Discussion Review: The Banner Saga

Review written by Matt Litten & Stephen Byers.

TheBannerSaga

Stephen: Powered by Kickstarter, The Banner Saga is a new role playing game with gorgeous hand drawn animations and an interesting take on tactical combat. What is not made clear and needs to be said at the outset is that this does not appear to be the entire Saga in one twenty-five dollar package. A large initial threat is dealt with by the end of the game, but there are many loose threads left over. I found it to be a delight and engrossing tale while it lasted, but it only lasted about ten hours. This strikes me as short for what is being charged, but if money is no object – or you can get it on a Steam sale – it can be highly enjoyable.

The Banner Saga is set in a fantasy realm that very much pulls from Northern European traditions, so much so that some of the singing is in Icelandic. The world is filled with snow and ice, bordered occasionally by a few forests and fields that are all the more precious because one can see frosty mountains in the distance. It is a world devoid of warmth. There is a certain Viking aesthetic to the characters – beards, long, woolen tunics under light armor and large round, wooden shields – but there are no Hagar the Horriblean horned helmets. Instead, the horns are reserved for the varl, a race of giants standing twice as tall as a man, each sporting a giant set of horns which come out of their foreheads, and as per the setting, lots of facial hair. The introduction tells us that the gods are dead, and the only evidence of them seems to be the massive godstone edifices that serve as landmarks along the kingdom’s major roads. This divine end has stopped the Sun in the sky in place, causing the world to constantly be a winter’s afternoon.

The saga is initially told primarily from two perspectives that alternate periodically, the varl leader Hakon leading a large armed group charged with transporting tithes for the lord of the realm, and a man named Rook who becomes the leader apparent of a group of villagers that are fleeing from an army of Dredge, armored beings that serve as the game’s primary antagonists. Magic plays a role in the world, but there are few people that can use it–players will only ever get to control one relatively weak apprentice. It is very much a low fantasy setting similar to A Song of Ice and Fire but with a more Nordic tradition than a Western European one. As the game progresses and the different perspectives converge, a series of dreams and prophecies will not very subtlety hint that as important as survival in the harsh landscape is, the struggle to eat and flee from an advancing army pales in comparison to the world-ending doom that hangs overhead. The story is very well written and the entire cast is characterized in a superb fashion that makes every trooper seem like an actual person. To be sure some are given more interactions with the main characters and their core group than others, but for a ten hour game that is all that can be expected. A grand foundation for future games, of which there are projected to be two more to make a true trilogy, has been laid here.

The story is largely one told on foot. As mentioned, both main characters are on a trip, one with a predetermined goal, the other more of a desperate flight from one stronghold to the next that all fall in the face of the advancing horde. Very similar to The Oregon Trail, and less classic but still fun Organ Trail, this means that the changing setting will largely be the landscape as our heroes’ two caravans move through it, warriors and civilians in tow. The landscape, despite being largely snow-based, is filled with details and heavy forests blown by gusts of wind and iconic vistas dot the horizon. It is a hand painted glory to behold in motion; the screenshots do not do this game justice. In fact, the screenshots look downright bad and put me off the game, a feeling not changed until I started the game and saw how the characters and settings work and look on screen. While the sun may never set, and thus the developers did not have to color or animate a day/night cycle, time does continue to pass and the group marches many miles and consuming supplies the whole time. Whether they are bought from a merchant, found by the side of the road or taken by force from another group of villagers fleeing from the malevolence of the Dredge, supplies are key. If there are none, warriors and clansmen will die of starvation. The need to feed so many presses the group ever onward.

As the caravan progresses, it will come across various locales and will stop randomly to deal with bumps in the road and internal conflicts. As a nice added detail, when the camera is pulled back to reveal the long line of people following the caravan, very small animated versions of the heroes walk in front and are distinguishable from one another. On the road that caravan may stop and a drunken lout on guard duty may accidently burn a supply wagon, leading to a loss of supplies, and it is up to you to deal with him. Whether it be through swift, deadly justice, laughing it off, or yelling at him, it is never clear what the end result will be in practical terms. It may affect morale or cause people to leave or give him a chance to perhaps burn more wagons in another stupor. There is very little voice acting, though the writing is so well done that it does not matter. It has been a while since I played a game that drove me on to see what happened next because I genuinely did not know what the end was going to be or what was over the next hill. There would have been no drive if the dialogue and deceptions were not so spot on. I really got a sense I knew who the main characters were and got a taste for the minor characters.

In cities and at the godstones which the caravan will encounter, character interactions play out in a similar fashion as to the bumps — there is text followed by usually at least three options of what to say. It is usually not clear what will happen when a given answer or response is selected as there is no clear good/evil options. What may seem like the right thing to do may actually end up harming the group in the long run or there may not even be an apparent right thing to do, just five bad choices. There is some occasional levity, but for the most part it is one dire circumstance leading to another disaster. Some situations can be resolved with the right words, but more often than not it is the force of arms that will rule the day.

When a fight breaks out it is a tactical RPG. Time in the game is probably spent 50/50, between travel/talking and battles. Because of the setting, it is a fantasy tactics game where almost all of the characters are fighters and archers. In fact, but for the one magicman and enemy counterparts who show up later in the game, there are only three types of basic units, including warriors, varl, and archers. The giant varl are immediately visible due to their hugeness–they take up four squares to a man’s one–and every unit is recognizable from their gear and faces visible in the narrative portions of the game. Units are further distinguished by the special abilities which grant bonuses or variations on basic attacks but use the limited Will points (mana points in most other games).

While a game with no or very few spellcasters might seem a dull premise, the core mechanics are far from it. For instance Will can be used for special abilities but it can also be used to increase the damage on basic attacks. More importantly is the intriguing approach Banner Saga takes with the idea of “damage” as a game concept. If a major criticism could be put on early editions of Dungeons and Dragons and most JRPGs it is that the way they handle the idea of being hurt, “damage,” makes no sense. A hit point as a way to quantify how much pain or physical damage a creature can take before he cannot fight makes sense if you are going to have a game that has physical conflict between unequal opponents. An MMA fighter can take, say, five big punches to the face before he goes down, and I would take one. I have one hit point, cauliflower-ear guy has five and if one of us wore armor the better equipped one could take more hits or at least be harder to nail with a haymaker. But in the vast majority of systems with hit points, it does not matter how many hits a thing has taken, the creature still has as much strength as when it started. A Great Elder Wyrm that started with 350 hit points still has as much killing power when it is almost dead at one hit point as it did when the party of would-be dragon slayers showed up. That does not make a lot of sense as people with broken arms and massive internal bleeding tend not to hit very hard.

Banner Saga abandons this notion by making strength and hit points one and the same. This means that if a big warrior is hit enough to sap his strength such that he is next to death, he can do very little damage. As a consequence, both sides of the conflict have a strong reason to strike first so that the returning blow on the enemy’s turn is less effective than it would have been. To prevent an entire side from being wiped out in one turn, characters from each side alternate turns until only one enemy is left and then all the heroes get to go before he does. In addition, every unit has armor points which can be damaged instead of strength. It is necessary to sap armor first most of the time as plating will dull hits to strength and if the difference between armor and the attacker’s strength is high enough it will actually have a chance to prevent damage altogether. This creates an interesting dilemma which will play out differently as the battlefield allows, whether it is better to damage armor first or to do a little bit of strength damage to sap the target’s offensive capabilities, depending largely on who gets to move next as predicated by the turn tracker at the bottom of the screen. It is an engaging and fresh take on turn-based tactics. Now this is not to say I would not like to have the same battle system in another game with more long range options than archers (i.e. traditional wizards and healers), because I would as the fights tended to be a little predictable towards the end.

The game left a good impression, but I am willing to listen to reason. Did things like the limited ability to rest and odd limited character progression bug you?

Matt: I must have played the game very differently from everyone else. Snooping around the community hub on Steam I have noticed most players, like you, decrying this first chapter in The Banner Saga for being short at around 10 hours. It took me 18 hours, and it felt like a LONG 18 hours as the pacing did drag in spots. Maybe I fought in more battles or took a longer route across the kingdom. Admittedly I am a slow game-player, but the discrepancy in my play time to others does seem odd. Whatever happened, for me this game offered plenty of longevity and an epic adventure far grander in scale than many 50+ hour RPGs I’ve played in the past.

The Banner Saga has a wonderfully told story and solid turn-based battle mechanics, but mostly it is a game of choices and consequences set in a harsh, unforgiving world where, as you already pointed out, Stephen, deciding what to do usually involves choosing the lesser of two evils. Rarely will the outcome of a decision be positive for all parties involved. For example banishing a troublesome member from the caravan might help to preserve supplies, but in return it might cause a sense of fear and oppression that will lower the morale of the remaining followers. Other outcomes can be far more impactful, such as the loss of actual playable party members, either through death or betrayal. There is one particular scenario that can occur late in the game that really hammers home how cutthroat this frigid world of Vikings is.

I too enjoyed the unique touches to the battle system. The turn-based combat is familiar yet requires a completely different tactical approach compared to, say, Final Fantasy Tactics and games of that ilk. Having hit points and attack strength linked together is a clever touch for sure, and then when you factor in the armor stat there is a really great balance of strategies to consider. Do you go straight for an enemy’s health to limit their attack damage? Or do you play the long game by chipping away at their armor to keep weaker allies in position to land strikes, or so that a later attack will deal critical damage in a single blow?

Having a forced alternating turn order alters the approach as well. Often in strategy RPGs an agility or speed stat of party members will determine when they can act (or sometimes each side gets to move all units on their turn), which provides the opportunity to line up combination attacks or adjust formations before the next enemy gets to go. Here, you really have to pay attention to where you are moving a character and which enemy is the next to act. Your current warrior may be able to rush forward to finish off a foe, but the next opponent in the queue may then be in position to move in and do the same to the character you just used, so it may be better to lay back and wait for another party member’s turn. Similarly, killing an enemy means that their next turn will be automatically taken over by the enemy that was previously another turn away. In this scenario it’s probably better to leave the weakened enemy around since it won’t be able to pose much of a threat and instead attack an enemy further down in the order. You really have to pay attention to all of these tactical nuances.

It is a shame, though, that there is such little variety in unit types across the board. Your party members do at least have slight class variations that provide unique special abilities and stat advantages/disadvantages. Some characters have high armor and abilities like a shield bash which knock targets backwards or a taunt to draw agro from the next enemy turn. Some are heavy damage dealers with abilities like a whirlwind attack that hits multiple adjacent enemies. Some are archers with bows and arrows, but except for Rook, who is a dual threat of ranged and melee, they are so weak they seemed useless to me other than to chip away at enemy armor from a distance. Enemy units similarly lack variation, so after a while the battles definitely become predictable, sometimes even a bit monotonous.

The shallow character progression certainly doesn’t help in this department. Instead of traditional experience points, party members earn promotions for every five enemies that they kill in battle. Once a character has earned a promotion, you must then pay a certain number of Renown points (which are earned in battle and as a reward for making certain choices throughout the journey) to raise their level and apply a couple skill points to improve their stats. The problem with this system is twofold: Each character only has one special ability and you don’t even get to manually upgrade it, let alone have the opportunity to maybe choose from some sort of skill tree for a more personalized experience. The other problem is with the Renown system in general. Renown points serve as the currency for everything, whether it’s applying rank promotions or buying supplies and special trinkets that provide additional stat/ability bonuses (each character can wear one accessory item), and yet Renown is very rare, to the point that you will barely if ever have enough to even be able to promote all of your characters after a battle, let alone buy additional stuff. I’m sure this was an intended design choice to further the focus on choices and consequences, but in the end it really just seems to be an unnecessary limitation. Why would I buy a ring that boosts stats for one hero when the same quantity of Renown might allow me to promote two or maybe even three characters? It’s not even a choice.

Also related to the promotion system, I found it annoying that during sequences where you have to engage in multiple battles in succession the game doesn’t allow you to promote heroes or even check over party member stats during the pre-battle setup phase when you decide who is going into combat, and in what turn order. Sometimes I would want to swap one character out for another, but not being able to compare their attributes and special abilities made doing so difficult.

What did you make of the whole Oregon Trail metagame? Having to manage a caravan as it treks across the brutal, snowy terrain definitely adds an interesting dynamic versus more traditional overworld travel or picking missions from nodes on a map. The hand-painted scenery is absolutely gorgeous as well and it never gets old watching the caravan march along the side-scrolling terrain, banner proudly waving in the wind. (I also really appreciated how the art distinguishes the individual hero characters at the front of the caravan.) But at the same time I never got a sense that running out of supplies or having members of the company die from starvation had any serious impact. The only real motivation is to make sure the caravan’s morale remains above low levels so when battle comes your party members get a willpower boost when entering the fray. Willpower is a stat which essentially fills the same purpose as mana, in that it is the pool from which special skills draw from, as well as allows you do to apply additional bonus points of damage to attacks or move additional spaces on the grid-based battlefields outside of a hero’s normal move range. There are moments on the journey where you will encounter an opposing army, the game will present a comparison of how many units are in your caravan versus the number of enemies, and then you will be given a list of choices on how to deal with the scenario, but then you just go into battle and none of the precursory stuff seems to matter. Did I miss something?

Stephen:  As I understand it when the caravan and a massive group of Dredge fight, that is where the amount of warriors and varl in tow matter. The game calls this going to war and it is probably the worst part of the game. There is no grand cutscene or animation or real mechanic involved in War, it’s just a text screen with a description of what is going on and a comparison between the relative sizes of the opposing hosts. After sizing up the scene Rook or Harkon will give general orders like “Charge!” or “Formations!” While not particularly well explained, the comparative sizes of the forces and strategic command choices will affect the difficulty of the regular skirmish battle that will follow and impacts how many caravan followers will die. The first battle can be followed up with a second one immediately afterwards to earn additional Renown and possibly a magic item. I think I tried this twice. The first time was great — I beat two waves of foes, got a ton of resource points, boosted morale and got a useful item. The second War where I pressed my luck I lost the second battle which resulted in a loss for the War and granted the humble boon of massive casualties. So be forewarned before pressing your luck. These Wars could have been better explained in mechanical terms and given the lack of presentation and story leading up to them, they seem like mere filler.

Another thing I never understood what incentive there was to keep civilians (“clansmen”) alive because they suck down resources and do nothing. Unless the issue has been addressed in a patch, there are actually strategies people are using that involves starving all of the clansmen to death to preserve Renown to buy gear and promote units rather than feed the people. Having clansmen alive may cause more narrative events to pop up, but that only matters if one is playing the Banner Saga for the story (which one should be, because other than the looks, that is one of the better parts). Obviously saving lives and survival is a theme in the game and there is a strong narrative reason to keep feeding the mouths of the hungry and minimizing sword-to-belly incidents, but from a pure “I want to beat this game and have the best units” mindset they’re worthless.

The Oregon Trail metagame is a fun one for a game with very little exploration. In reality, there is zero exploration in this game.  It is an instance of looking at pretty pictures of a town or locale and then a little circle with the character’s of those available to talk to or a tent that says “Market”. It is fun to see the variety of ways the game presents the basic town services, nothing ever looking exactly the same, but ultimately it is clicking on all of the optional things and then clicking on the mission button to get to the neck story segment or battle. Without the on the road sections which affect the battles and story to a degree, this game would have been significantly duller. What they add to the title is a more epic sense of motion than is present in a lot of games and movies. For example, in The Lord of The Rings, a lot of the books and movies and games based on them is Frodo and crew walking. But that is kind of boring so there tends to be a lot cutting to the interesting parts. The Banner Saga keeps all of that in and demonstrates just how far these people are going. It would not work the same if it was just two points on a map and some text that read “the Fellowship left Rivendell.” Fleeing from an army also helps to add suspense as you can never rest for too long even if there is enough food on hand. This adds to the sense of desperation as the only way to quickly heal wounded fighters is to rest and a failure to do so will make them weaker in combat.

For me, The Banner Saga was a good-looking game that engaged while I was playing it in a way that most games fail to. The worst thing I can say about it, something that I think we agree on, is that the battles – particularly towards the end – start out strong and get very rote. The only thing that I could do to spice things up was to pepper in lower level fighters into my otherwise unstoppable running crew to try to get them in a position where they could be Promoted. The abilities of most of the fighters do not come into play anywhere near as much as what gear they have when it comes to making them more effective. In addition to some additional unit types it would be nice if heroes did not have to get the killing blow against an enemy to get the experience necessary to rank up. Even if Stoic is committed to their very non-fantastical fantasy battles and odd advancement system, some varied missions objectives would have made for a far better game. As it is, most of the battles are simple skirmishes where the only goal is to kill everyone on the other team. If they can improve on the formula I would be more than happy to see the Saga continue.

Stephen-BuyIt

Pros:
+ Interesting take on dealing damage encourages offensive play
+ Visuals and score capture a sense of an epic journey in a harsh landscape
+ Heroes have depth of character

Cons:
– Lack of variety in unit types eventually gets dull
– Story is incomplete
– Heroes do not have depth in their range of abilities

Matt: Your points about the world travel are well taken, Stephen. Depth is added to the atmosphere and overall sense of grandeur to the world and narrative. It is interesting to do a little self examination by seeing how your decision making process in a leadership role affects the lives of a desperate, starving group of people and the morale of your troops. Do you trust a group of hunters waiting by the road who say they will join your party and show you a nearby watering hole full of animal life, or do you turn them away out of fear that they will lead you into an ambush? Maybe one of your carts is knocked over a cliff–do you risk losing men to try to pull it up and save precious supplies, or do you just let it drop and value the immediate lives of your men at the risk of possibly losing civilians to starvation in the future? Making these choices requires careful thought, an ability to read the situation, and a willingness to accept the consequences, no matter the cost as there is no way to save manually or reload a checkpoint for a do over (unless you reload a prior save file or quit the game before the dialogue finishes and the auto-save locks in your choice.)

Still, as engaging as these moments are, at times I felt like managing the caravan was inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. I went through the game without ever getting low morale (which apparently is harder than it seems as I am one of 0.43% of players who have earned the achievement for doing so) and yet it seems like it was all for nothing as, except for being able to say that I was a good leader who wouldn’t let my people starve or lose faith, from a game perspective I only made the game more difficult on myself. I could have just let people starve and spent more Renown on accessories and promotions without a care for having a large caravan or maintaining high morale.

But in general it sounds like we’re in agreement on pretty much every point here. Parts of The Banner Saga feel incomplete or less fleshed out than they could have been, and in some cases outright and purposefully unforgiving in order to match the storyline’s harsh tone and subject matter. But taken as a whole the experience is deeply fulfilling, thanks to well developed characters that you will actually care about and want to get to know, a narrative and game world of epic scope, and a tactically rich turn-based battle system that puts some smart twists on tradition. And what more can I say about the game’s stunning artistry? Some of the cutscene portraits and landscape shots made me wish I could print them out and frame to hang on my wall, instead of only being able to capture them as screenshots to use for desktop wallpapers. If Disney or Rankin/Bass ever made a mature cel-animated movie about Vikings, it would probably look a whole lot like The Banner Saga. And of course I would hate myself forever if I didn’t mention the soundtrack as the Nordic themes of composer Austin Wintory’s score (and the violin and vocal performances by Taylor Davis and Malukah) greatly enhance the scale and emotion of the adventure. It’s amazing to me that a small team of three indie developers pulled this off, and if this is only the first chapter of three, with a little extra work Stoic’s saga is going to be one for the ages.

Matt-BuyIt

Pros:
+ A magnificent work of audiovisual video game art
+ Many scenarios actually have significant consequences
+ Challenging turn-based battle system with some interesting new wrinkles
+ Well written story with many memorable moments and characters

Cons:
– Battles become predictable and formulaic due to lacking unit variety
– Elements of metagame caravan management seem inconsequential
– Not a wealth of character development options

Game Info:
Platform: PC/Mac
Publisher: Versus Evil
Developer: Stoic
Release Date: 1/14/2014
Genre: Turn-based RPG
Players: 1
Source: Review code provided by publisher. Second copy purchased by reviewer.

[nggallery id=3342]

About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!