Don’t be fooled by the Disney style. This is a tough RPG that’s a fine fusion of several genres
When small time game studio Stoic revealed its grand vision for a new game known as The Banner Saga, the internet collectively sat up and took notice. Stoic wanted to release a tactical RPG that was a melting pot of ideas- the gameplay would be as tight and tactical as Final Fantasy Tactics, the caravan system would function similarly to The Oregon Trail, and branching dialogue trees would have far reaching ramifications on the game’s story.
But the gameplay that The Banner Saga was looking to replicate made some gamers nervous. In the west, tactical RPGs have a spotty history at best. Games like Fallout have managed to create interesting games using the genre, whilst others have failed spectacularly. Stoic made it known that they looked to the big names of Japanese TRPGs for inspiration, promising to avoid the missteps of previous western TRPGs.
When the internet heard about this game, it reached deep into its pockets and threw money at the title until it was funded. Originally looking for a meager $100,000 to make the game, Stoic was shocked when the game blew past its goal and ended up collecting over $700,000 in Kickstarter funding. The company got to work on the game, and the internet waited on bated breath for the game to become a reality.
The Banner Saga is the first entry in a proposed trilogy, and it does a magnificent job of laying the building blocks for this new epic story. Set in a Viking-inspired world, the characters have to deal with the fact that the Gods have all died, causing the sun to disappear from the sky, plunging the world into perpetual winter. On top of this, an uneasy alliance exists between the humans and the Varl- giants- whose massive horns are renowned for their skills on the battlefield- which has the potential to fall apart at any moment. They stand united against the ancient Dredge- immense armor clad creatures that seek the death of all things.
The world is so interesting and diverse that it’s no surprise people are excited for the rest of the trilogy. The game allows you to explore a massive clickable map that allows you to learn about the history of The Banner Saga world. It’s an aspect of the game that many may not explore, but for those that do, it becomes clear that Stoic put a lot of time and effort into the lore of the game.
The Banner Saga utilizes a beautiful style of art inspired by 1950s Disney films
The Banner Saga utilizes a beautiful style of art inspired by 1950s Disney films, which makes the game looks harsh, but beautiful at the same time. Characters look haggard, and the land is populated by interesting landmarks that look ancient and weathered. The game utilizes limited animation in interesting ways, with the biggest emphasis being put on the players caravan banner, which flaps valiantly in the wind as people march from one town to the next.
The games narrative jumps between several characters, including a Varl warrior named Ubin, and a hunter named Rook, who finds himself thrust into leadership while caring for his teenage daughter. The characters are all fleshed out enough to carry an entire campaign by themselves. Each are confronted with decisions that affect the progression of the story, like what to do with a rowdy drunk, or where the player can take their caravan of travelers to safety. These choices are similar to the branching dialogue in Telltale’s acclaimed series, The Walking Dead, only The Banner Saga doesn’t throw you a safety net by letting you know what characters think of your choices. You have to deal with your decisions, never knowing quite how it will affect the game, as even the smallest decisions can have far reaching implications that can drastically affect the the story.
When players are not making life altering decisions, they are taking care of their travelers and their caravans, consisting of hundreds of men, women and children- it’s the players job to keep the caravan alive as they journey towards their ultimate destination. The caravan will turn to the player for supply management, where and when to make camp, petty disputes, and other important decisions. Like Norse Oregon Trail, supply management is imperative, and if you aren’t sufficiently prepared, people will die as you press onward. This can affect the way the caravans feel towards the player, and can lead to the story changing in subtle ways. But the game always finds a way to add people to your caravan- groups of soldiers or scared villagers join the players party at random times. Thus, if members of your caravan should die, they’ll almost always be replaced by new faces, making it difficult to really care about the faceless characters that inhabit the caravans.
Occasionally, your characters will come across Dredge to kill, and the game switches to battle mode. Working similarly to Final Fantasy Tactics, each character occupies a square and can only move a certain amount every turn. During this time they can attack, choosing whether to target an enemy’s armor or health. This leads to tactical decisions, such as whittling down a foes armor so that a bigger, stronger ally can kill them in one hit. Characters all have specific abilities that can affect battle in various ways- one character can knock back enemies with a well placed shield charge, while another can set traps that will cause a hail of arrows to descend upon them should they cross that square. Before diving into battles, The Banner Saga shows you what you and your army are up against. Depending on the enemy types (large and slow, small and nimble), players have to choose their party members accordingly. It took a while for me to realise this, so many early battles were punctuated by my archers being slaughtered by bigger enemies. But once it clicked, it becomes easy to pick the most efficient team for even the most dangerous of battles.
The Banner Saga has written itself into a corner
As a rarely seen western TRPG, The Banner Saga is sure to draw comparisons to the Japanese. Games, such as Fire Emblem and Final Fantasy Tactics, clearly inspired The Banner Saga in gameplay and design, but The Banner Saga falls somewhat short of its inspirations. Characters are locked into classes, so if you aren’t keen on a particular class, certain characters will almost never be utilized. While the game features a character building system, it isn’t very in-depth. When a character is promoted, players are able to dole out points into various categories, but that’s it. While the game puts an emphasis on tactics, most battles boil down to “hit the bad guy until another good guy can kill him.” It works well, but for those seeking the depth of Japanese TRPGs, you should look elsewhere.
Surprisingly, for a game that puts so much emphasis on the choices you make, the game doesn’t feature a permanent death system. While The Banner Saga can be brutal in its difficulty, characters that fall in battle are simply labeled as injured and are given a couple of days to recover. In one memorable instance, an important character fell in battle, only to be prominently featured in the following cut scene that lead into a major battle, with the character in question returning to full health. This is due to the narrative utilizing so many characters, thus needing to keep them around for story purposes. While games like Fire Emblem find ways to work around this, The Banner Saga has written itself into a corner. While the rest of the game focuses on the ramifications of your actions, the fighting feels like something of a reprieve.
The Banner Saga is a hodgepodge of ideas from reliable game formulas. The combat lacks weight, while the caravan aspect can grow tiresome and frustrating. But the sum of its parts is impressive for a first outing. For its first game, Stoic has managed to create a commendable title. It may not deliver entirely, but there’s enough here to suggest that the later outings can polish The Banner Saga until it truly shines.
Images: Stoic Studio