Developers: Stoic Studio
Publishers: Versus Evil
The Banner Saga is a sumptuous feast for the senses. Another magnificent score from Journey composer Austin Wintory rises and falls as gorgeous visuals inspired by Eyvind Earle's work with Disney in the 1950s tell the story of a fantastical world blighted by an ancient evil known as the Dredge. A narrative-driven, tactical RPG of sorts, The Banner Saga casts us into a world that owes much it would seem to Scandanavian myth and legend -- a world that mankind shares with a giant, horned race known as varl. The story flits between a handful of central protagonists; casting you as the leader of a caravan of survivors one chapter, and the head of a band of warriors the next.
Leadership, of course, has its burdens, and the struggle for survival is a tough one. Safety is swiftly proven to be a myth, and each new trek is even more perilous than the last. It's not easy when you have evil beasts stalking the land, brigands lurking in forests who care nothing for the oncoming threat that the Dredge present but will gladly kill you for the food and the valuables your caravan holds, a sun that never sets, and a murderous winter snow. But many of the dangers come from within: squabbling clansmen, drunks who need to have examples made of them, fighters questioning your judgement and your leadership. Desperate times yield desperate people, and unpredictability is rife.
It's clear to see that the small team at Stoic have taken inspiration from a number of sources, but Game of Thrones shines through in resolutely bleak fashion. Sometimes I hear Sean Bean utter "Winter is coming," as more reports pour in of an ancient evil returned, breaching the lands to the North. It's not just the weather, nor the relentless crushing of hope, but rather the fact the choices have real consequences in this game. As you make your way from one town to the next, you're beset upon not only by Dredge but also the troubles of your caravan. Do you accept the help that a band of warriors you've found on the road are offering? They might yield another character for your fighting roster. They might also kill half of your men and steal your precious supplies. And what about when you hear screams coming from a nearby village? Do you rush in yourself to protect those unable to help themselves, do you send others in your stead, or do you turn and run and leave the villagers to their fate? Main characters can and will die, sometimes all too suddenly, and though one or two might make it all of the way through the game with you, you'll be left ruing the fate of those you sent to their deaths with the wrong decision.
However, often your decisions will directly affect an imminent battle. Do you charge in to take the initiative, stun your enemies, and hopefully save lives? Do you spare yourself a tough fight even though it'll cost you fighters, making future battles more difficult? Do you try to buy some time with defensive tactics to allow the majority of your caravan to escape? Many of the choices you make along the way in The Banner Saga will tie directly into combat situations. Sometimes you'll be able to talk your way out or opt for a violence-free route. Sometimes you'll have to grit your teeth and prepare for the worst.
I've often struggled to find a way into tactical RPGs, particularly some of the more convoluted systems that occasionally pop up in certain Japanese titles, but The Banner Saga makes things rather simple. The combat system that lies at the heart of things is quick to understand, incredibly intuitive, and boasts a surprising amount of depth, not to mention a significant challenge. Simple doesn't mean easy.
The two key stats around which battles revolve are Strength and Armour. Srength determines a characters health and hitting power -- the weaker they become, the less damage they'll be able to deal. Armour is a modifier that acts as a damage inhibitor -- the higher a character's Armour rating, the less damage they'll receive. Whittling this down proves absolutely essential. There are other stats to take into consideration too, both on the battlefield and when it comes to levelling up your characters. Break determines just how much damage you can do to an enemy's armour with one attack, and funnelling points here might be wise for a vanguard character. Having someone who can break down armour quickly is definitely a boon. But then there's Willpower. Willpower doesn't replenish unless you rest for a turn, and can be affected before battles by the morale of your caravan. Essentially, Willpower points can be added onto any action to increase its output. You can use Willpower to move a square or two further than normal, for example, or deal an extra point of Strength or Armour damage, or fuel class-specific special abilities. Given the strength of enemies the game throws at you, managing the Willpower of your characters carefully can often mean the difference between victory and defeat.
The action unfolds in turn-based fashion, with battle order determined before the fighting starts. You can also position your characters within a starting area, weighting the battlefield as you see fit. As characters and units fall, however, the order always remains the same: Player-Computer-Player-Computer etc. This gives losing sides a chance to consolidate a little and, if you're skilful (and occasionally lucky!) pick off the stronger team one unit at a time. However, should a side be left with only one character or unit, then the battle will enter Pillage mode, and the stronger side will be able to press their advantage as the turn order opens up.
Winning battles will earn you Renown -- the currency of reputation here in The Banner Saga -- but not very much of it. Renown is a hard-earned commodity in this game, and is used for pretty much everything, from purchasing supplies and items to promoting and upgrading your soldiers and varls. High-level units, though valuable, come at a steep price as the Renown needed for promotion increases with each level. Promotion does bring some reward, though, with two points per level to sink into whatever attribute you choose, including upgrading class-specific special moves and increasing Exertion -- a stat that allows characters to spend more Willpower on a single action.
Your characters will occasionally fall in battle. Indeed, sometimes sacrificing a unit may well be the only way to win, but they generally won't die. They will, however, find themselves injured, and will require a period of rest before they can be added to your fighting roster once again. That might seem like a bit of a cop-out at first, it might even lull players into a false sense of security, but as the challenge increases and food grows scarce, you may not be able to rest as much as before and battles will see you having to break up your favoured lines, and shipping lives of general soldiers to allow time for your battle-hardened veterans to heal.
Often after a battle with the Dredge, the game will ask you if you want to pursue the last stragglers and soundly see them off, tossing the possibility of a rare item and extra Renown in front of you. Sometimes you'll accept, and sometimes it'll all be fine. And then there'll be times when you stride confidently into a consecutive battle only to find yourself overwhelmed and outnumbered. Then there are times when a seemingly innocuous decision will cost you your level 5 warhawk and you'll howl at your computer screen. Then there'll be times you find yourself haemorrhaging deserters or occasions when your caravan is starving because you bought a protective trinket rather than extra supplies and morale is down and people and dying and the Dredge have you surrounded and it's all your fault.
The Banner Saga isn't perfect; the lack of manual saves and the inconsistent checkpoints in particular can be a little frustrating. But by and large it's a mechanically sound title, and the combat system is gloriously elegant. The story takes a little while to get going, though, and there aren't a huge number of hooks to really take advantage of the game-changing consequences that your decisions can have. I lost plenty of key characters -- key, that is, from a tactical standpoint -- but nothing to rival, say, what happens on Virmire in Mass Effect 1 (though little does, quite frankly) on a narrative or emotional level, and part of that is down to characters who often seem a little two-dimensional and the fact that few of these moments are shown using the game's gorgeous aesthetics, most of them simply occur in text-based interludes.
That being said, it's an engaging game, and one that I dearly hope amasses the sales needed to justify completing the trilogy as Stoic would like, though this Kickstarter success can indeed be taken as a standalone game in case that doesn't pan out. But it would be a shame were that to happen. The Banner Saga is a beautiful, aesthetic delight set in an ugly world of violence and mistrust and desperation, where ugly choices have to be made. It's a game where my playthrough will likely be very different to yours, in spite of the linearity of plot beats, because of the sheer number and far-flung reach of the regular moral quandaries and heartbreaking decisions that are needed. By the end you'll have a woven a personal tapestry of storied survival, and if you're anything like me, you'll absolutely want Stoic to see this through to the very end.
- Absolutely wonderful art direction, beautiful aesthetics
- Austin Wintory's score is gorgeous
- Combat system is deliciously elegant, intuitive yet deep
- Numerous moral quandaries and tough decisions that affect the story
- Game of Thrones-esque approach to character death is admirable
- Inconsistent saves and no manual option
- Sometimes fails to truly take advantage of emotional narrative possibilities
The Short Version: Imagine Game of Thrones crossed with a dark, brutal, bleak Disney production that Disney would never dare to make, and you're pretty close to The Banner Saga. Stoic have delivered a cracking tactical RPG centred around an impressively elegant combat system and a peripatetic adventure that never lets up with tough choices and decisions to be made, letting the burden of leadership weigh heavy on players' shoulders. Engrossing, challenging, and aesthetically striking, The Banner Saga is a crowdfunded triumph.