The Banner Saga PC Review
I love strategy RPGs. It’s an addiction that started back in the PlayStation era – from Final Fantasy Tactics to Front Mission 3, from Disgaea to Valkyria Chronicles (that reminds me that I still need to play Jeanne d’Arc), I would like to think I’ve played most of the major entries in the genre, so I was happy to see that the Kickstarter campaign for The Banner Saga’s first episode was successfully met back in April of 2012 by quite a margin. What made me even more interested in the game was that this indie developed title by Stoic, a small company made up of ex-Bioware employees, was in fact a strategy RPG. There aren’t many indie titles that fall into this category, which made me even more excited to see what could be done with the genre when a developer isn’t tied to a big publisher.
While the internet screams for pirates and ninjas, The Banner Saga uses a piece of history that isn’t given the exposure it deserves in video games, Norse Vikings, and thrusts that into a fantasy world that is full of humans and varls – giant, horned beings that look like they are ready to beat some fools to a pulp. While you would think the varl wouldn’t have to worry about being wiped out from anyone, these giants, along with the humans, are under threat from the Dredge, a strange civilization that seems to have a sole purpose of killing any humans or varl that happen to be in their sight.
The story in The Banner Saga is well written, with a mature theme throughout that doesn’t depend on edgy swearwords or scantily clad women to make it feel “grown up.” There isn’t much time spent on building a background to the world, as a short introduction is given to the player at the start, then the game begins by dumping the player in the midst of a brawl at a pub. Players find out about the world as they play, and soon it’s clear that living in this world is depressing. The sun is stuck in the sky, so because of this the people are confused and insecure to the dangers around them. Their belief in the gods seems to be wavering as rumours spread that the sun isn’t changing because the gods are dead.
It’s a depressing tale that follows two groups of travellers, a human led caravan of refugees who are fleeing their homes after it was destroyed by the Dredge and a varl led band of warriors who are trying to reach a key location. As you can probably tell, the story in The Banner Saga revolves a lot around these survivors trying their best to fend off the mysterious black Dredge. These characters come across as ordinary people – you might want to let the definition of ordinary slip a bit with the varl – and don’t feel like saviours or world heroes that a lot of RPG stories build their characters up to be. While the story introduces interesting characters, it’s not one that explores the variety and scale of the world, due to its focus on the Dredge. The end does hold some surprising story plots, but as soon as the danger is over from the main enemy, the game comes to a sudden end and you’re left wanting episode two to continue on with this 11+ hour starter episode.
What I enjoyed about playing through The Banner Saga was the feeling that I was reading one of those “choose your own adventure” books, where readers would pick an outcome and flip to that page to continue the story. The game does alert the player at the start that your decisions will impact the outcome of the story, similar to what The Walking Dead by Telltale Games does, but it’s much harder in The Banner Saga to figure out exactly what the outcome might be. It also doesn’t give the player help text to alert them that “someone remembered what you did,” as the game appears to want to keep everything hidden under wraps to make the journey more full of little surprises.
Many of these events aren’t based around the main story, but are more one-off situations that take place when the group are travelling between towns. It’s an area of the game that you will see often, as time is spent travelling great distances to each of the game’s major areas. It’s a small side-game in its own way, as players are asked to manage morale and supplies to keep people happy and in good health as journeys can last for multiple days before arriving at the destination. If people begin to lose morale, then people who fight in battle will receive a handicap, which is a reduction in will points (more on that later). At first, the decisions are light on consequences, as the game offers such choices as allowing a random drunk sat at the side of the road to join your group, which just happens to bring some extra supplies for the caravan. Another example is one that had bandits blocking the path, only allowing us to go if we would leave them supplies. Being the type of person I was, I didn’t want to lose out on my limited supplies that were keeping my followers from dying of starvation, so I killed them in battle. You can be evil or you can be nice, but you never know when the game is playing tricks with you and is willing to mess you up.
As you progress further into the game the choices occasionally have serious consequences, such as how I lost one of my battle units over the end of a cliff because he was too stubborn to let go of the rope that was keeping the supplies from falling over the edge. There’s no way to cheat out of it as well, as saving isn’t controlled by the player, but the game auto saving whenever it desires. It’s always hard to try figure out what might happen in these multi-choice conclusions, but that keeps it exciting and true to the unexpectedness that life can throw at you during a grand adventure such as the one portrayed in The Banner Saga.
Improvements can be made on top of this concept, as often the options can be somewhat similar to a previous encounter, and so at times I felt like I didn’t care as much, resulting in me picking a quick outcome to get the game moving again. This is certainly the case for the optional battles that you find yourself coming across. Each option starts with the same text. The game tells you the size of your army and the opposing enemy and then offers some possibilities, such as defend, full on attack or escape. These are always the same options, with the difference in the battles being how hard or easy they are. I wish the developers could have spiced it up somehow, with more interesting battle scenarios taking place, so it wasn’t déjà-vu every time I were participating in an optional fight.
At first glance, battles seem to be simple and straight-forward with its move, attack, unique special attack or rest options. There are no crazy Disgaea combos or other ridiculous actions here. It’s a battle system that breaks it down to the basics. The battle maps are made up of grids, like any typical turn-based strategy RPG, and each character is limited on how many squares they can move per turn. The player’s units, which up to six can be deployed on a map (there’s 25 characters in total to acquire), have armour and strength numbers next to their name. This is where The Banner Saga does things a little different in regards to battling, as those two mentioned stats are the key that this battle system is built upon. Another import feature is willpower, which allows a character to use a willpower point to move one extra space or do extra damage. This is a limited power-up that restores after every battle and is extremely handy in tough situations.
Strength determines how strong the character is, but Stoic have thrown a twist on this by linking it to health, meaning that the strength stat acts as your hitting power and your health. The lower your health becomes, the weaker that character begins to hit, which is troublesome if you are squaring off with an enemy with a lot of armour. Armour is used to subtract from the opposition’s strength, which then gives you the final damage. This adds strategy to the battles, since you cannot just go all out and destroy the hard-as-nails Dredge. Players have to be calculated. Do they carve away at the armour so that the next person who attacks will deal more damage? Or do they gang on one enemy with a risk that the other dredge will come in to protect their buddy? It’s a battle system that is easy to understand, yet different than what you normally find in the genre. That in itself is something that the game deserves praise for.
The Banner Saga can be challenging, even on the standard difficulty setting, which comes with a handicap that if anyone falls in battle they have to sit out for a few days to recover. It’s not as punishing as Fire Emblem’s philosophy to permanently kill a party member, but, when you lose a great unit, it has to sit out for a while and really dents the structure of the team. This adds a management layer to the squad, comparable to running a football team and dealing with injuries. Levels and experience are done a little differently in The Banner Saga. To get to the next level, a character has to kill a number of enemies before they can be promoted. Once the target is reached, the player can spend renown points to increase their level and stats. Renown points are rewarded for killing enemies, making them extremely limited, even more so when you take into the equation that renown points are the only currency in the game. This means that players have to manage buying items, levelling up characters and purchasing supplies with the little scraps of renown that are rewarded.
While the battle system is solid, the game does suffer from doing more of the same – there’s simply not enough variety in its battle environments and enemies. For most of the game you are pitted against the Dredge, in which their variety can be counted on one hand. You will fight a varl or two, but the game needs more. The length of The Banner Saga just about lets it get away with it, but the next episode needs to change up the design of the enemies and maps. Maybe add elevation or obstructions, so that you aren’t just in a square field full of squares against soulless black armoured warriors.
One thing that needs praise is the game’s fantastic art direction. It stands out from the get go, because it’s a rather unique style, a throwback to the old days of classic Disney animation with the hand-drawn art and smooth animation. It’s one game that manages to blend the art style of both its character portraits and background art into the game’s gameplay. It helps that the game is 2D, allowing it to capture and animate the style it was clearly influenced by. To say the game is set in a world of snow, The Banner Saga is one of marvellous colour that will put a smile on anyone looking for a rich colour palette in their video games. People might be a little upset that there’s no voice acting in this game, as there is a lot of text, so that means if you aren’t one for reading, then that might hinder your enjoyment a little, but the soundtrack is beautiful and always seems to fit what’s happening on screen.
The Banner Saga offers a good look into the world Stoic has created for this three-part adventure. It’s a depressing, but beautiful tale of survival against all odds, one that creates a developed plot and theme without degrading the characters or world to appear mature. The Banner Saga also doesn’t outstay its welcome, with a short campaign and some interesting decisions that help combat some of the problems with its battle system. The Banner Saga’s first chapter opens a window to the potential this series has, but now Stoic need to work on solving the issues for the sequel so that this series can become a truly great strategy RPG.