Wow.

I loved it.  I played the majority of the game through in a single sitting – fittingly enough, while a major snowstorm raged outside.  Steam says it took me 16 hours, but I hardly noticed – until the end.  More on that later.

Brilliant atmosphere, tough decisions, and interesting tactical gameplay – that’s The Banner Saga for you.

This game nails the dark, apocalyptic, stoic feel of Viking mythology beautifully.  It’s the end of the world, and we’re all screwed, but until we die we’ve nothing to do but make it a fight.  A good chunk of the game is spent guiding a train of refugees across the land, and the game’s finale has you fighting to hold out as a doomed town of the abandoned poor is besieged by an immense army of unknowable stone people led by an unkillable Immortal.  Yet the stone people somehow gained my sympathy as well.  The art is brilliant across the board, so much so that even these relentless and mysterious enemies called out across the screen, for their humanity to be recognized despite it all – and especially so for their leader, Bellower.  His signature cry of rage was so beautifully animated that it looked as much a wail of despair as a terrifying blast of sound, and the game left me wondering about the tragic, doomed mission that led this Sundr to his ultimate defeat.

This game also beautifully struck the balance between the critical importance of the Hero, and the power of the mass.  In the story, the great Heroes and Sundr were the driving force behind all events.  Rook guiding his refugees to, if not safety, than at least a less dangerous place.  Hakon guided by destiny to an enemy stronghold, against all reason and good judgement.  Eyvind, striding forth to hold back the Stonsinger on the bridge.  Iver, standing up to his King to lead the remnants of his race away from a doomed last stand.  And Bellower, leading his people away from inexplicable danger towards the ancient enemy that had defeated them time and time again.  Yet between these moments, the game made you truly responsible for the survival of your people, in the most mundane ways possible.  Settling disputes, providing food, finding safe places to rest, and choosing the best path from several bad options – all these things came to seem just as important as the great confrontations of the heroes.  And, on occasion, doing it well might just get you a reward – a new Hero for the battles, better morale, or a special item.  From the many come the strength of the great.

But this is not a game for the Min/Maxer or the optimizer.  You only have one go at any of the choices in the game, and there’s little to indicate what the ultimate effect will be.  For someone who is willing to jump into this as a role-playing experience, and who buys the characters and the story, this leads to an incredible level of connection and a feeling of responsibility.  However, for someone who wants to play this as a game, learn the system, and find the “best” outcome, I can see how this would be an incredibly offputting experience.  I think I did pretty well, all in all, but there were some nasty sacrifices I made along the way, and I walked myself into a couple of really bad situations.  I might have been able to save Egil, whose Super Shield class I remembered and loved from when I played Banner Saga Factions last year.  I sent Mogyr, my favorite Varl warrior in the game, off to his death.  I stuck around a flooding town waiting for someone to arrive, and ended up starving on the road with nothing to show for it.  And at the end, I sacrificed poor Allette to her own youthful confidence, giving her a true Hero’s Death but breaking poor Rook in the process.  Despite it all, I never even considered re-loading and re-selecting, because I was immersed in the experience, and any other choice would have felt wrong.

But if the overworld game is about making the choice that feels right to you, and dealing with the consequences as they fall, then the tactical part of the game is where the optimizer has a chance to shine.  The tactical battle system in The Banner Saga involves very little luck, and involves a lot of prediction.  Keeping track of the turn order, knowing who will attack next and what they can do, predicting where the enemy will move and anticipating the damage that will cause – these skills are critical to playing the game well.  It’s a fun battle system.  I enjoyed it quite a bit when I played the MOBA version last year, Banner Saga – Factions, and the fights never got old in the full game.  My favorite classes were the Varl Strongarm and the Spearman, though Rook the Hunter was also incredibly useful thanks to his versatility.  Spearmen were great at hunting down Slingers, thanks to their Impale move and the fact that the Slingers automatically move 3 spaces after being hit, and in combination with the Strongarm they were great at weakening the big guys with an Impale/Battering Ram combo.  I’m sure there were totally different ways to play the game, and that other players would like very different Heroes.

As much as I loved it, the Banner Saga is not a game which I can recommend unreservedly to any gamer.  While the atmosphere and art is incredibly appealing, the two halves of the gameplay are so totally different in their demands and their rewards that many gamers will walk away with very conflicted feelings.  I’m not surprised that my various trusted sources of gaming wisdom and judgement have had distinctly divided opinions of the game.  Rock, Paper, Shotgun came away feeling that the tactical battles were shoehorned into the game in an awkward manner that detracted from the overall sense of immersion, despite loving the game in a general way.  On Episode 248 of Three Moves Ahead, the panel (Rob Zacne, Troy Goodfellow, and Danielle Riendeau from Polygon) takes the game to task for its unpredictable and totally scripted decisions, and how there’s no way to ever guess or predict what will happen.  Also, kudos to them for mentioning a distant soul-brother to The Banner Saga, King of Dragon Pass, a game that I dearly loved on its original PC release.  The guys on the Gamers with Jobs Conference Call Episode 381 generally enjoyed the game, but felt that all the talking detracted from the wonderful atmosphere and the actual gameplay.

But I love this game, absolutely and without qualifications.

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