Vikings, Giants and scary robot men! What more could you want?
The Banner Saga is a Viking-themed tactical role-playing video game by Stoic, a trio of indie game developers formerly of BioWare. It’s a sprawling tale that spans multiple perspectives, and unique combat system and impeccable writing.
The first thing you notice when you start playing The Banner Saga is how beautifully drawn it is. Hand-drawn and animated, every character looks unique and interesting. Astounding vistas await you in The Banner Saga’s world. The premise is simple, the sun has simply stopped. To make it worse, the Dredge, and race of mechanical beings, are invading the countries of men. Humans must team up with the Varl, a race of horned giants, if they want to stand a chance of surviving.
Like all good epics, they drop you in the middle of it. The way the story gives exposition is really good, through well-crafted scenes and situations. If you want to find out more, the information is available. The world of The Banner Saga feels fully formed when you hear of the departure of Gods, great wars and mighty heroes. Each character feels like they have their own history, even if you never get to see it. As your group of heroes progress, you craft your own story, your own Banner Saga.
Gameplay is split into two main parts, travelling and battle. When you travel, it takes on an Oregon Trail kind of gameplay. You stock up with supplies and head off. As you travel, you encounter situations that either help or hinder you, depending on your response. Many times I felt I was doing the right thing, ended in disastrous consequences for my travellers. If you extend help to a group of passers-by, you may end up with supplies getting robbed. You may stumble onto a treasure-trove of food, only to find it’s bad after you’ve eaten it, ending up with multiple casualties. It’s gripping stuff, especially when you end up running out of food and people start dropping like flies.
The second half of gameplay is battling. The Banner Saga offers a fun twist on the turned-based tactical RPG standard by using two main units, Armour and Strength. Armour determines how much damage you can negate, and strength determines how much damage you can deal, as well as acting as your HP. You can choose to attack either, leading for some tactical decisions. Send in a character to deal armour damage, then send another character to deal the finishing blow. A character being attacked? You can hack away at an opponent’s strength, rendering them useless. It’s fun, and adds a new take on a tried-and-tested battle system. It also makes sure that no battle is easy, livening gameplay up.
You can also level your characters up using renown, which you gain from completing quests and battles. The twist is that supplies and items are also purchased using renown, leading to you stressing out over what you’re going to do. Should you make your archer stronger, or by 3 more days’ worth of supplies? This was a question that came up a lot in my play-through.
So we’ve got a good taste of the animation, but the music is no pushover either. The music, composed and scored by Austin Wintory, the Grammy Award winning composer of Journey, is second to none. The atmosphere delivered by the music evokes a world of winter, war and death. It’s some truly chilling stuff, sending shivers down my spine when I hear it. However, the strongest aspect of The Banner Saga is the writing. The dialogue is fantastically written, being colloquial yet mystical at the same time, perfectly encapsulating each and every emotion. Truly something special.
The only gripe I have with The Banner Saga is that, for an epic tale, I found it quite short. This wouldn’t be too bad in and of itself, but as the first of a planned trilogy, the third act leaves something to be desired. Also, apart from bandits and Dredge, there isn’t much variety in the enemies you face. If Stoic improves on that in the second game, I’m sure it’ll be one of my favourite games of the year.
The Banner Saga is everything you want from a Viking epic. Wars, winters and the courage of men (and women! There are some brilliantly written female characters). A world filled with mystical lore, a tight battle system and some truly astonishing writing, The Banner Saga is a must play for RPG fans.