War must be, while we defend our lives against a destroyer who would devour all; but I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend…
-Faramir, The Two Towers
“The following is a contributor post by the ABXY Mage.”
Creating video games seems like fun. Of course, that’s coming from someone who knows absolutely nothing about it. But, you don’t need to know much to know that if you aren’t working on projects you want to work on, games you’re passionate about, then it could easily feel like any other job. So, when BioWare Austin finished Star Wars: The Old Republic, three designers decided to leave and form their own development company.
Stoic Studio decided to begin with a rather ambitious project: The Banner Saga, a three-part series of tactical-strategy games telling the epic tale of a diverse and divided country inspired by Norse mythology and Scandinavian settings. The first game, The Banner Saga, reached its crowdfunding goal in just two days, and by its completion, it had raised over seven times the target amount.
Originally released in 2014 for PC and mobile devices before making its way to PS4 and XBox One in 2016, and Switch in 2018, was it worth the developers’ risk and the fans investments?
The Banner Saga opens with the bleak message above. It then segues into a prologue and tutorial that continue the backstory and set the stage for the main game.
The known world contains three races: Varl, Human, and Dredge.
Varl are a giant, horned, humanoid people. They are standoffish and prefer to keep to their own, with extremely long lifespans–partly in thanks to their brilliant fighting ability. They live to fight. Oddly, throughout the entirety of the game, female varl are never seen nor mentioned.
Within the human race exist menders. Menders are able to see the literal fabric of the world and can actually manipulate it. While they are primarily healers, menders can use their ability for a multitude of purposes including attacks in battle.
Dredge also have their own form of menders, called stonesingers. Dredge are a race of stone warmongers who loathe humans, and don’t care for varl either. For ages, humans and varl fought each other, until the dredge emerged and began to conquer both. With no other choice, and survival on the line, the humans and varl joined forces to drive the dredge into the wastelands of the north in what is known as The Second Great War.
Now, many years later, peace and trade exist between the humans and varl, and dredge stay in their territory to the north.
However, an unknown number of days ago, the sun literally stopped in the sky. Covered in perpetual twilight and facing the beginning of winter, tensions have risen and rumors of trouble in the north are beginning to spread. Some even claim to have seen dredge coming…
The first entry in the series, The Banner Saga spans seven chapters and follows two unique parties of humans and varl, each on their own separate journey. I will now discuss a few SPOILERS.
You begin the game in the party of Ubin, a tax collector for the varl king, and possibly the oldest living varl in the world. Accompanying Ubin are Gunnulf, his personal guard, and a caravan of other varl. You are traveling to Strand, the largest city on the border of the varl and human lands. It’s the last stop of the season.
Here, emotions are already at a boiling point. Upon entering the city, you find that the governor and his guards are under attack by a mutinous faction of scoundrels. After dispatching them, the governor offers you double the normal collection if you’ll find and kill the remaining traitors.
A short time later, ships are seen in the harbor. Ubin recognizes one of the two banners as belonging to a varl hero, Vognir. The other banner belongs to the human prince, Ludin. Vognir is accompanying Ludin to the varl capital, Grofheim. There, the humans and varl plan to formalize an alliance between the two races. Ubin’s caravan joins Vognir’s and Ludin’s, and they all set foot for Grofheim.
Not long on the road, Ludin and some of his men are ambushed by dredge. In the battle to save the human prince, the future varl king is killed. His friend, the warrior Hakon, assumes command of the caravan and Chapter One fades to black.
Chapter Two introduces the second party that you will follow through the game’s story. This party is lead by Rook, a human hunter, and his marksman daughter, Alette.
In the northeast village of Skogr, Rook and Alette are heading back to town when they come upon a dredge. They rush back to warn the villagers, but it isn’t long before a horde of dredge pour into Skogr. Unsafe and without options, the villagers flee and head west for a larger city.
With dredge in pursuit of both parties you follow, a decision-making system with real consequences, hand-drawn art, a deep story that has much more to it than first suspected, and a large cast of characters, The Banner Saga sets high expectations for itself and its epic scale. Does it pull it all off, though?
One of the characteristics of The Banner Saga that stands out most is its visual art style, and it’s also one of the game’s most appealing qualities. Because the developers wanted to create a fantasy epic for adults, they decided to model the visual aesthetic on old animation styles, mainly Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, as well as Wizards, the 1978 animated version of The Lord of The Rings, and the animation styles of Don Bluth (Secret of NIMH, An American Tail, The Land Before Time, All Dogs Go To Heaven, Dragon’s Lair, etc.).
The characters are all visually unique, and the environments as you travel are all beautiful. The banners that are carried by the various caravans grow in length as the game progresses, which is in line with the fact that the banners tell the story of the clan. The travel settings and towns all include small, but noticeable details in the foreground and background art that is worth looking for, too.
Unfortunately, when it comes to enemy variation, you are limited to fighting other humans and fighting dredge. The dredge have a handful of different classes that have different abilities, but that isn’t much considering the number of battles and the fact that they mostly all look the same. A similar criticism can be made of the camps you make during your trip, they mostly look the same.
So, while the art style is uniquely inspired and quite fantastic, it also seems to be restricted in a few of its variations.
Austin Wintory has become a bit legendary in the last decade, thanks to credits like Journey and Abzû, and The Banner Saga is more evidence as to why. Apparently influenced by a mixture of traditional folk music from different cultures, it fits the Viking-esque fairytale setting and perfectly conveys the feelings of winter, marching, hopelessness, wilderness, and survival. It’s the perfect accompaniment to the game, but it’s also very good to listen to on its own, given the right mood.
While there is voiceover during the game, the characters all speak only in text. It really stands out after hearing the voiceover that there isn’t any voice acting during the dialogue scenes. It’s too bad, too, as it seems like good and interesting voice acting could have really taken this game up to the next tier.
The Banner Saga has three major sections of gameplay: battle, on the road, and camps & towns.
The battles work mostly as you would expect for a tactics game. The battlefield is a grid and everyone has a set number of spaces they can move, and then they have the chance to attack or do a special move each turn. Fighters can gain Willpower points which allow them to move extra spaces or do additional points of damage, and the team can also collectively earn them for you to distribute during battle. Your party will also receive Renown points which you can use to promote your units or to buy supplies and items.
Within each race, there are different classes of fighters. Between the humans and varl, there are six classes with a combined fifteen subclasses. The dredge have a combination of classes and movesets similar to humans and varl. As expected, the classes and subclasses determine strengths and moves as well as weaknesses and strategies. While you will collect several members in each party throughout the game, you can never have more than six in your battle team. This, along with the fact that some deaths can be permanent (only certain characters), means party management is essential.
Unfortunately, even with all of this, battle is surprisingly monotonous. For the most part, you will figure out who your best characters are, what their best moves are, and you will just use those over and over. I tried to play different styles, but overall, it’s just about where certain party members are on the field and how much health they start with.
On the road, you have three main concerns: supplies, morale, and events. The amount of members in your caravan determines how many supplies you use per day. If you run out of supplies, the caravan members begin to die. You gain and spend additional supplies in a variety of ways including choices you make.
While there are seemingly no benefits to not letting your caravan starve to death (other than it lowers morale), what kind of leader would you be, how could you live with yourself, if you didn’t try to save as many as you could? Morale affects the Willpower you will start battles with. It changes due to events, traveling, resting, and results of battles.
The easiest way to improve morale is to rest. You can rest in camps and in towns. In camps, you can also use the Training Tent, which allows you to practice battles without injuring your heroes or gaining Renown. In towns, you can visit markets where you can purchase supplies or items for your heroes.
In my opinion, the best fleshed-out gameplay mechanic is the choice system. You make choices in dialogue with other characters, when determining when and where to rest, at certain checkpoints along the road, in battle, and in the random events that take place during your journey. These decisions can literally kill both caravan members and heroes; they can gain or cost supplies and fighters; they can reward or devastate.
Many of the choices are vague or seem similar, some come across as innocent, and many leave you having absolutely no idea just how they may impact your adventure. Essentially, you really just get to go with your gut and see what kind of a leader you would be given the same situation.
While The Banner Saga does contain a tutorial for the battles, it does leave some elements of the game uncovered for the player to learn through error. Even though battle is the most-covered segment in the game by instructions, it remains pretty difficult and brutal throughout its entirety. Party management and the way to most effectively utilize certain classes against others are a few–very key–components not covered in the tutorial, and this leads to at least part of the game’s difficulty. As the game is mostly story-driven, its slow pace and lack of an ending could also be a turn off for some gamers.
As previously stated, the game makes itself a little more unfairly difficult than necessary. It seems to make little sense to have a tutorial for part of the game’s mechanics, but not all or most. Maybe this was on purpose, to force you into literally doing the best you can with the experience you’ve gained, and learning the rest as you go, but it’s hard to know for sure if that’s the case or not. Overall the lessons you learn on your own are almost entirely hard lessons to learn, and it can occasionally be a bit frustrating.
While the story is the main driving force for playing The Banner Saga, the different choices and outcomes of that story are what gives it replayability. This could hold even more true with the sequels and how they are impacted by the decisions you make in the first game, but that remains to be seen.
The Banner Saga took inspiration from the Norse before God of War made it hip. You can see its fantasy inspirations from the epics mentioned in the intro as well, though. The trilogy as a whole may be very unique, but it’s hard to speak to considering the first game reveals so little. Overall, it’s an interesting mix of Oregon Trail, tactics games, Norse influence, and Disney movies from the 40s and 50s, but for adults.
My Personal Grade: 7/10
The Banner Saga starts a trilogy that tells an epic tale, but the first game only covers part of that tale. So it comes as no surprise that the ending is left open for a sequel. What is surprising is that there isn’t really an ending at all. The game just kind of says “that’s all for now.”
In the beginning, the battles are just fights for survival. By the end, they are a tiny bit tedious with a lack of desired variation. The choices, however, bring a sense of reward and thought to battles and the many parts of your journeys.
Really, this game is all about the story. Almost immediately I wanted to know the characters and the world. It wasn’t long before I wished the game had voice acting and more animated cutscenes. By the end, I wanted it to be a tv series and/or a prequel tv series based on The Second Great War. I look forward to unraveling the next portion of the story in The Banner Saga 2.
I also look forward to the improvements to gameplay that I can only assume (and hope) come with the second saga. The Banner Saga is a good foundation, but it could use some additions and renovations, so we shall see what the rest of the series brings to the table. For now, The Banner Saga is definitely worth experiencing, if for nothing else than to test your mettle as an unexpected leader of both man and varl, fighters and families, on the run from an unstoppable and mysterious force.
What story will your banner tell?
Aggregated Score: 7.1
The ABXY Mage leads a double life of unfathomable hipness, if his expertise in jazz is any indication. Music maker, fandangoist, writer, you can find this hip cat as ABXY Reviews on Twitter and on YouTube.
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Categories: Game Review