The Banner Saga felt like a rushed first date: it was trying to push as much information onto me as possible, and I was just clicking through the messages to get to the end faster. Give me some time! Romance me a little!
Minute 0: Scrolling exposition text introduces me to the world of The Banner Saga in the grand tradition of text-based setting establishment. It’s too bad the text fades away before I can finish reading it, but I wasn’t in the mood to read text anyway. (“Not in the mood to read text anyway” turned out to be a bad omen for the future.)
Minute 1: Aw, hand-drawn animated cutscene?? Let’s freakin’ goooooo. Lots of names are being thrown around, which is kind of confusing, but the sun being stuck in the sky seems pretty dope.
Minute 5: Finally, we’re getting into combat. A pop-up text goads me into attacking “the Chieftan in red,” which would be good if I could tell who that referred to. The window-pane-style tutorial screens feel clunky, but I guess that’s what I signed up for with a strategy-heavy tile-based combat game.
Minute 6: “The ring shows your Shieldbanger is active.” Well, that was pretty obvious… Also, “Some characters fill more tiles than others… this can have a huge impact on your strategy” …how, exactly? Maybe I’ll find out. (I never did.)
Minute 8: Still one turn into combat. *Pause* Wait, why are there five characters on the screen right now? Which one am I again?
Minute 9: Killed an enemy (the tutorial made it hard not to, so I can’t take too much credit here). To be fair, that still feels pretty good.
Minute 11: It’s the Warhawk’s turn now. Wait, if this guy is the Warhawk, then who was the other on—wait, there’s willpower too?? I didn’t even get to play a turn myself!
Minute 12: Woah. I’m told to “Click on your warhawk to access his special ability.” What pops up? “Combat options, including move, ability, attack, and end turn. Click the purple ability icon now.”
Minute 16: Nice! Killed another guy. Gotta admit, that still feels good.
Minute 18: I’m told the Chieftain is in danger. Which is the Chieftain again, me or the other guy?
Minute 21: It didn’t matter. I slashed them all to bits. Battle over! What was about that about a pillage phase again?
Minute 22: Renown +6. As little as that means to me at this point in the game, the feeling of being given points still holds a certain glow to it. But at least the tutorial is over now… let’s dive into that vaguely Viking-themed high strategy gameplay I was promised!
Minute 23: Oh, there’s a cutscene? Well, it’s not gameplay, but still, it’s hard to complain about a cutscene.
Minute 26: Never mind. there’s just more text now. Who’re Ubin and Eirik?? Ludin, Grofheim, Varl… maybe I should start a notepad.
Minute 27: Notepad obtained. Half for the prop comedy of it, half for practical confusion.
[I beat another battle here, and half-skimmed, half-skipped through a lot of text.]
Minute 35: Time check. I’m over half an hour into the game and I’ve only gotten to play two short battles. The first battle was a tutorial and in the second battle, one of my men died—which may have been a sardonic testament to how badly the first battle failed as a tutorial. What’s the story about again?
Minute 42: Lots of reading (and lots of not gameplay) later, I’ve resigned myself to the Viking fantasy. The game’s more of a visual novel for me at this point. I’ve admittedly checked out mentally by now, which makes me feel like a bad judge of this game’s playability, but I trudge on for the sake of this review. Oh, nice. there’s a map. “The world map is covered with many locations, and holds much lore.” Nice.
Minute 45: Just enjoying the nice art. Just feeling like a Viking. What do Vikings do? Drink? Complain about the cold?
Minute 50: We’re at base camp. The frigid cold is harsh and unyielding. it’s hard to tell, in the frozen haze, which is lower: supplies or my men’s morale… may Eirik (substitute any other of the 50 names I’ve heard so far here) have mercy on us all… tell my family… I loved th—oh good. another UI. At least Gunnulf can be promoted… whatever that means.
Minute 52: I give up. “My First 60 Minutes” be damned. Viking fantasizing only got me so far.
Look, The Banner Saga has an 89% approval rating out of 11,174 ratings on Steam, placing it into the “Very Positive” category—evidence that lets me safely label this game as, objectively, good. I only saw a snapshot in the game during my hour-long play session, and moreover, to be frank, I know I’m not in The Banner Saga’s target audience (I don’t think I’ve enjoyed any tile-based strategy game, ever, really), so my disapproval should be taken with a grain of salt. I have a baby-grade attention span that usually has me reaching for the likes of flashy, action-based pixel art bullet hells, and for transparency, I played this game with a salty email from Christina about “clumsy exposition and the heavy-handed tutorial” fresh in mind, so maybe that’s what I was set up to expect.
Maybe the perspective I have as someone who would never have reached for a turn-based, tile-based Viking strategy game can be interesting, though, and can speak to how difficult these games find it to reach out to players outside their genre. I think I’m a challenging player for these designers to speak to, and as such, maybe someone like me can be considered a high bar to aspire to in terms of tutorial accessibility. I’ve framed some of my recommendations on the first 52 minutes of the Banner Saga around the rules that George Fan presents in this week’s supplementary video: “How I Got My Mom to Play Through Plants vs. Zombies”
Fan Rule #2: Better to have the player “do” than “read.”
Valid arguments exist that this game has a level of complexity that necessitates at least some hand-holding. And I can buy that somewhat. But the number of actions that I could’ve intuited rather than read off a tutorial pane in the Banner Saga was nontrivial. Now, maybe reading through text is a fine burden to bear for someone who is already a fan of turn-based strategy games (see the red circle below). But for a player like me (cue the blue circle), reading “click the purple ability icon now” when I would’ve done so anyway feels at best annoying and at worst insulting.
Fan Rule #3: Spread out the teaching of game mechanics. Give the player some time to play around with the tools you’ve given them before you introduce a new one. You can milk that game time, anyway.
There was a moment in the first tutorial where I had finally slogged through learning a slew of new mechanics (and corresponding tutorial messages) and ended my turn, feeling triumphant at finally defeating a single enemy with my newfound knowledge. On the next turn, I was excited to put my new skills to the test, fly the nest a little. But I was immediately shot down when the next turn was used as yet another tutorial workhorse that introduced willpower, special abilities, and character stats to me. I get that for a strategy gamer, this quick-paced infodump may be what they expect from a game’s exposition—they want to know the rules as quickly as possible so that they can get into the real juicy strategy gameplay. For a non-strategy gamer like me, The Banner Saga felt like a rushed first date: it was trying to push as much information on me as possible, and I was just clicking through the messages to get to the end quicker. Give me some time! Romance me a little!
Fan Rule #5: Use fewer words.
“Ally tiles are blue; the enemy’s are red.” Yep, that’s a message I read. This was more an annoying sticking point for me. I could’ve intuited this myself, but better yet, a simpler tutorial level that just involved one blue character (me) and one enemy (the other guy) would’ve communicated this without words perfectly. This wasn’t an isolated example, either; but, again, I think it may come from the fact that the Banner Saga seems designed for fans of the strategy genre, for whom a hand-holding two-person tutorial combat may come across as boring. But who knows?
I’ll admit that tutorial design-wise, there are decisions to laud The Banner Saga for. The character differentiation is phenomenal: the damage-dishing warhawk’s giant sword is prominent and communicates to me his combat use without ever needing a textbox. Well done! The combat system is fairly complex (from my perspective, even extremely complex) and, in spite of this, I came out of the tutorial with a decent understanding of how to win a battle (though the process was harrowing).
When you’re already not invested in a game, though, the parts that annoy you are the things you’ll remember, and the things you’ll care enough to write a review about. I guess you can count me in that 11% of reviewers who’ve done the same.