The Banner Saga A.K.A Fantasy Viking Oregon Trail

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Banner Saga

The Banner Saga looked really appealing to me because it features both beautiful artwork reminiscent of old fantasy cartoons I watched as a kid and stuff like Disney’s Sleeping Beauty. You don’t really see art like this anymore which is a real shame. In addition to looking fantastic it also features turn-based strategy gameplay. Anybody who may be familiar with stuff I’ve written in the past might recall that I’ve often been a big fan of turn-based strategy games and SRPGs. The one thing I was absolutely NOT expecting was for the game, between battles that is, to play out similar to Oregon Trail. I’m not sure if anybody else has made that comparison yet since I haven’t actually read anything on the game. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with the Oregon Trail, though. Most people seem to love that game and have fond memories, including myself. I’m not saying that the similarities between the games is a bad thing at all, merely that it completely surprised me.

Go West, Giant Horned Man

So basically throughout the game you switch perspectives between several main characters. When you aren’t in combat, which I’ll touch on later, you are marching across the land with a huge caravan of people. Your caravan can be made up of a number of clansmen, fighters, and Varl which are giant horned humanoids. You also have a certain number of supplies which will feed your caravan for a set number of days. If you run out of food then people start dying. Your caravan morale will decrease if you encounter any bad situations or if you are marching for too many days without taking a break. As far as I can tell the only effect morale has is in combat and it determines how much bonus or negative morale points you get.

Banner Saga

Along your travels you will encounter several situations in the wild or in cities and towns. How you choose to respond to these situations can greatly affect the narrative of your story. Poor choices may cost you supplies or units while some choices may gain you new allies or items. As far as I can tell every choice seems to have a fixed outcome. It’s not like in some games like FTL, for example, where the outcome of your decision can potentially be be beneficial.  Currently I’ve only played through the game once so I’m not entirely sure if all of the encounters you face along the way are fixed to the narrative or if there are some random elements thrown in. There was an instance where I had to reload an earlier save due to a graphics glitch I was experiencing and curiously enough I did encounter something that I had not previously seen in the same location.

Have Axe, Will Travel

The game’s combat is very different from what I’m used to when it comes to turn based strategy games. The battlefield is a grid and you are allowed to choose 6 or so characters for battles but that’s where all familiarity ends. Rather than having some skill speed that determines who acts first you trade off actions with the enemy based on the order you set your units. You take a move, then the bad guy, then you, etc. This forced me to rethink a lot of my strategies. You can find yourself in a situation where you may have 4 or 5 units left and there are only two enemies left. That may sound like good odds but it can quickly turn bad. Lets say those two enemies are off on the other end of the field with two of your own guys. It may seem like a fair fight but remember that you trade off turns. So those enemy units over there will each get to act several times in the span of only 1 of your unit’s turns. Fortunately as soon as there is only 1 enemy left you trigger a pillage, which kills the whole trade off idea. I admit that I’m not entirely fond of this system. It can feel really unbalanced at times, especially in instances where there may be few, but very powerful, enemies left.

Banner Saga Gameplay

Character stats are also pretty different. Your attack stat, which I think is called Strength, also represents your health. That sounds incredibly odd, right? So essentially as your health goes down so does your ability to deal damage. I suppose that might make more sense realistically but it’s a strange concept in a game. To kind of balance this out you have an armor stat which reduces how much damage can be done to you. For example, lets say your guy has armor of 10 and strength of 10. The enemy unit has armor of 12 and strength of 12. If he chooses to attack your strength he will only deal two damage to it since you minus the damage by your current armor. If you attack somebody’s strength and their armor is greater than your strength then you will receive a -10% chance to hit for every 1 armor they have over your strength. Or something like that. It’s really confusing to try and describe but it seems to make more sense when you play the game. If you want you can attack their armor stat rather than their strength which will then let you potentially deal more damage later on. Damage done to armor is based on an entirely different stat, which I think might be called Break. There’s a lot more to the combat including character specific special abilities and spending morale/willpower (I forget which it’s called) to add to attacks, etc.

The Saga… Continues?

I won’t spoil any of the story, which is actually pretty good stuff, but the game ends without a whole lot of resolution. I’m not sure if this is only supposed to be the first episode or what but it seems like there surely must be more coming. I had a blast with my time in the game and I do plan to go back through and try to see how things play out differently. The Banner Saga is definitely worth checking out.

  • Huh. I’ve heard several people compare Banner Saga’s combat system to Battle for Wesnoth’s, but the alternating turns thing seems to throw that right out the window.

  • I am intrigued by this game and liked the look of the mechanics in a video I watched.

    The turn sequence does seem odd though and perhaps “Pillage Mode” should activate sooner, e.g. when you reach a certain ratio of characters on their respective sides. Though I guess they have balanced it around the current sequence….

  • This is one of the best, and most depressing, games I’ve ever played. It’s like The Road in video game form.

    I also really dug the combat system, it requires a completely different way of thinking than normal SRPGs. You are rewarded greatly for weakening opponents to near death but leaving them alive, so that they ‘waste’ the enemy turn when they come up. Getting dredge to mass up, and then obliterate all their armor in a few shots, is so rewarding. Such a great game.

  • The combat systems seems like a mixture of realistic and absolutely arbitrary mechanics; doing less damage when damaged is a realistic concept and is used in TBS games such as CIV5 and Warlock (albeit likely rationalized in those systems as decreasing numbers of soldiers in a unit), whereas the trading off turns seems only to make sense in tag team wrestling matches (also not known for their realism).

  • Anyone who has ever been hit in the solar plexus, throat latch, or nut sack intuitively understands the concepts behind decreasing combat effectiveness as a linear relation to health status.

    The counter-argument is that in heroic literature and movies the legendary characters may actually appear to get stronger as their health deteriorates.

    I suppose one’s preference is dependant upon how much fantasy they want in their virtual reality.

  • I played the banner saga f2p multiplayer game on steam.
    Exact same combat. Quite interesting and the sound the moment a strike hits an opponent is great.
    Fun to experiment with different units.

    Off topic: hearthstone open beta.. wooo.

  • The health to attack relation is not as unusual as it seems at first. In fact it is almost exactly identical to what is happening in games like heroes of might and magic (only the “health” of a stack here would be the number of units in it). So if you look at each hero in banner saga as similar to a stack of units in HoMM it might feel less alien (provided you ever played HoMM, but i presume you did).
    The alternating turns still have me thrown off my game though… I keep wanting to finish off units