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Monday, April 19, 2021

The Banner Saga

Banner Saga is a Nordic-inspired tactical RPG and the inaugural game of Stoic Studio, a company founded by three former BioWare employees.  But does the Banner Saga manage to put its developers' talents on display and provide a fun and memorable experience, or does this game simply get banished to the icy stretches of Hel?

The Banner Saga caught some attention prior to its launch for a number of reasons, but mostly for the names behind its design - Alex Thomas, John Watson and Arnie Jorgensen, names long associated with big-name RPG giant BioWare.  After a successful Kickstarter campaign Banner Saga saw its initial public release with a free standalone multiplayer 'demo' in Banner Saga: Factions, showcasing the animation style and overall gameplay that would be featured in the single-player game (which wouldn't debut until nearly a year later).

Banner Saga promised a lot during its campaign, including subverting numerous RPG tropes (not focusing on a young hero, for example), downplaying the micromanagement element of most strategy RPGs and having a choice-based narrative that would force you to confront the consequences of your choices and force you to deal with loss (complete with auto-saving, ensuring you couldn't just load back when something went wrong).  To my surprise, though, they actually followed through on this quite well.  Your choices do really matter and will change the course of the story several times throughout - you'll face different battles, may recruit some characters (or lose some) and see story scenes that you wouldn't see otherwise - a pretty stark contrast to most games of this type I've played where 'choice' just feels like a joke more than anything, changing maybe a throwaway line of dialog or two and little else.

I was also a little surprised to see the game draw some cues from the computer classic "The Oregon Trail".  As your troupe travels across the land, you'll have to maintain a steady income of supplies (which deplete each day), as well as rest to maintain morale and deal with a number of events - some are scripted while others are random, and can be both beneficial (finding useful items) or detrimental (villagers fighting and you having to decide what to do about it).  While a relatively minor part of the game overall, I nonetheless enjoyed this part, as it ties in well to the theme of choice and consequence in a pretty clever way (and pays homage to a classic without feeling overly derivative).

There are only about seven classes in the game, but they prove distinct enough to keep the game fresh.  To name a few, Archers attack at range and are relatively speedy, but have low armor and Strength; Spearmen can attack from two spaces and have relatively average stats all around, while Varn (giants) are the biggest and slowest of units, takinh up four spaces as opposed to humans and dredges taking up one, but have very high armor and attack power; positioning them properly and having them take the brunt of attacks for weaker makes up a substantial portion of your tactical decisions, especially early in the game.

The combat element of the game is relatively simple, but challenging enough to stay engaging.  It's a straightforward, turn-based team-VS-team affair, and terrain generally plays little role in the battle - it's more about moving and positioning your units effectively to turn things in your favor.  Each character is governed by a number of stats, but the two most prominent are Strength and Armor.  Strength is both your health and your attack damage - as it goes down, your attacks become less effective, and once it's depleted completely, that character is KOed and out for the rest of the fight (and will be weakened in future battles if they aren't given a chance to rest).  Armor reduces the damage attacks inflict, and if it's particularly high, attacks have a much lower chance to deal any damage.  However, both allies and enemies can attack a unit's armor, dealing no Strength damage but weakening them against future attacks, and as the game's tutorial points out, you will have to do this a lot - heavily armored enemies are virtually impossible to defeat otherwise.  Each character also has Skills that aid them, doing things like knocking enemies back several spaces (and damaging anything in their path) or firing a piercing arrow that damages everything between it and its target.  Another prevalent mechanic is Willpower, which can be spent to fuel the aforementioned skills or deal extra damage or armor-breaking (with the maximum you can spend in a single action determined by another stat, Exertion).  Willpower does not regenerate on its own, but can be replenished if a unit takes no action in a turn or by using certain skills.  If an ally falls in battle you will get a point of Willpower in your "Horn", a cache of up to seven points which can be allocated to the active character at the press of a button.

After battle, you'll earn Renown, which serves as something of a catch-all currency.  Supplies can be bought with it, as can new troops and accessories, which grant small bonuses to units they're equipped to; however, they can only have one at a time equipped, and their rank must be sufficient to use it.  Raising a unit's rank is governed by Renown too, though a unit must also have a certain number of kills to their name before they can purchase a rank increase.  This allows them to upgrade their stats and, once a stat hits a certain threshold, unlock skills to use in later battles.  Kills earned in training battles do count toward the number needed for a rank-up, though, so don't miss a chance to train when you can - it could make a big difference!

I was also impressed with the game's presentation.  Banner Saga makes the most of its minimal budget, with limited but expressive animation that draws influence from names like Eyvind Earle and Ralph Bakshi and a surprisingly good, moody soundtrack that carries the dark tone of the story surprisingly well.  Voice acting is minimal but used effectively, never feeling apathetic or stilted as in so many big budget RPGs of today.  The dialog in the game is excellently done too, playing the characters off of one another perfectly and making them feel like actual people and not just stilted plot points.  There are a lot of nice bits of lore throughout (without ever relying on a lazy "plot codex" to fill you in) and you really get wrapped up in the journey the characters undertake, feeling the gravity of the scenario and the tough choices they're forced to make.

All told, the Banner Saga is a pleasant surprise.  While obviously not a AAA big-budget game, it shows that the minds behind it do have some serious skills and experience under their belts and can make something really captivating when they don't have hundreds of corporate stakeholders breathing down their necks.  Its gameplay is simple compared to most others in the genre but still surprisingly challenging and fun, it has some strong replayability owing to its choices and random elements actually having a substantial impact on events long-term, and the writing is great; grim in tone, yet very compelling, keeping you invested in its characters and in constant suspense at what's going to happen next.  It's a short game by modern standards (roughly fifteen hours), but what's there is gripping and flawlessly executed in just about every detail, so I didn't mind the short length at all.  It's another testament to the fact that less is often more, especially when what you make comes from a place of passion and really highlights your talents instead of having a board of directors mandate that you disingenuously pander to everyone you can to maximize sales, dumb down the design and writing for the lowest common denominator, and ultimately churn out another compromised, mediocre and disposable product that'll be dumped in bargain bins in half a year (conveniently just in time for that publisher's next big AAA game!).  Money can buy all the good reviews you want from hack gaming sites, but it can't guarantee you real quality or passion in your games.

Developer: Stoic Studio
Publisher: Versus Evil
Platform: Windows, OS X, Linux, iOS, Android, PS4, XBox One, Switch
Released: 2014, 2016, 2016, 2018
Recommended Version:  All versions are more or less the same, save for some minor resolution/UI changes.  If you're buying on console I'd also recommend getting the physical release titled "The Banner Saga Trilogy", which bundles the game with both its sequels for a very good price (and includes a bonus art book, poster, soundtrack CD and in-game item).

Tags: Strategy RPG, Fantasy, Prefab Characters, Disturbing Themes, Turn-Based, Visible/Scripted Encounters, Randomized Content, Multiple Story Paths, Adjustable Difficulty, Automatic Saves, Short Campaign, Great Music