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Impressions: Banners of Ruin

Banners of Ruin is an incredibly slick deckbuilding roguelike that has consumed my life for the past week. While it shares some conventions with other games in the genre, it has a fairly unique mix of them that result in a number surprising interactions. Also, everyone is an anthropomorphized animal.

Before moving on though, let me say this: the visuals and especially the music are phenomenal. The combination sucks you right into the setting, and I found myself humming along with the battle music pretty much the entire time it’s playing. Just like with Tainted Grail before it, I will be tracking down this soundtrack, if it exists.

Just look at how evocative that Pierce card is.

The central premise of the game is that you are a member of a suddenly-deposed House, and you are trying to escape the city with your life. As you navigate the city, you must choose from one of three “path” cards which can lead to combat, shops, or events. These choices are mutually exclusive, and you don’t have a particular notion of what offerings you will get next time. After a specific number of choices, you will encounter the boss fight of the area and then move on, if successful.

Combat is highly tactical. You start with two characters that can be arranged however you like (ahead of time) on a 2×3 grid; enemies are will be placed in their own 2×3 formation facing opposite. While you are free to play cards every turn, your foes will only act one rank at a time, e.g. the front three positions on Turn 1, then the back three positions on Turn 2, etc, unless there are no enemies in a specific rank.

Easy choice.

Positioning matters. Enemies will typically attack a specific horizontal lane. Place one character in front of another, and that front character is likely to eat all of the incoming attacks. However, if three enemies are targeting a character with nobody behind them and then that character moves to a different spot, all three attacks will be negated. And remember when I said that enemies take turns attacking based on which rank they’re in? If they are set to attack you this turn from the front rank and you move them (via a card like Kick) to the back rank… then they don’t attack that turn. Next turn, if you then draw into cards that can move them back to the front, you can skip their turn again.

The tactical nature of the game extends out into deckbuilding and character progression too. Each character has two weapons slots and an armor slot. Equipping a bow will add a Bow card into your deck; equipping two daggers adds two dagger cards instead; a shield will add a shield card, and so on. Armor is more passive insofar as it affects your starting armor only, although there are special armors that have more interesting effects. As characters level up, they can unlock a choice of three Talent cards which are then added to the deck, but only that character can play the card. Same with the weapon cards, actually. Level ups also unlock a choice of passive abilities. Oh, and each race has a racial ability that can be activated any time, as long as you have a secondary resource (Will) available.

I somehow won this early, accidental Elite battle. I mean, I’m amazing, of course.

What all this combines into is an interesting gumbo of choices, tactics, and deckbuilding strategy.

…until you get to the endgame.

There is a final Final Boss that become accessible after performing a series of steps along the campaign. However, the fight itself is so oppressive and ridiculous that it leads to really just a single strategy to overcome it. Once I understood this, and realized the same strategy works for the rest of the game too, every subsequent run started to feel the same. It doesn’t help that while there is a great variety in character races and Talent cards and passives, the number of defined weapons/armors and enemies in general is much more limited. Indeed, I think all of the bosses are the same each time too.

The potentially good news is that the game appears to still be in active development – there was a major release in November 2021, which added new “hallway” scenarios, some optional difficulty modifiers (aka Ascension ranks), mini-bosses and so on. That is not enough to elevate the endgame to a Slay the Spire level, IMO, but A) not everything needs infinite replay value, and B) maybe a future patch or DLC will spice things up.

Overall, I am very satisfied with my (discounted) purchase of Banners of Ruin. As someone who plays a lot of games in this genre, I definitely appreciated the slick presentation and the novel mix of elements. The sort of defined challenges I complained about earlier might be more of a positive to others who dislike a lot of randomness. Or maybe we can just be happy playing a game for ~30 hours and be done.

We All Lift Together

This is technically old news, but Warframe came out with a new expansion of sorts.

Accompanying this expansion is perhaps one of the best game trailers ever made:

While the video is a delight itself, I am mainly referring to the song. Luckily, someone created an hour-long loop version so that I don’t have to keep clicking the Repeat button and/or fend off auto-playing “recommended” videos.

Listening to this on loop got me thinking… what even are the other contenders for best game trailers ever made? I had to go through several Top 10 lists to reacquaint myself with a few of them. My own list includes, in no particular order:

I’m a sucker for orchestra and choir and Inception noises, apparently.

If you need me, I’ll be listening to a trailer song of an expansion to a game I don’t even play.

Review: Bastion

Game: Bastion
Recommended price: $15 (Full Price)
Metacritic Score: 88
Completion Time: ~6 hours
Buy If You Like: Extremely well designed, short works of action-RPG art.

Like LIMBO, another entry in the "Games As Art" category.

Much like LIMBO before it, Bastion puts me in the unfortunate position of having to tell you about an amazing game that concludes much too soon. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

On a superficial level, Bastion is a so-so Action RPG in the vein of Diablo meets Kingdom Hearts. You move your character around with WASD on an isometric field, and repeatedly Left-Click or Right-Click depending on which of the two selected weapons you want to use. There is also a dodge (Spacebar) and Block (Shift) button, the latter of which can straight up counter attacks completely if you press it at the right time. There are a bit more than a dozen enemy types, only a few of which require tactics other than simply shooting them with a ranged weapon or repeatedly mashing the melee button. You pick up orbs from killing/breaking things to use as currency for upgrades, leveling doesn’t change much beyond max HP and opening new passive ability slots, and… that’s about it.

By the way, the Mona Lisa is just a chick sitting in front of a river, Starry Night is just some swirls, Seurat liked making a lot of dots, Moonlight Sonata is some piano noises, etc etc.

How things are presented is incredibly important, and it is in this way that the designers of Bastion demonstrate a level of mastery that is damn near sublime. Bastion is a game with its own zeitgeist.

One of the first things people mention about Bastion is the narration by Logan Cunningham, who incredibly has never done voice-acting before. Before I played the game, I thought the concept of background narration a cute “gimmick.” By the end of Bastion, I had no idea how I would cope in games without it. The narration is so much more than a workaround for a silent protagonist and a lack of formal written dialog. Yes, it reacts to things you are doing on-screen – “Kid just rages for a while” (when just smashing objects), “And then the Kid falls to his death… I’m just playin'” (when you fall off the edge of the maps). But it solves a crucial problem endemic in most RPGs: how do you succinctly express emotion? Written dialog only takes you so far, and emotive character models generally do not work outside of LA Noir-esque settings, nevermind how that shackles you into a certain artistic style. Obviously Bastion is not the first game to use voice acting to “solve” the problem, but I am coming up at a loss as to what other game nailed it as hard as this one.

Seriously, Bastion has ruined other games for me, art-wise.

The other aspect that unfortunately does not seem to get as much press time are the visuals. It is somewhat difficult to truly appreciate it during gameplay, but this is the first time I have felt like I was playing a literal work of art since Saga Frontier 2. And it is just not that everything looks amazing; everything simply fits. For example, take a look at any of the screenshots. Do you ever really notice the background? In the entire time I was playing, I recognized that there were edges I could fall off of, and yet never once was I distracted by what that abyss consisted of. That doesn’t happen by accident. Also, the elegance that is the ground flying up to form your path is the sort of design epiphany that solves a more mundane problem (how to prevent the player from seeing their isometric path) in a way that makes the game as a whole better. In other words, it felt like an integral part of the experience rather than arbitrary.

Finally, I would be remiss to not mention the amazing soundtrack. It fades in and out at all the right moments, and is of a quality far beyond what one would expect in a $15 indie game. Part Western, part Eastern, part hip-hop, trip-hop, blues, techno and altogether perfect for what it is. I would not go so far as to buy the $10 soundtrack – typically, battle music isn’t what I look for when I want to relax/browse the web – but you might want to check out Build That Wall (Zia’s Theme) and Mother, I’m Here (Zulf’s Theme) and the hybridized Setting Sail, Coming Home (End Theme). Even if you never actually play the game, those three songs alone will likely make their way to the top of your playlist. Mother, I’m Here in particular so perfectly channels a moment in the game, that it creates a feedback loop with your memory of the experience (which includes the song) that results, at least for me, a reaction far beyond what I actually felt at the time. I literally have not experienced this feeling from a videogame song since Chrono Trigger, FF7, and Xenogears.

Honestly, the only thing stopping this game from rocketing its way towards my Top 5 game list is its six hour duration. That is not to say it felt rushed or incomplete; quite the opposite, in fact! Bastion puts its arm around your shoulder, spins you a fantastic tale, pats you on the back and then saunters off into the sunset. For the completists and sentimentalists, there is a New Game+ option that lets you keep your upgraded weapons and adds more gods to the Shrine, which buffs enemies in various ways to voluntarily increase the challenge.

All good things come to an end though, and god damn if I wished Bastion lasted two, three, hell, five times as long as it did. Lord knows worse games do.