The Banner Saga – What We Think
A hybrid of strategy, adventure and RPG, the debut game from Stoic Studio is set in a world inspired by, but not directly imitative of, Norse myths and legends. Difficult gameplay combines with atmospheric, hand-drawn-inspired animation, richly drawn characters and heartbreaking plot twists to make The Banner Saga a beautiful but bittersweet experience.
The Long and Winding Road
Post-apocalyptic loosely by way of the vikings, the world of The Banner Saga opens with the gods who created man and giant (or “Varl,” as the race of giants is called in the game) now dead, the sun stopped inexplicably in the sky, and a third race, the monstrous Dredge, marching down from the frozen northern wastes to which they had once been banished. The overarching theme, then, is that of a forced march, a long-term retreat from overwhelming forces.
In practice, this works a bit like the classic educational game, Oregon Trail. You’ll manage your rag-tag caravan of townsfolk, mercenaries, itinerant Varl and the odd heir to the throne or two, a monstrous horde of Dredge behind you, unknown dangers ahead. During the journey, you’ll encounter random and scripted events and be forced to make tough decisions, while also keeping an eye on your caravan’s supplies and morale. Will you take on a new group of refugees, despite the potential drain on your food stores? You’ll need to make your decisions carefully; the consequences could be dire.
War (What Is It Good For?)
Interspersed with the day to day management of a doomed refugee caravan fleeing a race of monsters carved from blackened stone, you’ll face dangerous turn-based combat against both the Dredge and other humans and Varl (as the world ends, man fights ever harder for scraps). Combat is a turn and grid-based, small-scale tactical kind of thing. It starts hard and continues to get harder, thanks in part to a unique twist on the usual combat statistics.
Each hero has Armor and Strength. Armor is obvious; it helps keep you from taking damage to your Strength. Strength, though, measures both your health and your ability to do damage to your enemies. Unlike most tactical games, therefore, the more damage you take, the less you’re capable of dishing out yourself, so the odds are drastically reduced of making a devastating last ditch effort to kill an overwhelming enemy if he’s already been whaling on you for a while. A third statistic, Willpower, lets you utilize special attacks which vary by character; it can also be used to move extra squares during a turn or deliver more damage than usual.
Successful battles win you Renown, the only currency The Banner Saga has to offer. The catch is that Renown is required to level up your characters and to purchase supplies or bonus items (unlike most RPGs, The Banner Saga doesn’t involve weapon and armor choices, but each character can equip a bonus item that adds extra Willpower, Strength, Armor or other effects during combat). So there are a lot of choices to be made; do you level up a character to become more effective during combat, or do you buy food for your caravan? Remember, most of the people traveling with you are women, children and the elderly, not seasoned warriors.
Eve of Destruction
A story that begins with the death of the gods is unlikely to be a happy one, and in keeping with the overall character of the Viking myths and legends, The Banner Saga is a grim tale, if not unrelentingly so; there are touching and even bleakly funny moments in the midst of the game’s overall sense of doom. And above all it’s a human story. There are larger than life epic elements, of course: the death of the gods, a secret guild of magicians, a wave of darkness pursuing man and Dredge indiscriminately, a lost prophecy of a serpent set to devour the world itself.
But where a typical game would focus on these elements (and hopefully more of the mysteries of the world of The Banner Saga will be revealed and perhaps even explained in future games), this one chooses to tell smaller stories: the widowed hunter trying to keep his daughter safe, the loyal soldier suddenly thrust into leadership, the scarred old veteran’s reluctant return to battle.
These are the stories you’ll care about. And these are the people whose loss you’ll likely mourn, because The Banner Saga is the kind of story where every victory is Pyrrhic, and every decision is a sacrifice.
Watch the trailer for The Banner Saga below: