that chased us.

The battles that unfold when the Dredge (or human opponents) finally do clash with your caravan play out on a tactical, turn-based battlefield. Unfortunately, the battle system (the other half of the gameplay) is not as engaging as the choice-driven story. Every choice you make on the battlefield – movement, positioning, attack – is informed by every unit’s simple numerical values: strength and armor. If players don’t first chip away an enemy’s armor, they won’t survive. Additionally, without reducing an opponent’s strength, your heroes are in for some serious hits. There are special techniques that your heroes can unleash, but they don’t lend themselves to tide-turning strategies very well. I rarely used them. It was much more beneficial to spend a unit’s turn attacking armor or strength than using a special technique. While the battles are very challenging and ultimately satisfying when you can achieve victory against nearly impossible odds, they become tedious move-and-attack actions without any dramatic flair.

While there is no fear of perma-death in The Banner Saga’s tactical battles, there are definitely dramatic moments in the story that will leave you gasping for breath. No one is safe from betrayal. The game’s narrative will truly test your ability to trust others. The game examines the human condition in a thought-provoking way. Characters you grow to care about can be destroyed in an instant as a result of your actions and choices, or turn on you when you least expect it. Yet at the same time, unbreakable bonds will be formed with reluctant allies through acts of valor. It’s these unexpected twists that give The Banner Saga’s story its true quality, in the same way that George R. R. Martin is revered for killing off his fans’ favorite characters at unforeseen moments throughout his novels.

Of course, all of my impressions of The Banner Saga are based on a single playthrough, in which I tried to adhere to the role of a cautious, compassionate, and merciful leader. As a result of my choices, many people died because I could not bring myself to make some truly difficult decisions. I am eager to experience The Banner Saga again and again to see how events will be different when I choose to be a little more tyrannical and impulsive. Despite its minimalist strategy gameplay, the core reason to experience The Banner Saga is its story, and for that I highly recommend it.