Beautiful but Flawed.
Greatness lurks beneath the skin of The Banner Saga. It is a beautiful, emotionally involving and utterly unique experience, but sadly I found this first installment to be marred by a host of frustrating design problems.
The artistic vision of The Banner Saga is without peer. Its world, characters and story are depicted with rare clarity and conviction, without compromise. The visual style is bleak yet gorgeous and can be mistaken for no other game. The music (by the talented Austin Wintory of 'Journey' fame) powerfully evokes a forlorn, dying world. The writing too is excellent throughout, defining tragic characters with sombre nuance.
The combat in the game is also novel and interesting, with great tactical depth. Battles are tense and strategic, and the developers succeeded admirably at weaving it into the storyline - battles affect choices and choices affect battles, each adding meaning to the other. That a turn-based combat game kept me so enthralled with its story (an unremittingly bleak one, at that) is a testament to the talent and passion of the studio.
That said, at the same time everything feels somehow underproduced; voice acting and animation are conspicuously absent in all but a few scattered scenes, and each character has one fixed expression - which can sometimes be incredibly inappropriate to the dialogue. While it is true that the art design of the game is deliberately spare, my impression was that some things had been over-simplified, as if the game had been rushed to completion.
Minor cosmetic issues aside, the game felt unfinished in other more problematic ways. It crashed several times for me, and on each occasion I suffered from poorly placed autosaves. The combat interface also frequently proved vague or incomplete, in many cases failing to explain critical rules. One consistent frustration was the inability to undo or preview character movement, in cases where the (often severe) consequences of a particular move could not be determined beforehand - this did not seem like a deliberate choice, but as with the incomplete UI more likely due to a lack of playtesting.
The most frustrating aspect of the game, for me, was the handling of player narrative choices. This story is one of loss and hopelessness, so as such I accept that there are no happy endings to be found, but rather a series of tragedies to be survived. And as in combat, the player is asked to make difficult decisions, with no clear right answer - but unlike in combat, the consequences are utterly random. In combat, the player is asked to make careful choices and is rewarded with various bonuses on success. These bonuses usually relate to specific characters, as do the combat choices, so this feedback cycle works well, strengthening engagement with the characters and story in a satisfyingly consistent way.
Narrative choices on the other hand, often reward the player with an unforeseeable slap in the face, throwing away much of their prior hard work - for example by stealing away a character in whom the player had already invested a lot of time and emotional energy. I question why player choice is involved at all, if it does not involve skill. If the intended purpose was to make the player identify with the hopelessness of the characters' situation, then this would have worked better if the choices embodied clear tradeoffs: in a bad situation, allow the player to pick which sacrifice to make, based on what is more important to them or to the character. But by consistently leaving me feeling cheated and powerless, by the end of the game it merely served to reduce my engagement with the characters and plot.
Years from now I feel sure that I will remember The Banner Saga more for its strengths than for its weaknesses. The beauty of the experience implies a great deal of talent, and the various flaws are all fixable - as such I still highly recommend the game, and have high hopes for its sequels!