Crowdfunded by Kickstarter and created by Stoic, a tiny indie studio founded by a group of ex-Bioware developers, The Banner Saga is an RPG set during a time of turmoil in a Norse-inspired world. Boasting a beautiful Disney-esque art style and old-school turn-based combat, it’s one of the most eagerly-awaited indie titles of the year.
Gameplay: The Long and Linear Road
For the most part, The Banner Saga sees you travelling the world with your caravan (no, not the sort that bogs down the A30 on Bank Holidays), trying to maintain enough supplies to prevent people dying off from starvation and occasionally encountering enemies (see the Combat section below) or stopping in towns where you can visit the market to buy supplies and items to help in battle.
While there’s a detailed map of the game’s world, movement and plot is linear – you don’t have any choice about where you’re going next. In fact, the map feels like a largely pointless (albeit rather beautiful) addition to the game: it adds background colour, but hints at the possibility of open-world choice where there is none.
At points on your journey you’ll be given choices to make, and these are weighty. Forget the flashing “Paragon” and “Renegade” poles of Mass Effect - here you can make a series of what seem like perfectly valid choices yet still end up losing supplies, morale and even important characters. It may sound unfair, but it’s also more real, and is perhaps Stoic’s way of drumming into you the bleakness and hopelessness of trying to lead in the most dire of situations. You certainly get the feeling that nobody is safe.
An epic story?
The game’s very name suggests a tale of epic proportions, but The Banner Saga feels like only the first part of a trilogy rather than a self-contained story. One story arc is completed by the end of the game, but other aspects (which we don’t want to spoil for you) are never resolved and some characters are built up in the early game only to head-scratchingly fade into the background later on. The ending comes off as abrupt and more than a little unsatisfying, almost as if Stoic had grander plans in mind but abandoned them due to budgetary or time constraints.
That said, the plot serves as more than just a backdrop to the combat, levelling up and choice-making that form the game mechanics. The world’s history and mythology is smartly unfolded as you progress, and the fact that major characters can die off paints everything with a grim brush.
The studio has said that, should The Banner Saga prove a success, a second and possibly third instalment will follow. We hope that transpires, because this is a world that deserves to be explored further – and story that needs finishing properly.
Combat: Viking Fantasy Tactics
When you encounter enemies, the game shifts to a square arena full of square tiles. You can choose placement for your party, and then face off against your foes in turn-based tactical style until one side has been completely wiped out. It harks back to a simpler time of action RPGs such as Vandal Hearts and Final Fantasy Tactics - games that make us misty-eyed at their very mention.
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Each character can move, attack or use special abilities, with their stats determining how much damage is dealt and taken in each case. It’s a simple system but elegant in its own way, as it forces you to balance hurting the enemy with keeping your own party members alive for another round.
It’s tough, too: we found ourselves having to shift the difficulty from normal to easy during several late-game battles, as our characters were simply too weak and demoralised in comparison to the enemies. Hard mode? One for masochists only, as losing most fights will mean game over and a return to the last checkpoint.
Battles and certain choices you make reward you with Renown points, which can be spent on improving character stats as well as supplies and equipment. Characters are capped at level 5, but the short supply of Renown available means it’s unlikely you’ll be able to get everyone in your party fully levelled up – even if that person survives the whole adventure.
The Banner Saga’s art style is heavily influenced by the late American artist Eyvind Earle (Stoic has even named a character after him). Earle was involved with 1950s Disney films such as Peter Pan and Lady and the Tramp, and there are obvious echoes of those movies in the game’s hand-painted characters and backgrounds.
And that decision pays off: this is a beautiful game, eschewing showy 3D graphics for something a little more traditional – and dare we say it, more tasteful. Cutscene animation is fairly basic, but works well in context, while the combat sections are a little more developed. Particularly striking are the (unskippable) parts of the game in which your caravan rolls slowly across the parallax-scrolling landscape.
Music and sound
Audio-wise, the stirring musical score adds to the general grandeur of proceedings. We’d have liked more voiceover work during dialogue scenes – this is another area where budget or time issues seem to have hamstrung Stoic’s vision, because there are fully animated and acted scenes early on and these quickly drop off in favour of written dialogue and basic animation.
Despite a handful of criticisms, we wouldn’t hesitate to recommend The Banner Saga to anyone with an interest in tactical RPGs, or even those who appreciate a game with a unique and beautiful presentational style.
The story, music, characters and world are effortlessly engrossing, while the old-school turn-based combat is challenging and enjoyable. Hopefully enough people buy the finished game for the mooted sequels to get off the ground - we want to see how our various (frequently poor) decisions really pan out.
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