by Matt Porter
reviewed on PC
The Banner Saga was made by three ex-Bioware developers and its soundtrack composed by Austin Wintory - the man behind the majestic Journey score. The game was nominated for the Excellence in Visual Art category at this year’s Independent Games Festival, as well as being honourably mentioned in two other categories. I haven’t even started the review, but if you’re not convinced already I’m not sure what I can do for you.
I’ll give it a go. The Banner Saga is one part turn-based strategy, one part role-playing, one part adventure and one part… Oregon Trail. Throughout the story, which takes many cues from Norse fiction, you take control of several different characters. The world you is inhabited by two races, namely Humans and Varl. At first glance you’d be forgiven for thinking that the Varl were just humans wearing Viking helmets, but upon closer inspection you’ll notice that they are much bigger than normal people, and the horns are actually coming out of their heads. There’s an alliance between the two, but to say it is an uneasy one would be an understatement of some order. However the alliance is needed now more than ever before. The Gods are dead, the sun is stuck in the sky resulting in perpetual daylight, and an evil race called the Dredge are on the march destroying everything in their path.
It’s a fantasy story with some roots in reality. It is epic, suitably mature, and everything is helped along by Wintory’s, at times invigorating, at times incredibly moving, soundtrack. I was very much reminded of Beowulf and other similarly adult fiction while I was playing. As evidence of its maturity, major characters can be killed off with a Game of Thrones-like brutality should you make a wrong decision during a conversation or choice of action. It seems like every scenario in the game is set up for you to make a choice between two or more terrible options, and as Telltale’s The Walking Dead has proven, this makes for a very engaging story. Soon it becomes apparent that the Dredge aren’t the biggest threat in this world and the sense of danger and intrigue keep you driving through the campaign. The large number of characters and the awkward names for a native English speaker do get a little confusing at first, but it isn’t long before everything falls into place.
The tale is told through graphic novel style cutscenes that are partially animated, and it’s very well done. The hand drawn art work looks great, and you’ll see subtle motion like hair blowing in the breeze or a slight change of expression. The part of the game I compared to the Oregon Trail has you trekking for months through the frozen mountains of the land. You’ll need to keep watch on your supplies, deal with any accidents or dangers that you encounter and keep morale up for the journey. You’ll actually see the landscape change as you travel, made particularly impressive through the use of some fantastic parallax scrolling. It will even match up with the quite formidable map that can be opened up to get a bit of backstory on each of the plentiful locations.
As for gameplay, it’s not quite on par with the gorgeous visuals, story and soundtrack. However that’s not to say it’s weak. It is turn based strategy in the vein of Final Fantasy Tactics, where you have a small party of fighters with different abilities, going up against a similarly sized force of foes in a small, grid based battlefield. Each combatant has two bars, one for strength, one for armour. Your strength is both how much damage you can do, and how much damage you can take. When you attack an enemy, your strength goes up against their armour, and the difference is afflicted to the target as damage. For example, a Varl with ten strength going up against a Dredge with eight armour will do two damage. Alternatively, you can choose to attack the enemy’s armour itself, opening them up to attacks from your allies.
It sets up interesting situations where you need to try and prevent the enemy doing damage to you before you can attack them. If they manage to reduce your strength by attacking you, you won’t be able to counter attack as strongly. Each character has one or more special abilities, such as taunting an enemy or knocking them back. These cost Willpower to perform, which is also used to overexert a character so they can do more damage or move a longer distance. It’s fairly simple, but the tactics you can employ become quite intricate, especially as the power of the enemies increase. During one battle I was down to just a shieldbearer and an archer. I managed to keep aggro on the more armoured member of my squad while my archer rained her arrows down from afar. If an enemy got too close I used her to kite them around until the danger passed.
It all comes together into a neatly formed package. Normally January is a slow month for games, but we’ve been treated to a gem here that has come out without much fanfare. It deserves that fanfare, however. The Banner Saga’s mature and gripping story, sublime visuals and soundtrack, and engaging gameplay make for a game that’s worth raising the banner for.
Gorgeous visuals, great soundtrack and an intriguing story.
The gameplay is adequate, but not the strongest part of the game.