Did anyone expect The Banner Saga to become a genre? Stoic’s blend of choice & consequence with the ordeals of a long epic journey may have its roots in the like of The Oregon Trail but it seems a lot of games are taking Banner Saga in particular as a starting point and making their own thing. We’ve already had Skyshine’s Bedlam and now Sunburned Games is bringing us The Great Whale Road. It’s now in Early Access on Steam so we took a look at this promising choice-based RPG.
30 Minutes of Gameplay Video
Half 'n' hour of gameplay from this Early Access RPG.
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While in some ways completely different from The Banner Saga the comparison is still certainly apt, especially with all the choices and the fact that the current Early Access version is restricted to the Norse Danes. Unlike Banner Saga, King’s Bounty: Warriors of the North or Skyrim these are the proper real-life Norsemen, not a fantasy version with added dragons and/or giants. These guys are just looking to survive, pillage and conquer like the rest of us. Still as soon as these folk get travelling down the Great Whale Road you can’t help but feel a pang of déjà vu.
The titular Great Whale Road is actually the sea, so there’s not actually a caravan at least - although I did have to forget about the first hour of Banner Saga 2 which is, um, set on a boat. As per Stoic’s games as your Danes progress various events happen and you have to make a choice how to deal with them. Things like “chickens are going missing” or “there’s an empty village there, should we plunder it?”. Currently though these events are a little easy. While they have more immediate consequences than Banner Saga or a Telltale title there is usually a “correct” answer and it’s pretty obvious. Furthermore at the moment events tend to repeat so if you picked the right answer the last time it’ll be even easier the second or third time.
It's the Chicken Lover!
Of course there’s combat if you make a bad decision, or a very right decision if you’re playing as a real Viking Bastard. Now combat is unique for this type of game. It’s a board game/card battler combo and it’s a little strange. You get to choose Heroes to go along with your Leader character on the journey, but unlike Banner Saga when combat starts you can’t put all your Heroes down immediately. Instead only the Leader from each side goes on the board and you get three random cards to play.
These cards can either be played all at once or shuffled back into the deck to get new ones next turn. Heroes can only be put on the board if their card comes up, and I’ve had entire combat rounds where I didn’t receive a single Hero card and my Leader died on their own at the hands of three Saxon warriors. The other types of cards are buffs called War Crys and I just could not work out how to use them. They’re unlocked at certain turns but I’ve had cards unlockable from Turn 1 that just wouldn’t activate. In all honesty combat is kind of broken and not fun at the moment, so let’s hope Sunburned are working hard on it.
Guess which side I'm on
Other than that there are a few RPG elements at play. Heroes can be levelled up, and the gold you earn can buy better weapons for use in battle. Then there’s Energy, Health and Morale to consider. All characters need to eat, rest and be merry, so you have to have enough food to last. You can’t just send everyone hunting at every settlement though, they need to either rest or drink until they spew.
Your village at home needs looking after too. At the beginning of a Year you get to assign points into the areas you want your homestead to focus on, such as Farming, Hunting, Diplomacy or Warfare. Obviously pumping points into Warfare will make plunderin’ easier but then all your villagers might starve if there’s a tough winter ahead. Trade can be manually done by bringing goods with you on your voyage and then selling them at another outpost, but obviously there’s only a certain amount you can hold in your ship and some food will probably be necessary for the crew.
Goddammit Jeff, always a buzzkill.
OS: Windows 7 64-Bit
Processor: Dual Core 2.0 GHz
Memory: 4 GB RAM
Graphics: 1 GB VRAM
Storage: 3 GB
OS: Windows 7 64-Bit
Processor: Quad-Core 2.5 GHz
Memory: 8 GB RAM
Graphics: 2 GB VRAM
Wow, yeah, not much to worry about there. Graphically The Great Whale Road isn’t a powerhouse. It’s all 2D, and in fact there’s barely any animation at all in the current version. The sailing screen has a few moving parts, but settlements are all static paintings and combat just features moving non-animated pieces around a board. In fact I think that the twirling shield loading icon accounts for about 50% of the animation budget.
The Great Whale Road is currently in Steam Early Access priced £10.99/$14.99. The version now available consists of the first half of the Danish campaign, with the second half coming soon and the remaining cultures due as well: Northumbrians, Franks and Picts. Sunburned estimate they’ll be in Early Access for around 5-6 months although as we’ve seen before that could change.
In my opinion The Great Whale Road still has a good while to go before it’s a complete game, and not just because 3 ½ campaigns are missing. The idea is a sound one: The Banner Saga’s blend of journeying, board game combat, and decision-making mixed with maintaining a homestead and further RPG elements. It’s not quite gelling so far, however. In fact it’s a little repetitive.
That's more like it!
The Banner Saga excelled through unpredictability, such as with decisions you couldn’t foresee the outcome of and having no firm idea where the road may take you. The Great Whale Road on the other hand does not have clever events (working out the best course of action is easy) and at the end of the summer the ship will always dock at home ready for the next winter. Combat also needs a good revamp, as losing just because the game refused to deal any Hero cards is not anyone’s idea of fun. And I’ve no idea how those War Cry cards work too.
Nevertheless there’s still at least 6 months of feedback and development coming for Sunburned Games to make a good game out of a neat idea. It’ll be especially neat to try the other cultures the developer has planned, as Norsemen have kind of been done to death in gaming at this point but I don’t see Bethesda rushing to make the next Elder Scrolls game set in Scotland. Shame. We’ll check in on The Great Whale Road in 2017, then.
Most Anticipated Feature: Seeing how the other cultures play.