The Banner Saga Review – Vikings got style
It has been a long time since I’ve had the pleasure of playing through an RPG that is challenging, gorgeous to look at, and captivating in its storyline complexity. In a time where many games of this genre have begun to feel identical, The Banner Saga stands out as a refreshing and unique entity.
Developed by Stoic Studio thanks in part to a very successful Kickstarter campaign, it is immediately apparent why this crowdfunded game racked up such a quick fan-base willing to aid in its creation. The atmosphere is wonderful, immersing you in this fantastical Viking inspired world of Varls (giants), Dredges (enemy), human Kings and struggling villagers. A cold and inhospitable landscape, it is none-the-less visually appealing, with vivid color contrast between characters and icy landscape. The overall artistic style is reminiscent of Disney animated classics from 50 years ago, with bright engaging colors and graphics. Much of the dialogue between characters involves only static images, which can become tiresome after awhile, but the animations in combat are interesting.
Coming from a small development team, I can forgive the lack of animation in lieu of the high quality sound effects, atmospheric music, and the fantastic writing and depth of storyline.
It is a throwback to the choose-your-own-adventure style of The Oregon Trail, with a healthy dose of Final Fantasy Tactics or Fire Emblem. As you travel through the frozen countryside, you will be faced with event decisions that force you to choose whether to be a merciful and moral leader, or a pragmatic brute. The outcome of your choices are never black and white, always grey, the results often not realized until much further into gameplay when they can come back to haunt you in the form of betrayal, or a dreaded loss of supplies which can lead to death and starvation in your ranks. Your decisions can also save your followers or aid in creating alliances. None of this is entirely clear at the time the choice must be made, which adds to the anxiety because your decision is final, there is no save option to go back and try again.
This setup is perfect for immersing you in the depth of the story. It forces a finality to choices that often causes you to sit back and take a moment to weigh options carefully, knowing it could mean the end of vital characters or shaky alliances if you mess it up. As the story unravels in a series of chapters, a bad decision could mean a quick end to a chapter and moving on to the next phase of this complex tale before you’ve had the chance to even establish how the characters are related. Get ready for an onslaught of Norse inspired names and a confusing who’s who that requires its own wiki. This is the first game I’ve played in years where upon finishing, I immediately wanted to go back to the beginning and start anew, just to test new experiences with different choices during a second play-through. This is definitely not a ‘one-and-done’ game.
The characters are engaging, their relationships complex and woven on a tapestry that you create. The Varls and humans have a tenuous alliance, with details becoming more clear as the story moves along. The politics are heavily impacted by your choices as player, which can help or hinder your ability to be effective in combat should you suddenly lose half your warriors to a broken alliance, make a bad move and cause a father to lose his beloved daughter, or kill a King early in, thus leaving a band of warriors with a new and untried leader. All of these developments can have both negative and positive impact on character development, which constantly leaves you guessing at whether or not entering into combat is a good or bad decision.
The combat system is relatively easy to learn, but increasingly challenging and difficult to master. It is your basic turn-based tactics board, with only a select few classes available to use. There is no real customization to speak of, other than a couple baubles one can wear to add an extra power, which become increasingly important as combat advances in difficulty. Heroes can be promoted through ranks to higher stats, but each promotion costs you renown points, so use wisely. Heroes that are injured in combat will have their stats effected and giving them an opportunity to rest before rushing into the next combat will increase the chance of victory. This adds weight to your dialogue choices as you come up against the Dredge repeatedly during travel, often with very little rest in between combat opportunities. However, battling the Dredge in combat is one of the negatives of The Banner Saga. It quickly becomes too repetitive, even though different classes of Dredge are introduced throughout the game.
Positioning pre-battle is vitally important and adds to the over-all challenge level. Varls take up more space than humans, making it a puzzle to plan movement during combat, with the risk of boxing yourself into a bad position. Establishing turn order before entering a battle is also important, as the wrong order can quickly turn disastrous, costing valuable assets. Camps provide training grounds to test your tactics, which is recommended each time you bring a new hero into the ranks. Remembering that a lost hero in combat can be a permanent loss, sometimes the loss of a central character, making use of the training grounds first is a great way to learn your way around the different classes without any effect on the storyline.
In combat, you must choose between attacking Strength or Armor, each having their own merits and drawbacks. The closer the enemies’ stats to your own, the more likely your attack will be deflected, so it is optimal to try and break armor first, thus leaving them vulnerable to a quick strength attack. Special attacks vary depending on class, but all classes can use their Willpower to increase attack power, or for extra movement during turns. However, Willpower is a limited resource and must be used carefully, with thought to the very real possibility that one victory may be followed immediately by another round of combat where you’ll b wishing you’d saved some to use against a stronger foe. These options keeps combat interesting and challenging. The potential to lose a valued hero which will permanently alter the storyline serves to keep combat meaningful.
As in most games, the final combat sequence is your typical ‘Boss Fight’ against a heavily armored enemy. In all honesty, it feels a bit campy and rushed, with the ending following so quickly I was genuinely surprised it was over. It is clear that this is intended to be one of perhaps many chapters in a series of The Banner Saga games, which makes the ending rather anti-climactic and disjointed. It definitely leaves you wanting more.
A final note to the story telling. Although it is immediately impressive in its depth, the amount of impact your choices have on the story remains unclear until subsequent play-through. It is amazing just how much you can change and alter the experience by making different choices. What was a major plot point in one game, becomes a minor undertone in another. My first run felt scattered and unclear; I made bad choices, rushed in to battle, lost characters quickly, and learned that I should really make use of that training ground. It was immensely entertaining while also frustrating on a level that I’ve only previously experienced while watching Game of Thrones. As soon as a character became a favorite, they were dead the next turn. Some of these developments are set to happen no matter your choices, some of them you have a lot of control over. Therefore, if after reading our The Banner Saga review you’re going ahead with the purchase (and you should definitely have this one in your RPG library, in my opinion) you can look forward to revisiting it again and again and having a fresh experience each time.
Here’s hoping that Stoic can sort out this trademark mess with King over the word ‘Saga’ so we will be seeing more titles in future years. The Banner Saga is an epic RPG that will quickly become a classic must-have for tactics fans.