This has been a long time coming, but I need to talk about Banner Saga, storytelling, and integrating game mechanics with story.
Starting off with what I liked, Banner Saga is a lot of fun. It manages to marry turn based strategy and choose your own adventure game play around a core of Oregon Trail but with magic. The core resource, Renown, is used to pay for both supplies and character upgrades, so you occasionally have to choose between everyone being able to eat and leveling up your heavy hitters. Granted, that’s an odd situation to be in, but it definitely serves the game-play well. The interplay between story choices and turn based strategy is mechanically one-sided, as your decisions will change who joins or leaves your party, but those choices are in turn informed by your tactics and which characters you are most attached to. More than once I made what was in retrospect a poor decision and lost a character I had invested a lot of time and Renown in, but the events always felt like a natural progression of the story.
The turn based strategy itself deserves a special mention, as it incorporates a couple of fairly interesting mechanics. Opponents alternate moving a single unit at a time, unless one side only has one remaining, and unit health is measured both by an ablative layer of armor and the unit’s strength. Damaging armor is largely inconsequential, while damaging strength reduces an enemy’s capacity to damage others, but remaining armor reduces strength damage. It’s a very interesting interplay, and the leveling mechanic ensures that it’s possible to build any character in a variety of different ways, as a character’s stats are leveled individually and each have a specific function (Armor, strength, ect.). If I have a gripe about the combat system, it’s that there is almost no randomization, which I tend to prefer in games simply for the sour losses and epic but unlikely victories chance can bring. More than once I ended up in a situation where the exact outcome was a foregone conclusion, but of course I had to play out the remaining turns anyways.
Now, to get into the things I did not like as much. When I mentioned earlier that there was no effect from the battles on the narrative (Other than winning or losing), that was not strictly true. In many battles, you are tasked with choosing an overarching tactic for your forces, and that combined with how well you do in your ensuing match helps determine the outcome. The issue I have with this, is that I had no idea in what way my actions were effecting the outcome. There was no indication I could see for which tactic was the correct choice, so I simply picked the one I liked the name of best, and there was no feedback on how that effected how many of my warriors survived. On the subject of surviving warriors, I was initially very enthusiastic about making sure as many people made it through my play through as possible, but as their numbers dwindled, I stopped seeing a reason to care about them. I didn’t experience any negative effects, not even really any grumbling despite the amount of time we spent without food. Even just a few messages or the idea that they might want to take my inept, fumble-fingered self out of command would have been nice.
The big issue that I have, though, is that at the end of the game they changed the rules on me. The game comes down to a final climactic battle, which is beautifully set-up and upon which the fate of every person and place I had seen in the game rested. And then they forced me to take a character with me I had never used, had no idea how to use properly, and had specifically told not to come with me. With my limited for selection, that was crippling, in the face of a legitimately challenging boss battle. That honestly soured me on the whole experience, although it’s a testament to how good the rest of the game was that WAS legitimately upset when it buggered me.
In conclusion, this game is not without flaws, but I definitely recommend it, especially if you’re looking for a good blend of narrative and tactical game-play.