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Economy of Design

It’s amusing what can change in three years.

I am currently playing through The Banner Saga 2, which in pretty much all respects is The Banner Saga 1. Still running from the Dredge, still having people die off in blind choices, still have the same combat system. Except, this time, I actually really appreciate the latter.

BannerSaga2_Armor

No secret systems, which is bold

For those that don’t know, the combat system has two components: Strength and Armor. Strength acts as both your attack power and your HP. The formula for damage is simply Your Strength – Their Armor = Their Strength Loss. When attacking, you are given the option of either attacking their Strength or their Armor, with the latter being a set amount of damage based on a separate Armor-Break stat, instead of Strength.

Now, this system can snowball very quickly. Imagine two characters with 8 Armor and 12 Strength. The first person to attack will bring the other down to 8 Strength, which means they will only be able to deal 1 Strength damage in return. Then the first attacker will deal another 3 Strength damage, making any further Strength attacks from the defender take a -10% deflect penalty for each point of Armor above their Strength. Now, the defender could possibly choose to attack the first guy’s Armor instead, but that will only help in future turns… which he won’t live to see.

In any case, the battles are not 1v1 affairs. Turns take place in a round-robin manner: one of your characters take their action, then the AI takes one character’s actions, then your next character gets to move, and so on. Killing an enemy does not remove the AI’s turn – it simply moves the remaining AI units up in initiative. This can lead to incredibly dangerous scenarios if you end up leaving a powerful enemy alive, who gets to act every other turn while you’re stuck moving out-of-range units around. Thus, the superior strategy is actually to maim enemies rather than killing them (e.g. leave them with 1-2 Strength) so that the AI is stuck with weak attacks while you concentrate on maiming more combatants until you can mop the rest up.

Like I said before, this combat system often leads to snowball situations in which one of your characters getting pummeled early makes the latter half of the battle incredibly dicey. Still… the economy in design is brilliant, IMO. You can equip your characters with a special relic that might improve stats a bit, but the whole Strength & Armor deal is incredibly straight-forward. The game will helpfully tell you exactly how much damage an attack will cause, but you can eyeball the field and work it out yourself since there are really only two components. MMORPGs have to have a pile of random-ass stats in order to have room for item level-creep, but most other games do not. Hell, this combat system is so simple that I could imagine them making a board game out of it.

Oh, and another thing? The only currency in the game is Renown. Leveling up characters, purchasing food for your journey, and buying special relics all consume this one common currency. I found this incredibly frustrating in the first game, but I have come to appreciate its elegance this time around. It reminds me of deck-building games wherein the cost of adding a new card to your deck is… adding a new card to your deck. Renown is a little less intuitive than Strength – why would merchants care how famous I was? – but the tension inherent in consuming that resource adds meaningful choice to an otherwise straight-forward decision. Plus, it’s a balancing mechanism preventing you from creating uber-leveled characters.

Like I said before, The Banner Saga 2 is precisely like the original game. If you didn’t have fun playing the first time around, then things are unlikely to have changed. Unless you are like me, apparently, because I’m having a lot of fun now.

That said, fuck Blind Choices. I have zero interest in choosing one of three options, only to find out that my choice results in the loss of 150 Clansmen and dozens of fighters because… arbitrary reasons. I look up the results before I make my “choices,” and feel zero guilt for doing so. I’m not sure if these exist as a sort of roguelike mechanism to encourage multiple playthroughs, but that’s not how I like playing my tactical RPGs.

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.