Wednesday 23 May 2018

Switch Review - The Banner Saga

The multi award winning much loved turn-based strategy RPG finally makes it to the Switch. But with complicated combat and a demanding story is this a game that’s practical on the Switch?

Developed by Stoic 

Release in 2018

Any RPG fan knows that in any exploration party you need an elemental mage, a tank and a healer. It turns out that to create these games you also need a core of three individuals with very distinct skills. Writer Alex Thomas, programmer John Watson and artist Arnie Jorgensen all met at Bioware. After working for five years on ‘Star Wars: The Old Republic’ they felt compelled to leave “one of the biggest names in console development to make a visually stunning passion project.” They ambitiously wanted to make a strategy RPG driven by an intelligent story, one where a player’s choices weren’t simply black and white. “Getting back into a small studio environment has gone a long way to making me feel alive creatively again” notes Jorgensen. 

According to Watson, the first installment of ‘The Banner Saga’ was originally intended to be “a one year game on our own savings.” However, phenomenal success on Kickstarter back in March 2012 changed the scale in a single day. It met its funding goal of $100,000 within 24 hours and went on to accumulate over $723,000 from over 20,000 Kickstarter backers. “Holy cow that's a scary amount of cash to offload to make the game better," jokes Jorgensen. But for Stoic, the unexpected success presented opportunity coupled with greater expectation. “This changed everything: We now looked at a budget that was six times greater than we had started out with” recalls Watson. “The scope of the project was dramatically expanded and the stakes were higher.”

Many of the Kickstarter backers were drawn to this turn-based RTS game thanks to the promise of an incredible Disney-like art style. "Ever since I was a kid I've had this fascination with Eyvind Earle's art in the ‘Sleeping Beauty’ film," says artist Arnie Jorgensen. "I felt this basic art approach would work very well in juxtaposition with the sombre, serious tone of the story. It's a style that reminds us of the glory days of hand drawn animated movies, but upon closer inspection we can see it's actually a highly nuanced, mature style that doesn't belittle the emotion of the narrative, but rather works to support it”. 

As the game’s plot is driven by multiple characters, the pressure was on to create relatable protagonists. They had to be distinct from one and other to avoid confusing the player yet cohesive as a whole. “The character design is not taken from any movie in particular but just from how I naturally draw”. The resulting art is beautiful with realistic animation and a wealth of subtle touches. According to Jorgensen the “simple line art with flood fill colours is supposed to harkens back to an animated movie." However the smooth animation is actually a result of all of the combat animations being rotoscoped, something that proved incredibly time intensive for the team. “These animations were first acted out on camera, and then edited for timing before being painstakingly drawn frame by frame” remembers Watson. 

The landscapes of ‘The Banner Saga’ have an ethereal beauty to them that’s hauntingly desolate yet still ominous. This is certainly complemented by its fully orchestrated soundtrack which was promised as a Kickstarter goal. “We took over the Meyerson concert hall in Dallas Texas and spent three days recording with an orchestra of 50 musicians” boasts Watson. The score was composed by Austin Wintory; perhaps best known for the emotive PlayStation game ‘Journey’. It’s an incredible soundtrack that was understandably nominated for two BAFTA awards. “The calm rhythm of the game is a big part of how I cracked what the music ought to be” notes Wintory. “There’s a spectacularly beautiful, earthy and organic feel as a result.” Underpinning this are Scandinavian influences, reflective of the fictional world in which the game is based. 

Avoiding the Tolkien stereotypes that typically populate fantasy role-playing games, ‘The Banner Saga’ is set in an epic Viking themed fantasy realm. "Alex Thomas had this plot idea he'd been nursing since he was like 12 years-old," says Jorgensen. "When we first started talking about it he already had the idea to blend game styles like ‘Oregon Trail’, ‘King of Dragon Pass’ and ‘Shining Force’ into one story-based game”. “We knew the story of ‘the Banner Saga’ before we started the studio” adds Watson. “We knew the broad-strokes and then had to decide how best to carve this up into the three parts that would become three games. “. For Jorgensen the desire to tell a story was all ways at the forefront of his mind, it was simply a case of finding a game that could carry the narrative. “‘The Banner Saga’ is an experience where the game systems are really just a vehicle for a tale we want to tell."

According to the series’ lore; a goddess created mankind and a race of horned giants known as the Varl. For centuries the two species lived in a state of unrest and their conflict enraged the gods. To create balance and harmony formidable beings known as the Dredge are charges with overseeing both races, however their tyrannical rule force the humans and Varl into an uncomfortable alliance simply to survive. With their powers combined the dredge are forced into the wilderness. However, without a common foe forgotten tensions return, which could prove problematic should the Dredge return from their exile. 

Reflecting the developers’ Bioware origins, It’s an undeniable complicated story, but one that’ll appeal to those who enjoy ‘Game of Thrones’. Like these books the story is told by several different main characters, viewing the events from differing perspectives. While the game does feature some voice acting during attractive fully animated cut scene, the bulk of the story is told through written text accompanied by static character art. Thankfully the dialogue is engaging enough to sustain this and each of the game’s dozens of playable characters feels unique. It’s easy to become emotionally invested in them which make the games’ moral choices far harder to make. 

Throughout a play through the story based decisions really feel like you’re sculpting the plot. “Your choices in dialogue and throughout the game truly affect the story and the people around you” promised the Kickstarter. True to their word, the decisions that need to be made in the game and far from frivolous, the majority carry major consequence. A bad decision can lead to the death of a much loved character, and there is a continual sense that no character is truly safe at any time. “Not everyone will survive but they will be remembered” notes the game's eShop description.

Part of the promise of the Kickstarter was that this would be a complex game that wouldn’t have a diluted narrative for the sake of mass appeal. “A mature story for adults means forming relationships and making tough decisions; not sex, violence and swearing.” This should certainly be applauded as there is clearly a market for intelligent thought provoking plots. The problem is that Stoic knows the world’s lore intimately and there seems to be the expectation that any new player will be equally well versed when they press start for the first time. Phrases and ideology come thick and fast from the outset, and while it’s digestible, you do cling onto the hope that you’ll understand it better as the game progresses. It’s only on repeated plays that you realise just how subtle and nuanced each line of text is, but new players may just feel out of the loop.

Combat in the game is initially equally bewilderingly, especially if you’ve never played a game like ‘Final Fantasy Tactics’ or a ‘Fire Emblem’ game. Like these games, battles are viewed from an isometric perspective and movement is limited to squares. Encounters in ‘The Banner Saga’ can feel brutal unless you understand that it all boils down to two stats: armour and strength. When you attack an enemy you subtract their armour from your strength to calculate how much damage you’ll do. However if an enemy’s armour is much higher than your strength they’ll get a chance to deflect your hit. This is bad for all sorts of reasons mainly because getting hit lowers your strength turning even the most battle-hardened champion into a weakling. Your priority in battle should always be to reduce the strength of the next attacking enemy by checking the turn order at the bottom of the screen. But realistically attacks will only be successful once you’ve broken the armour of the opposition. Levelling up the armour-break stat should be a priority and utilising special abilities will make the difference between victory and defeat.
By ‘The Banner Saga’s closing you’ll be juggling more than 25 playable heroes spread across seven different classes. Each class has its own ability and while this limits character customisation it does mean you must think carefully about which classes and abilities to take into battle. As will no doubt be obvious, rushing hot-headed into a fight ultimately ends in catastrophic defeat. In fact the game does feel set up so you’ll fail most confrontations on a first attempt. Hopefully lessons are leant form failure though, and then you’ll be able to use the enemy tactics against them in a subsequent try. Unlike ‘XCom’, there are no perma-deaths in ‘The Banner Saga’. If a teammate falls in combat they will only leave with injuries requiring healing before the next battle. Some have argued this takes away the sense of dread you get when you risk your best fighters in battle. But with a player’s moral choices leading to character deaths in between battles, you simply wouldn’t have enough to reach the game’s conclusion if they permanently died in combat too. 

This is perhaps also why there is surprisingly few battle in the whole game. Depending on choices made, playthroughs seem to consist of between ten and twenty battles. While it’s great that Stoic have resisted artificially extending the game by flooding it with pointless skirmishes, it does feel as if the ending comes as soon as you’ve finally mastered battle mechanics. There are seven chapters, but the first two are so stuffed with lore and introducing the game mechanics that they’ll pass in a perplexing haze. Chapters 3 to 5 are the bulk of the game because the final two feel like an extended build up to the game’s climax. Thankfully as this Switch version has come out nearly four yeasts after the game’s initial release, the developers have had the opportunity to fix the flawed end boss. “The final battle [originally created] a difficultly spike absurdly steeper than the rest of the game” notes Watson. “Based on our analytics over half the people who reached the final battle failed to beat it. We realised we had to fix this and in later versions of ‘Banner Saga 1’ ensured the difficulty curve is more reasonable for players”. 

The tactical decisions don’t end when the battles are over. In the game you're not just a small group of heroes as would be the case in other RTS games. You are in command of a “caravan” consisting of your entire army and even civilians; basically a moving town that must be managed. Should morale or supplies run out, you’ll be at a disadvantage in combat. Low morale can cause incidents to start happening as you're travelling, for example citizens may have accidents, abandon your cause or even rise against you. 

If all of this seems like far too much hard work, then ‘The Banner Saga’ isn’t for you. It’s a game that is unashamedly complex and one that demands attention. “One of our major goals for ‘The Banner Saga’ was the opportunity to do a mature game for adults in the vein of ‘Game of Thrones’ or ‘The Black Company’” creative Director, Alex Thomas says. "When we say it's a mature that’s both the compelling plot and the battles themselves”. The odds always feel stacked against you and as such you’ll often feel you’ve lost a battle through no fault of your own. It’s a shame as it’s easy to get lost in the story, but you're maybe prevented from seeing how it continues owing to a battle being too tough. Thankfully this Switch version offers an easy mode. This seems to exist for those here just for the gripping story as battles are noticeably easier and characters no longer need to heal; enjoying full strength throughout the game. 

As ‘The Banner Saga’ has aged it has seen release on most systems, so a Switch version was inevitable. Stoic have always been keen to embrace new players but despite the sequels claiming to stand alone, the development team are all too aware that follow ups are never as appealing as the first in a series. “Sequels and series instalments are primarily appealing to people who have finished the preceding games” claims Watson. “This means the first game creates a funnel that reduces the audience for the second”. Considering this, as ‘The Banner Saga 3’ will be available on Switch at lunch, it was almost inevitable that the prequels would find their way to the console too. “We’ve always strived to share this epic series and the narrative of the saga across a variety of platforms and we are thrilled to now bring ‘The Banner Saga’ to a whole new community of console players on the Nintendo Switch,” says Watson. Considering the anticipation for a ‘Fire Emblem’ on the console there is clearly an audience waiting for a game like this and Watson is certainly proud of the final Switch version. “We have been working on porting ‘Banner Saga’ to consoles for some time” he says. “Porting the game certainly presented technical challenges that we needed to overcome, and gave us an opportunity to redesign the user experience for console controllers.” With its multiple control schemes depending on mode, the Switch presents more headaches than other consoles. After years of life on tablets it’s perhaps no surprise that ‘The Banner Saga’ plays best in handheld mode where touch screen controls make the game more fluid. When docked battles seem far fiddlier when it’s hard to identify which icon or enemy you’re targeting. But the stunning visuals do come at the cost of battery life though, as the game didn’t last for the duration of a three hour train journey.

Realistically the story and combat may prove to too alienating to some, but for those willing to invest a bit of time there’s an epic world waiting to be explored. It’s visually and aurally stunning and while it’s never a good plan to buy a game just for its looks ‘The Banner Saga’ proves that photorealistic characters and 3D environments aren’t required ingredients in video game works of art. Hopefully this game will provide an entry point in a series that really rewards the time taken to learn to love it. 

According to John Watson, the key to a great game is to “make a game you want to play and do it as well as you possibly can”. If this is true I can’t wait to see what Stoic want to play next. 

A download copy of this game was provided for review. Publishers and developers have not seen or influenced the content of this post prior to publishing.

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