The Banner Saga may be coming up to being nearly two years old on PC, but with a release on the PS4 and Xbox One earlier this January and the confirmation that two sequels continuing the tale is in progress I decided that it was high time I took a look at what all the fuss was about. Picking up the PC version for a mere pittance, I have to say there really is nothing else quite like it.
The Banner Saga is the work of a team of ex-BioWare developers called Stoic, but that is where much of the familiarity ends as what is served up is deeper and more melancholic than the BioWare games we’ve become accustomed to. Taking place in a semi-fantastical version of Scandinavia where the land has been cast into a perpetual twilight, you take charge of a caravan of humans and Nordic giants as they try to survive an increasingly bleak world where even the Gods are no longer at hand to be called upon in times of great need having seemingly vanished from the world. As with any good RPG it’s not so much the destination that’s important here but the journey itself whereupon your decision-making skills are tested as you come across a multitude of situations and people.
Although you can sense some influence from BioWare past games in the moral-based decisions, the game is purposefully secretive about the outcome of your verdicts making for a much more compelling experience where one wrong, or indeed good decision can effect all of those around you; from your war hardened generals to simple peasant folk. How characters react and a measure of the caravan troupe’s morale and supply levels are your only real guide in how your decisions impact any given scenario. Simpy choosing to be good or evil, as with many decision making RPGs, can lead to a catastrophic outcome for all involved. In fact the game almost delights in punishing you should you choose to be ‘black & white’ in your decision making. It’s an approach that certainly keeps you on your toes and one that separates The Banner Saga from the likes of Final fantasy Tactics and indeed, many other role-playing games.
The visuals presented in The Banner Saga, while many of which during cut scenes are only partially animated and constantly reuse art assets, are beautifully drawn with the animation during combat being reminiscent of the golden age of Disney movies. A small budget was cited as the reason for the limited palette, but the team at Stoic have clearly gone to great effort to breath life into the story with its epic landscapes and the subtle animation of its characters and as such the simplistic nature of The Banner Saga’s visuals work to the game’s strengths, not as a detriment to the overall experience. For me I wouldn’t have it any other way as I feel that the use of ultra-realistic visuals found in other RPGs such as The Witcher 3, for example, would somewhat dampen The Banner Saga’s overall charm and appeal. Sometimes less is indeed more.
Combat comes down to the basics of strength and armour. The former indicates how much damage a character can do and also doubles as their life points, while the latter represents how many points of damage can be deflected. Much like the table top role-playing games of old armour points reduce the attacker’s overall chance to hit, and so as a character’s strength is reduced, so too is their effectiveness in combat.
While your characters can be hurt and need to recover after battle, they can’t actually die during combat. It’s in your interest to keep them as healthy as possible, as recovering at base camps takes time and resources, and once your supplies run out it’s bad news for your group of travellers. Bizarrely enough it’s not actual combat that will see key characters die thus changing the course of your adventure, but through the choices you make as the tale unfolds.
The Banner Saga is a delightful game filled with tough choices and harsh consequences, but with a story and gameplay that’s as rich and deeply rewarding as this it’ll be one that you’ll undoubtedly see through to the end – even if it means your decisions result in the suffering and even death of hundreds in an inescapable war. Parts 2 & 3 can’t come soon enough. This is simply excellent stuff.