Tuesday, 21 January 2014

The Banner Saga: Chapter 1 (Video Game Review)

Even while competing with the recent release of the first part of the much delayed Broken AgeThe Banner Saga is a Kickstarter title which has been gaining a great deal of attention lately. This has been primarily due to two reasons: The involvement of former Bioware employees with the game’s creation and because it looks to be promising new blood in the Tactical RPG genre. Early promos were promising meaningful story-changing choices as well as very harsh but not entirely unfair combat and that’s exactly what we got.

Set in a Norse inspired fantasy world after the death of the gods and a great war against a powerful foe, you play as a band of heroes attempting to survive. The alliance forged between the giant long-lived varl and humanity, forged in a war against a previous foe, endures but each is beset by troubles. Human settlements suffer from infighting and outside forces threatening their homes, while the varl know their time on the earth is limited. However, such troubles are soon to be completely eclipsed by something which threatens them both…

The game has been repeatedly described as “Game of Thrones meets [Insert Tactical RPG here]” and it’s not hard to see why. Even ignoring the Norse influences, presence of winter, an oncoming threat and the depressing nature of the world, characters and figures can easily die. You can make decisions which can backfire on you horribly and unlike other games of their kind you have to live with them. It’s a fascinating but very harsh world and everything reflects that.

Even ignoring the story for a moment, you have two things: You have a total of twenty-five potentially characters you can recruit, all of which can die and some even by your hand, and you also need to deal with keeping your forces fed and healed. The level of renown you have serves as both currency and your method of leveling up characters, so you’re stuck with choosing between improving your heroes or keeping everyone fed. It's not an easy choice at any time. Furthermore, wounds don’t stop being a problem the moment you exit a fight. Someone brought down low or badly mauled can’t just have a Phoenix Down thrown on them, and will need time to fully recover from their damage.

More interestingly, beyond just the resource management is the level of planning required when entering any battle. You’re left with a multitude of choices beyond just equipping X to character Y and choosing which class they are, such as Shieldbangers drawing away foes from more fragile forces. You have to consider how to combine them, how to implement them in the right way, but more importantly who needs to fight at what time. You can be left with decisions which have your characters fighting massive brutes on the enemy side so your soldiers don’t, or have them go after somewhat weaker mooks and live but your soldiers pay in a high body count. Such moments often come up in more story based events, but even on the battlefield there can be a multitude of ways you can be screwed over.

New enemies are introduced without much warning and sometimes little apparent difference from their contemporaries. At least until you realise the guy with the slightly different coloured armour can move double the distance you thought he could. Furthermore, you can end up being sandwiched between two forces, forced to choose which flank to attack and even some very unexpected changes which can come about at a moment’s notice. The system itself, while not dripping in ultra-complex manoeuvres and choices, is none the less extremely well thought out. It proves to be constantly satisfying and a challenge to anyone playing. There are few victories to be found here, no single game-breaking methods and even specialisations fail to really work. Taking all varl, all human or all one class choices will only work in specific situations and even the most advantageous of skills will not carry the whole battle for you

However, while a fantastic start to a promising new fantasy setting it is not without a few nagging issues. The combat system isn’t for everyone, but much of that will come down to personal choice. Not everyone will enjoy the challenges involved or the extreme caution required constantly, and that’s fine. The problems really begin to emerge when it comes to the story and choices.

The beginnings of the tale are somewhat abrupt, feeling as if you are being told far too much of the world’s history rather than seeing it. This might be fine, as it serves to quickly get you up to speed but it seems a little too much like an “as you know…” conversation. Furthermore, despite the interesting mythology surrounding the world in question, a little too much seems to be devoted to the characters. This works to some degree, and is understandable given the sheer number available, but with such an interesting premise introduced it can be frustrating so much time is spent focusing upon them over bigger things.

The few bigger aspects we do get feel as if they have been recycled. Just consider what the varl are (violent, temperamental figures with long lifespans, powerful physique and renowned combatants who brood over the state of their dying race) and try not to think of the krogan. It can often feel at times as if you have been here before. A nagging, irritating feeling which is a distraction even as you try to enjoy the new setting. Sticking with what works for some elements are understandable, perhaps even commendable given this new IP. However, the Bioware connection can hang over a few otherwise good story elements.

The choices meanwhile aren’t so forgivable a problem. Many seem to be based purely upon blind guesses, many negative results of which can easily bite you in the arse. All too often you can lose out on the opportunity to recruit someone because you didn’t opt for exactly the right choice, or worse still get someone suddenly killed outside of combat. It all too often feels as if you are making blind gambles rather than estimated guesses with little to allow you to make an estimated choice. It’s something which can make an already frustrating game worthy of rage quitting when choosing an option on a screen ends up with you losing renown, soldiers and a character after so carefully preserving all.

Still, with a great combat system, brilliant soundtrack and distinctive art style (rotoscoping!? brilliant!) it’s hard to hold its flaws too much against it. It has more teething problems than any critical failings and what works here holds up extremely well. Even when you do suffer problems with the choice system screwing you over, you’re going to want to see just what follows next in the tale. Perhaps even start again once it’s over to try and avoid the pitfalls from last time, giving some degree of replay value. An aspect which all too many story driven RPGs lack entirely.

Be wary of its problems, but give this one a shot if you like the look of it.

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