Monday, August 18, 2014

The Banner Saga

I've spent 11 hours over the past day playing through The Banner Saga: an indie title available on Steam that was funded through Kickstarter and which I'd been eying since its January release. I loved it, but I'm still feeling a bit conflicted. I think I managed to avoid spoilers, so prospective players should feel fine reading ahead. If you want to play it safe, though, I'll tell you the single most important thing you should know before buying the game right now: it's not a complete, self-contained release. I'll get to that in more detail under its own heading further down, if you want to know what the deal with that is.

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.

It is probably the most authentic feeling Viking game ever released. That, in case it wasn't obvious, was the other big selling point for me. Vikings, despite their undeniable awesomeness, tend to be merely bit players within the gaming world. When we do see them, it's almost always in a watered-down, cartoonish capacity where they're just caricatures representing drinking and violence. Here, however, we have a game set in a fictional but well-developed Viking world where we actually see and feel the lore and art and history and culture and environment in a far more earnest, complex way than ancient Scandinavian culture ever gets in gaming. Yes, there's the cheesy image concession of having a race of giants with horns that look like the ones falsely attributed to Viking helmets. But these "varl" are such good translations of the types of characters found in the Icelandic sagas that it's hard to begrudge them the horns. Oh, and the fact that the names Egil and Snorri found their way into the game made me smile.

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.

In a related vein, there are actual consequences. Bad decisions and failure in combat can create real problems and make the road ahead harder. This makes it feel like your input actually matters in the game world.

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.

The problem, really, is that there wasn't a clear indication to post-Kickstarter buyers that this would not be self-contained. If a developer wants to release an epic Viking game trilogy, I'm all for it. Hell, I'm glad to hear more of this is coming. It's somewhat distressing, though, to suddenly have the news sprung on you at the end of the first installment. One reason, obviously, is that now I'm invested in this world and these characters and I don't want to have to wait around for years to see how their story ends. Another reason is that since this move pissed a lot of people off, there's a chance that the ensuing backlash could cause the developers to step away from the entire project, leaving us with the gaming equivalent of blue balls. I don't think that will happen, but you never know. Finally, it's upsetting because it just feels . . . not "dishonest" per se, but it is a little misleading. If this were a $5 privately-funded indie project, I'd understand and accept the situation. Tight funding, low price of admission, you get what you pay for, yada yada yada. But this was a $20 game, and that's pretty pricey for an indie title. Further, it was a game that was entirely paid for by crowd-sourced funding, which wildly exceeded their goal (they wanted $100,000 and they got over $700,000), so budgetary constraints shouldn't be an issue. Basically, it seems like buyers should have gotten a full game instead of the first third of a 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.

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