The Banner Saga

Rarely is a thorough challenge as genuine as in The Banner Saga.

By Daavpuke, Posted 14 Jan 2014

As complex as modern games have grown, older designs still have novel paths to take, which is an idea The Banner Saga puts to the test. Its crisp animation, heartfelt atmosphere and clever combat elements are but part of a straightforward challenge that rarely is taken to such a genuine level. It’s stern, but fair.

The Banner Saga,Review,Screenshot,Gameplay

Its Nordic story starts with horned giants reluctantly traveling with petty humans, amidst snowy mountaintops, ancient castles and thick forests. Meticulously lined art sets the décor of shifting, 2D panels, precisely moving to the side to paint a captivating horizon, while forefront panels blend in depth. With just minimal animation and added weather effects, conversation panels come to life, though this is highly enhanced by the epic soundtrack used for evocative moments. Drums rumble as the looming war trembles in their wake. In turn, wind instruments whisper in the more intimate pieces, when the consequences of battle need to be faced. It’s a combination of artistic craftsmanship equaling that of early Disney features such as the Sword in the Stone, except Merlin’s beard is traded for those of huge warrior tribes.

Chapters will switch between the human side and the giants called Varl, each with their own goals to escape the encroaching threat of obsidian beasts laying waste to anything in their path. Escape is the focus of this endeavor, not glory or adventure. There is no fighting an approaching ocean; the only goal is to not collectively drown.

The Banner Saga,Review,Screenshot,Gameplay

Should it come to an inevitable clash between either monsters or nefarious men, then the scene shifts from discussion to combat in a turn-based tile grid, on a separate plain. Each person is assigned a set of power that references life and armor needed for protection. Tearing away the latter first is vital to make more of an impact on health, as hits glance off otherwise. Building on that, characters can increase their abilities by drawing from their willpower, to the level of exertion they can muster. With each fallen foe, some willpower is restored to the party, but other than that, encounters are left to the skill of combining these few elements diligently and staying out of harm’s way.  Since Varl are larger, they’ll also take up more room on the board, making them less maneuverable and more of a target. As basic as it sounds, there’s a ton of wiggle room in handling the often brutal challenges.

The Banner Saga,Review,Screenshot,Gameplay

Enemies are strong, plentiful and never-ending. Opposing forces are also donned with their own set of skills, just like their heroic counterpart. Some shred through armor, others push for room, while cautious ones stay at range and annoyingly fling from far away. Managing when to move forward, at what times willpower can be depleted and what effect a retreat would have always comes with the added risk that things may turn dire. One wrong movement and a character will plop to the ground injured, making the rest of the fight that much harder.

Worse still, the last one standing triggers the Pillage round that upsets the current turn model. Anything messing with the tight plans needed gets aggrandized, as options are limited to stay the course. Battling intertwined simplicity is its own trial and it puts players through the ringer. Upon combat’s end, the convoy gains experience for each kill respectively. With enough crosses to their name, characters can be promoted, if they can accrue enough renown. Boosting meager abilities will become a necessity, as the obsidian golems called Dredge quickly grow in numbers and stature. One of the larger units can easily crush a weak person with just one blow. Once more; escape is half the battle.

The Banner Saga,Review,Screenshot,Gameplay

Since the convoy has more in tow than just warriors, its inhabitants need supplies to live and sporadic good news to bear the tide of decay around them. Food is scarce in snowy wastelands and starvation may become common, affecting morale greatly. In turn, battle becomes harder with low spirits, as this affects a warrior’s will.

As if managing this fine balance wasn’t tough enough, random events can and will instantly throw setbacks into the adventure. Inner strife between races run high, people go mad over food stock, honors are defended until death; whatever it may be, it’s probably not going to end well. These side attractions set up like text blocks in The Oregon Trail are a constant reminder that any comfort is temporary. Something will go wrong.

The Banner Saga,Review,Screenshot,Gameplay

In the tensest of scenes and conversations, sides will need to be chosen. Decisions can often lead to the untimely death of a party member, heavily needed for combat. Some may find leadership questionable and rush out hastily into the fold; others die protecting what they hold dear. No matter what the reason is, any fatality in the ranks is a crushing blow to strategic play, as the team gets weaker and renown is ultimately squandered. Plans will need to be adapted once more.

Some of the most unforgiving confrontations are met in full-on war, where the entire caravan rages against hundreds of Dredge. It’s possible to join the fray in turn-based events or oversee the battlefield. Again, any decision comes with a side of consequences that involve death. People will die. How many perish is up to the leader’s clear thoughts, weighing on collateral damage like a statistic, rather than actual life. It’s a thankless job and no one will be better off, but at least some may recover. Glory is not part of the spoils, only survival is.

Despite always handing players a crummy hand, the consistent drawbacks in The Banner Saga are exhilarating, even if they are utterly exhausting as well. While a sporadic bout of good news may flow through the caravan, the tone is clear. It’s an arduous journey and one that will come with death at all times. With an authentically illustrated ambience of harsh winters and closely followed characters, its story seen through tough conversations becomes that much more captivating. Offering simple yet fully symbiotic combat options as an active counterpart to text, this game leaves little to be desired, except the will to survive.

Daav Valentaten, NoobFeed (@Daavpuke)

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  • Judging by the gameplay videos I’ve seen so far, it’s hard to call it an indie game. And the review score speaks out loud how good this game is.
    Posted Jan 14, 2014

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General Information

Platform(s): Xbox 360, PS3, PC, Mobile
Publisher(s): Versus Evil
Developer(s): Stoic
Genres: Role-Playing
Themes: Role-Playing
Release Date: 2014-01-14

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