The Banner Saga
In 2012, Alex Thomas, Arnie Jorgensen and John Watson left their positions at Bioware to form a new indie game studio in Austin, Texas. The trio – working as Stoic Studios – set to Kickstarter to fund their first project, The Banner Saga. Their background and vision for a tactical-RPG paired with Viking mythologies resonated with gamers and their funding goal of $100,000 was met in nearly a day, with a grand total of almost $800,000 raised by fundraising’s end. Two years later, The Banner Saga wound its way to PC players, and a year after that, PS4 players were able to put the game through its paces.
Stoic, as a noun, refers to “a person who can endure pain or hardship without showing their feelings or complaining” and there’s no better word to describe the long-suffered hardships inhabitants face in the bleak feudal world of The Banner Saga. The game opens and we’re introduced to the frozen hellscape of divided kingdoms they occupy. Their gods are dead. The sun has stopped moving in the sky, the land bathed in pale, perpetual daylight. Marauders raid the countryside villages and war seems imminent as the Dredge, the eternal enemies of the varl and humans, begin to march.
The varl, a race of horned giants, are fading from the world and the humans are fractured and divided when players take the role of Rook. Along with his daughter, Alette, and a varl named Iver, Rook decides to flee to the human capital when his home is swarmed by Dredge. Most of Rook’s fellow villagers have the same idea and he suddenly finds himself reluctantly leading a vast caravan across the frigid landscape. Rook’s carts, fighters and clansmen march across the screen automatically, giving players time to appreciate the beautiful hand-drawn landscapes the clan moves through.
You have little agency over the movement of your caravan save for choosing when to rest. Instead, most of your time during the side-scrolling travel segments is spent making decisions. Sometimes, the decisions you’re forced to make are light, like solving personal dramas among your clansmen. Other times, the decisions are more serious. You’ll encounter other refugees along the way – do you rob them and use their supplies to feed the people you have, or do you bring them aboard, knowing that you’re now responsible for them?
If you let the refugees in, how will you respond if you catch one betraying you? Will you be merciful, or will you set an example for others? The decisions you choose shape the story you’re told along the way. Almost every choice has a consequence, and the game does a good job of subverting your expectations with enough twists to get you to think seriously about almost any decision you make. My Rook was a generous hero who took everyone in, even though I was burned on more than one occasion, but the game is flexible enough to be played ruthlessly and everywhere in between.
You’ll also be doing a lot of Dredge killing over the course of the game. The Dredge are relentless and stalk the player throughout. Fights are fought through a turn-based, tactical battle system. Players choose 6 heroes from an overall roster of about 24 potential companions you can encounter and recruit along the journey and strategically position them on the battlefield. Each hero has a particular ability that makes them useful, and balancing abilities is necessary to be successful.
Enemies have two stats the player has to be primarily concerned with: strength and armor. Hero characters have their own strength and armor stats, too, and how much damage they can inflict on a foe depends on how they compare. Strength determines how hard you can hit, armor determines how much of the hit you can block (a simple “strength – armor = damage inflicted” equation). You can either attack an enemy’s armor or attack their strength, forcing you to decide if it’s better to line them up to take increased damage next turn by attacking their armor or to reduce their strength so the next blow they inflict on your team isn’t so painful.
It usually isn’t too difficult to choose a strategy and I found myself defaulting to armor first, strength second. The simplified combat system probably won’t throw genre fans too many challenges or curveballs, but it gets the job done. Perhaps most intriguing about it is that your decisions – either those relating to caravan management or the ones that you make on the battlefield – stick. There are no quick saves to bail you out. If you botch a battle and injure several of your heroes, they won’t be back to full strength for a few days, forcing you to either rest and consume supplies until they’re healed or risk encountering the Dredge with a weak team.
All that said, this isn’t a game about a clan or the end of the world or fights with the Dredge. It’s about a handful of flawed people trying to survive and hold out hope in an increasingly inhospitable world. I felt so connected with many of the characters in the game, but in particular, the story of Rook and his daughter, Alette, resonated with me. Rook is a protective father, but Alette is also strong and capable, and he doesn’t presume to stand in her way. The bond they form over their adventure and the experience they share is memorable and poignant and had me in tears by the end of the game.
But as much as I appreciated the depth of this relationship, there are too many characters, and some plot points that were expected to be impactful were lessened because I didn’t exactly remember who the character even was. While you won’t necessarily meet every hero over the course of the game and explore their full stories, you’ll encounter enough of them that a few will get lost in the shuffle. Fortunately, the game is good enough to recommend for a second playthrough, which will give you an opportunity to explore the ancillary characters further.
If you do play through it a second time, you’ll likely notice some of The Banner Saga’s opportunity areas. I was surprised to see that terrain played no role in the combat system – I would have liked to see elevation come into play to add some additional depth and strategy. Hills that gives archers a bit of an advantage could have added points of contestation and encourage more unit movement. And though there are a lot of characters, combat-wise they’re not very distinct beyond their unique abilities. The bulk of them serve pretty similar combat roles and team composition will look pretty similar regardless of your choices. And maybe I’m getting old, but the font in the game was a little small and tough to read at times.
These are small complaints, though. The ten hours of my first playthrough of The Banner Saga were some of my favorite spent with games this year. Every day I rushed home to play more of it and have thoroughly recommended it to almost all my friends (all one of them). Let’s put it another way: I haven’t felt the urge to actually sit down and write a review in four years, and I thought this game was worth taking the time to tell you about. So go play The Banner Saga. With an expansive storyline, some memorable characters and beautiful hand-drawn graphics, this is a unique experience that you don’t want to miss out on.