Sunday, May 3, 2015

#88: The Banner Saga: Building on an Idea

Every once in a while, I play a game that challenges some basic notions of game design. Usually, these do not turn out to be very good, as these notions exist for a reason. On the other hand, they sometimes open up new possibilities for what game developers can do. The Banner Saga is an example of the latter. A hybrid of the Oregon Trail and classic RPGs, The Banner Saga takes place in a setting heavily inspired by classic Nordic myths. What I want to focus on is a single choice that the developers made regarding the combat. This choice informed the rest of the combat mechanics, and restructured the game in a way that I have certainly never seen before.

In The Banner Saga, the developers made the decision that Health and Damage output would be governed by the same stat. Each fighter has two major stats: Strength and Armor. When attacking another unit, one can either chip away at their Armor, or deliver damage to their Strength. The exact amount of Strength damage is equal to the aggressor's Strength, minus the Armor of the assaulted party. If Strength reaches 0, then the unit will be incapacitated, unable to participate any further in the battle. In other words, whenever somebody is attacked, not only are they that much closer to defeat, but their offensive capability is reduced. This one change to the usual RPG dynamic has a noticeable impact on the rest of combat.

The first of these changes is that players are encouraged to avoid outright killing targets in favor of crippling them and moving on to the next one. While fighting, player and enemy turns are interleaved. Players can determine the order in which their units act, but after every ally action, the enemy moves one of their units, followed by the next ally unit, and so on and so forth. Enemies with low Strength are less likely to be to do any significant damage, especially when friendlies still have Armor. As a result, leaving a weak foe alive means that units with more Strength will take longer to act, since the game still needs to cycle through the weakened enemies first. This extra breathing room makes it much easier to focus on other units, until it is finally time to start cleaning house and removing opposition. I used this very thought process myself on many large enemies, including the game's final boss. By leaving his subordinates low on Strength, I could keep him at bay long enough to finish him before he had the chance to take out too many of my own forces.

The other behavioral shift I noticed during my time with The Banner Saga is that I played a noticeably more defensive game than I typically do. Whenever a party member of mine had taken Strength damage, I always winced because I knew that the fight would be made that much more difficult with their reduced damage output. Because of this, I found myself often grouping my forces together, concentrating all of their attacks on a single unit at a time, keeping them out of range of other units. This allowed my party to maintain their strong offensive capabilities for most of a fight. Though this strategy might be seen as slower and less skillful in other tactical RPGs, The Banner Saga makes it one of the fastest and most effective tactics. Enemies do have AoE attacks, but the risk of spreading units apart too much is always there. Unless some degree of caution is taken, units can crippled just with a few well aimed Strength attacks. Given that the plot is about a group of people trying to stay alive against all odds, this appears to be intentional and a nice way to immerse players into the atmosphere of the game.

\The Banner Saga takes a lot from well known tactical RPGs. However, the choice to take health and damage output, and merge them into the same statistic is one that I have personally never seen before. Of course, there are many other ways in which the game stands out, making its worth known, but this is the one that stood out to me as something that other designers might be able to gain inspiration from. I would definitely recommend taking a look at The Banner Saga is you are looking for something different in your strategy RPGs.

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