The Banner Saga resulted from the developers’ desire to create games they would want to play and a successfully funded Kickstarter campaign. The Banner Saga is a strategy role-playing game for PC and Mac. Stoic, a three-man team made up of ex-BioWare indie developers Alex Thomas, Arnie Jorgensen and John Watson, developed the game while Versus Evil published the title. The Banner Saga is a game with few weaknesses; defined by its enormous strengths. It tells a grand story of vikings and varls with a tactical combat system that is more than worth the salt of the strategy RPG elite.
The sun has stopped, the land is covered in snow and ice bathed in washed out sunlight. This is the end of the world and the Gods are dead. Man and varl enjoyed a life full of beneficial growth and trade with their ancient enemy, the dredge, banished to the wastes of the north. That was until the sun stopped. Now the dredge return, overrunning the land like maggots festering in a decomposing flesh. Varl and man alike is not safe from the waves of obsidian rushing over the land, swallowing villages in its wake.
The Banner Saga tells the interweaving stories of two different groups attempting to survive the dredge and the world’s end. Hakor, de facto leader of a large company of varl escorting a human prince to the varl capital, deals with the burden of leadership after the group’s original leader falls in battle. The varl are strong and killing dredge is nothing new, but in exterminating overwhelming numbers of dredge, Hakor and his group happen upon something that will clarify why the sun stopped.
On the other side of things, Rook, his daughter Alette and the survivors of his village are simply trying to escape the dredge after they escape their village being overrun and destroyed by dredge. Like Hakor, Rook has to struggle with what it means to be a leader and making hard decisions that can cost people their lives. Rook and his clansmen are on a mission to find some sort of safe haven away from the dredge but that task proves difficult. How these stories intersect reveals much of the truth about the world’s end and what the real enemy is.
The Banner Saga demonstrates a measured ability to tell a grand story of multiple narratives through well written dialogue. As the narrative shifts from group to group, the major player’s personal stories deepen through obvious developments and subtle hints. It makes conversing with different characters satisfying.
One of the most interesting characters is Oddleif because of how she views herself and her place in the world. Watching Oddleif get some vindication during her and Rook’s journey is gratifying (even if it is only a small consolation). While it develops its characters, the story does a great job of giving the history of the world without simply doing it all in one big exposition dump. The Banner Saga’s dialogue branches and choice system are not as obvious as other RPG narratives but the various decisions you will face are significant to your clans’ survival. It is clear that the developers’ BioWare pedigree helped craft a thoughtful story.
Character and enemy units are set along a grid. Players control what position on the battlefield character units start the fight. As units move across the grid, they can attack other units depending on their class type. Melee units attack when right next to another unit. A varl is so physically larger, it will take up four grid squares while humans only take up one. This means varls can be positioned cleverly to be in range of multiple units, but this comes at the expense of mobility because they easily block out other units.
Ranged units attack depending on their weapon or special ability. The interesting aspect of combat is that units can attack an enemy’s health as you do. Cutting an enemy down to zero health results in death (and the opposite is true). Additional depth in combat comes from units’ ability to attack armor. Attacking armor sacrifices an immediate blow to health but allows other units to do more damage in the future. This risk and reward adds another layer of strategy to combat. Each unit has a special ability and using them requires Will Power, which is like mana. The issue with Will Power is that it can also be added to attacks to armor/health to make them more powerful. So using Will Power becomes a game of pros and cons. Even though Will Power is limited, it can be regained by keeping a unit stationary and resting. However, this will leave units defenseless against attacks.
The other layer of gameplay is resource management. Both Rook and Hakor’s camps have a specific number of Clansmen, Fighters and Varl. The larger the camp, the more supplies they need. However, supplies are limited. The amount of days players are able to travel is dependant on the number of supplies players must feed their camp. As players travel, morale begins to decline.
It is important to keep a good morale in the camp because morale effects battle. Lower morale makes units less effective and vice versa. If you morale is dropping, it is because you are traveling too much. Resting uses up supplies immediately without moving forward. This is a huge deal because camps only have the supplies on hand as they move between town to town, with very little options to restock until the next town. When supplies run out, the camp begins to starve and every day results in death of fighters, varl or clansmen. Whem players run into a big battle, odds of victory with minimal casualties are significantly lower with a smaller camp. Supplies can be bought in towns for renown but that comes at a cost. It is a trade off between buying supplies or buying important relics to beef up warriors. Resource management is important and adds another layer of depth to the gameplay.
Graphics and Sound
The game features entirely hand-drawn art that is utterly beautiful. There is a great level of detail to characters, battles, environments and backgrounds. It is impressive to see the level of care that went into crafting all of the lush art in the game. When in conversations with other characters, portraits for each character boast rich detail and color that make the dialogue pop despite a lack of voice acting. Some of the scenes in the game are breathtaking.
Even though the game lacks full voice acting, the amazing score by Austin Wintory more than makes up for it. The score captures the desperation of the humans and varls, the charge and din of battle and the weariness of travel perfectly. It is an engrossing and evocative score that helps to sell the world Stoic created.
The Banner Saga is an impressive strategy RPG. The story tells a properly august narrative full of intriguing characters and a world that is rich and full of compelling history. Stoic’s background at BioWare result in carefully crafted dialogue that nails various characterization. Plus, the subtle approach to moral decisions in the game is surprisingly thoughtful. The art is gorgeous and results in some dazzling visuals. The gameplay is complex yet accessible, addicting and, more importantly, fun. The soundtrack is marvelous. For their first outing, Stoic created a wildly compelling game.