A Cook and a Geek Reviews: The Banner Saga

Gloriousness!The good, the bad, and the other issues.

If you just want to know what I think, I’ll put it up front right here. Because I’ve got a lot to write about afterwards and I won’t force you to wait for the end result. Like Stoic would have. Zing!

Game Grade: A– In spite of its brevity, and some mechanical shortcomings, the work that went into The Banner Saga still shines through. A laudable addition to the increasingly neglected Strategy Role Playing Game Genre, and a promising first installment to a hopefully increasingly successful trilogy.

Kickstarter Execution Grade: B– Stoic Studio made lofty promises with an ambitious delivery date. They delivered late but still delivered a good product. Communication horrendous at the finish line making all of their other efforts colored with a heavy splash of backer irritation. A simple update about the DRM-Free version would jack this up to a B+ easily.

On January 12, 2014, roughly a year and two months after the estimated release date according to their Kickstarter, Stoic Studio finally released the critically acclaimed The Banner Saga.

After trying to wait for the DRM free version for a while (more on this later) I finally caved and downloaded it through Steam. [Note, I have no real issues with Steam aside from technical network reasons that I won’t go through now, except for to say that a DRM free download would have been much more preferable for me.

Timing issues aside, The Banner Saga (hereafter referred to as TBS) has delivered a truly great addition to the world of strategy role playing games, one of my favorite and most neglected genres, not in small part because it’s a great game genre where you can eat a sandwich in one hand and play the game with the other.

Now for the review proper. I’ll try to keep this as spoiler free as possible.

The Good:

The first great thing I want to draw attention to is that in TBS, Stoic has delivered strategy RPG with a focus on characters that has been sorely neglected from large screens since seeing peaking after the SRPGs which seem to have larger fallen out of favor on consoles after the 5th generation (Final Fantasy Tactics and Disgaea being particular standouts). In more recent years we have seen some less than stellar offerings I’ve tried out on the XBOX 360 and the great but rather lonely Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn on the Wii. I’m still working my way through Valkyria Chronicles on the PS3, I’m hopeful that it will be a worthy experience. I put the chances that the XBONE and the PS4 will have decent offerings in the genre about as high as I expect that will be a Shining Force resurgence. That is to say nil, but I’d be thrilled to be wrong.

Nowadays, it seems that strategy RPGs with any emphasis on individual characters has been relegated to the small screen and handheld devices (See Fire Emblem again). It’s good to see that one company has addressed the dearth of character focused SRPGs for the computer, which has seen some great games that almost scratch that itch, such as the most recent XCOM offering Enemy Unknown and its expansion Enemy Within, which is a fantastic offering tactically, but does not really attach you to your combatants (which is for a good reason in XCOM’s case).

SRPG rant aside, TBS delivers with a great storyline full of vivid characters with believable motivations, that draws you in, and keeps you clicking that mouse to see what will happen next. Stoic studio has really crafted a really great story using Nordic themes, the mechanism of a long perilous journey, all supported by great visuals and a musical score to keep the players up with their troupe.

No review of TBS would complete without giving a mention to the artwork. Stoic has deftly shown what can be achieved with “traditional” animation, with crisp, cleanly drawn work with an attention to detail, from individual characters on the battlefield to grand, gorgeous snow swept vistas that make up the background on the travel scenes.

Ooh shiny

A start of a long journey.

The music is also very well executed, and the soundtrack works well to compliment the ambiance that TBS exudes.

TBS also does a good job of making choices matter, along the lines of King of Dragon Pass, or even Oregon Trail for a slightly more accessible example. Your path changes depending on what dialogue choices you choose, and there’s often more at stake than you imagine there to be.

See that female character? Don't expect a lot more.

Decisions, decisions.

I also appreciated that TBS does not give extra goodies beyond achievements, (that I’ve noticed) for those who play on harder difficulties. Players of SRPGs are here for the story, and if they want more challenge, they’re welcome to it, but there is not that stratification of “casuals” vs. “real players.”

Finally a breakdown of the mechanics that worked for me.

  • Unique Character Roles: Characters with the same class template often enough have their own distinguishing “skill” that offer players choices that cater to various choices. For example, some archers are better at crowd control, others act as strategic leaders with surprising front line durability and efficiency.
  • Alternative Experience System That Works: The traditional “experience points” has been replaced with “number of kills” as well, which ameliorates the plague of so many character centric games where some slightly less characters quickly get outpaced. The issue still remains, but with only five experience levels, a level 1 character isn’t ludicrously outclassed even at the end of the game, but still appreciably less effective however.
  • Injury System Just Punitive Enough: Players who constantly reload saves after battles to achieve the “perfect” playthrough may miss this aspect, but the injury system (on normal and hard difficulties) actually does quite a bit to help the earlier point. While injuries do not take a character out permanently, does hobble them enough to make sidelined characters suddenly much more appealing.
  • Unique Turn Mechanic: There are a few elements in this game that require players to think beyond the typical SRPG conventions. The turn system prevents players (or the computer) from simply overwhelming the other side with repeated turns after wiping out a lot of weaker characters, at least until one side is reduced to one character, when a significant turn advantage is given to the player who isn’t outnumbered. The “winning” side which devoted too much time to taking out one character may find itself quickly destroyed by a few healthier units. See the next point for why.
  • Armor and both Health Matter: The armor/strength aspect also requires a different level of thinking. Strength represents both health and damage dealing potential, whereas armor protects against strength damage. More effective play styles will probably strikes a balance between weakening characters, eliminating threats, and taking into account positioning. The “annihilate distractions and move on” approach to SRPGs has been blunted if not made foolhardy in normal and hard difficulties, as it often results in the very strong characters with high strength and armor to clean up your larger army. At the same time, spreading out the pain does not always yield good results, as you’ll have many enemies dinging away your armor to lead to
  • Per the prior two points, TBS really does a good job in encouraging players to use a balanced approach to achieve victory.

Better get used to this, or you're gonna have a bad time.

The Bad (directly related to the game):

Length: The most glaring issue of the game by far, or by “short” if you prefer. One playthrough of the game take much less time than what I expect it to from SRPG standards. It took me about a day of playing to finish the game, and yes, I did read all of the text. I do read fast, but I read all of my other SRPG games pretty fast, and those took at the least two days of dedicated playing time for the most part, or perhaps a week. Replay value and choices might ameliorate this, but still, given how gripping the story was, I felt compelled to finish the story and felt myself wanting more, and not entirely in the good sense.
No Cancel Move: I might be wrong on this one, but it seems once your character has taken their steps, they are stuck. The way the buttons are set up, especially if you are using a trackpad, you could accidentally march that character where you don’t want them to, or realize that your well planned move wasn’t quite as smart as you initially thought. The lack of a cancel move option, an industry standard, seems a glaring miss on Stoic’s part.

Item handling: Sometimes, you do lose characters. If they were equipped with something, you lose it. Given that it costs considerable renown to buy an item, this can be a serious penalty. Especially if you saved up a lot, and then suddenly you lose the character for some arbitrary reason a few minutes later. It’d be nice if the item was returned to your inventory.

Increase speed of travel: The speed of travel in its placid steady serves a purpose, and I think it should stay that way, at least for the first playthrough. But for completionists like mewho want to see every aspect of the game, this can be a bit of a drag on their efforts in the second playthrough (and beyond.) A “faster” option for travel time would be a nice addition.

Lack of Volume control: There ar two settings here. On, and off. I know I can just adjust my speakers but I’m kind of used to being able to set volume in game.

Limited Save Functionality: Sometimes it is nice to revisit a favorite scene, see what you missed, or just go back to the final battle again. You can’t really do that with The Banner Saga, which wipes out your prior saves from earlier playthroughs and replaces them with a whole new series of autosaves.

The other issues somewhat beyond the scope of the project:

I’ll be the first to admit that a number of these issues weren’t even on the agenda for TBS to address. Some parts of it will probably read like a wish list for the gaming industry as a whole, but even so I think they should be addressed.

The first item to address, and subsequently dismiss, is the amount of time Stoic spent on TBS past their expected estimate. Projects go overlong, especially software games. The main issue here is they underestimated how long it would take, but in the end they delivered, and video and computer game Kickstarters have had a history of taking longer than the original deliver by date.

I will say however that Stoic did display some questionable judgment in choosing to spend time on releasing The Banner Saga: Factions, a combat only preview type game, in order to showcase the combat system and beautiful line drawn art, which it did accomplish. But it was such an incomplete experience for many that many backers, myself included, thought it was a costly distraction. If abandoning that side project even advanced the main game’s timetable by a week or two, I think it would have been well worth ditching.

Gender parity is something I would have liked to see a lot more of. Though female characterization was good when it was there, there was a decided imbalance between male characters and female characters. No I don’t want fan service, I honestly just want to see a more balanced representation between the sexes in games. It does not help that all of the female characters are archers or spellcasters. Come on guys, you can break the mold. Stoic may argue that the varl are genderless, but that’s a total copout. As a friend of mine remarked, they look like men, they act like men, and they refer to each other as “he.” For all practical purposes they are male, and I’m not sure how disruptive of the lore it would have been to make Varl a race with two genders. A huge hulking female bashing baddies in the face with a huge hammer would have been a pretty awesome sight.

It’s also worth noting that the game totally fails the Bechdel Test, at least on screen. Yes, you can have strong female characters that fail the Bechdel Test.

 

Meet Alette. She's awesome. Even she can't help TBS beat the Bechdel Test.

Meet Alette. She’s awesome. Even she can’t help TBS beat the Bechdel Test.

Launching the game on Steam with a vague statement on a DRM free version was something of a kick in the pants for many backers. After all, a lot of the appeal of supporting TBS was the fact that it was going to be DRM free.

Perhaps even more egregious, or at least aggravatingly pointless, is that there has been no official Kickstarter update for the DRM free update. Thankfully other backers have found it (somehow) and shared through comments on Kickstarter, else they wouldn’t know. Some people still think that Stoic is screwing them by going with a Steam Exclusive release model, and rightfully so. If you can’t tell people what you’ve given them, how do you expect them to know?

This situation has been highlighted pretty ridiculously since one article called them out on it mistakenly. While not very thoroughly researched, I think the author’s feelings were honest, and still echoed by what a lot of backers are feeling since Stoic still hasn’t given a Kickstarter update to that effect (at least as of the date of this post). This set up a rather good “Gotcha” moment for Stoic, as they were able to say “hah, it is already available!” Which by rights should be great news! I asked them if they would update on Kickstarter to alleviate concerns, but they ignored me to direct some more salty comments at the original article.

As quoted from their most recent post

“A DRM-free version of the game is under development now and we are still working with GOG to distribute soon. This will also be available to all backers even if you downloaded a Steam copy.”

Come on Stoic, make another Kickstarter update. It’s where you kind of got your funding, and I don’t think it would hurt to give the people what they want, especially since you already made it for them.

Well, since you can’t do it, I’ll do it for you again. If you backed the Kickstarter, just sign onto the Stoic forums. It’s in the same place as the Steam Key, just a bit further down the screen.

The End Verdict: 

Did you make it this far? Wow, I applaud you. I already put my TLDR; up top, but I’ll paste it here for your convenience.

Game Grade: A– In spite of its brevity, and some mechanical shortcomings, the The Banner Saga of the work still shines through.

Kickstarter Execution Grade: B– Stoic Studio made lofty promises with an ambitious delivery date. They delivered late but still delivered a good product. Communication horrendous at the finish line making all of their other efforts colored with a heavy splash of backer irritation. A simple update about the DRM-Free version would jack this up to a B+ easily.

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