Monday, August 18, 2014
The Banner Saga
First, let's talk about the game itself. Here are some reasons why it's awesome.
This is one of the most visually compelling games I've ever played. Beautifully illustrated and packed full of character, the game just looks fantastic. This visual style was one of the two main things that attracted me to the game, and it certainly held up its end in the art direction department. On a related note, the music was pitch-perfect too.
The story is engaging because it tells a personal tale in a larger setting. There's apocalypse in the air, and you're not the chosen one: you're just trying to survive and help your friends and family survive too. It gives the whole experience a desperate, tragic, fittingly Norse feeling that really draws you in. Additionally, it strikes the critical balance between directed and flexible. Most RPGs (and games in general) these days follow one of two paths: either they give you a wide open world with virtually no direction, or they put you on rails and force you to follow a strictly-formulated plot. The Banner Saga instead provides a very clear and unavoidable story framework with a set destination, but it presents you with a lot of choices that will change the journey. This makes it feel like you have agency and significance within the world while still giving you a story to follow.
The characters and social conflicts that arise are interesting and believable. It would be easy for a game like this to totally ignore some of the issues that crop up around, say, women in power in a medieval society. Or it could paint the incredibly lazy (but sadly common) black-and-white picture we get when applying contemporary ethics to historical cultures. Instead, it handles those matters honestly without skewing into either oblivious or preachy territory.
It had an interesting mixture of gameplay. Conversations and encounters with NPCs felt like a point-and-click adventure game, the combat was built around turn-based positional strategy with modest leveling aspects, and the traveling sections were basically a really fancy version of Oregon Trail where managing time and resources is the key to success. Lots of games reside in one comfort zone, growing stale very quickly. Other games try to blend different genres but hack them up so much that nothing fits together or works properly. Here, the game designers did a great job of blending together these different styles into a unified system that felt consistent and natural. The result is a game that gives you variety while maintaining coherence.
Alright, that about covers what I can tell you without getting lore-heavy or spoilerific. So far this probably sounds like a flat-out great game that everybody should go buy, right? Well it is great, but here's more detail on that "buyer beware" notice I gave earlier.
This entire game is not an entire game at all. The game just . . . ends. I mean, there's a final boss fight (which is a little gimmicky and annoying, but it's not too bad) and an appropriately melancholic final scene, but all this feels like a pivotal act-closing moment that should lead us into the next stage of the game. Instead, that's it. Now, I've seen some debate around this topic, with the developers stating that this is just the opening installment of a trilogy. If that's true, it's a good thing, because the story is totally unresolved. This isn't part of a trilogy in the typical gaming way, though, because it does not stand on its own as a complete product. It is functionally just the first part of a single, much larger game.
Now don't get me wrong, it was a great third of a game. I fully intend to buy the other two-thirds when they come out, but I'm still annoyed that I spent significantly more than I normally would for an indie release without getting the whole game. I'm not telling you to avoid buying this, I'm just letting you know what you're getting into if you do purchase it.