Published on January 3rd, 2015 | by Matt
GOTY 2014 — Matt: The Banner Saga
There are some games that are quite simply breathtaking to behold. The Banner Saga is clearly one of those games. No one can deny the art of the game is simply amazing, and there isn’t a game that looks like anything close. But to imply it’s all style and no substance does the game a disservice. Behind the beautiful hand-drawn art is a strong tactical RPG pillar, surprisingly supported by a Oregon Trail-esque backbone that holds tough and meaningful plot decisions.
The narrative of The Banner Saga is what sucked me in. As I’ve stated many times before, games with strong stories can be forgiven many faults in my book. As it turns out The Banner Saga has a very decent gameplay system, but it really takes a side seat (and is a bit one note) compared to its thoroughly engaging world and characters.
The world of The Banner Saga is perhaps one of the most truly realized fantasy realms I’ve had the joy of experiences in recent memory. It’s well known that my love of Tolkien, for better or worse, has turned me off a lot of modern fantasy. I find a lot of popular fantasy to be extremely derivative and too easily falls into shallow imitations of Middle Earth. This is especially ironic given my runner-up this year, and I know there are many examples of good and unique fantasy in the world, but I applaud The Banner Saga for standing out and doing something very different from the rest of the crowd.
There isn’t an Elf or Dwarf to be seen here. No orcs, no goblins or trolls. Instead this game goes out of its way to invent a new world with new rules. The gods are dead or gone. The Humans and Varl (horned giants) are trying to maintain their uneasy alliance while the sun has literally stopped dead in the sky. Then, a completely sudden and overwhelming attack from the north by the fearsome and seemingly robotic Dredge destroys the very foundations of the two kingdoms, and displaces hundreds of people. On top of that, as our heroes try to flee for safety with their clansmen, the very world seems to be splitting in two with magic and other unspeakable horrors.
And this is just the main plot. Exploring the map in the game will show that literally every landmark and town and village and shrine and river and bay has a story and a history.
I applaud The Banner Saga for not taking the easy road of “The All-Story”. None of your heroes are “The One.” None of them are at the center of the conflict, none of them are the cause or the stop of the terrible events happening. Your goal isn’t to save the world. Your goal is to survive. Your goal is to escape. Your goal is to just keep your family alive.
And sometimes to survive means making tough choices. Choices that actually matter. Characters can live or die based on what you choose to do. There aren’t many games that have the possibility of main character perma-death, but The Banner Saga pulls no punches. Sometimes it can seem a little unfair to have a choice you made from a menu permanently remove one of your best fighters, but with that said the unfairness just feels like another realistic part of this horrible tale for our main characters.
I will never forget a choice I made near the very beginning of the game to allow a character to join my party. In the second to last chapter that character literally stabbed me in the back, killed two of my other heroes, then forced me into combat with weakened heroes. While I remember feeling totally betrayed by the game at the time, I realized soon afterwards I was supposed to feel betrayed. That character had been planning my downfall since the beginning, it wasn’t that I had no chance to prevent it, but that just like my heroes I let my trust and desires to see the best in people hurt me. Just like could and does happen in a real, messed up world. The game tricked me; it was being unfair, but sometimes life is unfair.
That is a meaningful choice.
The tactical gameplay of The Banner Saga is decent, but it is both too punishing and too simple. Heroes that are knocked down in battle stay wounded and are weakened in later battles until rested. This mechanic is fine once you have enough Heroes to round out your squad but is exceptionally punishing during the beginning of the game, when your pool of fighters is small and weak. I ended up switching the difficulty to avoid the penalty early on as half-team wipes were common. The actual combat itself is fun enough and has a clever mechanic but turns out to not quite be deep enough to carry the whole game, and the frequency of combat dulls this task. It doesn’t help that the game does little to mix up the formula, the very few bosses the game has are usually just bigger enemies, with only one or two encounters having special rules or events needed to complete them.
That said I enjoyed the combat for what it was and had fun mixing up my character’s powers and item upgrades to find the optimal team for tearing through enemies. The choices made during the travel sequences are the most interesting part of the game. As noted above it can sometimes feel unfair to lose out or be punished simply for “picking wrong” until you realize there really are no “right” choices given the state of the world.
Unfortunately The Banner Saga ends on a bit of an unresolved note. And it’s “choose your own ending” choice fell a bit flat for me. It basically amounts to picking one character over the other, and there isn’t really a good reason given for why the choice exists. For all the meaningful choices the game does have, I would have prefered the final sequence to have been pre-written to give the story a better closure. However, the ending was by no means “bad” and I am eagerly awaiting next year’s The Banner Saga 2 (which you may have heard is my Pixel Legends Personal 2014’s 2015 Game of the Year).
This is a game that not only looks amazing, but sounds it too. I barely had time to mention the simply beautiful soundtrack composed by Pixel Legends’ favorite Austin Wintory, but needless to say I’m listening to it as I write this and it is a perfect fit for the somber tone of the game. As you play the game it draws you in with its mood and sound.
With only a few weeks left in the year I decided to try a game that came out at the very beginning of it. The Banner Saga has been sitting in my Steam library since the Summer Sale, but for one reason or another I just never got around to it. One could argue that simply because its the last game I finished this year it’s so high on my personal list, but that’s drastically underselling The Banner Saga. This is a game that sets out what it means to do and hits that target perfectly. It delivers a deep and interesting story through the eyes of believable heroes in a fully realized world. Its a game that makes you attached to the characters and their stories, that makes you feel their losses as if they were your own. There aren’t many games that can say to do that.
Runner Up: Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor
What a swing Shadow of Mordor took for me this year. It went from a game I was expecting to be hot garbage to my favorite game in a long time. And then it ended going back the other way a bit by the end of the year. As awesome as Shadow of Mordor is, it’s a bit of a one trick pony. You can see that trick multiple times from a few different angles and be impressed for a while, but once you’ve seen all the nemesis system has to offer, you’ll probably be ready to stop playing.
The story is pretty horrible (not to mention that it dances on Tolkien’s grave with a jackhammer) and the combat and side missions are serviceable. Without the nemesis system (as evidenced by the last-gen versions of the game) the whole thing falls apart.
But the nemesis system is just that good. It feels like the first new gameplay feature that takes advantage of the new consoles, and its a system that I actually can’t wait to see iterated on. Usually games like this might spawn a bunch of clones and make me sigh, but in this case I’m really looking forward to where the nemesis system evolves. The gameplay in this game made it for me this year.