From what I’ve heard of Stoic’s The Banner Saga, I had been expecting a deep turn based strategy focused on heroism and triumphant battles. Never have I been more wrong. The Nordic-themed fantasy world of The Banner Saga is a bitter one wracked by both political conflict and scarcity of resources, featuring an uneasy alliance between humans and Varls, a race of giants, as they face an invasion by a mysterious third race known as the Dredge as well as the possible end of the world. To complicate matters, the entire land has been beset by an endless winter, forcing cities to ration supplies lest their citizens starve. It’s a setting which would fit right into a high fantasy novel series, but isn’t one which has been explored extensively in games.
The gameplay of The Banner Saga is divided into several phases: there is a turn based combat phase similar to Fire Emblem or Shining Force which represents engagements between your caravan and enemies. Between battles, movement occurs in a resource-management style game similar to The Oregon Trail, in which you periodically make choices to manage supplies, manpower and morale. In cities and towns, the game switches to a visual novel style delivery featuring fully drawn and animated character models with copious amounts of text. These three gameplay styles are integrated well, with choices you make in each one subtly affecting your playstyle in the others. For example, offending a village in the visual novel segment might mean missing out on resources for the Oregon Trail segment, or even on a potential party member for the turn based battles. Similarly, poor caravan management leads to your men starving and suffering a debuff in the tactical battles.
The key to all of these gameplay elements is decision making, so it’s natural that leadership is the key theme explored in The Banner Saga’s narrative. The game follows a vast array of named characters as they are thrust into positions of authority among their caravans. There’s not a lot of effort at the beginning to introduce you to everyone, which is unfortunate because it’s easy to get lost in the various interactions. The game is text heavy, but you’re missing the bulk of the experience if you fall into a habit of skipping the dialogue scenes. The writing is evocative and often corners you into making a difficult decision – an early one for example asks you how you would pass judgement on a drunkard in your caravan – and the choices you make can affect everything from the caravan’s morale to whether your team member lives or dies. The colourful art style contrasts with the bleak tone of the game, and you’ll be thankful that the breathtaking scenery gives a reason to keep marching.
The Banner Saga’s penchant for tough decisions is also reflected through the combat system, which is based more on elegant simplicity rather than player freedom: think chess rather than Final Fantasy Tactics. Each character only has two skills – an active one and a passive one – and stats are also simplified compared to other SRPG’s. Strength determines a unit’s health and attack strength, while armour mitigates damage. When attacking, you can decide whether to target an enemy’s armour or their strength directly. Focusing on strength weakens the opponent’s attacks, but prioritising strikes on their armour makes them easier to damage. Furthermore, units can be made more powerful by expending willpower, which grants extra damage or further move range. Willpower is, naturally, a limited resource and needs to be rationed out: attacking overzealously can make it hard for your character to escape if they get hurt.
The out-of-combat stat development is kept deliberately simple, with only a few extra stat points to be earned in each category, so battles are always tactically focused. It’s a well designed system which draws attention to your immediate choices and their consequences, even down to the weighty attack animations and sound effects which will make you wince when your character is struck.
Unfortunately, although the world map is large, all movement is linear and you never get much of a chance to explore the game’s world. While you do get options to fight or ignore certain battles and help out passersbys, the path the party will take is still preset. Perhaps I was just too accustomed to the openness that high-fantasy themed games tend to offer, but hopefully further entries in the franchise can branch out and delve into the world a bit more deeply.
The porting job to the iPad is for the most part very effective. Tapping the screen is a much more effective way of controlling play since everything is turn based, although the lack of an undo button can lead to some frustrating moments. This flaw carries over from the PC original as does the absence of a message log. The game’s expansive library of graphics and music also lengthen loading times for older machines.
Stoic set out to create an adult game with The Banner Saga and it certainly succeeded – the bleak and slow paced fantasy world certainly encourages introspection and careful decision-making. Players need to be wary though that the battle system is highly simplistic in order to give more focus to the story, and there’s a good deal of reading involved too. The Banner Saga asks a lot of its players, especially in the early chapters, but those who stay for the long run will enjoy a mature, character focused story which is both challenging and memorable.
– Harvard L.