The Banner Saga – Review



Title   The Banner Saga
Developer  Stoic
Publisher  Stoic
Platform  Windows PC, Mac OS X, Linux, iOS, PlayStation 3 (PSN), Xbox 360 (XBLA)
Genre  Tactical role-playing
Release Date  January 14, 2014
Official Site  http://stoicstudio.com/

The sun is fixed in the sky and, for what you think might have been days, the world has sat in perpetual twilight. It’s snowing; it’s always snowing, and you lead a caravan of two hundred refugees away from an unstoppable army of armoured giants. You’ve been travelling for days without rest, six days from the next town with only four days of supplies. People are going to die and there is nothing you can do.

This is the world you will be thrown in to in Stoic Studios debut game The Banner Saga. and it is both grim and beautiful. Described as the first part of a trilogy, the game is a beautifully hand-drawn turn-based strategy with a pinch of RPG that follows a wide cast of characters as they are caught up in what they suspect is the third Great War. The player finds themselves travelling across a fictional land gathering human and Varl allies – a race of giants – in order to survive.

The game begins as Ubin, the king’s tax collector and one of the oldest remaining Varl, travels to the town of Strand with his caravan of warriors. Reaching the city, things take a turn for the worse as the governor is caught up in an attempted coup. Rushing to his aid, you are introduced to the combat system as you rescue the governor and set his house in order. Heading north to the Varl capital, Ubin is joined the future Varl king and the prince of men as part of diplomatic mission when all hell breaks loose.

The Dredge, a race of armoured warriors created by a jealous god, return in the north and sweep south killing anything in their path. Ubin and his group begin to head north to the Varl capital to bring news of this invasion and secure the borders for war. Meanwhile in the east, Rook and his daughter Alette are caught up in the invasion and flee their homes in search of safety. Rook leaves with hundreds of refugees in tow and becomes the impromptu leader of the caravan, ultimately responsible for their safety and security.

As the game progresses, the two stories become more intertwined and what follows is a tale so full of twists and turns that to go much further would spoil the whole thing for you. Quite honestly, I found myself enthralled from start to finish. While I’m not a huge fan of the text-based delivery of game dialogue, backed only with a slightly animated character, I soon forgot about all of that and sat for hours reading this epic. In a style that has become a cornerstone of RPG games, and not unexpected when you look at Stoic’s background, the decisions that you make have a huge impact not only on the characters but on your caravan and the story itself.

Combat inevitably takes place as you try to protect your people from myriad threats ranging from the Dredge to common brigands. Being turn-based, the combat involves the player controlling a group of characters, each of whom has three key stats: strength, armour, and willpower. Strength is a measure of the character’s health and damage dealing ability; the higher the strength the more damage they will do and the more they can soak up. Armour negates damage to a unit’s strength and heavily armoured units need to be cracked before they can be taken down. Willpower is a finite resource that can be exerted to activate special or give attacks a little boost. This simple combat system set on a square grid may seem pretty basic but after a few rounds in combat you start to develop your own strategies. Each character has a particular class and special ability, and levels up as they make kills, increasing their skills using the in-game currency ‘renown’.

Renown is also the only way to buy supplies for your caravan, to prevent them from starving. Without supplies, morale starts to drop as people die off, which leads to serious impacts in battle and in some of the wars that pop up throughout the game, so you may have to choose between creating a group of elite killing machines or saving your caravan and keeping morale high. As I played through, my key concern was always the caravan but I soon began to struggle in mid-game battles, forcing me to change strategy. Luckily, losing a fight rarely means ‘game over’, although it does usually result in dire consequences for some people.

As I said in my preview last month, what really sets The Banner Saga apart is its visual style. The hand-painted art reminds me of the old Disney style; something you might see in The Sword in the Stone. The bulk of your time will be spent watching the caravan travel between locales, yet I didn’t seem to mind as this allows the beautiful world to slowly be revealed. Clues to what to expect in the next area tend to pop up in the foreground as creatures look on from the shadows and events often take place far off in the distance. Again, this use of the foreground and background carries over into the battle scenes and gives this sense that you are looking down on the unfolding violence from quite a distance away. Throughout, the game is delivered using this letter-box style which only seems to emphasise the sense that you are watching a big-budget animated film.

This idea is further reinforced by a powerful orchestral soundtrack that is delivered superbly throughout, adding a sense of scale to the game that fits perfectly with the setting. While there is very little voice over work, some characters do deliver brief descriptions of locations as you approach, which tends to hint at some dark history in the world that the player is only vaguely aware of.

I loved playing through The Banner Saga and after twenty hours of vicious battles and having my heart stings pulled I wanted more. This chapter of the saga ended beautifully but with so many questions left unanswered, who are the Menders, what are the Dredge and why has the sun stopped moving in the sky? After twenty long hours of leading Rook’s caravan, what was really fascinating is that I started to care if the people within it lived or died. I felt guilty when I made the wrong choice and despite the people of the caravan being nothing more than a number on the screen their deaths were caused by my actions. I felt responsible for the decisions and that’s what struck me most about this game. Despite its 2D presentation, lack of voice over and turn-based combat, I cared about these characters. If you are a fan of storytelling, Vikings, giants, turn-based strategies, role-playing games or just games generally, you should pick this up.

Pros
  • Visually stunning hand painted style
  • Engaging storytelling
  • Incredible soundtrack
Cons
  • That I have to wait for a sequel
Summary

The Banner Saga is a breath of fresh air in an industry filled with zombies and headline-grabbing shooter sims. It fills that niche between point-and-click adventure and turn-based strategy, delivering the best of both worlds. The story told in this first chapter examines people struggling to survive when their world is turned upside down and filled with twists that will keep you fully engaged, while hinting at a sequel containing so much more. Visually it stands apart from the few similar titles in terms of its quality alone, with a style harking back to the golden age of animated movie, all backed by what will no doubt be an award winning soundtrack. It is a technically perfect title without a single bug in sight and testament to the quality of work that can come out a Kickstarter campaign. I, for one, can’t wait for the sequel.


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3 Comments

  1. Stu says:

    Great review, I thought about pre-ordering at the weekend when I saw it on steam as the preview video captured me with the art style and the turn-based strategy but managed to stay my hand from clicking blindly. Now though, I am convinced. Buying tonight.

  2. Toffer says:

    This looks awesome. Can’t wait to pick it up when I get some cash, although I’ll probably have to wait for a sale. Great review Mark, one of your best!

  3. Keegan says:

    This game is so damn pretty. Glad to hear it’s tough as nails too, definitely going on my Steam wishlist :D

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