Mento's May Mastery: Day 30: The Banner Saga

One more update after today, though it's going to be a special one so really this will be the final Mento's May Mastery. I've faltered a few times on this concept - blame that on these soul-bearing intros that I'm often struggling to fill - but overall I think this one is a keeper. As fond as I am of breezing through thirty items in my backlog in a single month, the amount of times I found myself working feverishly through the many half-finished games I felt were worth my time after the end of May started to grate on me. It was always a habit of mine to keep playing the games I liked mid-series when I had other priorities to focus on, but I'd always feel more and more on-edge as the feature beat on, leaving so many games half-complete in its wake. It's like that song, Come Sail Away by Styx: I just can't do anything else until it's finished.

Instead, I'm looking at June and wondering how I'm going to fit in even more daily content. The fact is, I don't think I'll be able to manage another month-long slog through the annals of the Atari ST, but I've thought up an alternative that will not only save me from burning out but will also greatly increase the number of ST games I'll eventually cover. It basically involves morphing the "day" part of "daily" into "week", but I won't reveal any more than that about my amazing secret plan.

June will of course also mean the advent of E3 as it hits roughly in the center of the month. That means my "Alternative to E3" blog series, which will almost certainly involve more unusual and possibly gross adventure games, and the mod-endorsed E3 banner contest. The Giant Bomb community is not lacking for fantastic artists, but at the same time there's going to be more conferences than ever this year. Even if you don't feel confident in your art compared to community heavy-hitters like @buzz_clik, @humanity, @aurahack, @b0nd07 and @fobwashed, there's no harm in submitting something anyway. Who knows, you might make us laugh and snatch away a dark horse victory.

My one regret about June, the result of having too much else planned, is missing out on the Final Fantasy Five Four Job Fiesta event. It's a charity event where people marathon Final Fantasy V with a randomly selected group of "jobs": the game's malleable class-changing system. The four randomly chosen jobs would, in this case, stay permanent throughout. I heard about it last year and was eager to partake, if perhaps without organizing the charity element (I wouldn't know how to prove I wasn't cheating, for one). It'd mean scaring up a copy of Final Fantasy V from somewhere (I have the PS1 Anthology IV/V compilation somewhere, I'm certain. Yes, the European one was IV/V instead of V/VI) but it sounds like a lot of fun to pull off something so restrictive (which is a fun sentence to take out of context). You couldn't beat Final Fantasy III with a randomized team, that's for sure. The event begins about three weeks into June, a few days after E3 ends, so I won't rule it out just yet. Who knows? Maybe we can get a ring going on Giant Bomb. It'd be fun to see what job assignments everyone else rolled up.

The Banner Saga

Our final visit to The Banner Saga for this feature. I'm actually going to keep playing this one, despite by bellyaching that the unrelenting bleakness was draining all the fun out of the experience. Honestly, the bleakness would be unbearable if there wasn't a decent game to fit around it, unlike The Walking Dead (ooh, zombie burn), but with The Banner Saga I'm enjoying the combat a lot more now that I've figured it out. It won't mean that every fight will be a breeze, as I'm sure I'll just end up unlucky and biting off more than I can chew at some point, but for the time being the FTL-style decisions and tactical combat is enough to help me weather the grim tidings.

I've actually been spending the longest time trying to think of what this game reminds me of. Not artistically, mind you: I picked up on the Bakshi thing almost immediately (I think I only just watched Fire & Ice again a few months ago). Rather the fiction, divorced from its heavy Nordic inspiration. I think it's from as far as back as my literary days, possibly either Dragonlance or the second Death Gate book. In both cases, there's a humongous force of enemies that suddenly appears and blindsides a world that's enjoyed peace for years. Most of the citizenry are slaughtered in the surprise attacks, but the rest band together, look for survivors and try to conjure up (sometimes literally) a means to repel the invincible horde of monsters. In both cases the outlook is extremely bleak, with people unsure that civilization itself will persevere let alone their immediate band of survivors. It's not quite as dolorous as zombie apocalypse fiction, but there's a definite building sense of dread and the recurring sentiment that the world as they know it is effectively over. Actually, the plot of that second Death Gate book, where colossal titans march out of the endless forests that surround the civilized areas of the world and start crushing every settlement and murdering every person in an insane yet purposeful march, sounds suspiciously similar to a certain recent franchise that's been picking up steam of late.

Hey, it was like this when I got here.
Hey, it was like this when I got here.

For as much of a downer it is, I like the overall plot and the world The Banner Saga has created. I do want to see where it goes, and that means I intend to keep playing it after this month is over. I have a lot of regrets already about the decisions I've made and it feels like every one of them should be sown into a banner of my own, to ponder their significance and consider the paths not chosen. The game arouses all sorts of deeply reflective notions like that, and it doesn't shy away from really rubbing it in when things don't go your way. I know I've been harping on about its story for the majority of these three updates, but it's the most significant aspect of the game and a testament to a form of storytelling that cannot exist in any other medium. Video games don't have to constantly tackle social issues or have the gameplay be based on walking around and looking at things or force you to consider bad decisions (though I'm still personally happy to look at any game that does any of those three things adroitly enough), but by pushing video game narration in this direction we start to unlock the unique potential this format has for storytelling. It's exciting to explore this space, as so many other revenues start to dry up out of disinterest. How many more changes to Call of Duty's multiplayer can we make before it's too stale? How many more iterations of Assassin's Creed can the gaming public stomach? (I know, I know, I'm praising contemplative Indies while condemning AAA. I'm the worst thinkpiece-writing, clickbait-setting snarky Brit since Jim Fucking Sterling, Son.)

Let's focus on the gameplay then. Actually, I've all but exhausted everything about it: the combat system's a little wonky but fascinating in how it recontexualizes its battles as wearying wars of attrition rather than a bunch of heroes with infinite stamina blasting through horde after horde of disposable monsters. For as much as I love the Vandal Hearts games, they sure feel like goofy Seven Samurai escapism compared to The Banner Saga. Maybe Final Fantasy Tactics still compares, because there's no beating the game's incredibly layered plot, but The Banner Saga sure is giving it a run for its gil. What is it about SRPGs that inspires this level of writing, I wonder? I've talked about the caravan in the past too, as slight as it is. Customizing characters? Sure, let's go with that.

I love little details like these. Those weird silhouettes in the foreground? They ain't bushes. (Wait, is that Midna on the far left?)
I love little details like these. Those weird silhouettes in the foreground? They ain't bushes. (Wait, is that Midna on the far left?)

Characters spend renown to level up as previously discussed, but as you only gain a couple of stat points per level it seems wasteful to raise characters too high if everyone else has to starve (as renown is also what you trade for supplies). The characters all have strength (doubles as health) and armor, the two core stats, but there's also stats for willpower, exertion and armor break. These pull the Dark Souls trick of looking far more innocuous and inessential than the core stats, but are actually hugely beneficial if you know how they work. Willpower allows you to spend extra points to fudge damage and movement by plus one per point spent, and these points regenerate whenever an enemy dies. Exertion is how many of these points you can spend at once. It's extremely useful to begin a fight by marching up to an enemy and pouring a whole bunch of willpower into rendering it barely functional. Armor break determines how much your character can wear away at an enemy's armor if they choose to target that instead of their strength. Heavily armored characters need a few whacks to that stat before you can do any reasonable damage to them, but I've found that lowering strength is more important four times out of five. These stats can't be boosted much, but they're such vital components that I often find myself bumping them up instead of the obvious strength and armor options. I know it's rote to compare everything to Dark Souls, but understanding how the game's stats work, and why certain ones are better than they appear, is an important consideration when learning how to get better at it.

Anyway, tomorrow will cover a different game, but rest assured that I will see these varl and humans to their destinies "off-screen", as it were. Whether those destinies involve victory or an early grave is probably too soon to call.

Day 01: I Have No Mouth, and I Must ScreamDay 11: MiasmataDay 21: Magrunner: Dark Pulse
Day 02: I Have No Mouth, and I Must ScreamDay 12: BotaniculaDay 22: Magrunner: Dark Pulse
Day 03: I Have No Mouth, and I Must ScreamDay 13: BotaniculaDay 23: The Nightmare Cooperative & Lilly Looking Through
Day 04: Life of PixelDay 14: Shantae: Risky's RevengeDay 24: Cook, Serve, Delicious!
Day 05: Life of PixelDay 15: Bit Dungeon IIDay 25: Dreamfall: The Longest Journey
Day 06: SPAZDay 16: Stick it to the Man!Day 26: Dreamfall: The Longest Journey
Day 07: SPAZDay 17: NaissanceEDay 27: Dreamfall: The Longest Journey
Day 08: NightSkyDay 18: The SwapperDay 28: The Banner Saga
Day 09: The RoomDay 19: ClaireDay 29: The Banner Saga
Day 10: Ultionus: A Tale of Petty RevengeDay 20: DokuroDay 30: The Banner Saga
Finale: Papers, Please
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