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The Banner Saga Review: Desolate Goodness

Platform: Windows PC
Developer: Stoic
Publisher: Stoic
Release Date: 1/14/14

 

The Gods are dead.

This bleak statement is among the first lines of text to greet players at the start of The Banner Saga, and nothing could be more fitting to set the tone of this desperate and doomed world. The Gods are dead, darkness is settling in, and those left alive find themselves in a hopeless situation where survival is futile. Despite the harrowing odds, however, these resilient people still persevere, and their hopeless quest for survival makes up the bulk of The Banner Saga’s sweeping and epic fantasy narrative.

Part-tactical RPG, part-adventure game, The Banner Saga is told through the eyes of two races whose fates eventually intertwine: the Varl, a half-man, half-beast creature created by the hands of the Gods, and ordinary humans, who struggle with emotion and constantly find themselves on the losing end of fortune. Together, the races align themselves to battle the hordes of dark creatures called the Dredge as the stony menaces stalk the land to escape an unexplained darkness settling in the distance.

Drawing parallels to Game of Thrones, the story itself is one grounded in reality, but with magical elements that slowly weave themselves into the very fibers of the narrative. Yes, it does venture into some cliched territory by touching on ideas of all-consuming darkness, selfishness of man, intelligent creatures who have transcended the petty emotions of humanity, and even a war-torn hero whose dark past isn’t made known until a dramatic reveal halfway through the story. But as the adage goes, there’s no such thing as a new story, only new ways of telling it, and even though there are plenty of cliches to be found, The Banner Saga often takes an interesting and evocative approach to its narrative that largely excuses its missteps. In fact, it could be argued that the biggest misstep in the story was its abrupt and jarring end that didn’t even feel tied up neatly enough to pass as a cliffhanger. It builds and builds, stacking on the odds to an impossible height, then just…ends, like a fade to black in the middle of a long-winded sentence.

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The story that precedes it, however, is a compelling one that frequently faces the player with all manner of difficult decisions. There’s a very distinct flavor of The Oregon Trail that seeps into the gameplay of The Banner Saga. Everything from being faced with decisions about whether or not to trade with outlaws on the side of the road to managing supplies and watching your caravan make its way across the sprawling world harkens back to the classic days of stopping off at towns to purchase ammo and mourning the loss of your son to Dysentery.

While it does borrow heavily from this adventure-style of gameplay, The Banner Saga crafts these ideas into something much deeper and more resonant than anything we ever played on in the 90’s. When taking up the different roles as men and Varl, you’ll be faced with all manner of decisions whose outcome directly effects the paths the narrative takes within the game. Choose to be a gruff, no-nonsense leader, and your caravan’s morale takes a hit. Be too trusting of anyone in your path, and you’re bound to encounter trouble during your journey. You’ll never go more that a few minutes at a time without being faced with a decision, and this plays well into the game’s bleak and desperate narrative where characters are constantly kept on their toes in order to survive a world nearing its end.

Perhaps one of the most stunning parts of the game, however, are those that you don’t necessarily see unless you’re looking for them. The Banner Saga has a very deep and well-realized lore that hides beneath the surface, available to those who wish to dig a bit deeper and learn about its world. God stones depicting different deities and telling of their origins and significance dot the landscape, past wars and skirmishes are referenced throughout the entirety of the story, and even the map is full of locations with descriptions that give us a deeper look at the history of this world. It hits in that sweet spot of offering more background knowledge to those willing to learn, but still does a great job of giving the more casual players just enough of the facts to provide context and keep them interested.

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Combat is really the core feature of The Banner Saga, and was quite easily my favorite part of the entire game. Like a complex chess match, battles are turn-based and require a fair amount of strategy on the part of the player. There aren’t all that many unit types (it mainly sticks to heavy, ranged, and normal attackers), but each of the units have their own unique special moves and play an important role in gameplay. When attacking an enemy, you’ll have the option of attacking either their armor or their health, each with their own unique strategic advantages. Attacking an enemy’s armor won’t take away from the health that doubles as his strength, but it will allow for greater damage to be inflicted upon him at a later time. Likewise, attacking an enemy’s health impacts how much damage he is able to dole out on others, but you won’t be able to hurt them quite as much when they’re fully armored. It’s a nice, delicate balancing act that forces a player to really consider their moves and strategy, thinking two steps ahead at all times in order to keep the advantage on their side. Outside of battle, you’ll also need to be mindful of the wounded in your party, the fighters, Varl, and clansmen in your caravan, and whether or not you have enough supplies to adequately provide for all the people on the trail. It’s a great way to experience a strategic RPG if you’re new or semi-experienced with the genre, and I imagine it could offer the more hardcore strategy fans a fair challenge on its higher difficulty settings as well.

The story and gameplay themselves are undoubtedly fantastic, but it’s really the presentation that makes The Banner Saga something truly special. Featuring a visual style reminiscent of classic animated films, everything in the art design from the characters to the gorgeous vistas within the environment have a simple elegance to them that were as visually impressive to me as some of the more striking parts in Thatgamecompany’s Journey. It’s likely that you’ll spend a majority of the game watching your caravan trudge through miles of snowy mountains and lush valleys, but it never feels tedious or unnecessary thanks to the game’s great use of fore, middle, and background illustrations that lend the field a great amount of perceived depth and breathe life into its breathtaking landscape.

But no game is complete without a soundtrack, and composer Austin Wintory has outdone himself with a fantastic orchestral score whose epic swells rival that of fantasy films such as The Lord of the Rings. Too often, music is used to merely complement the visuals and give the game something to work with in the background, but I am convinced that The Banner Saga would have been somewhat lesser of an experience had this score not been a part. It’s that good.

On occasion, there were a few hiccups and frustrations that bothered me. The actual field of view in combat can sometimes feel visually clustered, and I would have loved to be able to switch perspectives in order to actually get my bearings on the battlefield, and being that it is so unique and imaginitive, some of the more cliched parts of the story did stand out  a bit more than they would had this been a more rote and run-of-the-mill RPG.

But from the grueling and sheer number of decisions to the delightfully challenging combat scenarios, virtually everything about The Banner Saga is impressively well-realized and makes for a brilliant experience both newcomers and seasoned strategy RPG fans will enjoy. The Gods may be dead, and the world may be ending, but there’s still a great deal of life in this title that needs to be experienced to be believed.


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