Our Steps, To the Night

TheBannerSaga2

I’ve been wanting to write another game review recently. The Banner Saga is one of my all-time favorites, both in story and in gameplay. The designers who created the first game, Stoic Studios, have at long last put out a sequel, the Banner Saga 2! I pre-ordered it, and then kind of did a marathon run the week that it came out. After waiting two years, it’s kind of hard to eat your dessert in small bites. Now I’m doing a second play-through with my fiancee (we play hot-seat), and my thoughts on the sequels pros and cons are coalescing a little better. My review is going to focus primarily on the story, but I’ll cover the gameplay a bit too.

First off, there are going to be some big *SPOILERS* for those who haven’t played the first entry in the series.

The first chapter of the Banner Saga ends with a climactic battle, and the tragic death of one of two central characters. That character then becomes the leader of the first game’s caravan in TBS2. This makes at least two playthroughs kind of mandatory, because your choice of protagonist makes for a very different experience each time. So, you have Rook’s story, and Alette’s. With old man Rook, the story is more about the grieving process, and trying to find other reasons to go on with your journey. You get to deepen your relationship with other characters like Iver and Oddleif, and continue to be a leader (and renowned hero) in the eyes of your caravan. *MORE SPOILERS* My favorite moments of Rook’s story (in highlight-able text): the dream conversation in the forest, saying goodbye to Iver in Fiskivik, the Godstone Lauga (finally!!!).

So if Rook’s story is about being a hero trying to find his way after losing the reason to fight, Alette’s is about becoming that hero, and filling in her father’s shoes. A lot of the characters who are present for Rook function as either emotional support, or backstabbing enemies who can’t be trusted. These characters maintain that role for Alette, but also play the part of guides and teachers. It’s up to you, as Alette, to choose who you’ll listen to and allow to influence your journey. I still haven’t finished Alette’s story, but if the young heroes’ tale is more your kind of thing, then I would recommend choosing her as your first main character.

bolverk

The third protagonist (although in any game he would be the second) is an interesting new character who was introduced at the very end of the last game, Bolverk. This broken-horned Varl berserker is the leader of the Ravens, an amoral, hard-bitten pack of mercenaries who serve the highest bidder. The Ravens represent their own caravan separate from the main one, that split to follow a different route early in the game. Bolverk’s chapters feel very different, since you’re a cutthroat mercenary and you have to keep your warriors in line. Your choices tend to be much more morally gray, and sometimes downright despicable. But there are things that Bolverk cares about, and as I came to understand those things, I felt more of a connection with him and his Ravens. He values keeping his promises, maintaining the reputation of his band, and he cares about his men (although he would never reveal that to them).

folka

Most compelling of all for me was the complicated relationship with his second-in-command, Folka. She is an all-around great character for so many reasons. First, she’s a shieldmaiden, and that’s badass. Second, she provides the moral and human element to Bolverk’s story, which would otherwise be kind of bleak and hard to empathize with. She’s the one who questions your orders and decisions, she’s the one who keeps asking you about your feelings (faen humans), and when things start to change for Bolverk later in the game, she’s the one who worries about you when no-one else does. And in spite of all that tenderness and vulnerability, she’s still an incredibly competent warrior and leader, who never flinches or hesitates when things are tough. It’s beautiful to me because Bolverk is kind of a monster in some ways (and for the record, he is not actually human), yet she clearly cares about him. She sees the person inside the beast that he usually presents to the world, and recognizes his pain and loneliness. She herself is no stranger to those things, so he’s kind of like her perfect soulmate. Except that he’s from an all-male race of brooding giants who don’t understand relationships and can’t reproduce, so… there’s that.

This is clearly a story where the greatest strength is in the characters, but I loved the twists and turns of the ongoing plot, which concerns the end of the world, the dangers of magic, and a really big snake. We get to see new parts of the setting that were referenced in the previous game, and meet some new characters, the Horseborn (centaurs!). I loved most of the story, and I found most of it really compelling, but there were some holes here and there. I will list them briefly *MORE SPOILERS* –

  • While I loved the Horseborn, I wish I could have learned more about what was actually going on with them. The Horseborn in your caravan only barely speak your language, so you don’t learn that much about them. You get the sense that their race is very fractious and war-like, and they’re probably dealing with the same upheavals in the world that everyone else is, but you really have to read into things to get that part of the plot. Also, their role in the ending was kind of confusing.
  • The ending itself is definitely going to be tough for some people to swallow. I personally thought it was cool, but they introduce a lot of ideas and developments rather suddenly, and you’re left with some big questions. People you thought were friends turn out to be enemies (I think?) or at least a source for complications. The ending probably would have felt a little less arbitrary if they had spent more time exploring the characters of Juno and Eyvind, who (of course) play a really important part in everything.
  • Also on the subject of the ending, there isn’t really a proper final boss fight, like there was in TBS1 against Bellower. This might feel like a let-down for some players. My guess is they felt like Bellower’s legendary difficulty was too much, and didn’t want to go through all the fan rage with another really tough boss. Personally, I only found Bellower to be unfairly tough on Hard mode, but maybe I was just lucky.

Golly, I’ve spent this entire post talking about story (hopefully that tells you something). I found the gameplay to be excellent, but not that different from the first. It’s overall easier, because they’ve tweaked the “Renown” economy from the first game. While there are fewer fights (and no longer an option to go into a second round), you get WAY more renown for each one, and I never felt like I had a shortage like I usually did in the last game. You have more choices in leveling your characters (the cap has gone up to 10), and can now choose a second ability from several options, depending on their class. The caravan mechanics are also a bit different, and generally a lot easier. Clansmen are no longer useless food vacuums, as they will forage periodically to add to your supplies. You can also train them to fight as warriors, independent of story events. The “War” events are gone, so I wasn’t even entirely sure what the point of warriors and varl was, other than to protect the clansmen in story events. But those don’t happen often enough for it to be possible to lose the entire caravan, so IDK (shrug). I didn’t fall in love with the first game for its quasi-Oregon Trail gameplay, so I don’t care that much if it doesn’t gel perfectly. 

There’s a bunch of new characters, and thus new classes, and they all try to do something interesting and unique. I liked them all for the most part, but there’s a few disclaimers here. First off, many of the characters in Bolverk’s story are awesome, but they’re kind of hard to use effectively. Bolverk himself is great, but mainly because he hits twice. His abilities just don’t come in handy very often, and there’s also a chance that he’ll attack allies too (he is a berserk after all). Many of the new characters are like this, good in terms of stats, but hard to use the way they’re intended. The new “Skald” characters are really neat, but I hardly ever used them for this reason. My favorite newbies on the battlefield were the Horseborn, who make up for their lack of story flavor with being super-great fighters. In particular, the female javelin-throwers were amazing, and skyrocketed to level 10 before anyone else did. That’s all I really care to say about game-play, except for this; you can get a bear, his name is Spinegrinder, and I love him. He’s kind of a secret character, but I’ll give you all a hint for finding him. You’ll need Eirik from the first game, and when you reach the land of the angry bog-people, don’t worry about stomping all over their stupid traditions.

So overall, I found the Banner Saga 2 to be an excellent title, and a worthy successor to the original. An incredibly gripping story of war, community in exile, and the end-times, combined with a deep cast of characters, will leave you aching for the final installment of the epic trilogy. What’s two years to Banner Saga fans? We learn to endure, in longing and sorrow. Onward!

 

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Weird Fiction Part 3

Utkin & Brodsky 2

And now, the last part of my short story. This brings us, more or less, up to the point at which I’ve stopped writing. So if I post more of the Creature’s journal entries, it will be new territory for him and I.

Entry the third, the 7th day of Poldoure, 738th year of the Sanguine Reckoning

I have risen early and foregone my exercises, much to Dr. Swantopelk’s annoyance. Surely the woman understands that for me to write is essential, on the eave of my journey! She drew from the Deck this time, shoving the card in my face. As if that would help. Still, the daily draw is once again a portentous one, The Broken Portal. I say that a door with a broken hinge is still a door, just don’t slam it on your way out.

All that aside, I was getting to the good part. I had successfully escaped from my confinement with the doctor, and fainaigued my way onto a transport steamer. Now I approached the Great Bridge of Harrowgate. I had read often of this marvelous city, but was not allowed to view any pictures.

The doctor was curiously withholding on certain subjects, and one of them was imagery, of any kind. I was never allowed to see paintings, sketches, or photographs of any of the places I read about. My books were also lacking in descriptions of common people and their customs. I assumed the doctor had her reasons, and she made up for it by giving me more fiction and fantasies than I could consume, but I never stopped wondering at these things.

In all that time, I had thought that the bridge was but a monument through which one entered the city. I discovered on the deck of that steamer that I was mistaken. The bridge was the city. It was an ancient structure, over 600 meters in height, and perhaps 200 meters in width. I remember that the ancient Eucrasians had it built, or so the prevailing theory went. It could have been someone older, and more inhuman. I had no trouble believing that this structure was beyond humans to conceive, as we came ever closer.

It had a frame of some strange, reddish metal. The architecture of many civilizations had been built into that frame, with the graceful black spires of the Gatekeepers on the bridge itself. There was little negative space left on the bridge after all these centuries. Many had built their homes and apartments into the scaffolds. I noticed too that the houses, factories and municipal buildings no longer stayed confined to the bridge, but spilled over onto either side of the Effulgent Strait, the city bleeding into the forests of Thornheim and the industrious townships of Billows. But it was one country now, and this was the gate. That struck me suddenly, how it was both a bridge and a gate, which controlled entry into the Sea of Eyes. A city and an artifact, an entity that was many things, and nothing definable at the same time. An entity much like myself.

I grew impatient to explore. I would disappear into the streets and scaffolding of Harrowgate, and return to the doctor, along with her lessons and experiments, when it so pleased me. The ferry finally docked and the passengers and I jostled each other onto a waiting platform. This was rigged up to some complicated machinery with cables, and lifted our platform upwards. As we rose, I caught glimpses of the Rafterhoods, the slums where those unfortunates who couldn’t afford the limited space of the bridge surface lived in squalor. Along with these were the Dunworks, the shipyards that lowered and raised their commissions with colossal cranes. They rained sparks and spewed black viscosities into the water below.

Soon enough we came to the surface, and I gripped the railing in fear and excitement as the wind whipped my hair (which now was short, wavy and brown). I stood on the Grand Mese, the road through the top of the bridge, connecting the Principalities in their commerce. I could see the palaces and High Offices of the Gatekeepers, those mysterious plutocrats who ruled the city, and some say the whole continent. Beyond was the Yawning Bay, always curtained in mist, and on the other side the Sea of Eyes, which glittered with the light of the fattened sun. I had never been so high up, and I was seized by momentary vertigo. The ships and steamers below were now like toys, and the city that spilled out onto either side of me looked like a black, smoking woodpile.

I spent some time walking the Grande Mese, being as careful as I could to avoid the steam-cars and the horse-drawn curricles. There were all manner of folk traveling in either lane, pilgrims, merchants, and simple people no doubt returning home from their labors. From the north there came Billowers, Tatterfolk of all different stripes and colors, little Terceans scuttling along on business for their Queen, and a few Melancholian Aesthetocrats dressed in black and indigo. In the other lane coming from the south across from me, I saw extravagant Thornings, mud-stained Vetchmen, and an imperious Ichthyan with his retinue of glass-domed armigers.

I must have looked quite the bumpkin, but I could not conceal my awe. Here was a kaleidoscope of images, sounds and smells. So much more than the doctor had ever allowed me to taste in the laboratory. I was free, uncontrolled, I wanted to let my skin free to dance in the street, while my bones and innards roiled on the pavement screaming for joy. Yet even in that moment of triumph, I knew that I shouldn’t be too indiscreet. If I revealed any oddness about myself, I might be discovered by the authorities and dragged back to the doctor before I was ready. After some time seeing the sights on the Grand Mese, I took a public elevator to one of the Rafterhoods. There was something I had been itching to try, and I guessed that I would have more luck finding what I sought in darker corners.

So many of my stories, like the capers of Mad Poller and Whistlejack, involved the characters having social interactions in a pub, and imbibing generous amounts of alcohol. I was never allowed a drop of drink when I lived with the doctor, even at parties, and now I was determined to try some. In retrospect, this was the very height of foolishness. If I wished to continue being in control of the course of my life, I needed to be in control of my faculties, but alas, I hungered too much for new sensations.

I departed from another creaking elevator into the smirched alleys of the Rafterhoods, eagerly searching out a drinking hole. I came across a suitably hoary establishment called the Ebullient Bass, marked with the simple image of a gutted fish. Men, and other things, spilled out into the street, their faces jolly, or nauseated, but frequently both. This was exactly what I had sought. I sidled in through a portal framed in pipes, and sat before the barkeep. The interior was red and smoky, drowning in bustle and noise. I didn’t know what to order, and more importantly I didn’t have any money to do it. I quickly left the bar and retreated into the shadows, before I drew the publican’s suspicion.

I had used my abilities to acquire what I needed on the steamboat, but that had attracted the most unpleasant attentions. Now I opted for a subtler approach. I spied a woman laughing and carrying on in a corner booth, her many ruffled skirts beyond understanding, and her hair stacked to the ceiling like a bird’s fortress. She wore a bag that surely bulged with treasures, and I had a thrilling idea of how to explore it’s contents. I concealed my fingers in my coat, and stretched them back and forth, repeatedly, until they lengthened and coiled about like snakes. I placed myself near the woman, but not too near, and let my slithering digits creep down to the floor, and into her purse. It took many attempts, as the woman kept many hairbrushes, and assorted feminutiae near the top, but soon I had a handful of greasy, wrinkled bills.

I returned to the good boniface with a smile cracking my face. I asked for something strong and fiery, and he (or possibly she, the form was lumpy and ambiguous) shrugged and poured me a glass of something brown and granular. I could swear that something swam in the depths of the glass, unaware of the world around it. I decided to open it’s world, and tipped it back down my throat.

What occurred afterward is best left to another entry in this journal. I have not the strength to continue in any case.

Artwork: Alexander Brodsky and Ilya Utkin

Weird Fiction Part 2

Utkin & Brodsky 1

Here is the next installment of my short story. The Creature escapes from the home of his creator to explore the wider world, and get into some mischief.

Entry the second, the 6th day of Poldoure, 738th year of the Sanguine Reckoning

After a round of calisthenics in this bracing winter weather, and a few body-molding exercises, I am once again in the right mind to practice my journaling again. The Demiurge Deck has granted me the Flushed Face. The Face on the card does not smile, I wonder what causes it to flush so?

I had last left off with my escape from Dr. Swantopelk’s laboratory. I feel before I continue on that thread, I should explain a few things about my Great Work. At the time, I had only received the vaguest hints that the doctor had created me for any concrete purpose. I knew that I was not the first of her living, self-aware creations, and I may not be the last. I had many theories about why I was made, but none of them could be confirmed. I thought that by seeing more of the outside world, and understanding the lives of natural beings, I could make more sense of this riddle. In fact my adventures would result in my learning of the Great Work, but not in the way that I suspected.

I worked my way through dense woods and fields, avoiding Suet Flies and the hungry Woolbeasts. Overland travel has never been practical or safe, with the aggressive wildlife and persistent growths, and so it was to my benefit that few were walking the overgrown paths. I would look up and occasionally see a misshapen cargo blimp staggering on it’s way towards the city. I doubt that any blimp operator would think twice at seeing me cut through the wild land, but paranoia and ignorance ruled me. I shaped myself to look like the earthiest, hairiest yeoman I could imagine from my books, and kept to the undergrowth.

I eventually arrived at a fishing village called Blumderry, with transport steamers bringing traffic to the city. I attempted to make myself look a bit more civilized. I was still wearing Albadore’s well-pressed uniform, but it was now somewhat tattered and the proliferant lichens of the woods had already started to grow on my arms and shoulders. No one was suspicious however, and I was able to make my way through town unhindered.

I found Blumderry quite fascinating. The buildings were ancient brickwork, and rotting wooden tenements all crowding together. In a place that has been civilized for some time, the voracious lichens and fungi will only grown on the outskirts. There were working folk hauling in their catch of Greater Salt Shrimp, an old man playing the bellow-box on a stool and singing a bawdy tune. I even saw my first Ichthyan, wearing a frilly pink dress, and having her scales polished at a salon. I couldn’t stay and enjoy the sights for long, I knew the doctor had likely discovered my escape, and sent her family’s Retrievers after me. And besides, even greater sights awaited me in Harrowgate, the greatest city in the world. I had no reason to dawdle, but I realized I was unequipped for a journey by boat.

I remembered that people in the outside world made use of currency for trade and transactions, and in my haste I hadn’t thought to steal any from the mansion. And no, I didn’t feel guilt at having the thought! Guilt is a difficult emotion for me to process first of all, and I knew the absence of a few ducats wouldn’t cause the doctor to lose sleep. Anyway, I was penniless, and I wondered how I would buy passage on a steamer. I had to think of something quick, as the next ferry was ready to leave, and I may have been trapped in that village for some time.

I remembered my novels of romance and intrigue, namely the Adventures of Madame Velderine and her Lewd Monacle, and decided I could try out seduction as a means of passage. I went into a clearly abandoned home, where I found a tall, cracked mirror. I had to filch a meat pie from a bakery (that I did feel rather guilty about) to fuel a transformation, and then got to work. Within a half-hour I had removed my hirsuteness and resembled a comely young female, slender and blonde. I remembered from my stories that men preferred females with large mammary glands, lips, and bottoms. I didn’t have nearly enough calories burned to grow more fat or muscle, but I improvised by inflating some air-sacs in the breasts. Soon they ballooned outwards rather nicely, and bounced a bit. I was surely irresistible. After rifling through more abandoned houses (the village was full of them, I suppose the local economy had seen better days), I found a tattered old gown to wear, and a broken suitcase. Disguises would surely be useful.

I marched down the main street to the ferry, my new mammaries bouncing so much I could hardly see ahead of me. I stood in line with the rest, trying to look like I fit in. I drew quite a few stares, which I took as a good sign. When I reached the end of the queue, where a mustachioed chaperon took tickets and identification, I adjusted my gown (which was torn in a few strategic places), and put on a look of confusion and distress. I told him that I was a seamstress looking for work in the city, and a scowling rake had made off with my papers, money, and my best clothes. Perhaps I was laying it on a bit too thick, but my my looks did what my words could not. The chaperon, filthy pig that he was, took immediate pity on me and ushered me into a first class suite. He sat me down and offered me a mug of hot bokum. It was the first time I had tried the spicy elixir of the Mabase, and I found it much to my liking.

Still, at that point it was an unfortunate distraction, as that ape of a chaperon tried to force himself on me! His face was all bristles and reeked of shellfish, he pinned me to the wall and ran his vile tongue over my face. I understood little of sex then, and was caught quite off guard. I protested, and gave him a slap to remember. Undeterred, he responded by groping my chest, so hard did he squeeze me that there was a sudden pop, followed by a gentle hiss. It was his turn to be caught off guard, and I took the opportunity to break my mug over his meat-slab of a head. When I was assured he was unconscious, I stripped the scoundrel and thoroughly tied him up in bedsheets. Since my previous disguise was ruined, one breast hanging like a wrinkled gunnysack, I made use of his uniform. His appearance was not to my liking, so I altered myself to resemble a character from one of my romances, since I was apparently now living in one (albeit one poorly plotted).

I made myself scarce for the rest of that voyage, looking busy on the fore-deck, and avoiding other crewmen. The experience with the chaperon was unnerving, but not unexpected. I knew that those who included seduction in their arsenal often faced such hazards. Still, I had done well for him, and my prize lay ahead, the Grand City of Harrowgate! It rose just over the horizon, first it’s baroque towers, and then the arch of the Great Bridge itself, straddling the Effulgent Strait.

Though I ache to continue the story of my adventure, and describe the wonders of that dream city, I grow weary once more. I should save my strength, and tend to my muse, for another entry. In that way I will be able to give Harrowgate true justice with my words.

Artwork: Town Bridge by Alexander Brodsky and Ilya Utkin