There is a unique feeling of accomplishment that comes with executing a plan to perfection, especially in a tactical RPG. Anticipating the movement of your enemies: minimizing losses and maximizing carnage. While it rarely goes so smoothly, often it’s simply a matter of covering your losses by hiring more troops and soldiering on. A real connection to your team is often lost as everything devolves into a series of pawns. It is a truly exemplary experience that serves to make me care about my unit as more than tools with which to slaughter my enemies. The Banner Saga achieves this, and with an extraordinary grace, to boot.
Banner Saga will look immediately familiar to anyone who has partaken of a tactics RPG. Battles are fought on a grid-based battlefield, with a variety of different units exchanging blows until one side stands victorious. The formula has been changed enough not to feel foreign, but to gives a fresh feeling that really makes the game compelling. At the same time the game is supported by a rich world that feels simultaneously complex and alive.
Banner Saga takes place in a heavily Norse-inspired world. The world is filled with bearded, mead-guzzling, axe-wielding humans, as well as a hulking, horned giant race called the varl. The game is a seriously dark one, the opening line, “The gods are dead,” sets the stage for a world where the sun no longer moves in the sky, the entire world is dim and dreary, and growing colder by the day. Life grows more and more difficult by the day for everyone. This is in addition to the dredge, a race of beings that seem to be crafted of stone, who threaten the world at large.
You don’t play as a single character over the course of the game, the focus shifts chapter-to-chapter. The game tasks you not only with victory in battle, but also with ensuring the survival of your band of clansmen, fighters, and varl. As your journey across the frozen world, you’re faced with a plethora of decisions that range from the fairly simple: how to handle raucous campgoers, whether to rest an extra day or two in a quiet town; to the immensely complicated: whether to destroy a huge stone bridge or to put your troops at risk to preserve it, for instance.
The team at Stoic have done a phenomenal job of making your decisions really feel heavy and difficult. Beyond that, though, the results of these decisions can often be harsh and unexpected. Don’t expect to be able to play the plucky hero every step of the way. There have been few games to ever make me truly question my leadership, and The Banner Saga did so—a lot. I made bad calls often enough, placed my trust in the wrong hands (and was betrayed badly enough that I had to stop playing for an evening just to deal with it), had hundreds die to starvation, and inadvertently got several of my comrades killed along the way. The game tests you on and off the battlefield.
Most battles in the genre alternate between sides. All your units move and act, then all the enemies do the same. Banner Saga alternates after each character acts. You can control both humans and varl on the battlefield in a wide variety of classes. The hulking varl take up considerably more space than their human counterparts, and are capable of dealing significant damage in their attacks. Their size can block thin passageways and enemy movement. Humans are often a little quicker, and don’t possess nearly the stamina of their giant compatriots, but make up for it in both numbers and abilities.
I was particularly impressed by the stat system in the game, as well. Many tactical RPGs have stats that are difficult to gauge, 567 attack versus 322 defense is not a good indicator of how much damage an attack might do. Banner Saga‘s system is incredibly simple to comprehend and also provides immediate and tangible benefits for every point placed making advancement painless yet rewarding. The stats are all clearly explained, as well. Your strength value, for instance, is a measure of both your health and your ability to deal damage, which is directly opposed by armor. If you attack with nine strength to a character with eight armor, you know you will do one damage. You can expend willpower (also a stat) up to your exertion value (another stat) to enhance any of your actions, like move farther or do more damage.
And then there’s the art. The game’s visuals are striking in their simplicity, there is little animation during conversation outside of clothes blowing in the wind, yet the game evokes a sense of wonder akin to old Disney movies, serving only to enhance not only the richness of the world, but also your connection to your clansmen. While the dialogue can be campy at times, there is occasional voiceover for certain moments that manages to avoid bringing down the experience, drawing you in even more.
The pedigree behind Banner Saga‘s ex-Bioware creators shines through this project hard. It grabs you from the moment you see it and grips you at every moment. Even the tedious moments only feel tedious because they would feel that way were they to really be experienced. It is absolutely something that needs to be experienced, and I hope we can see more from this team soon.