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Review: The Banner Saga

Game: The Banner Saga
Recommended price: < $5
Metacritic Score: 80
Completion Time: 10-12 hours
Buy If You Like: PC ports of mobile tactical games, Kickstarter games

Oh, you. Wait, was he serious?

Oh, you. Wait, was he serious?

The Banner Saga is one of those darling Kickstarter stories in which a scrappy development team (or professional game designers) achieves high accolades for a beautifully drawn, epic soundtrack-having mobile-to-PC tactical RPG port. When judged against its Kickstarted peers, it stands rather tall amongst them, especially for having actually made it to release. When judged on its own merits however, The Banner Saga falls somewhat short despite it’s high Metacritic rating.

The basic thrust of The Banner Saga is one of Norse-style apocalypse. The gods are dead, the historical baddies (Dredge) are flooding the North, and everything is going to hell. The plot follows two separate caravans as they rapidly become refugee trains fleeing the destruction. Along the way you are presented with a series of Choose-Your-Own-Adventure blind choices and are rewarded or punished (mainly punished) with abrupt character deaths, loss of supplies, and similarly depressing news. Oh, and occasionally battles.

The tactical combat system in The Banner Saga is not one I have seen before, and I’m tempted to say that was for a reason. Every unit has both an Armor meter and a Strength meter, the latter of which is also your HP. Damage is calculated as “Your Strength – Their Armor = They Lose X Strength.” I already consider such systems a Red Flag simply for how many times it leads to snowball situations: wounded characters immediately lose most of their combat value. “Luckily” enough, damaging Armor isn’t tied to Strength at all (Armor Break is a separate stat you can increase), so even a character with 1 HP (i.e. 1 Strength) can do something useful. Also, some character classes have special abilities that do a set amount of damage no matter that’s character’s Strength.

Another day, another grid with the same enemies.

Another day, another grid with the same enemies.

My issue with things comes from the Turn Order system. Simply put: it alternates. Before you get into combat, you can decide which of your party members goes in which order. Once combat begins, it starts with your 1st member and then goes to one unit on the enemy’s side. If you manage to kill an enemy before their turn, the next enemy in the turn order will take their spot and everyone else moves down. This continues until there is only one enemy left, which starts “Pillage Mode” and your whole team gets one turn for every one that the last enemy receives.

The entire system leads to bizarre scenarios wherein an enemy unit can suddenly get 3-4 free turns of attacks off on a character before you can react, as you uselessly move around other out-of-range characters. In other words, the enemy gets more dangerous the more enemy units you kill; conversely, this never seems to improve your own odds of success when put in similar situations.

The other major problem I had with the game design was… well, the rest of it. You receive Renown points after battles, and Renown pulls double duty as both currency to purchase items/Supplies for your caravan and as an upgrade currency. If you want to level a character up from 2 to 3, that costs 10 Renown, for example. The problem here is that there is never enough. Which, okay, it’s Ragnarok, what are you going to do? But The Banner Saga is not at all gun-shy about killing your playable characters without warning in one of the frequent dialog choices, taking the 30+ Renown you’ve invested along with them. I couldn’t help but feel like the developers were trying to make the game be a roguelike but only going halfway. Am I supposed to reload my last auto-save when I find out that X died? Or will there be enough Renown later to off-set the loss?

Spoiler alert: no.

Know what's fun about these sort of choices? Nothing.

Know what’s fun about these sort of choices? Nothing.

In the end, I find it somewhat hard to recommend The Banner Saga, at least with even a fraction of the fervor it was recommended to me. If you are looking for a solid tactical RPG ala Final Fantasy Tactics, you will be disappointed. If you are looking for an engaging roguelike, you will be disappointed. If you are looking for a regular RPG with a great story, you will be disappointed – the game ends abruptly with a cliffhanger, as it was designed as a trilogy from the start. If you are looking for an iPad game to play for more than 10 hours, you will be disappointed.

There is some good things going on in The Banner Saga – the music, artwork, and animations are fantastic – but it’s not a complete project. The less you treat it as a serious game and more as an interactive picturebook, the better off you will be.

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Indie Devs Are Kind of Assholes

Let’s play a game called “In what context would this ever be a good idea for developers to write on internet forums?” First up, Lead Engine developer for a recently Kickstarted 16-bit action-RPG Elysian Shadows:

You know, half of what you said was actually fairly useful, but then the other half went into opinionated, biased, tangential bullshit, and you lost me entirely. Bump mapping? Have you LOOKED at our Kickstarter? Our sprites are CLEARLY bump mapped, and they’re also specularly highlighted. There’s even a section clearly describing that. Our later screenshots are also all billboarded and are entirely aligned to camera-space. Your divine wisdom would have been appreciated considerably more if you had refrained from being a total douche in the end… I was actually going to ask for your email and talk development with you… But instead I think I’ll just head on back to Kickstarter and watch the money roll in for this abomination of an indie RPG coming to a Dreamcast near you! Funny, considering the majority of the backers are coming for the Dreamcast, then OUYA is doubling our funds from $150k to $300k. ;)

The correct answer is: none. I don’t even care that the actual context was a bitter vet dev expressing frustration that his/her own game went nowhere and even went on so far as to say “[…] your entire Kickstarter is everything I hate about “indie retro 16-bit RPGs […].” That basically anonymous poster the dev was responding to? Nobody gives two shits about them thirty seconds after closing the tab. But the dev? I’m walking away from the comment exchange thinking to myself “hey, that Falco Girgis dude is an asshole – I sort of hope his game crashes and fails.”

Maybe that sentiment says more about me than anything else.

Regardless, what the dev gave up here was an opportunity to sell another copy of the game, perhaps demonstrate the competency of the team, and, you know, not be another asshole on the internet. We’re full up, dude, we don’t need any more.

But congrats on the game, or whatever. Maybe I’ll check it out in an Humble Bundle in which I allocate zero dollars to your team.

Destiny Unfulfilled

Remember BorderHaloLands, more commonly known as Destiny? You might recall I have mentioned it before. Well, yesterday was the first day of a press junket and the overarching narrative is… not good, with Kotaku and Destructoid basically calling it boring. They also called it rather amazingly detailed and lush and beautiful. And barren. And lifeless. And populated with level 2 mobs with health bars that you shoot to power your rechargable super-skills. Yeeeeaaahh.

There is a mega-thread on Reddit if you want more sources and commentary.

What’s kinda funny to me are the understated dangers of game design, at least when you let the hype train roll along just a tad too long and it misses it’s station. In just about every article I’ve read on Destiny, unfavorable comparisons are being drawn between Destiny and Titanfall. And why not? Both are next-gen sci-fi shooters trying to establish new IPs. The problem is that, like it or not, Titanfall pretty much ate Destiny’s lunch before he even got to the cashier. Just look at these developer quotes in the Polygon article:

 “The way we like to think about it, is not everybody is going to want to play Destiny, but everybody is going to be able to play Destiny if they want to,” Parsons added. “We’ve made significant improvements to the way players are going to play. People are surprised at how quickly they master the controls and get up to speed and having a great time.”

“It might not feel new compared to some of the other things that have come out recently, like Titanfall,” said design lead Lars Bakken, who added that there are changes, like free-floating double-jumps that can last for a long time. “But we’ve been prototyping for a long time and we’ve created experiences that you’ve never been able to experience before in the previous games that we’ve made, especially because it’s inherent to your character.”

I mean, I laughed at the design lead sheepishly trying to draw a parallel between the now-genre-defining wall-running parkour of Titanfall and his own game’s “long-lasting double jumps.” And then I felt sad for them. Because how were they supposed to know? As I mention in the comments yesterday, I was all gung-ho for Hex to the tune of an $85 Kickstarter pledge right up until Hearthstone came out of nowhere – 3 short months later – and pretty much flipped the proverbial design table. Now I feel like anyone coming out with a digital TCG that requires you to spam-click “Pass Priority” a dozen times a turn is basically Dead On Arrival. Hex has moved on to beta recently, but I’m not even sure I have the alpha client still installed. Why bother?

In any case, the word on the street is still that there won’t be any PC version of Destiny. The reason?

Parsons also said creating and releasing a PC version of Bungie’s shared world shooter would not be as easy as many believe, because all versions of the game connect to the same persistent video game world, which itself extends to multiple platforms.

“It is not nearly as simple as you think,” he said. “It is one central world no matter what the platform, and so that requires lots of intensive thought.

Err… okay. It sorta sounds like they’re implying that people on a Xbone can play with people on a PS4, but I’m relatively certain that that’s not actually going to happen. Just like the chances of me considering a purchase of this game. But good luck, Bungie, all the same. You’re going to need it in this new environment, especially considering you’ve already got the next 10 years of this IP all planned out. If Destiny 2 doesn’t have wall-running, you’re going to be in for a bad time.

[Kickstarter]: TerraMythos

As a general rule, I do not do solicitations of any kind (*cough* except for free games/MMOs *cough*), but I’ll make exceptions when something amuses me. The Princess of Panchala is the first in a series of YA-ish novels getting Kickstarted by Tom Wright. Part of the premise involves parallel universes, blurring of lines between sci/fi and fantasy, along with a MMORPG setting thrown in there. Based on the sample chapter on the Kickstarter page, I also anticipate there being an “is this girl just schizophrenic?” undertone.

What amused me though, was the paragraph down in the Risks section of the Kickstarter:

The risks for this project are minimal, since the novel is already written and I have a great team working with me. The worst case scenario is that I get hit by a bus, in which case the project would still continue to completion, but the likelihood of completing the remaining books in the series would be significantly reduced.

Ah, understated humor.

In any case, there’s around 20 days left to the Kickstarter if this sounds like your cup of tea.

Keeping An Eye On

I am not usually someone who risks getting my hopes up for games that aren’t even in beta, but I have the occasional moments of weakness. Here are a few of the games I am keeping an eye on:

Sir, You Are Being Hunted.

Basically an indie procedurally-generated, open-world survival game where you are being hunted by British robots. Yes, really. As much as I like the premise though, this is the sort of game that is going to live and die on the player perception of how/if the robots “cheat.” Were you really engaging in risky behavior, or does the AI just sort of auto-spot you within 30 meters? Maybe it is fun either way, who knows. The game is supposedly going to be released in July 2013, aka two months from now, so we’ll see how it shakes out soon enough.

Dying Light

Dying_light

First-person free-running zombie survival game from Techland, aka makers of Dead Island. Whatever your opinion is on zombies it’s wrong, a lot of Mirror’s Edge comparisons are being thrown around, which automatically makes it potentially more awesome. Some of the news sites are looking at this as a potential disaster given that its from the makers of Dead Island, but as you know, I enjoyed the original quite a bit. More of that in more open environments, please.

Incidentally, I have not picked up Dead Island: Riptide yet (with it’s 63 Metacritic score), but supposedly that game was made by a different team than the original. One bitten, twice zombie… or something. In any case, I wasn’t bitten. Dying Light appears to be a “hopeful” 2014 release.

Hex

The last time I talked about Hex, they were fast approaching their $300,000 Kickstarter goal. As of the time of this writing, they are sitting a $1.3 million, or more than 400% funded. The average backer spent just shy of $160. Me? I only paid $85.

Hex_Backer

My concerns about how TCGs naturally (and insidiously) combine both P2W and gamble boxes hasn’t really changed. What has changed is where exactly I place Cryptozoic on my internal Nefarious Scale, which ranges from indie all the way up to EA.

Cryptozoic is here to make money, no doubt, but their communication and outright concessions throughout the 18 Kickstarter updates has been downright refreshing. For example, their $250 Pro Player tier granted 1 free booster draft for life, which sold out in a week or less. Meanwhile, the other $250 tiers had bonuses tied to the PvE portion of the game, which is less of a value even if you planned to only play PvE (you can use PvP cards in PvE but not vice versa).

Solution? Every $250 tier now grants a free booster draft per week for 1 year.

Now, that could be construed as cynical marketing given that the Pro Player tier was sold out but the other $250 tiers were not – what better way to convince late-comers to boost their pledges than virtually increase the most popular tier? And, of course, it costs nothing to make all manners of promises in a Kickstarter campaign. At this point though, I want to believe. Just look at this:

960K – Keep Defense 
Become the master of your own domain! Every Lord of Entrath must defend their Keep, so we’re turning it into a game. Players will be able to set up a series of decks to defend their Keep, which will be played by our powerful AI (so you don’t need to even be online!). There will be rewards and prizes for those who are victorious in both defense and offense.

“Prizes” probably won’t be booster packs, so I’m not getting my hopes up about that part. But put that aside for a moment: this is asynchronous player-generated content to the max. Can you see it in your mind? Browsing your collection, building decks that you think will be useful in assaulting these keeps. And then turning around and brainstorming decks to stymie and frustrate the worms that dare defy the sanctity of your realm? Shit, I would do this all day long for free! Er… well, I guess I’m quite literally paying Cryptozoic to create content for other people, but that’s okay too.

In any case, this is quite literally the first Kickstarter I have ever pledged towards, and jumping right in at $85 given my mercilessly frugal gaming habits is pretty crazy. Dropping $10 for a beta invite probably should have sufficed. But, well, sometimes you have to put on your Press™ Pants and go full gonzo. At least, that’s what I’m telling myself. The Hex beta starts in September 2013.

Please don’t be bad. Please don’t be bad. Please don’t be bad.

Kickstarter, Cash Shops, and Ultimate Capitalism

The perfect capitalist scenario is full price discrimination. That is to say, the ability to charge each individual customer the maximum amount they are willing to pay (consumer surplus = $0). Under normal situations, this is exceedingly difficult in non-monopolistic markets. If my maximum for a game is $85 and yours is $250, the monopolist would have to have some way of preventing me – or, say, Gamestop – from (re)selling the game to you at a discount.

Enter F2P and cash shops.

Every customer pays the same entrance fee (be it literal F2P or some cover charge or $X+ for the “collector’s edition”), but now you have the ability to engage in some voluntary price discrimination. Want some costumes? $10. How about a shiny mount or horse armor? $25. Server transfers? Hats? Keys to unlock chests? Speed the game up? Unlock a dungeon? Cha-ching!

When Guild Wars 2 comes out, there will be some people out there that bought it for $60. Others will have bought it for $80. Still others will spend $150. And many more will spend $5, $10, $100 more over time via the cash shop. Nearly perfect voluntary price discrimination. Same game, same amount of development (those developers would have been creating said content regardless), different prices for different customers.

Enter Kickstarter.

A lot of bloggers have been covering Kickstarter here lately. Two of the “previewed” games caught my eye: The Dead Linger, and Faster Than Light (FTL). The latter game is a roguelike space exploration game that has successfully received 2,005% of its funding goal. After watching the video and reading about it, I am somewhat sad I missed the chance to “buy-in” with $10.

The Dead Linger is an opportunity to buy-in at $25 for a game that sounds like a cross between Left 4 Dead and Minecraft (25,000 km procedurally generated worlds, 16-person multiplayer, PvP modes if you want, etc). Then I looked at the $100 option, which included the game and goodies, plus your name or handle as part of a street sign or graffiti. “How cool would it be to see people posting their screenshots and then seeing ‘Azuriel was here’ in the background?'” I thought.

That’s when I remembered how cool $100 is, especially when compared to a game not even in playable alpha yet.

The interesting thing to me about Kickstarter in a cash shop world are the implications. In effect, it proves that there are people out there just looking for the opportunity to give their money away. If I was fanatically in love with Bioware and Mass Effect 3, how could I show my appreciation for what they do? Buy the Collector’s Edition? Buy the novels? In each case, what is taking place is a sale, a transaction, a transfer of goods for compensation. My “contribution” is not distinguishable as an act of charity or praise; Bioware simply gets the feedback that I deemed the product a good value for the money.

Kickstarter is different. Sure, a lot of people treat it as a extra-early preorder. But you can also contribute anonymously. If I sent Bioware a check for $1000 in a the mail, would they cash it? I have no idea. What Kickstarter has done is package up charity and enthusiasm into a “product” that can be sold.

Rationally, it is no different than sending a check in the mail, but it feels different. There is a meter that fills up, there are (limited!) time-sensitive bonuses, there is the satisfaction of needs going on (the game wouldn’t exist without this funding), there is a sensation of fellowship with other Kickstarters. In short, it is brilliant marketing. Utterly and completely brilliant.

As a skeptical consumer, however, I worry. The gamification of charity aside, I am concerned about how the industry marketeers must already be foaming at the mouth. How long is it until it is not just Day 1 DLC we see, but “Pay $100 for your name in graffiti on Station Omega?” It already appears as though pre-order “bonuses” (if you pay for it, it is not a bonus) in the form of DLC is here to stay. When is Kickstarter’s methodology entirely co-opted, and eventually devalued?

Oh, wait. Resident Evil 6’s Premium Edition, which includes a real-life replica of Leon’s leather jacket, costs over $1,000. The future is now.