Review: The Banner Saga 206 Oct 2016 0
Review: The Banner Saga 2
Released 28 Sep 2016
Back in 2014, The Banner Saga was so hotly anticipated that some letdown at it’s release was inevitable, and while it was well-received by critics and players alike, there was always a caveat somewhere. For some, it was quibbles with the story, like the dialogue not living up to the importance placed on the story, or the way that the plot, marketed as being like that of Game of Thrones, started to feel more like Lord of the Rings. Others felt that the Armor and Strength system was more of a shell game than a deep mechanic, or found the game’s unusual take on initiative to be uneven and unbalanced. Another frequent point was the game's beautifully presented travel mechanics - the logistical layer - should have been further developed or removed entirely, depending on who was making the case.
I’ll come right out and say that Banner Saga 2 is a better game than it’s predecessor, and that’s no small thing, considering that the first game shook off its critics stings like so many biting flies, winning nearly all of them over despite their misgivings. It’s not perfect, especially as a mobile experience, but it builds on the previous game’s strengths and benefits from a shift in players' perspectives from what they thought The Banner Saga should be to an appreciation of what it actually is.
Spoiler warning: to consider where Banner Saga 2 begins, I have to talk a little about how the first game ended. It was easy to see a simple good versus evil story in The Banner Saga, because, despite the nods to something more complex taking place, the first game was mostly about rallying squabbling allies against the forces of darkness (okay, the Dredge are more of a shale gray, but I digress) and finding the magic weapon that can defeat the ancient enemy. The twist at the end, hollowing out that victory, was foreshadowed but felt cruel without being compelling. Your mileage, of course, may vary.
The first game’s plot is a lot more compelling if you understand it as a prelude. Banner Saga 2 isn’t another war against evil, it’s a refugee crisis that pits the desperate against each other for survival. Alette or Rook’s bereavement isn’t the price of victory, it’s an open wound and a reminder that you can win and still lose. Heck, you could even take it as a repudiation of the idea that targeted assassination solves geopolitical problems. The Dredge are now “headless,” but still a vastly superior force, and they're a lot more interesting when you understand them as driven by desperation rather than conquest or revenge.
There are also more battles against human foes in this game, and they occur for a range of tragically human reasons: greed, fear, desperation and cultural differences that might have been solvable if people were clear-headed, instead of on edge all the time. No-one's above it all in this world, as both the long-lived Varl and the fabled Horseborn suffer from infighting and conflicts with body counts. The greater variety of allies and foes, with different strengths and strategies in combat, adds a lot to the tactical side of the game as well as the story. The Dredge tend overall to be well-armored, more melee than ranged-focused, and have mediocre mobility. That's a sharp contrast with the powerful but lightly-armored Horseborn whose abilities are mostly about maneuverability, including charges and hit-and-run attacks. Humans fall into the middle but are tricksy, with the greatest diversity of abilities.
This increased variety of tactical situations plays into Banner Saga’s most-controversial and least-understood mechanic: it’s unique initiative system. Instead of standard “I go, you go” turns, “we-go” simulataneous turns (as in Ravenmark), D&D style initiative, or even Final Fantasy Tactics-style individual “Speed,” the Banner Saga games have something in-between D&D initiative and chess-style “move one piece” turns. Every unit is placed in a queue by “initiative,” but the game enforces “I go, you go) turns, so the side with fewer fighters gets to have their units act more often. This isn’t a tweak: it changes everything.
In almost all strategy games, thinning the enemy’s ranks is a reliable strategy. Not so here: if you take out the cannon fodder before starting in on the big dogs, they’ll eat you alive as every enemy turn goes to their most powerful units. Crippling foes is a vital strategy, and it's often desirable to maim when you could kill because of the way the initiative system combines with the fact that Strength is both HP and attack power. Kill a weakened enemy and your opponents' remaining units will get to attack more often: spare them for a time and they keep their spot in the rotation but can't do much when they get a turn.
The game maintains balance by having fighters’ ability to Break Armor remain the same regardless of Strength, so those weakened units will tear at your armor leaving your units vulnerable to blows from their healthier companions: that’s why enemy reinforcements mid-battle can be so devastating. There are also enough counterpoints to the “leave ‘em weak” strategy that it doesn’t become rote: some units have abilities that don’t depend on Strength, others have dangerously high Break, sometimes the bonus willpower from a kill is more valuable than decreasing the other side's ability to deal damage (especially when a skald is in range to give your whole team a bonus), there are plenty of battles with special conditions that can make downing specific foes important, and there’s “Pillage” mode: when there’s only one enemy left, all your units get to act before they do, which sometimes makes kiting or tanking a heavy hitter until you can pile on them effective.
There are further implications of this kind of initiative system: if you kill the next enemy in initiative order, the one after it gets to act instead, but a stunned unit loses it’s turn, allowing two of your units to act back-to-back, making stunning abilities very powerful. Extremely rare poison abilities are even better (when was the last time you said that about poison in a RPG or strategy game), as poison damage is direct to Strength (ignoring Armor), and poison damage is inflicted on a units turn, before they attack. When a foe succumbs to poison, you effectively get two turns in a row: it was their turn, and they used it to die.
There’s a dark side to these mechanics, one that really suits Banner Saga’s leitmotif of dire choices: it’s tactically advantageous to put your own badly injured units in harm’s way, forcing the computer to use an action finishing them off and getting them out of your initiative rotation. Such heartlessness comes at a strategic cost, however, as downed units are injured and don’t fight as well until given several days rest, and as your heroes fall, casualties among the more normal folk in your caravan mount. Enough people are going to die no matter what you do: callousness or, worse, carelessness could leave you presiding over nothing more than a trail of corpses.
The logistical side of the game may be my favorite part, and I’ll admit I’d like to have seen it developed further. Making decisions that affect the morale and very lives of the hundreds of humans and Varl in your charge feels deeply significant. After one hard-won battle where I earned a lot of Renown I felt good (despite my injured heroes) until I saw the losses, including over twenty Varl. At the start of the game, there were only about two hundred of the giants known to be still alive, and my weak showing in that fight had seen them decimated (in the original sense of “one tenth of the population killed”)... and that not counting other losses that were pushing their number down from hundred toward dozens. As Renown (fame) is the game’s only currency, having to divide it between buying life-sustaining supplies, leveling-up experienced heroes, and spending it on the artifacts that your heroes can now equip because of their higher level. Without supplies, people will die of starvation, but those same people will die if your heroes aren’t strong enough to win decisive victories... or if you haven't trained enough of them.
The only other game I’ve played where the balance between soldiers and normal people was so important or so fraught is King of Dragon Pass. Banner Saga 2 is much simpler and (perhaps surprisingly) less personal in the way it handles clan politics, but it still manages to give one a feeling of responsibility for an entire people, not just a party of heroes. When my motley tribe threw out some clanless families for hoarding food, I felt a pang at my own powerlessness, and when children put on a play that included a reenactment of Rook's death, the loss felt more real than it had when Alette was talking to Iver about it.
If you want to get away from all that plot and responsibility, there’s Survival mode. Tucked behind a $1 IAP, Survivial mode lets you can play through all of the game’s battles without a hand-picked party (upgrading and hiring new heroes to replace he dead as you go). When you first enter Survival mode, the game recommends finishing the campaign first to avoid spoilers. I think that’s part of why it’s an IAP: Stoic wants you to know about Survivial mode (as opposed to only showing it after you complete the story) but they don’t want players to start there. Survival mode changes the rules, making all deaths permanent, and not filling a slain unit’s spot until the next rotation, so you do get two turns in a row for every kill, and so does your enemy.
Nothing’s perfect: Banner Saga 2 has problems, and they’re mostly technical. I hate taking a good game down a peg because of performance issues, but I’ve done it before and I have to again here. This game’s autosave feature is terrible, absolutely terrible, and there’s no manual save to back it up. As far as I can tell, the app only saves when you make camp or complete a chapter. The intention is that you’re not supposed to retry anything, taking your lumps as well as claiming your victories. That’s fine, but not having any kind of in-combat save makes it really easy to lose your progress. On my Shield tablet, with it’s solid 2 gigs of RAM, opening any other app is likely to push Banner Saga 2 out of memory.
I played the second battle of the game four times and lost my progress four times before I chose a different option at the decision point before the fight, just to see what would happen, and wound up skipping their battle. After that, I found myself trying not to use my tablet for anything but the game, a ridiculous step to take, but even that wasn’t enough. I had just started to forgive it for my frustrating early experience when I got into a battle that led to another battle (without camping). I completed the first battle, prepped for the second battle, and stopped to eat lunch. When I came back, I had a notification I needed to check, so I did… then panicked as I thought about my game. I tried to swap back, accidentally opening Twitter instead. I crossed my fingers, hoping the game had saved after I won the first fight.... but no, I had to re-fight that battle from the beginning.
You only get three retries in Survival mode, and “quitting” a battle costs one, so the save-game issue is an even bigger pain there. If I was confident that this was a bug that would be squashed, I wouldn’t put so much weight on it, but this is exactly how the first Banner Saga game handled saving, so I’m afraid this is a design decision. A monstrously ill-advised design decision.
There are some other technical issues as well: importing final saves from the previous game is slow and often fails, but Stoic just pushed out an update to the iOS version intended to fix the problem. An Android fix is presumably in the works. On extremely rare occasion, the game doesn’t load all of the map/background image for a level, leaving some of the characters hovering over a black void, but closing the app (removing it from memory) and re-opening it fixed the error.
There’s one more bug, and it’s a big one, but it seems to be specific to the Android build and then only on NVIDIA Shield devices. On my tablet, only pre-rendered cut scenes have sound. The rest of the time the game is silent as falling show. I often play muted, so this wasn’t a big deal to me personally and there is no essential information in the game that is audio-only, but no sound is a big flaw in a game that prides itself on production values.
I want to say that Banner Saga 2, all three gigs of it, has earned a long-term place on my tablet. I want to say that I’ll keep coming back to it. I really do, but right now I can't. Stoic has only upped their game, making significant improvements over the first title in almost every area, but the autosave issue is very nearly a dealbreaker. Multitasking is essential to me, and my time is fragmented: I can’t and won’t let any one app monopolize my tablet. If that’s not an issue for you, you need to go get Banner Saga 2 right now. If you’re like me… well, maybe Stoic will add a combat save. If not, it may be that, on the long march to Arberrang, neither war nor famine are so great an obstacle as Facebook Messenger.