Stoic Studios' beautiful and profoundly emotional RPG The Banner Saga is a perfect advert for crowd-funded games. Over 20,000 eager fantasy fans pledged hundreds of thousands of dollars to get it made, and the final product leaves no doubt that it was money well-spent. Heavily influenced by Norso myth, legend and culture with a light dose of fantasy thrown in, The Banner Saga tells the story of a group of humans and varl (giants) struggling to survive in a strange time. The old gods are dead, the sun has stopped in the sky, the fearsome Dredge are descending upon the land... and something even worse could be following them.
The artwork and animation is simple and evocative, and The Banner Saga skillfully forces onto the player the same blend of fear and frustration that the characters are going through: there's nothing like watching the caravan party trudge slowly over a barren, icy landscape as the seconds tick down until the end of the day, when a few more clansmen will die due to the lack of food, unable to see any kind of respite on the horizon. The point is driven home by a drawing of a face at the top of the HUD that represents the caravan's morale, and watching its expression droop into the desperate gloom of "weak morale" is surprisingly affecting.
Voice acting is scarce and most of the characters are seen only as barely animated 2D portraits, still aside from the wind stirring their hair and clothes and the movement of their eyes. It's a testament to the writing, therefore, that it's so easy to become attached to them, and to be saddened by their loss. The emotion of the story is amplified by the haunting score from Journey composer Austin Wintory, which also adapts fluidly to the tide of each battle and denotes either triumph or terror, depending on how things are going.
Choice and consequence are a major element of the gameplay, and in this sense The Banner Saga is everything that's being hoped for in Telltale Games' upcoming Game of Thrones adaptation. The morals are very muddy and the wrong decision can be devastating to both the characters and the caravan of following clansmen. Players are given as much time as they like to make a choice, but if anything being allowed time in which to agonize over the ethics is much harder than simply acting in the heat of the moment.
The turn-based strategic combat should be familiar to anyone who has played this type of RPG before, and for those who haven't it's fairly simple to master. Each character's attack strength and HP are conflated into a single stat, so the more their health suffers the weaker their attacks will be. This adds a layer of realism that is uncommon in a genre where enemies patiently stand around waiting for their turn, and can also be used strategically to take some of the punch out of the opposition. The most common enemy, the Dredge, have tough armor that needs to be whittled down before it's possible to do much damage to their strength.
While The Banner Saga is an RPG, it's not open-world and does not include random encounters. There are a limited number of battles available in the story and it's important to make every one of them count. While there aren't exactly side quests, the characters can run across various situations during their journey that might add new characters to the party (or even kill off old friends), can add to the caravan's supplies (or whittle them down) and may end up affecting events a long way down the line - perhaps even into future sequels.
While it's a relief not to have the action broken up by detours into sewers to grind on some R.O.U.S's, the game's brutally difficult final boss fight can be nearly impossible unless proper care has been taken along the road to upgrade exactly the right mix of warriors. The scale tips from the pleasantly punishing tooth-and-nail battles that The Banner Saga forces the player into for most of the game and into a difficulty spike so steep that it seems like the best strategy is simply to rewind several chapters and start preparing for it with the appropriate foresight. It doesn't help that The Banner Saga forces the inclusion of certain characters in this battle, so you'd better hope they're the same characters you've been leveling throughout the game and not ones that have been left idling at level 1.
In a time where it's almost expected for new games to arrive with a bug infestation, The Banner Saga is pleasantly polished and I didn't run into any glitches during the playthrough. If there's one gripe to be had on the technical front, it's that loading screens are quite frequent and, while they rarely last more than ten seconds, can be a bit wearying. This is especially true in town areas where there's a loading screen for each transition between menus or areas, so several of them can pop up in the space of a minute.
The Banner Saga will find its fans in gamers who love ploughing through fantasy novels, and in those who just love a good strategy RPG. It's challenging enough to make every move count, though the aforementioned issues with the final boss battle take some of the fun out of its conclusion, and the intuitive combat and canny AI help bring each battle to life. The writing is one of its greatest strengths, and if the number of plot threads left dangling by the end are to be believed, Stoic is already planning at least one sequel.
The Banner Saga is available now for $24.99 on Steam.