I had a single grey hair in my beard two weeks ago, and it served as an appropriate ornament for my girlfriend to prod at every time she saw me. I blame that on the inevitable approach of my late twenties. I checked recently, and I have a pair of graying hairs joining their pioneer. Them, I blame on The Banner Saga.
There’s a damning weight to everything you do in Stoic’s hybrid RPG, even when you’re doing very little (which is more often than one may like). Consequence is abundant – a permeating concept wrapped firmly and intelligently around every facet of experience. You are always being reminded that this world is a teeming hive of desperation and violence, and that even when your intentions are true, you will not be able to save everyone. That may be a hard pill to swallow if you were looking for a game you can be an archetypal hero in, because there’s no room for square jawed justice here.
The story is told from multiple perspectives, and can be a bit of a chore to keep up with at times. In one chapter, you may be a Varl, a race of horned giants who share the land with humans, who is just doing his rounds as a tax collector. In another chapter, you may be a human who meets the varl you were just playing as. It’s never really difficult to do, and you settle into it quickly after these big shifts in perspective happens, but I found myself wishing I didn’t leave the last chapter’s cast more than once. That probably has more to do with how excellently the story is written, though.
A cold, harsh land where the old gods have slain one another, and the sun as stopped in the sky casting an ominous eternal sunlight over the land. Sounds like a great stage for a mature form of fantasy. When a long-thought-dead evil reawakens and terrorizes the denizens of this frozen continent, its up to a select few heroes – simple townsfolk and lauded war legends alike – to push back the threat, and preserve their legacies.
The story has simple fantasy elements sure, but in its simplicity comes precision. The lore isn’t so cumbersome and self-indulgent that it can’t be relatable to even those who are not huge sword and sorcery fans (myself included). The characters are allowed to be nuanced and flawed without having to be a stereotypical fantasy race. The fantasy components that are included and done so in the style of old tribal tales, almost like a video game rendition of an Anglo-Saxon epic poem. This stripped down, elemental take is more based around mysticism and human interaction with the unknown, and is a very refreshing take on it all.
With that said, there is much about the lore that is left simply alluded to or left out completely. This is a rather focused story, even if it does span months, miles, and many hundreds of people. It doesn’t take too much time to explain the “why’s?” and that can be a turn off to many fantasy buffs, who are used to a sort of endearing long windedness that the genre is known for. An understandable, if overly dismissive, concern.
The core gameplay can be equally divisive, especially since the experience of playing the game is, in itself, a splintered fare. You will spend most of the game travelling, or more appropriately, watching your caravan move from place to place, encountering events on the way. You will spend each stop solving people’s problems and managing resources like food and “renown”, a currency of sorts gained by doing deeds and spent on special items and character progression. The Oregon Trail correlations are not unfounded here; it actually makes the best descriptor for the main body of this game. It’s also an important one, because any feeling you have towards the sort of absentee interaction that the old adventure sim was known for probably won’t be changed, for good or bad, with this title.
The biggest difference between the two games is that in The Banner Saga, you will spend your down time making a lot of choices. Choices that will have a varying amount of effect on your caravan and its future. Sometimes its small; you convince a couple of vagrants to join your group as warriors or lose a few clansmen to illness. Sometimes though, its severe and game-altering, and if this game does anything right, its not being so conspicuous about which events will provide which sort of consequence. The Bioware/Bethesda formula of making moral choices that grant very obvious effects in the game – evil or good karma, for example – is noticeably and invigoratingly absent, forcing you to keep your mind on the gritty, grey world that is the survival of you and your people, and not how good or bad you were when you did it.
When combat is joined, it’s in the turn based fare: Ogre Battle/Final Fantasy Tactics with more beards. Though it treads familiar ground, the tactical turn based action has enough small tweaks and variance to stay challenging. Each team alternates turns, one character at a time, until one team has successfully smote the other. When a unit dies, the turns still alternate, allowing units in the losing team to act more frequently, and providing a small relief to that sort of “sinking” feeling you can get in turn based games as your army starts to shrink.
Units themselves have a Strength stat, which governs both health and damage done, and an armor stat, that resists damage done. Every time you lose health, you lose combat effectiveness as well, making every blow a sacrifice, and every turn a tick on a doomsday clock. The promise of diminishing returns for strategies overly defense really keeps a battle interesting by keeping you compelled to act, especially when the enemy unit types become more varied. Now they never become too varied, as they’re are only a few types of particular units, but at least on the player end, each character comes with a special ability. So any two archers are made different by the special thing they can do, like lay arrow traps or shoot flaming arrows. This sort of subtle variance is more welcomed than having 20 different classes who are only dissimilar in minute ways, and really reinforces the distinctiveness of each character.
This game isn’t perfect, though. The combat is relatively balanced up until the end, where the difficulty grows, unannouced, to great, rage-quit inducing heights. A relationship with death is well established before walking into these battles – the entire game has taught you that in order to live, some one has to take one for the team. But these fights seem to lack any want or need for balance at all, just egregious punishment.
The Eyvind Earle-esque animation does a great job of providing a moody, yet imaginative world to play in. The sparse voice acting does not. It is a silly, over-indulgent norse intonation that is distracting. So much so, it almost sounds like the voice actors themselves have trouble garbling it all around in their mouths. I don’t miss it when its gone, and when its around, I wish it wasn’t. The rest of the sound design is generally good though, and features an isolating, moody, and haunting soundtrack from the composer of Journey’s Grammy nominated OST, Austin Wintory.
Without playing the game, The Banner Saga will look like any other Tactical RPG or Point and Click Adventure game (depending on the screenshot). It’s only when you play the game that you learn to appreciate the blending of these two industry old genres, and the very surprising game it produces. It never pretends to be much more than what it is, and for some people it will not be enough in any one aspect of itself. Maybe the fantasy not fantastical enough, or the strategy not deep enough. But the games over arching focus on making every decision you choose, be it in battle or on the trail, matter is this games strongest feature, which serves to enhance the multitudes of things this game borrows from its peers. The game will shock you in its swift brutality, even when its not fair, and will not apologize. It’s that sort of purity of purpose that really makes this game a stand out experience that any fan of the genre should try.