Indie Wonderland: The Banner Saga

A few hours in

So it turns out I did just make it to Grofheim! Normally these little page-turners turn out to be wishful thinking at the best and rampant nonsense at the worst, but this particular time it was as right on the money as you can reasonably get.

It took a little longer to get to Grofheim than I expected, though… because right that last fight — the one with the robot-like Dredge, it turns out — marked the end of Chapter 1. And Chapter 2 took me all the way across the map, to involve markedly less giants and markedly more of these guys:

You might recognize them as the people actually visible on the title screen.

Chapter 1 was about the human-varl alliance and the giants’ line of succession. Chapter 2, on the other hand, was a group of humans’ desperate flight from the hordes of encroaching Dredge. It was an interesting change of pace, both in the combat — humans are small, squishy, and way less capable of breaking up stone robot armor, after all — but also in the overall tone. The varl caravan consisted of close to a thousand giant fighters, carrying enough supplies for hundreds of days. The human caravan / escape party is mostly unarmed humans, and enough supplies for a week and a half.

It might actually not have been a good idea to run that ‘open door’ policy.

Chapter 3 brought me back to the giants’ battles. This is the chapter that ended in the burnt-out ruins of Grofheim — spoiler, I guess — where I fought the Dredge three identical times in a row, each time losing or messing up in new and interesting ways, until at last I quit in frustrated anger and didn’t return.

Whoops, I guess?

This battle is a lot less engaging the *fourth* time around.

I use the phrase ‘in two minds’ fairly often in this column. I usually use it to indicate that a good game has a serious downside, or that a bad game has a serious redeeming feature, and that that complicates an otherwise straightforward judgement process. But with The Banner Saga, I’m almost actually in two minds: there is such a vast gulf of qualitative difference between the combat segments and the caravan gameplay that I almost feel as if I should review them as two different games.

I’m not going to — I can’t — because the two systems are interwoven on a fairly fundamental level. But let’s just say I’m entirely unsurprised to see that the free multiplayer spinoff game, The Banner Sage: Factions, is essentially 100% the combat system.

To wit:

The combat system in The Banner Saga is really good. It’s engaging, it’s tactical, and it keeps a fast pace while still allowing room for careful deliberation. It is easy to learn but hard to master, and the variety of units, stats and special abilities allow a skilled player plenty of room to excel.

Plus, it still looks really damn good.

Even if some of the character designs are a little palette-swappy sometimes.

The implementation of Strength-as-health, the dichotomy of Strength and Armor, the interesting spin on initiative order and the generally low movement values lie at the heart of what makes The Banner Saga’s combat interesting. Every move has to be deliberate, because every strike is a trade-off. Do you move this unit within striking range of the enemy? Doing so will put you in range of other enemies… but maybe that’s a good thing. Better that they attack the high-armor Shieldmaster, than that they try to slip past to get to the Eagle Eye, yes? And there’s so many dredge on the field anyway… will the ones you get close to be the first to move? Or not?

And do you attack Armor, or Strength? Strength seems like it has the most obvious benefits: it brings your enemy one step closer to defeat and it weakens its counterattack. But if its Armor remains this high, and if you start taking hits, you won’t reliably be able to hit it anymore. And this is varl unit: humans tend to make up for their lower Strength with other benefits, like ranged attacks and higher movement. So if you strike at Armor now, your other units will be able to inflict massive damage later. But that could leave you open to this unit’s full-Strength counterattack… assuming its turn comes up before your other units can weaken it.

Pop quiz, hot shot. Pop. Quiz.

There’s a strong emphasis on positioning and planning. Maps tend to be smaller, and more than one map has movement-restricting debris. But even on the open maps, it’s entirely possible to use stronger units to attract attention, and to block the enemy’s path to weaker units. And the initiative order of your units is something you actually decide on beforehand. In other words, you always know which unit moves after which other unit, and which unit opens the battle.

What helps immensely is that The Banner Saga always keeps all relevant info immediately visible on-screen. You can see Strength, Armor and Willpower values for every unit with a single button press. Movement allowance with and without Willpower use is immediately clear, as discussed earlier. And in planning your move, mousing over locations in striking range of enemies will display the Strength damage you’ll be able to deal in a small circle over them, thus providing two valuable bits of information — ‘Can I hit this enemy from here’ and ‘For how much’ — in a single go.

For instance: this handy overview shows me I can smack this chump in a single hit, even *before* I do the actual smacking!

I’m also fairly grateful for the fact that units can fall in battle without actually dying in the larger story. Combat in The Banner Saga is pretty challenging — at least, on the harder difficulties — and pulling a Fire Emblem ‘keep everyone alive all the time’ is difficult enough in a system that actually has magical healing. In a system that doesn’t… let’s just say the occasional tactical sacrifice is a necessity.

This would’ve been a *short* playthrough, otherwise.

The system is far from perfect, of course. I particularly dislike the lack of an ‘undo’ function for moving. The double-confirmation system makes it less likely that you accidentally mess up, but it’s still definitely possible. And in a system as tight-knit as this, losing a battle because of a misclick is both very much likely and very much galling.

And while the enemy AI seems competent enough overall, it does some weird stuff occasionally. Most noticeable is its trend to drop everything else to focus on a single unit it thinks it can bring down quickly, even if that unit’s low Strength score means it’s way less dangerous than some of the units it’s bypassing. It’s ‘realistic’, I guess, in that most of your enemies are unfeeling stone-robots trying to bring you down by sheer weight of numbers… but it seems odd, tactically. I’ve also seen some enemies break off of combat to just go stand in the corner, and some special abilities used in suboptimal times and places, to name a few other things. The AI will still give you a run for your money, but don’t expect any clever last-minute reversals.

Finally, I think The Banner Saga may have some… let’s call them balance issues? Not all unit classes and not all stats are created equal, that’s for sure. Class-wise, some classes and sub-classes are just more powerful or useful than others: the varl Shieldmaster and Warhawk and the various human archer sub-classes far outclass the other classes for abilities, in my opinion. A Shieldmaster can break massive amounts of armor and retaliate damage, a Warhawk can hit multiple enemies for full Strength damage and hit enemies adjacent to those for Heavy Impact, and all archers passively deal additional damage based on missing armor if they shoot without moving. Which is to say, they linearly do more damage, 1-for-2 or something along those lines. And some of the larger Dredge units have a lot of armor starting out, which you’ll want to destroy anyway…

On the other hand, most movement-related powers — the Siege Archer’s fire field, the Spearman’s impale, the Strongarm’s Battering Ram — just kind of fall flat. There’s one class that can grant Morale to other units, which looks neat… but the Battle Horn mechanic combined with the generally large groups of enemies, and the way Caravan Morale works, tends to mean you have enough free Morale to go around anyway. And that flailing thing Marauders do is situationally useful, but not enough to really earn them a permanent spot on your six-man crew if you have a say in it.

Not saying they don’t have their situational uses, though.

Units can also level up, a maximum of four times, each time gaining two additional stat points. These points can be attributed freely, up to a cap per stat. And here, too, I think certain choices are just more powerful than others. I actually read a short guide that warned against ‘putting all your points in Strength and Armor’, which… surprised me, I guess, because I’ve been putting most of my points into Armor Break and Exertion as much as I can. Unlike Strength Damage, Armor Break is infallible, unalterable, and almost always useful. And combined with at least semi-high Morale, high Exertion basically translates itself into up to three free points in anything you’d care to achieve. I can’t even imagine going into battle without Mogr, the varl Shieldmaster who can smash up to eight points of Armor in a single stroke. Compared to those benefits, extra points in Strength and Armor seem much less effectual; they’re still good, and they’ll keep you alive, but they’re not nearly as game-changing.

But yeah, in summary: the combat system part of The Banner Sage is pretty good. Interesting, engaging, tactical. A little flawed, but good fun.

The caravan gameplay system in The Banner Saga is a mess.

Not *even* the Godstone eases my pains, here.

In-between combat segments, the majority of The Banner Saga’s gameplay is… gods, how do I even describe this properly?

Let’s try it like this. There are four things you’ll be doing a lot of in The Banner Saga that don’t involve combat. First, and most frequent, you’ll be watching a sideways view of a caravan schlepping its way from place to place. This is a 2-dimensional view of tiny men walking in a straight line, it’s almost entirely uninteractive, and there’s way more of it than you’d even hope to see in the first three chapters alone.

Nothing in this picture was altered or set up for dramatic effect. You just… *watch*, the tiny caravan, for a while.

As you can see from the UI at the top, The Banner Saga purports to have interesting gameplay elements in the caravan section as well. The large number is the day counter, which ticks down as the caravan moves. This ties into the little sack, which represents how many days of supplies you have left. Run out of supplies, and your morale will drop, and members of your caravan — Clansmen, Fighters and Varl — will start dying and deserting.

Which matters… why, exactly? There is one definite reason why these numbers are supposed to matter, which we’ll get to later. But beyond that — and trust me when I say that element alone is not enough — there doesn’t seem to be any real reason for a player to care about these numbers. Mechanically, I can’t really tell if they have any influence on gameplay proceedings. And narratively, we’re never really given a reason to care about anyone but the named people that fight in the main party. The caravan in chapter 2 is made up of former townsfolk and friends, at least, but even then these ‘people’ never come into play as anything but a reason for the main characters to be sad. Which they manage to be plenty on their own, thank you, what with the endless invasion of awful stone robots and the like.

In fairness, this sense of abstract dejection might have been lessened if we had any actual control over the caravan. But the travel path, the planning, the route, the rate of supply use, and all kinds of potentially interesting decisions in running a caravan are not the player’s to make. Mechanically, watching the caravan is just what it says on the tin.

Second, and still fairly frequent, there will be cutscenes. Because what game doesn’t need talking heads? I don’t want to talk smack about this element too much, because it’s a decent way of getting information across, and it does look fairly pretty.

I know I keep repeating this game’s artistic merit, but it is *really* good-looking and well-designed.

Third, there are the ‘town’ or ‘camp’ sequences. Whenever you arrive in a town, or whenever you decide to make camp, you are presented with a standard set of functions you can do. You can promote and equip your heroes, you can engage in training battles (complete with NPC trainer giving you class-specific tips), you can occasionally buy supplies and items for Renown, the all-purpose resource you use for everything, and you can rest. Resting takes time and supplies, but doing so slowly heals the characters that fell in previous battles: characters that fall, you see, can immediately take part in new battles, but they’ll suffer a penalty to their maximum Strength for doing so. Resting slowly reduces this penalty.

Oh, and in some towns, you can talk to certain NPCs. It’s a story thing, you’ll understand when you’re older.

I actually don’t mind the town sections too much: they’re an okay break from the monotony of the caravan, and actually buying supplies and items and making decisions with regards to time spent resting are definitely more involved than most of it. Still, it’s not always as well designed: certain towns fulfill a story role more than anything, which usually means less interactive gameplay and more you clicking on houses to get cutscenes started. Which, you know, why do I even have to click? If this is literally the only thing I’m allowed to do, why make me do it?

Literally the only thing I can do beside clicking that house here is OPENING THE OPTIONS MENU TO QUIT. And I can do that anyway, whenever I like!

And fourth, finally, there’s the Choices. Hoo boy, are they something.

In the leadup to its release, Stoic Studio had a lot to say about the role of player choice in The Banner Saga. ‘Choices you make will impact the story and the game world permanently’, that sort of thing. Now, games tend to say that… but in The Banner Saga, I was surprised to see this mechanic implemented in a very literal fashion.

Because the game asks you to make choices, you see. You’re walking along your caravan, and then suddenly a popup shows up. ‘This situation happens’, it tells you. ‘What do you do? A, B or C?’

Yell, Ranged, or Melee?

You select your choice — in flat text — and then the game tells you what happens — in flat text. Maybe you’ll have a battle! Or not. Maybe you’ll get supplies, or items, or the unit numbers in your caravan increase or decrease. Or maybe one of your party members dies forever. Or maybe, you know, scones!

When people talk about wanting ‘more choice in games’, I never imagine them talking about something like this. It’s almost an absurdly reductionist approach to whole notion. And only a small number of the choice moments somewhat organically flow from narrative, too; most of them feel painfully contrived, action moments put in to break up the monotony of watching the caravan trudge.

Oh, and party members do leave or die as a result from these things! Sometimes, it’s obvious, so painfully obvious that you can’t help but try and game the system:

Gee, I wonder what would happen if I stubbornly try to save the riches?

Other times, it’s out of the blue. Like… in one battle, I had the option of having one woman start a forest fire, to distract the Dredge. I figured this would have some negative consequences, you know, unrest among the fire-hating varl and all that. But then she just up and disappeared! My most powerful archer, and lynchpin of my offensive strategy, gone because I couldn’t anticipate listening to her plan would dissolve her into the aether.

The Banner Saga’s attempt to enforce consequences from choice is an incredibly stringent save system. Not only can’t you manually save and load, it’s never really clear when the game auto-saves, either. You can always exit to menu and come back, but beyond that, the game’s list of trigger-specific autosaves is vague at best. So I guess the real question is, hotshot: do you want to risk having to redo the previous five battles because you can’t read whether or not the autosave took place when you entered the village, or when you left it? Or are you content with losing your best character to the will of an angry game designer deity?

The choice system really shines during the War segments, which are introduced in chapter 3. And by ‘shines’, I mean more the opposite of that. What’s the opposite of ‘shining’? ‘Black-holing’?

See, it’s like this: you’ll be walking. Suddenly, an event happens! There are Dredge to fight. But oh no, it’s way too many of them! It’s not enough for you and five of your friends to engage them: this calls for all-out caravan war!

What’s the effective difference between ‘fighters’ and ‘varl’? Who knows!

You can approach these war segments in five ways. Three of these ways lead to combat, with each of them representing a different division of labour between you and your army: either you get a heavier fight, or you lose more men. You can also decide to let the army do everything, which is like pushing Auto-Resolve in a Total War game… only without percentage chances, or a visualization of odds, or any of the information you need in order to make an informed decision here. Finally, you can flee. I… don’t actually know what that does, because I’ve never done it.

“You guys have this figured out, right?”

The idea of War segments is neat in theory. In practice, however, they’re just so weirdly poorly put together. You’re presented with fighter numbers, and a mood shot of your chances, but it never really means anything. What does it mean when you’re outnumbered? Is it better to take on a more difficult fight to even the odds, or an easier fight to improve your chances of winning? Can you lose the war even if you win your battle? And does any War segment have a lasting influence on later Wars?

All of those things seem like they *might* be the case. But I’m still not entirely sure, and I don’t think the game’s ever told me.

You are usually actually allowed to lose these battles, by the way, without ending the story. On the one hand, I think this is an interesting idea that plays with the notion of consequences well. On the other hand…

As an example: I tried saving a village from a Dredge attack. I failed, was rescued by my army, and was told that the village was lost and that we’d have to go around. I reloaded (because I lost due to stupid bullshit), replayed the battle, and won. And now I was allowed to enter the saved village to rest and resupply, before continuing on my trek.

You see what I mean? Interesting consequences to winning or losing, but at the end of the day, it didn’t actually affect anything.

And then, of course, you hit a battle you aren’t allowed to lose. Like Grofheim, the burnt-out fortress, where — after climbing a tower, fighting Dredge, and rescuing a man — I decided that my party was too injured to risk a real fight, and tried to Auto-resolve the fight instead. Odds were good, it told me!

Next thing you know, Game Over.

You get one guess as to how far back the game put me after that. And no guesses as to how I responded, because I already told you at the start of the page.

Final thoughts

I find it difficult to come to any sort of actual judgement on The Banner Saga. On the one hand, I enjoy the combat, I dig the looks and the incredible artwork, and for all my complaining, I’m at least interested enough in the story to want to see where it goes. I respect the attempt at non-generic Norse world-building, too, which definitely helps. And while the absolute deluge of information presented to you by way of map and conversations can be a bit jarring, it’s still easy enough to get a quick and functional overview of who’s who, what’s what, and where’s where. Plus, I wouldn’t be surprised if later games in this setting — later chapters of The Banner Sage — explore other locations in more detail.

But I also consider the choice system poorly implemented and thought out, the options disappointingly short, and the game itself incredibly unforgiving with regards to mistaken and misinterpretations. The caravan gameplay is a dull mechanic that only really serves to tie combat encounters and plot points together, and the random nature of the happenstance that befalls you conveys ‘life is harsh and unfair, and you have to adapt’ and more ‘haha, sucker, you didn’t see this coming, did you’. In fact, my latest (and possible last) rage-quit occurred when an unclear dialogue choice caused Prince Ludlin to run to his death, taking his two warriors with him. And suddenly I had a team of only five varl left, injured from the two previous back-to-back fights, in a battle that the game explicitly seemed to tell me would be ‘for real’ and ‘to the death’. The dialogue choice was made trying to avoid that fight, incidentally.

Ultimately, I don’t think I can arrive at any single recommendation here. If you like the idea of a non-traditional Norse world with interesting story elements, pretty art, and horned giants, you’ll get a lot of that out of The Banner Saga. If you’re okay with unclear choices and dealing with consequences, this could actually be the kind of experience you’d really like. And if you like smug dumb-faced human princes to go take a running leap off a tall tower, man, do I have news for you.

Seriously, though, he’s such a asshat.

But if you like clarity in design, a clear path from choice to consequence, and gameplay with a large degree of player control… I don’t know if you’d get that here.

The Banner Saga is currently available on Steam for €23-equivalent. It’s definitely pricey, which adds to the hesitation. Complicating matters is the fact that the multiplayer combat-only version of the game, The Banner Saga: Factions, is also on there, and free. And The regular Banner Saga has no demo to speak of, as far as I can tell.

My honest recommendation? Get the game if the story and lore interest you. Try Factions first if it’s mostly the combat (and art) you like. If you’re hesitant at all… you know the drill. Either pass over or wait for the next Steam sale. A game with such strong Viking influences would appreciate slashed prices, I think.

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  1. I enjoyed the article/review. Next time there is a steam sale for this I will most likely pick up a copy. Good job.

    1. Thank you! And if you do, I hope you have a better time with The Banner Saga than I did. Many people seem to do, so it’s not unlikely.

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