The Banner Saga
PC & Mac
Gorgeous art style
Excellent storytelling and characters
Willpower and Morale systems add to combat depth
Limited enemy variety can make battles feel monotonous
Unexpectedly abrupt ending
There’s not a lot you can say about Stoic’s The Banner Saga that hasn’t already been said. “Beautiful” immediately comes to mind, as does “thoughtful” and “well-executed.”
Released in mid-January, The Banner Saga is the first game developed and published by Stoic, an Austin, Texas-based company. With an art style that evokes the old hand drawn style of early animation, and a score by Journey‘s Austin Wintory, their debut game comes with luminous storytelling and a thoughtful turn-based combat system.
The story is told from two different perspectives that converge as the game reaches its end. As the first part of a three-part tale, The Banner Saga does finish on somewhat of a cliffhanger. Giant Bomb’s Alex Navarro put it well when he said that it’s a bit like watching The Fellowship of the Ring if you didn’t know there were two more movies coming. However, the characters are vivid and stand out from the screen. And they will really get you invested in the storyline, because the time you don’t spend battling the “Dredge,” a menacing rock people who are the game’s primary enemy, will be spent making choices regarding your characters and the caravans traveling with them.
The world of The Banner Saga is composed of the races of men and Varl, a horned race of giants, who in the last war had to set aside their differences and work together to defeat the Dredge and drive them into the inhospitable North. Now there is an uneasy peace between Varl and mankind, and the events of The Banner Saga will try its strength. You play as a Varl leader for a portion of the game, who is dealing with the death of his people and the coming onslaught of Dredge, as well as the escort of a petulant human prince. However, the greater portion of time is spent playing Rook, a male archer who travels south with his daughter, Alette, to save themselves and their village from the Dredge invasion. Along the way you can ask others to join you, but you have to balance your supplies and keep your morale up, which is a lot more challenging than it seems. Morale affects battle stats, and morale is kept up by resting. But resting consumes supplies. You can see wherein the difficulty lies.
“You are going to lose people. People that you love and have grown attached to.”
The battle system is pretty well thought out. Characters are all balanced by different strengths and weaknesses. Varl are your large, brute force brawlers, but they lack the nimble movements of archers. Archers can have hugely powerful shots, but will obviously want to be kept back from the front lines. You’re also given “willpower,” which can allow characters to both move further and do additional damage, but willpower is affected by morale. So if you have poor morale in your camp, you are going to go into battle with less willpower. And vice versa. Additionally, as your health decreases, so does the damage you do. Which can be frustrating when you have a character who is trapped and fighting for his or her life. But it makes sense. You’re going to do less damage when you are injured and hurting.
There is no permadeath in battle, however you are going to lose people. People that you love and have grown attached to. And it sucks. Because, like I said, these are beautiful, well drawn, and fully realized characters that you spend a lot of time talking to. And the choices you make in conversation will often lead to loss of supplies, clansmen, and your friends. There were several instances where I thought I had made the right choice and saved our asses, only to lose a character I had spent a lot of time leveling up and become fond of. It’s hard, but it’s a bleak story. There are very few moments where you are happy and laughing. Most of my time was spent watching my supplies and trying to keep people content, so I wouldn’t fail miserably on the battlefield.
But don’t take this as me saying that it diminished my view of the game at all. To the contrary, the dark story was completely offset by the beauty of the game and how easy it is to get sucked into the battle sequences.
Despite some repetition in the battles, and a lack of closure, I loved The Banner Saga from beginning to end. Management of the different resources was complex without being overwhelming, and I genuinely cared for the characters. This is an impressive debut for Stoic, and one that I recommend without any reservations. Once this game has its hooks in you, it’s very hard to put down. You will fall hard and fast. I was, and still am, completely invested in the storyline and the characters I’ve come to know.
Stoic has announced that they will be completing The Banner Saga parts 2 and 3, and I have a lot of hope for their future with a debut like this.