So, I know there's already thread for feedback on the Single Player Campaign, but I'm a guy who tends to write, like, a LOT of text, and I figured all I'd end up doing there is writing a whole bunch of small posts. If that's going to be the case, might as well make one big one, right?

Anyway . . .

The Banner Saga is easily one of the most ambitious, beautiful and artful games to get kickstarted thus far. It creates a majestic setting, portrays characters instead of caricatures, and offers a wonderfully challenging tactical wargame experience. As the true start to what could be a definitive gaming epic, it has to potential to join some of gaming's greats as a series that will stand the test of time and be played for years to come.

Unfortunately, it's also one of the most frustrating games I've ever played, with almost as many flaws as merits. Worse, the particular frustration it engenders, and their ubiquity have the potential to kill this series before it really gets off the ground. The following review is thus both to laud the developers at Stoic where they succeeded, and to focus on the aspects where they've failed, primarily in the hopes that the problems can be addressed and the Saga completed.

NOTE: There are gonna be some spoilers here. Almost certainly big ones. Also, when I do my own personal "reviews" I judge games one my four "C"s, Context, Craftsmanship, Control, and Core, an approach I like and you can see laid out below.

The Context (AKA Narrative)

The Good

One of the hardest aspects to do properly in any game, TBS excels in this category. The World feels rich and lived in, creating a unique setting that's easy to want to while away hours in. Despite the somewhat limited amount of text the various characters get to express themselves, most come across as genuine people rather than merely archetypical cutouts, and in general the dialogue is strong. While the overarching Battlestar Galactica-meets-Norse-Mythology plot of "Running from Ragnarok" is fairly straightforward, there are enough twists and turns to give it needed complexity, and the continual unraveling of the world's lore always keeps a player hungry for more.

Perhaps more importantly than anything else, it's just an interesting world. When most videogame fantasy has a hard time escaping the Dragons-Orc-Elves dichotomy, The Banner Saga gives us the Horned Varl and Stony Dredge. These novel creations feel new and bring a sense of freshness to a genre that desperately needs it. Combined with the focus on melee combat and low magic setting, and we finally have a video game that properly captures the "low magic" spectrum of fantasy.

The Bad

The biggest narrative misstep has to do with it's thorough incompleteness at two specific points (HERE BE THE SPOILERS). The first is after the two caravans "meet" in Einartoft and the player successfully beats back the attacking Dredge with Rook and Iver. There is pretty obviously supposed to be a Hakon Chapter following this, where the player would be leading his party back to Arberaang and meeting Juno on the road toward the end, revealing that she lives through a viewpoint character the audience already knows rather than suddenly jumping to someone we don't. Because after this chapter is the longest chapter in the game, and the one where Rook's Band covers the most distance, from Einartoft to Boersgard, and after a series of alternating early chapters between Varl caravans and Rook's Human caravan, the two Rook chapters in a row break the established flow of the story.

The next point is the end of the game and how it gets there. Primarily, the game basically just stops with zero resolution to the "main" plot, having only resolved what seems to be a minor obstacle in the grander scheme. The LOTR equivalent would be ending The Fellowship of the Ring at the point of Gandalf falling into the Chasm with the Balrog rather than when Frodo decides to break away from the Fellowship; there's simply too much peril still in the air, the characters and the audience are still in shock from dealing with losses, and (importantly) there's almost zero positivity given to the audience in order for us to want to strive on.

This bleakness could be seen as a general failing of the narrative. Not because it is bleak, but because that's all there is. Often it's just too nihilistic and dreary for a 1st chapter of something. While this is partially the point, the hopeless moments versus hopeful moments ratio here is something like 99:1. That ratio would work much better in the 2nd part of a trilogy when the characters end up at their lowest point, not the first part of a trilogy when most long stories end on a high enough note that the audience can believe in the protagonists' success. After the end of the Banner Saga Part 1, it feels as if Part 2 is just going to be more depressing than Cormac MacCarthy's The Road, so why bother?

I mean, the Kickstarter said it was going to be a mature story. A truly mature story isn't just "Everything sucks literally all of the time". A mature story is, "Yeah, things suck. A lot of the time. But they also don't a lot of the time either. It's how you deal with the suck. How you view the suck that makes someone an adult."

More importantly though, is the fact that when it comes to most of the decision-point "gameplay", there usually isn't enough information given to determine what your choices will entail, and moreover, the intent of the design is to apparently make sure that every choice you make is always the wrong one. As such, characters who you may have invested time and (more importantly) renown into often die (permanently) in frankly arbitrary fashions. At one point I suddenly lost a character for choosing to participate in a 2nd battle in row, after winning both battles and when choosing to participate in both battles actually seemed to make the most logical sense for the goals of the group. Losing even when you're successful like this simply feels insulting and undermines any sense of achievement the game otherwise lets you feel, and in general, destroys the player's trust in making choices at all. If, in the end, I choose to go left, but the plot forces me to go right, why even give the option of going left?

This last bit - the all too often too arbitrary permanent character loss and always negative choices without respite - is what created the MOST frustration in my progression. The constant, unrelenting negativity and lack of control on my part to do anything about it didn't just kill the morale of the caravan. Often, it killed mine as well.

The Craftsmanship

The Good

This is easily the game's strongest point. So much so that there's little to actually say. The visual design is excellent and the game is downright sumptuous to watch, the music is hauntingly, achingly beautiful, and everything fits the obvious vision of the creators. As an audio/visual tour de force, a 2D game doesn't get much better than this.

"The Bad"

That has to be in quotes because the the only "failing" that occurs with the presentation is that there's not enough of it at points. You want to see more animated cinematics, hear more wonderfully composed tracks, and wish there was some more VOs to bring even more life to the game's dialogue. There could probably be some more variation to the sound effects library, but that's really the closest thing to an actual flaw here.

The Control (AKA Usability)

The Good

This is a pretty simple game to just pick up and play immediately. There are no complicated controls, and the flow of menus and options are the definition of streamlined. You can easily start the game and immediately "get" how to participate in battle and the ample tutorial chapter will hammer home all of the specifics you're going to need in order to play. While there aren't many options for the player to mess around with, the game really doesn't need many, since it uses such a simple system and is in 2D.

The Bad

In fact, there is perhaps far too much simplicity, especially with the Caravan gameplay sections. There is never enough information given to the player with this aspect of the game. How many supplies should I buy? Well, I don't know how long this leg of the journey is going to be, so I can't properly make that decision. Should I invest renown into supplies, or level up a character? Well, the arbitrary deaths of characters makes you want to safely invest in supplies, but the lack of importance with caravan members until the final chapter of the game makes you want to invest in character leveling. Why can't I sell the supposedly legendary items I find for some emergency renown? Why can't I choose to have my caravan ration food, forage or pick up the pace? How is morale calculated and how many days do I have with this amount?

So much of what seems to be the 2nd most important element to the game is either left to mystery, or not allowed that the element simply feels again, incomplete.

On top of this, there are simply a lot of fundamentally bad UI issues. There is no animation on the loading screens, so if you get a long one, you have no way to tell if the game is crashed or not (oddly inconsistent with Factions since there ARE animated loading screens there). There is no strong highlight that characters have unassigned skill points, so I went through a number of battles with characters weaker than they should have been. There is no option to cancel the upgrade character screen, so you have to back out of that menu entirely if you decide you don't want to level up a character yet.

In general, though there are flaws here, much of this could be addressed in future patches, and hopefully will be.

The Core (Gameplay)

The Good

First things first, the tactical gameplay is VERY sound. After reading some reviews that claimed that the combat was a dreary chore I have to wonder what game those reviewers were playing. Fundamentally this game's tactical combat system is the core of this game, and if you think it's a chore you probably just won't like this game at all. But if you actually like tactical games, it's a marvelous system that strikes that rare balance between simplicity and complexity.

The tactical combat is easily the highlight of the actual you know, "game" part of this video game. Which is a good thing since it's what you'll be doing the most of. Again, like the world's setting it manages to create a lot of novel concepts in a space that often seems bereft of them.

The Bad

There are three issues here. The balance of the tactical combat, the lack of map variety, and the lack of variety in the overall gameplay.

The first issue is kind of strange actually. The fact is, the initiative and Strength systems used works fundamentally better for the Multiplayer Factions than this single player outing. The constant turn switching that makes the MP fair and equitable makes the unbalanced teams of the campaign have lopsided pacing, especially against the Dredge, who seem the lumbering slow type, but often end up feeling nimbler than what should be your quickest characters by the end of the encounter. Then there's the fact that when you combine this initiative system with the strength system, the strategy of maiming everyone but not killing them just makes battles feel drag out artificially. I've never played another game where I was incentivized to NOT quickly kill the big monsters trying to kill me; it just feels very counter-intuitive. Another element needs to be added to SP to change this turgid pace of battle and encourage the killing of enemies like dredge. The other side of the balance lies with the wonky difficulty. Normal is a decent difficulty level with a couple appropriate spikes, but easy and hard are utterly ridiculous, with easy being a total joke and hard being more brutal than death metal. However, considering these aren't the major focus, this is a negligible aspect at best.

As for the maps, the biggest problem is that there's no variety of layout. With one exception, every map is just a big rectangle with no terrain features to either work against or use to your advantage. Considering a big part of literally every tactical game in existence is in learning how to use terrain to your advantage, and that there is more variety in them more limited maps of Factions (the docks map with the posts and the fire interior fire-pit versus the one map in SP that has a pit in the center) the fact that there's no variety here is incredibly disappointing.

The real killer though, is that there just isn't enough gameplay to this video game. As already mentioned, the Caravan sections are too forced by the narrative, too confusing, and too simplified to feel like an actual "gameplay" element. They feel more like a series of semi-interactive cutscenes. Which leaves just the tactical battles as literally the only gameplay option. While these are thankfully great, they simply aren't enough because there's nothing to break up their flow. It's this lack of flow breaking in the gameplay that I think the reviewers are complaining about when they were saying the battles become a chore, because I don't think it's the actual battles that are the problem so much as there's nothing to really do in between them.

Because the end result is a game at odds with its concept. The concept is of an overarching grand saga, but in actual sagas lots of different types of events happen. In The Odyssey for example, there are moments when Odysseus and crew have to be crafty, or sneaky, or nice, or mean. They battle some foes, run from others, and outsmart others still. They do different things. Here my options are fight or walk or rest or decide on something. Walking and resting are automated, and making decisions comes down to picking from a list of options, so the only actual option that feels active is "fight". This would be fine if it were a 3-hour beat 'em up, but this is a 10-15 hour epic on your first playthrough.


At the end of the day, most of these flaws can be ignored by fans I think. The tone is what it is, however dreary. The arbitrary character deaths and always negative consequence "choices". The limited gameplay variety. All of these elements could be seen as intended functionality and the frustrations can be accepted by a certain number of hardcore fans. But that would be a huge mistake.

If the audience stays limited, it's going to mean Stoic can't make enough money to produce a sequel, and thus, that crummy cliffhanger ending could end up being the official one. The immense potential of The Banner Saga would, instead of following in the footsteps of Final Fantasy or Zelda or Mass Effect, go down the path of Bionic Commando 2K9, Advent Rising, XIII, and the many other games that decided to start a trilogy and then undersold in their first installment.

This scenario is exactly what I don't want. I really like the core gameplay and the setting. Enough that I've now become a Factions player, and expect that I will be for some time to come. But I'm not your average gamer. I'm a guy that plays XCOM on Ironman and often on Impossible. I can handle a challenge and I can handle the bleakness (the arbitrariness, less so).

So please, Stoic, I hope you listen to the concerns I've brought up and that you can address them. Either in patches, DLC, or the subsequent chapters. Ideally with all of the above. Thank you for setting up these forums so folks like myself can voice our hopes and concerns, and if you read this, thank you for your time.