Kickstarter is not only responsible for an increased amount of attention in the gaming world, but is also responsible for a good number of quality games. Following in the footsteps of FTL, Broken Age and others, The Banner Saga is another quality crowd-funded game that delivers an atmospheric and deeply engaging adventure that is not without it’s flaws.
Formed by three ex-Bioware staff, Stoic have planned three parts and this is the first, set in an imagined, but clearly Nordic inspired world. The story follows separate bands of characters as they face the growing threat of a race of semi mechanical beings known as the Dredge, who have increasingly encroached on human lands and are becoming more and more aggressive.
Alongside the humans live the warlike Varl, a race of horned giants that appear to be at the end of their era of dominance but are still a formidable force to be reckoned with. The main story is a trek or a quest across the increasingly harsh and blighted landscape. This harshness is tempered somewhat by an astonishingly beautiful, hand painted art style reminiscent of Don Bluth. Thick lines and clashing primary colours abound in the character design, whilst backgrounds have a painterly, watercolour feel that feels distant and ethereal. There is no spoken dialogue in the game, only text boxes and the character animations are basic at best, switching between set drawings depending on mood or emotion. this can be forgiven given the small size of the team and the project, and the writing and the decisions you have to make off set this greatly. This is accompanied by an evocative soundtrack by Grammy award-winning composer Austin Wintory, veering between minimal and bombastic, and resplendent with a variety of string and horns.
With this resplendent artistic backdrop, you the player, taking on the role of whichever character the narrative requires at the time, lead your caravan across the landscape. This is split into two parts, the first of which you see you caravan literally moving from left to right or right to left across the screen, punctuated by random events, and the second which finds you making camps in the wilderness or in settlements or towns across the map. Your caravan is made up of clansmen, fighters and the aforementioned Varl. These numbers can fluctuate depending on a number of choices you make, and at sporadic points in the journey, you may be accosted by bandits, or stumble upon Dredge that affect these numbers. How large your caravan also affects how many supplies dwindle down each day. The larger you party, the more supplies you need to stock up on buy. Supplies are bought with a resource called Renown, but this resource, earned by making decisions and winning battles, also levels up your heroes, the unit you take into battle. Keeping a strong and happy caravan (morale is also something else to take into consideration, lest an low morale party be prone to infighting or desertion) is counterbalanced by having a strong squad of heroes to take into battle. It is a constant juggling act, and is very successful in placing you in a position of leadership and responsibility and making you judge and question your own actions.
Combat is grid and turn based, individual units range from archers to healing units and the powerful Varl who specialise in heavy hits and durability. Individual units have individual abilities, for example the lead character of Rook, an archer, is the only one that has the mark ability, which means that every other friendly unit within range of the target can immediately attack it. The wide range of characters you pick up and meet means you need to think carefully about who to take into battle, especially as being knocked out or injured renders them inactive for days. You select your party before you enter the arena, including how they line up in turn taking, and have the opportunity to move them around for starting positions. From this point on, individual characters take turns to act. Units have two stats, strength and armour, that essentially combine to form their life. Strength also affects how hard they hit. This creates a situation where you have to make a choice about whittling down an enemy’s armour or strength, the latter mitigating damage for future attacks. The rub is, armour negates the strength of the attack, so you have to whittle away or find a unit with greater strength. It is a system that creates a huge amount of caution and thought, and helps to alleviate some of the other limitations of the combat, because, unlike your own party’s characters, most enemies are very similar- there simply isn’t enough variety, either in the Dredge or the various human and Varl bands that you encounter on your travels. However, on the whole, it is a system that simplifies in terms of choice, but complicates in terms of consequence as one wrong move can lead to disaster.
This theme of consequence extends to the choices you make during your caravan’s travels. Conversations with character pop up sporadically and random events suddenly interrupt your caravan’s movements. A character may come to you suspecting someone in the party of theft, or of delivering information to bandits. How do you deal with this? Private conversation? Ruthless expulsion? Careful Surveillance? How you respond affects the stats of your caravan and can affect how characters view you, interact with you and how they may act in the future. Every one of these choices seems fraught with consequence, and the trick the game pulls is that some are, whilst are some are not – you just never know which. For those who like to control their narrative, be warned, you must soon learn to let go of the story and take on the role of a leader buffeted by the winds of choice and consequence.
This lack of control manifests itself horribly in the game’s final battle, against an uber-version of the Dredge known as Bellower, which is nigh on impossible. This can be exacerbated in part by choices made before the fight, but it doesn’t excuse the difficulty spike. After 15 hours of play, it is very frustrating, and to have to drop the game to easy to progress is a little disappointing and leaves a slight distaste in the mouth, after the compulsive nature of the journey you have taken . Thematically, a failed battle actually fits the desperate nature of the story and I am surprised that failure was not incorporated in the narrative somehow.
Nevertheless, The Banner Saga is epic in scope and belies it’s simplicity by delivering an deep and player-owned experience that can feels impactful. The choice and characters on show, hallmarks of Bioware, help to deliver a story of desperation, betrayal, loyalty, and conflict, one which sticks with you beyond, and in spite of, the final, disappointingly constructed battle. If this first part is an indication of the quality to come, and if Stoic can iron out the difficulty spikes and deliver some more variety in the turn-based combat, then the rest of the saga is a very exciting prospect indeed.
MLG Rating: 9/10 Format: PC Release Date: 14/01/2014
Disclosure: Staff Writer Craig Hallam purchased a copy of The Banner Saga for review purposes. The title was reviewed over the course of 5 days on a PC. For more information on what our scores mean, plus details of our reviews policy, click here.