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Played in 2023


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Banner Saga was an entry point for me to its genre of turn based tactics and managing a small army, but I had no issue with quickly understanding and being invested in all of its systems. And it was a great experience, excellently intertwining its gameplay and narrative to immerse me in its tale of fighting desperately for whatever it is you value as the world comes to an end.
The star of its gameplay is the armor/health system, where all units have 2 health bars that each have unique properties. Armor gives a flat reduction to regular damage, making high armor enemies immune to almost anything you throw at them until you chip it away. All units can do specifically anti-armor attacks instead, doing a much smaller amount of damage directly to it, but this is necessary to be able to later do significant damage to high armor enemies. Where it really shines though is that every unit's health is also its attack damage. So it's not only a decision of how to most efficiently kill an enemy, but when you can weave in direct damage so that it will be less dangerous. Doing some small chip damage to an enemies' health might be less efficient than armor damage to kill it, but can prevent it from getting an attack through the armor of one of your units. These decisions become all the more meaningful with later enemies that have huge amounts of health and armor, where you'll have to chip away huge amounts of armor, but for as long as you don't do direct damage, they can one-shot your units. This also puts an exceptional value on a few abilities that can do direct damage ignoring armor entirely.
This is in addition to all of the vital strategy of positioning. Units normally can't move through each other, and many powerful abilities have limited fixed ranges. This makes some clever positioning and manipulation of enemy move and attack ranges able to make your damage much more efficient, force enemies to attack your tanks, or even skip their turns entirely.
This natural depth to the combat made me excited and engaged in every single fight. There isn't a ton of variety in enemies and enemy abilities, only at the end of the game do we get a few more complex ones that I might've expected, like enemies with passive buffs to their fellows until you kill them, and spells that do damage over time. But I didn't mind that most fights are against the same relatively simple enemies, because the depth of the gameplay is in its basic systems, such that there's a lot of meaningful decision making even fighting just big stat sticks. At normal difficulty you do have a comfortable margin for error, but I'd be interested in a replay on hard to be forced to play as efficiently as possible.
I've went this far without mentioning the story, which certainly bears mentioning. It tells a story of two races, men and Varl, a race of huge, long lived ox men. Although previously in conflict, they've come together in the face of worldwide calamity, from an incursion of a race of violent stone skinned creatures, and more mysterious and celestial signs of the end times. The main character perspective changes intermittently, giving you the points of view of both men and Varl.
It's this use of perspective that was the most engaging part of Banner Saga for me. The most main protagonist is Rook, a man who's inherited the responsibility of leading a village of hundreds of peasants on a journey through desolate mountains and the crumbling remnants of civilization, now inhabited by vultures looking to pick you for scraps, and beset by monsters that far exceed your human stature.
These parts of the game give an immense immersion of Rook's desperation, your caravan is just barely holding on by a thread, every risk needs to be calculated, but you won't be able to survive without large risks. This is impressed on you by the gameplay, with your team of largely vulnerable archers, facing down and defeating hulking brutes that can club your head in with one swing, through the cooperation and ingenuity of mankind. It's also impressed on you by the out of combat decision making, as you're faced with constant dilemmas--do you take these men with you, or leave them to die, when they'll take more food and might betray you? How do you settle disputes within your caravan to maintain order and resources, while still maintaining morale? Do you risk going through enemy territory, or take the long way, losing precious time and food? I felt the game was constantly calling attention to Rook's character, what is he really fighting for? What is he willing to sacrifice? I felt the weight of his life, and those of everyone he was protecting hang in the balance for all of these choices.
Compared to the intimacy and palpable mortality of Rook's story, the perspective of the Varl is distinctly different. Armed with the confidence and wisdom of hundreds of years of life, they feel much more detached. Many of the Varl have isolated themselves, living in small communities in the far north. You feel that solemnity in the historian Ubin, who may be the oldest living Varl, and even in the great warrior Hakon. They react to the impending apocalypse with more of a grim resignation. You particularly sense this in the immense value they put on historical landmarks and achievements of their forefathers. In the vast scope of their lives, men will live and die quickly, but a monument that stands for centuries is far more meaningful.
I haven't yet started the second and third games as of writing this, but I'm excited to. Banner Saga is an excellently cohesive experience that I'd recommend to almost anyone.

A masterpiece of action roguelikes, for the simple reason that the moment to moment gameplay loop is so fast paced, satisfying, and engaging that I can endlessly replay it and have fun far past when I would be bored by any other I've played. It's a blood pumping continuous fight of using just two weapons, an active ability, and a build of passive bonuses of your choosing to blast your way through crowds of enemies that have their own threats and unique ways you need to approach them. You can die in half a second ending your run from a single mistake, a momentary lapse in concentration, but that threat only makes it more rewarding when you weave, aim, and use your abilities to their fullest to squeeze through deadly encounter after deadly encounter by the skin of your teeth. The random elements are relatively minimal for a roguelike, keeping some run variety, but everything is secondary to your reflexes and quick wits. I'm far from a very skilled player at these kinds of games, but the difficulty curve naturally built me up to being able to regularly feel exhilarated and in awe of my own abilities.

This review contains spoilers

Beeswing is a beautifully and at times uncomfortably personal experience. Jack King Spooner takes you through a visit back to his hometown, visiting his old friends and family. The game is spent walking around and talking to people. And then, when you feel that you're ready, you take a bus out of town, ending the game.
The game follows a few interwoven thematic threads closely, and after finishing it I realized it was a tightly written and intentional narrative than I had thought in the moment. With the frequent references to the elderly and dementia, and to the negative effects of television and the internet on our mental health, Jack is clearly concerned about how our spirits will fare in this new world where thoughts and identities are being presented in entirely new ways. I remember from a video walking through a previous game of his that he said he wanted to talk to us, the player, and let us know that there was a person on the other end.
I was completely captivated by the experience of talking to all of the people in town. Some of them will tell you stupid drivel or funny quips, some will give kind words, some of them will be scared and confused, some mournful of a life of regret, and a few will tell you moving stories of a human life in all of it's pain and beauty. Beeswing is the experience of finally taking the time to have tea and talk with an elderly neighbor who's more interesting than you ever would have imagined, and leaving with the impression that there's more to people than you'd thought before.
Now, if you haven't played the game, please do before reading this. It's free on and only a couple hours. It's worth your time. I have to talk about one scene specifically, as it has stuck with me by far the most and I think about it often. You visit a friend whose mother had died from dementia. You were close, and you remember being there for her decline. How she started to communicate only by written notes, and one day, the note she wrote was just nonsense. It's been a long time, but your friend is still devastated. You offer some trite advice and he's brushes you off. After talking about it with him for a while, you come to the slow, crushing realization that there's absolutely nothing you can do for him. Nothing you could say to him would really help. It was then that I decided to walk to the bus stop and leave town.
Although a bit rough in its presentation and interaction, Beeswing shines with humanity and makes me very excited to play more of Jack's games.