Published on September 2nd, 2014 | by Rob0
The Banner Saga: PC Review
Just look at that beautiful artwork. If – like me – you grew up watching the old Dungeons & Dragons cartoons and Ralph Bakshi’s original animated version of The Lord of the Rings, you couldn’t help but be deeply intrigued by the fantasy animation style visuals of Stoic Studio’s debut game, The Banner Saga. This is an epic RPG that is unlike any other currently on the market. And not just because of the beautifully stylised art design. The Banner Saga is very much in the new tradition of indie gaming: it sets out to fulfil the personal ambitions of its designers, with scant regard for current trends and conventions in gaming, or what might be deemed marketable by a major studio. It stands alone as its own unique experience.
Remarkably – given its high production values – The Banner Saga was developed by just a three man team. Stoic Studio began with three defectors from BioWare Austin, previously working in a team of hundreds on Star Wars: The Old Republic. Operating out of a shed behind a bar, their original aim was to release a modest, low budget game within six months. But all expectations were smashed by the runaway success of The Banner Saga’s Kickstarter campaign. Intrigued by former DC Comics illustrator Arnie Jorgensen’s stunning concept artwork, along the promise of a grim, story driven, turn based RPG for adults, backers responded in droves, raising a staggering $723,000 in development funds. Stoic were free to develop a game on a much grander scale of ambition than originally intended, and delivered an RPG with production values to rival those of a major label product.
Don’t let the “cartoonish” style of the graphics confound you – The Banner Saga is no children’s game. According to Stoic’s Creative Director Alex Thomas:
“One of our major goals for The Banner Saga was the opportunity to do a mature game for adults in the vein of Game of Thrones or The Black Company. When we say it’s a mature story, we want the player to understand it’s about cultural intrigue and the relationships between the characters, not sex, swearing and violence. It’s also not about high fantasy and dragons and magic, and it’s not about black and white, good versus evil.”
It’s also a game that is refreshingly free of the genre clichés that tend to clutter up fantasy RPG’s. Again from Thomas:
“We knew we wanted a fantasy setting, but desperately wanted to avoid the very overdone ‘elves, dwarves and orcs’ dynamic.”
Instead, The Banner Saga has a Viking theme – which has almost become de rigueur following the success of Skyrim and the History Channel’s Vikings TV show – although the theme is sufficiently unexplored in gaming to still appear fresh and interesting.
In The Banner Saga’s fantastical setting, the Norsemen co-inhabit their world with the Varl: a race of horned giants with lifespans of hundreds of years. Humans and Varl have spent much of their history at war, but at the time of The Banner Saga they co-exist in a long standing – if mutually distrustful – alliance, formed against the shared threat of the Dredge, a mysterious race of armour-clad beings who appear to have been fashioned out of living rock. After a long series of savage wars, the Dredge were believed to have been pushed to the brink of extinction, but now they are beginning to reappear in large numbers, making fresh incursions into Human and Varl territory. But what has led to the Dredges’ reappearance? Are they merely bent on conquest, or has some other mysterious force driven them out of their ancestral homelands? Feared and loathed by Human and Varl alike, are the Dredge really the mindless savages they are believed to be, or do they have complex motivations of their own? What are the Dredge exactly?
The Banner Saga establishes a sombre tone from the outset. “The Gods are Dead” – we are informed in the opening words of the introductory sequence, and it only gets worse from there. The Varl cannot reproduce; they can only be created. In the absence of the Gods to create them, the Varl are facing eventual extinction. And now, the sun has mysteriously stopped in the sky, casting the world in an eerie twilight trapped between night and day. Is the end of times at hand?
It’s into this apocalyptic world the player is thrown, a world of endless winter and despair, in which people cling desperately to survival with little hope for a better future. Initially it’s all a bit confusing, as the story introduces a lot of characters in quick succession and switches perspective between them with little warning. Initially, I was a bit perturbed about the prospect of an intriguing story concept being ruined through poor narrative construction, but thankfully things do right themselves as you go along and become orientated.
The meat and potatoes of the gameplay is based around tactical, turn based combat. Anybody who has played one of the Final Fantasy games or any number of other Japanese RPGs will have a fair idea of what to expect. A party of characters is placed at the player’s disposal and pitted against a number of foes in a series of combat scenarios. The characters take turns, alternating with their opponents, in which they can perform a range of actions, from movement to missile strikes to hand to hand combat. Each character has its own strengths, weaknesses and special abilities, all of which must be properly harnessed to win battles and progress in the game. There is a good level of depth to the strategy involved, and an array of different tactics can be adopted. I would’ve liked to see more variety in the types of scenarios and opponents faced, however, which mostly consist of a limited set of stock opponents, and become a bit monotonous over time.
The game generally does a decent job of providing the player with a challenge and a sense of threat without being too difficult to beat. Progress (on the middle difficulty setting at least) is fairly brisk, right up until the last couple of encounters, in which the difficulty level is suddenly ramped up alarmingly. Admittedly, this is something of a pet peeve of mine when it comes to gaming. Good game structure should allow the player to progress after some degree of persistence, gradually escalating the level of difficulty so as to maintain a consistent sense of challenge and accomplishment. But steady progress leading up to a sudden leap in difficulty leads to player frustration. Of course, you can just dial down the difficulty level in order to make it through to the end (as I eventually did) but then this cheapens the sense of accomplishment!
Losing a battle doesn’t usually end the game, except when the battle occurs at a crucial juncture of the story. But losing battles does carry consequences that may affect the story’s ultimate outcome. Similarly, characters don’t actually die when “killed” in combat, but instead carry over wounds that affect their abilities in subsequent battles. Outside of the battle sequences however, the story offs characters with alarming and unpleasant regularity, after a fashion which viewers of Game of Thrones will no doubt be accustomed to.
As polished and accomplished as The Banner Saga’s tactical combat sequences may be, it’s in the telling of the story that the game really immerses the player. Unlike most modern day RPGs such as the Elder Scrolls series or Fable, the game unfolds along a linear pathway. Initially this is a bit confounding. We’ve become so accustomed to massive, sprawling, open world games that an RPG that sticks to a pre-determined path can feel a bit closed in and limiting. But once that initial shock wears off the game structure turns out to work rather well. The Banner Saga isn’t directly competing with something like Skyrim, remember, but rather adhering to its own idiosyncratic principles of game design.
The player views the story unfold from a side on perspective as a caravan of refugees and warriors trundles slowly across a wintry, parallax scrolling landscape. That might not sound like the most promising basis for an interesting gaming experience, but it’s surprising how good the game is at getting you emotionally invested in the wellbeing of your caravan and its denizens, fleeing as they are from imminent destruction to an uncertain fate. The journey is frequently punctuated by a series of predetermined encounters and events, which the player can shape and respond to through multiple choice options.
This is essentially the same gameplay trope that was established with the old Choose Your Own Adventure books. The player is following a pre-determined path, albeit one selected from a branching tree of possible outcomes. The reason this works – and doesn’t feel at all as hoary and contrived as it might do – is down to the quality of the writing. The scenarios are interesting and involving and do challenge the player to think about their values and motivations. Quite often, there is no real “right” answer, and it comes down to choosing among the lesser of a multitude of evils. It’s through these choices that characters join or leave the party, form relationships with one another and ultimately, live or die. And yeah – unusual for a game I know – but you do actually start to care about what will happen to these people. As the story unfolds the tapestry of a rich and fascinating world emerges. Like the best fantasy worlds, it’s one that feels as if it exists as more than just a mere backdrop to the story. It’s a living, breathing world with its own people and history.
I’ve already touched upon the striking quality of The Banner Saga’s visuals in the introduction to this review, but it really must be stressed how much they contribute to the game’s unique atmosphere. It’s a beautiful looking game, and there really isn’t anything else out there that much resembles it. The closest equivalent I can think of is Don Bluth’s old laserdisc based coin-up Dragon’s Lair. The two games have nothing in common in terms of how they actually play (Bluth’s games were known for both their beautifully animated graphics and their frustratingly limited gameplay) but they share a similar “fantasy cartoon” hand drawn visual aesthetic. As is befitting its grim subject matter, however, The Banner Saga looks noticeably less twee than Bluth’s games ever did. Just as emotive as the artwork is Austin Wintory’s bleak, elegiac musical score, which even without the accompanying visuals conjures up an atmosphere of desolate landscapes and tragic warriors marching to their doom.
The Banner Saga largely eschews the usual RPG gameplay tropes of slaying monsters, looting dungeons and levelling up (there is a simple levelling system but it’s not a major part of the game) and as such will not appeal to everybody. And nor is it supposed to. And nor indeed is that really the point of the nascent indie games scene in the first place. The idea is that the player will experience something more personal and unique. In some respects, The Banner Saga might be more accurately described as a fantasy combat strategy game than an RPG, albeit a strategy game that is heavily story driven. There’s about 12 hours of game to play through here, which is reasonable, given that this isn’t a full priced release (£14.99 – although discounts are frequently applied on Steam). Dedicated players will want to play through several times in order to experience all of the different story pathways. And this is only the first part of a planned trilogy. The game ends on a conclusion of sorts, but with plenty of unanswered questions and the bulk of the story arc left unresolved.
With its rich atmosphere, striking art design and engrossing story, The Banner Saga is a game well worth experiencing. It’s occasionally a bit rough round the edges, and it is based around gameplay mechanics (turn based tactical combat and a linear structure) that are not particularly in vogue among gamers at the moment. But it’s an admirable attempt to do something different with the RPG genre compared with everything else on the market right now, and it is surprisingly effective at immersing the player in its fantastical world. If nothing else, there’s no other game around that much resembles it, and isn’t providing unique experiences supposed to be what indie games are for in the first place?