The moment I laid eyes on indie developer Stoic’s The Banner Saga, I wanted to love everything about it. The art-style is simply jaw-dropping, calling to mind classic Disney—Sword in the Stone comes to mind—and other older animated films like The Last Unicorn or The Hobbit.
What we see in the game is novel in video games—no AAA attempt at realism, but no 8-bit indie production either.
Stoic crowd-funded the game via Kickstarter, where it raised an impressive $723,886—far above its $100,000 goal. A good thing, too. While The Banner Saga is not without its flaws (which I will touch on momentarily) it’s still one of those games that’s worth playing. A game that tries something new and isn’t afraid of ambition on a budget.
The Banner Saga is a viking game on the surface, though it takes place in a purely fantasy world filled with giants (Varls) and invading, alien creatures called the Dredge.
(I’ve always been obsessed with vikings, ever since I was very young and learned of all my Norse ancestry, so this game naturally sparked immediate interest in me.)
You take on the role of several characters within the game and lead your caravan(s) across the expansive icy frontier, in a land where the sun never sets, running from a mysterious apocalypse.
It’s a beautifully realized world, filled with mystery and danger. There are many moments when you just want to stare at the screen in awe.
Watching your lonely caravan march slowly over the snow, under massive godstones, past abandoned villages. It’s great even when you aren’t really “playing” those bits.
Of course, this visual trek is aided enormously by Austin Wintory’s truly lovely musical score. Wintory, of Journey fame, weaves together an epic soundtrack for this epic tale, the perfect companion to Stoic’s fantastic artwork. Singer Peter Hollens adds voice work, along with a handful of other indie musicians and a full orchestra.
The soundtrack alone, like the artwork, makes the game worthwhile.
The Banner Saga is comprised of three primary mechanics.
We’ll talk about the narrative progression first.
You take on the role of various leaders in this story, leading your straggling caravans to safety—or at least away from danger. Safety proves quite elusive in this tale.
As a leader, you’ll make various choices as your journey progresses. How you deal with rowdy drunks, runaway treasure carts, and battle against the Dredge all play a role in how the story progresses. Some small choices have big consequences, while some big choices don’t. It’s sort of like life that way, and there’s a lot of uncertainty.
The game doesn’t really focus on “moral” vs “immoral” choices. It’s more a matter of priorities and leadership style.
Do you physically punish a troublemaker or banish them from the caravan? Or do you give them another chance while ordering forced sobriety? Do you let go of the treasure cart or fight to keep it from careening over a cliff? Do you rest or do you help guard a besieged city wall?
These aren’t choices that confine you to a “Paragon” or “Renegade” persona. They’re just choices, some of which have good outcomes and some of which make you grit your teeth. While there is no permadeath in regular combat, your choices in the game’s narrative can result in the death of a character.
Beyond the choices you make as the story unfolds is the broad scope of resource management. You don’t have many resources to manage in The Banner Saga, but scarcity plays an often brutal role in how those resources shape your progress.
Actually, here is where I’ll enter, for the record, my first official gripe. As someone who enjoys games that take resource management seriously, I find the system in The Banner Saga almost too stingy for its own good. Perhaps this is simply because we’re only privy to about the first ten hours of what will eventually be a longer overall game, but I think it’s fair to treat this as a game unto itself. And as such, I’m left feeling too squeezed.
In the game, “Renown” is your only currency. You use it to purchase magical items or level up your roster of heroes, and you use it to purchase supplies for your caravan. It’s a simple system. There is no home base to worry about, no trade system, and “supplies” encompass everything your people need to survive as the days pass.
The bigger your caravan, the more supplies you consume, and so on the UI you simply see the number of days of supplies you have left. Left unfed, your caravan’s Morale level drops. The lower the Morale, the worse you’ll fare in a fight since it directly affects your supply of Willpower (which we’ll come to later.)
Camping halts progress to your next destination but allows you to rest, which boosts morale (and consumes however many days worth of supplies you spend resting.) So there’s some juggling here. The problem I encountered was that the doling out of Renown seemed stingy, even for a game like this. It’s nearly impossible to level many of your heroes up, purchase any trinkets, and still feed your caravan.
Sure, that means you have to make hard choices, but I still like to feel as though I have some options, especially in my heroes. If I can only afford to level up a handful of a couple dozen characters, I just end up using those characters exclusively in fights.
To make matters worse, there are two separate stories that you play and in one you have quite a few resources and in the other next to none. And you end up playing the more difficult story quite a bit more than the easier one, which is a bit unfortunate for a variety of reasons. By the end of the game I didn’t feel like I had much of a chance to really explore many of my characters or the numerous possible items I could have purchased (I never actually purchased any of them actually, sticking with what I found instead.)
All told, I think the resource management could benefit from better balance, or at least some other opportunities to scavenge for food (at some risk, of course) or engage in more Renown-bestowing activities. I don’t claim to have any magic bullet or perfect solution, but the fact remains that more could be done to make this aspect of the game more rewarding while still maintaining the trade-offs and tough choices.
The final major game mechanic is the turn-based combat.
I have decidedly mixed feelings about the combat. We’ll start with the good.
What I love about the system in The Banner Saga is its simple elegance. Here’s how it works. You have six heroes (you can often pick whichever of your heroes you’d like to use, assuming you have more than six) and can place them in various starting points before the match begins. The enemies are shown in their starting locations.
All heroes have two primary stats: Strength and Armor.
Strength represents both physical might and the ability to do damage, as well as vitality or hit-points. The lower your strength, the less damage you’ll do. If it runs out, you “die” (or are injured, rather, and down for the count.)
Armor represents your ability to ward off damage. If your Armor is higher than your attacker’s Strength, not only will they only be able to inflict paltry damage against your Strength, they have a chance of missing (10% per point difference.) The twist here is that an attacker can choose to do damage to either Armor or Strength, and some characters will have higher Armor Break than others, making them formidable against heavily armored opponents. If your Strengh is lower than your opponent’s Armor, it often makes more sense to attack their Armor instead. But then you’re left open to a potentially heavy attack when it’s their turn.
So in this very simple system you have a lot of choices to make. Do you attack Strength and make your opponent weaker or do you take out their Armor so that a subsequent attack on Strength will do more damage? It opens all sorts of tactical doors.
Add to this Willpower, which is affected by Morale and other factors, and you have a sort of magic bonus that can be used to do more damage or to unleash special attacks and powers specific to each hero.
Players can move and take one other action per turn, and the battle unfolds with one character from each side making a move (as opposed to games where an entire team moves and then the other team moves, and so forth.)
In one difficult battle, I figured out how to line up my enemies just so after two or three moves to have them positioned perfectly for my Mender’s chain-lightning attack (Menders are basically wizard/clerics) which travels across diagonals hitting both friend and foe should they be touching corners. It’s a bit like chess in this regard, in that you can start to hazily anticipate the enemy and set them up as you go.
So all of this is great. The whole system works wonderfully and is very enjoyable. What really makes the combat far less stellar than it could be is the tedious lack of variety.
We are treated over and over again to perfectly flat grids in pretty similar environments which may be better-termed mere backdrops. There are no environmental factors to consider. No obstacles, no higher and lower terrain, no cover, etc. It’s a flat board each and every time. This is a terrible shame. But not the game’s biggest sin.
Worse still are the enemies.
I have to admit, I really dislike the Dredge. A lot. I loathe them, actually, not because they’re the enemies of my people, but because they’re boring and feel really out of left field.
We have this wonderful viking world filled with bearded giants and mead halls, but the enemies look like Aztecan robots (or something.) Totally out of place.
That would be fine if they were just one enemy among many, but by and large the only enemies you fight are the Dredge and there are only a handful of different types of Dredge to begin with. And you fight them over and over and over again until you’re basically dying to fight a troll, a goblin, something, anything other than more Dredge. My kingdom for a skeleton knight.
There’s even a big serpent thing that shows up that you never fight and basically disappears from the action until, one assumes, Part Two of the game sometime in the future.
So this lack of variety is a real drag. Here we have this gorgeous looking (and sounding) game, with one of the most refreshing art styles I’ve seen in years and a pretty cool system of narrative choices and tactical combat, that’s not only bogged-down in terms of its combat, but sort of bogged down all over by this Dredge menace.
Let’s face it, as boring as fighting the same bad guy over and over again is, when that nemesis is the driving force behind the narrative itself, we’ve got problems. While the way the story unfolds is interesting, the story itself hasn’t hooked me yet, largely because I find the Dredge so deeply uninteresting and overplayed.
There’s obviously more going on here, and the story isn’t finished yet, and maybe in Part Two we’ll see much more interesting villains and monsters and enemy combatants. That serpent is bound to return, one hopes, and maybe other enemies, too.
But right now this is a game that gets so much right, it’s almost painful to see where it flounders. It’s really hard to fathom why Stoic would spend so much time making such a tremendously visual game with a really cool combat system, and then just ignore how boring it is to fight the same enemy over and over again.
All that being said, I still give this one a Buy rating. For all my gripes, I remained pretty engrossed in the experience throughout and I fully intend on playing a second time and making different choices and decisions.
As an audio-visual experience, The Banner Saga is hard to beat. Tough choices and an elegant combat system help make the game fun and engaging right up to the end. With a few tweaks to the resource management system and some real soul-searching on enemy variety, Stoic could have a really terrific game on their hands. They’re not there yet, but they’re on the right track.
The Banner Saga
Platform: PC (other platforms at a later date)
Released: January 14th, 2014
Price: $24.99 ($29.99 with the soundtrack)