And now, for something completely different.
2013 was a pretty big year for games – the disappointing next gen console launch library notwithstanding. Titles like GTA V and The Last of Us set the bar for open world eminence and immersive narrative, and the rest of the industry took notice.
But moving the needle towards graphical realism and seamless transition from cutscene to gameplay need not always be the goal. Like the bedtime readings of our youth, sometimes we just want to be told a story and let our imaginations take over the rest.
The Banner Saga is one such story.
In a fictitious Norse world, the Gods of old are dead. Man and Varl (a race of horned giants resembling vikings) manage an uneasy alliance after generations of war, their unity imperative after the appearance of the Dredge, a race of weapon-wielding stone creatures. Trade between the humans in the south and the Varl in the north has prospered, until one inexplicable event came to pass. The sun has stopped in the sky, leaving the land under eternal twilight and with a wintery chill. The Dredge are advancing once again, and both human and Varl must leave their homes and journey across the continent towards to make one final stand.
Drawn To Life
The first thing you notice when you launch The Banner Saga (TBS) is its indelible art. Inspired by 20th century artist/illustrator Eylvind Earle, the 2D landscapes come alive through foreground silhouettes, sharp lines of the rolling landscapes and distant peaks that blur into the horizon. These hand drawn scenes are where you spend much of your time in TBS, as your caravan of hundreds of clansmen, fighters and Varl amble across the countryside, all tiny marching specs under your clan’s enormous banner.
A flutter of braided hair in the breeze and the occasional shift of the eyes is all you see as events unfold.
The gameplay during travel revolves around the population, supplies and moral of your caravan. Making camp and resting will boost the resolve of your warriors and add to their willpower in battle, but if supplies run out you will lose men to starvation. Along the road there is no shortage of occurrences that require you to make fateful decisions as the reluctant leader. Will let you let a lone group join your ranks or simply take their provisions by force and leave them as fodder for the Dredge? If you let them join, is there a risk they will turn against you and try to take over the caravan for themselves?
The decisions you make in TBS can feel weighty; knowing that any option you take is going to risk the lives of either you, your party members or the lives of the fighters and the families following your lead. It’s an almost sickening responsibility you feel, one that defines true leadership.
There is a lot of dialogue to sit through – from casual banter to suspenseful standoffs – all delivered through text complemented by still, comic book-style caricatures that do not speak, or even move. A flutter of braided hair in the breeze and the occasional shift of the eyes is all you see as events unfold. You’ll often find yourself staring at the screen, admiring the intricate detail of the falling snowflakes and listening to the ambient clanking of a blacksmith and mutterings by peasants. If things heat up, the war drums will raise your heart rate in anticipation of a skirmish. During your journey the soundtrack whisks you away into the Norse world with music composed by Austin Wintory (who wrote the score to Journey), performed by the Dallas Wind Symphony.
The choices made within the dialogue trees not only affect the relationships with your allies, but also dictate whether you will storm into the fray, hold defensive formations or stage a strategic retreat when facing the Dredge. At certain points in the story fighting is simply inevitable, and your only recourse will be to resolve the conflict the game’s board game style, turn-based battle system.
There are a few things that make the combat mechanics unique. The biggest distinction is the attack and health stats both coming under under the single designation of “strength.” As you take damage from enemies your strength decreases, meaning you are now able to inflict less damage against your enemies. This means the last thrashes from a falling foe are of usually of little consequence, but members of your own squad can also be quickly cut down if caught out in the open by enemy damage-dealers.
The second bar is your armour, which deflects incoming hits and must be broken before you take any sizeable damage. Turns involves moving units a certain number of tiles and if in range, attacking your enemy’s strength or attempting to break their armour. The balance of wearing down each one of these stats takes practice, and mistakes are punished with swift retribution by the enemy. Each warrior class also has a special ability, which when used properly can turn the battle on its head in a matter of moments. Animations for attacks let your storied characters come alive, making finishing moves of those close call battles a cathartic climax.
Many reviewers have labelled TBS as a strategy game, but you spend less than half of your time in the turn-based battles. Between the travelling caravan and the (mostly) engaging dialogue, you seem to spend a lot of time in a sort of illustrated text adventure where your choices have repercussions. This is where you have to manage your expectations of TBS as a video game. It’s not as slow and laborious as the new wave of point and click adventures, but you have to embrace this viking saga for what it is – a damn well written narrative. If you don’t care about the characters, there’s no point trying to keep them all standing during the frequent skirmishes. When making critical decisions, letting your guard down can result in sabotage, deception and betrayal. Shutting out assistance from others means you will be taking on armies without the manpower you need. There will certainly be no shortage of tough calls during your journey.
A review code of The Banner Saga was provided courtesy of Stoic.
The Banner Saga is not a game that’s easily defined, but one that will draw you into its beautifully painted world of mountains, men and giants. A Kickstarter success story and bold rendition of strategy and adventure, indie creators Stoic have certainly set the bar high for 2014.