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The Banner Saga Review: A better epic than game

Hayden Dingman | Jan. 16, 2014
The word epic is overused. Misused. Abused. It has been stripped of all meaning by an Internet prone to hyperbole.

Instead, The Banner Saga plays a lot like Telltale's Walking Dead series in that it dabbles with the illusion of choice. For a game that promises so much, you actually have very little agency.

Open up the map and prepare to feel overwhelmed. It's huge, and each location has associated lore to pore over. Then close the map and forget it. You'll never actually need the map in the entire game, since your characters proceed down a largely linear path. You don't get to choose to abandon the adventure and go exploring. You're railroaded by the invisible, guiding hand.

Early in the game my character at the time, a varl (gigantic man with horns) named Hakon, had the opportunity to choose our direction — would we go towards the capital city of the land of men and deliver the prince safely, or would we risk our entire caravan to go check out rumors of an enemy stronghold?

I first said we'd go visit the stronghold. It promised adventure and glory — and besides, the prince of men was kind of a jerk anyway. Who cared if he died along the way?

But the prince was so reproachful, I felt guilty. I reloaded an earlier save and went through the conversation again, except this time I opted to head towards the prince's city.

What happened next made me burst out laughing. My character felt some magic spell come over him, and he was forced to say we'd head towards the enemy stronghold. And then the prince got mad at me all over again.

I was going whether I liked it or not.

Similar situations crop up throughout the game. At one point two characters arrived in my group who said they "remembered me" despite the fact that I'd skipped their section of the game and they'd never met me before. It's not that illusion of choice is necessarily bad, but I don't think The Banner Saga hides its hand as well as Telltale does in The Walking Dead.

The game also has a problem with character bloat. There are 25 different characters in The Banner Saga, an eight to eleven hour game. Outside of probably five, the rest are completely ancillary. You might get one interaction with each before they're cast into the greater pot of "people I can use in battle" and forgotten.

As for the plot? Expect very few answers. The Banner Saga is the first of three planned games, so it's a bit pointless to even discuss story threads right now. Suffice it to say, the game opens probably fifty doors and only closes one by the end.

Too many mouths to feed
And then there are the game parts of this video game. I actually really enjoy the combat, outside of a few difficulty spikes. Characters have two stats: armor and strength. Each attack, you choose whether to harm the enemy's armor or strength. Armor protects from future damage. Strength plays a dual role — it governs how much damage your character does but also functions as health. When your character's health is damaged, he or she also can't do as much damage.

 

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