How long has it been since we ran a Reader Review on Kotaku? I'd estimate it might be over a year. But when Aidan Dullard decided to volunteer a review on The Banner Saga who was I to say no? I haven't had the chance to play the game yet, but Aidan has spent quite a bit of time with this one, so take it away!
The Banner Saga
The sun has stopped dead in the sky, monsters pour down from the north, and two groups set out on journeys of discovery and survival. Launched on Kickstarter as an indie title by three veterans from Bioware Austin, The Banner Saga (PC/Mac, eventually iOS) combines tactical turn-based combat with a stunning art style and plenty of moral dilemmas to tell the story of a Viking-inspired world on the verge of annihilation.
The art – The Banner Saga uses hand-drawn animation inspired by classic Disney movies like Sleeping Beauty, and the results are nothing short of spectacular. Characters are distinct and detailed, but it’s the landscapes that invoke a real sense of beauty and wonder. There’s a lovely cinematic quality to the game as your caravan of soldiers and villagers grows ever-larger and crosses the world with its banner streaming behind it, and every piece of art feels tenderly hand-crafted. This is an impressive, frequently charming example of art that perfectly fits the setting.
The world – The small team at Stoic designed the universe of The Banner Saga from scratch, and though it’s inspired by Norse mythology with a touch of Viking visual flair, the game feels distinct and memorable. The Saga does a good job of immersing the player into the (rather deep) lore while never making things uninvitingly complex. Some genres tropes are nicely subverted (horned giants are the good guys, here) and part of the appeal of this setting is the confidence with which everything is presented – the world feels gritty, plausible and expansive.
The soundtrack – Austin Wintory of Journey fame handles the music here, which plays a large role as a companion to the game’s various sections – swelling and triumphant in the middle of combat, contemplative as the caravan flees across snowy wastes, and tense as the player is forced to make decisions about the future of their group. The inclusion of actual Icelandic-language singing brings a soulful, dirge-like quality to many of the tracks, which wonderfully heightens the sense of dread and mourning for a world on the brink of a terrifying apocalypse.
The combat – The Banner Saga’s surprisingly deep combat is intuitive, balanced and rewarding to players who take the time to learn its systems. The XCOM-style turn and movement systems work well, and the game has enough modifiers, attributes and abilities to make experimentation worthwhile, without being overwhelming. Taking down an enemy tactically is very satisfying and there’s a great sense of progression as characters become more powerful, although the enemy unit roster could do with some more variety.
I wasn’t so sure about
The characters – The Banner Saga’s main characters are quite well-fleshed out, and the game does a decent job of letting us get to know them through text-only conversations, but I had mixed feelings about the rest of the cast. Many characters who join the party (and who are usable in combat) can be introduced then killed off by a quest decision in the space of five minutes, and there’s often barely time to register their name – let alone who they are or what they’re doing – before they disappear forever. It’s hard to mourn someone who had all of two lines of backstory, and the story’s emotional moments suffer as a result. At multiple points in the adventure players switch perspective to different groups and characters move between caravans, so by the end of the game I had a collection of minor fighters – nearly half the party – who I didn't remember anything about. Focusing more on a smaller selection of characters would ease this confusion, especially since even the main cast in TBS would have benefited from more characterisation.
I didn’t like
The moral decisions – At frequent points in the story the player is forced to make decisions about their group of survivors, their viewpoint-character and the world around them. These range from intervening in a squabble between families, to accepting the help of a group of strangers, to shoring up a town’s defences, and so on. The moral dilemmas are well-written and often charming – like all of the written text – but where they fall short is in the maddening nature of their consequences. Characters that the player relies on in combat or spent hours training can die, disappear or run away at the drop of a hat, and for usually inexplicable reasons. Some players will love the complexity of this unforgiving system (supposedly one particular character can die in 7 separate locations across the game) and the brutal, Game of Thrones-esque storytelling, but it can seem downright unfair.
The Banner Saga is a wonderful introduction to a new fictional universe of Nordic warriors and endless winters, with a genuinely beautiful art style and haunting music that make the experience something special. Small issues with characters and the decision system aside, this is a refreshingly daring game that largely succeeds in its ambitious and sweeping narrative. The story and combat are engaging and very polished, considering the size of the team – Stoic have said that this is their first game of a planned trilogy, so it looks like the saga will continue for some time to come.
Has anyone else been playing The Banner Saga? Any thoughts? Let us know in the comments below.