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The Banner Saga

The sun no longer sets and the old gods are dead. As your caravan of men, women and giants trudges across another desolate speck of land they feel insignificant against the backdrop of this harsh climate. Looming, stark-white mountaintops swallow the sky above, while an ice cold wind carries snowflakes scurrying in its path, sweeping through a blazing inferno on the distant horizon. As you edge closer to the charred remains of a forlorn village a group of fleeing warriors come upon your caravan seeking aid. Do you let them join your travelling party or send them on their way? They may prove worthy fighters, saving many lives, or betray your trust and make off with your dwindling supplies for themselves. Can you stomach condemning potentially honest men to starvation?

The Banner Saga is full of tough choices like this, forcing you to make quick decisions with unforeseen consequences. This is nothing new in the realm of RPGs, of course, but the way in which The Banner Saga manages to marry its many systems together makes each choice feel incredibly meaningful, no matter how big or small. It’s a game of leadership in a world that’s shaped by what you do.

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It’s also incredibly beautiful, the painterly art style reminiscent of the animated Disney films of the ‘40s and ‘50s. Rich colours and expressive characters jump off the screen like a painting from a canvas, and sweeping landscape shots capture the frigid wilderness of this Scandinavian environment in stirring fashion. The fantastic art design breathes life into this universe where speech is absent; the small development team at Stoic relying on their writing and a distinct aesthetic to engross us without the resources available to AAA studios.

“Sweeping landscape shots capture the frigid wilderness of this Scandinavian environment in stirring fashion”This lack of voice acting can lead to some confusion at first as you sift through lines of dialogue from some fairly cliché characters without knowing quite what’s going on. But The Banner Saga is smart about taking things slow. These characters gradually open up, breaking away from their archetypal beginnings to find a distinct and nuanced voice you want to get to know.

The deep mythology expertly builds too, unravelling over time and avoiding the sort of egregious introductory info-dumps that are often synonymous with lore-heavy fiction like this. Past a point you gain an understanding of this universe and the perilous situation our characters find themselves in without the need for someone to bluntly spell it out.

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Throughout its ten or so hours you’ll split time between two intertwining stories – one featuring human archers Rook and his daughter Alette, and the other following a consortium of the giant varl, led by a warrior named Hakon. Each leads a colourful caravan of fighters and clansmen across this vicious hinterland, contending with hungry mouths to feed, ever-shifting morale and the ominous presence of mechanical soldiers known as dredge.

It starts off fairly mundanely before all the world-ending peril is introduced as the dredge sweep through the land and natural disasters topple even the most monstrous of mountains. But even after things get apocalyptic The Banner Saga maintains a sense of intimacy throughout. There’s a refreshing and terrifying feeling that your small party of tight-knit characters are vastly outnumbered, constantly on the run from an insurmountable foe. The refugee tale and threat of running out of food is far more engaging than the end of world story beats ever are, and its character’s relationships build from there.

The overarching tale isn’t bad but it doesn’t feel like it goes anywhere. The final battle offers a smidgen of closure but there’s no sense of narrative climax by the time the story reaches its conclusion, and some plot points fall completely off the map along the way. When you realise this is just the first in a trilogy it begins to make sense, but I couldn’t help but feel unsatisfied by how it all wraps up.

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Fortunately the storytelling excels elsewhere in the way it twists and turns based on the choices you make. For the most part you’ll watch your roving caravan gradually make its way across a 2D landscape, stopping in various towns or setting up camp to get some much needed rest.

“Your kindness may lead to disaster while your inhumanity ends in triumph”Along the way you’ll often be presented with various situations that require your input. A drunkard in your caravan might be causing mischief and the rest of your clansmen demand satisfaction for his misdeeds. You could try and laugh the whole thing off or tie him down till he sobers up, but what do you do when he drinks too much again and a bad situation only escalates? When a woman is murdered and her mother blames another traveller do you take sides or investigate further? Do you risk giving a murderer time to escape or kill again, or search for justice and prove the accuser’s claims are false?

There’s no telling how each outcome will play out. Your kindness may lead to disaster while your inhumanity ends in triumph. Repercussions might manifest immediately or hours later but they always feel organic; like another step in the road without any absurd contrivances getting in the way.

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Particularly noble decisions will net you renown which acts as the game’s currency, and it’s here where The Banner Saga’s various mechanics begin to coheres, each one feeding into the combat. As your caravan sets off on its automated journey it will consume supplies as each day passes. Run out of supplies and your warriors, clansmen and varl will begin to die of famine. You can use renown to buy more supplies once you reach a town, but in a cruel twist of fate it’s also used to upgrade your fighters and purchase equipment.

Once again you’re leadership is put to the test. Perhaps you want to hold off of buying supplies so you’re better equipped in battle, hoping the next town isn’t too far away. Or you might purchase those supplies, knowing you’ll face tougher fights from then on out. It’s a delicate balancing act that’s tough but fair, maintaining its dedication to themes of hardship and fighting to stay alive.

Keeping your caravan alive and resting at camps and in villages will keep morale high. Higher morale means more willpower in battle; a limited resource that affords extra attack power and more movement opportunities across The Banner Saga’s turn-based grid.

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Anyone who’s ever played a turn-based strategy game before will feel at home with the basics here. Before each battle you can choose from a roster of fighters, each one equipped with their own special ability. On each turn you can choose to either attack or rest, paying close attention to both armour and health values. Armour must be worn down before you can do any significant damage to an enemy’s health, but the amount of health they have feeds directly into the amount of damage they can do. This adds another element of strategy atop the usual positioning and management of abilities, especially when you factor in willpower as well.

“Each choice feels incredibly meaningful because it affects everything”Battles do grow repetitive over time, however. Dredge are the only enemy you commonly fight and their design doesn’t deviate all that much from enemy to enemy so it can feel like a slog at times. The fact that the game will continue after you lose a battle is a nice touch, though. The story can be shaped by your failure as well as your triumphant victories.

And that’s key to The Banner Saga experience. That every move you make, no matter how big or small, will shape your adventure in some way. Even if the emotional resonance might not be there each choice feels incredibly meaningful because it affects everything, from the fate of particular characters to your effectiveness in battle. It has its flaws, sure, but I haven’t played many games over the past year that have kept me up quite so late at night. If you let it dig its hooks in you, you just might do the same.

8 out of 10

The author of this fine article

is a Senior Staff Writer at Thunderbolt, having joined in June 2008. Get in touch on Twitter @richardwakeling.

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