Friday, September 26, 2014

Games Review: The Banner Saga

The Banner Saga was one of those games I'd heard good things about, picked up in a Steam sale, and then totally forgot that I owned. Which is the problem of Steam Sales, I guess, and why so many PC game owners these days have hard drives full of games they only dimly remember buying. However, having experienced The Deep Roads of Dragon Age: Origins, which pretty much killed my interest in a game i was enjoying up to that point, I was rooting for something different, and this fit the bill. So how was it?

The Banner Saga is really two games rolled huddled together for warmth against the icy winds of the worlds setting. The first of these two games is a resource and storytelling game that reminded me of King of Dragon Pass, where you are presented with little dilemmas to solve as the leader of a caravan crossing the world, which will go on to have interlocking consquences as time goes on. This can affect your food supplies, Renown (a currency you use for pretty much everything from levelling up to buying items, etc) and even which characters live and die in some of the bigger events. The other game is a turn-based tactical combat game where your characters duke it out with various encounters related to the plot and events mentioned above.

To take the combat system first, its pretty familiar and in the Final Fantasy Tactics/Disgaea mould, and to be honest it's OK but a little basic. Every character has their own special ability, and they can earn the right to level up (and improve their stats) by gaining kills on the battlefield. The problems with it are twofold - first, levelling up costs you renown, so its fighting for space with other resources like food,  and I was frequently with characters I couldn't afford to upgrade as the game got tougher but they didn't. Secondly, it gets fairly repetitive; apart from a couple of fights you're mostly slugging it out on a flat, chessboard-like grid, making all the fights a bit of a grind-fest, even if you're able to deploy some of the more subtle combinations correctly.

More than balancing this however, is the rest of it. Set in a pseudo-nordic world with (at least) three races, humans, the giant, horned Varl, and stone-like Dredge, this is a wild, untamed and hostile place facing what looks like its end times. You swap between two groups, the first a military expedition and the second a refugee column, each with their own characters and problems that dovetail nicely at the end. The story - told with some gorgeous artwork - is bleak and cold too, but the characterisation is engaging and I wanted to keep playing just to see more of the world, and more of these people.

In the end though, The Banner Saga remains unfinished because I simply can't beat the final boss. I've reached the end of the game but my people are outmatched, and the fight feels beyond me; and sure, I can go back a few hours of gameplay but the gameplay itself isn't that engaging by this point. The final boss fight is fun, by the way, and has some nice lore and nice mechanics, but I lost it a long time ago, I fear. This is only the first part of the Saga, however, so I'm sure I'll go back it, and shamefacedly turn down the difficulty, just before the next part comes out.